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Is Margaret Thatcher Responsible for Silicon Valley, As David Brooks Claimed Recently?

[T]he myth of the welfare state fostering a lazy citizenry just doesn’t hold water. A group of small nations (combined population: about 25 million) that came up with Linux, Skype, Ikea, H&M, and Lego — to say nothing of well-written television shows and mystery novels, innovative designers and brilliant architects from Alvar Aalto to Bjarke Ingels — can’t be that lazy.

— George Blecher, participant in today’s New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion about Denmark’s welfare state, apparently the most generous in the Western world.

The New York Times has been running a sequence of pieces in the last month about Denmark’s uniquely generous public-welfare laws, a categorization that includes tax laws and spending programs that apply to all that country’s citizens, not just certain economic classes of citizens.  I hadn’t read the articles until today, when the Times made them (and their subject) the topic of its Room for Debate discussion.

Which reminded me that last month, in a column paying his respects to Margaret Thatcher after she died, David Brooks attributed the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all those other successful Silicon Valley companies started since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution began, to … Margaret Thatcher.  To whom he expressed gratitude for saving the Western democracies from adopting Swedish-style welfare-state policies, and–he said, in his trademark unexplained ergo-conclusory-declaration fashion–therefore preventing the end of technological innovation of the Silicon Valley variety.

Yes, Brooks really made that claim, if I understood him correctly.  And I think I did.

My immediate reaction upon reading that column was: Well, maybe some other prominent journalist will pick up that gauntlet and go right to the horses’ mouths, and ask some of these tech innovators whether a few of those Swedish-style benefits would in fact have caused them to forego inventing what they invented, and starting their startups or continuing to innovate and invent through their ongoing companies.

Steve Jobs is gone, so he can’t be asked whether he would have ditched the idea for the iPhone a decade ago, had this country had universal single-payer healthcare insurance, access to quality preschools, and guaranteed decent pensions.  But still alive and active are Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Sean Parker, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, Mike Krieger, and almost all of the inventors of all those apps available to anyone with a computer or a smartphone.

Brooks could have asked a few of them before he made his claim, except that he, well, doesn’t do fact vetting before he makes representations of fact. He just uses his perch as a tenured New York Times columnist to make ever-more-outlandish declarations of what he represents as fact. And receives a huge salary, as per his unquestioningly-renewed contracts.  At a time when his own paper, and most others that continue to practice this pundit-star brand of commentary journalism, are dramatically reducing or outright decimating their actual newsroom staffs, because of severely declining revenues.

I keep wondering whether these folks actually bring in substantial revenues, or whether instead they simply continue indefinitely because, y’know, that’s they way it’s always been.  If the latter, it shouldn’t matter any more than that having good-sized staffs of actual professional reporters and editors was the way it had always been, too, at most mainstream newspapers–until it no longer was.  So, why does it, if it does?

Brooks’ Thatcher-Saved-Us-From-the Fate-of-Sweden column was titled “The Vigorous Virtues.” A headline writer, not Brooks himself, titled the column.  The headline writer, a journalist who had enough vigor to read the column and enough virtue to sum up its claim accurately–and who as of a month ago remained employed at the Times albeit at a salary surely a small fraction of Brooks’s–might also have some refreshing takes on government fiscal policies. Thoughts that aren’t mindless statements of ideology transparently masquerading as fact.  But no matter.  He or she, after all, is not a star.

Much better to have Brooks, who is one, reiterate generically yet again that central and northern Europe are innovation wastelands than to require tangible fact as foundation for declarations inferentially based upon supposed fact. There is a difference between opinion and fact (actual fact and false fact, both), although you can routinely switch out opinion for false fact if you’re a big-name pundit under recurring contract with a big-name media organization.

Poetic license is fine when limited to art, but when published in the New York Times as fact–and these statements, by their nature, are, notwithstanding that they’re made in op-ed pieces–they should come with an explicit disclaimer.  They really should.

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UPDATE: Reader Jack posted a comment saying:

Why do intelligent people waste their time and attention discussing anything about David Brooks. Look in the dictionary under either toady or sycophant and you will likely find a picture of Mr. Brooks. As to why he is paid by the NY Times, or any other media company, to regurgitate his gruel? I can only suggest that is easily controlled by those who sign the checks and will produce what he is directed to do so.

I wasn’t sure he was referring to me, since he did specifically reference intelligent people, but I responded nonetheless, explaining:

My intended point wasn’t just about Brooks, or even just about the NYT, Jack. It was about these venerable media companies.  Their finances are really stretched, and they keep sacrificing actual news gathering by relentlessly cutting reportorial and editorial staff.  Yet they keep these big-name pundits under contract, paying them outsized compensation, without giving any apparent thought to whether these people, as individuals, often say anything enlightening or informative.  Mostly, their columns read like Facebook pages.

This isn’t to say that any of these people never has anything insightful or genuinely informative to say.  Thomas Friedman, for example, after years of writing columns that were so clearly just “phoned in” thoughtlessly, became a joke; people started doing hilarious parodies of his columns.  But he’s an actual expert on something important–the Middle East–and his columns on that subject are worth reading because they do provide information and some semblance of insight on that topic, irrespective of whether the actual opinion he advances in one or another column, based on that specialized knowledge, is convincing.

And I do NOT mean to suggest that it is a matter of the age or generation of the columnist.  By far the most important pundit right now is Paul Krugman, because of WHAT he writes, based on his extensive specialized knowledge coupled with his his political leanings. Former Slate writer Tim Noah, who wrote a well-received book called “The Great Divergence,” on the reasons for the rapidly escalating inequality in this country, and to a much lesser extent in Western Europe, detailing his own extensive research for the book, is in his mid-50s.  He was fired recently from the New Republic.  He’s a thoughtful analyst of important socioeconomic issues, and I’d love to see him write periodically for the Times.  He’s unemployed now probably because of his age, yet Brooks and Ron Fournier, both of them baby boomers, have regular gigs and get actual attention–lots of it, apparently–for the truly mindless things they keep saying and saying and saying.

There just doesn’t seem to be any filter through which the people who run these media entities sift what–actually, who–they publish in their oped pages.  It appears to be on autopilot.

I do think the issue of whose political and economic commentary gets fairly widespread attention is important.

 

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