Posted tagged ‘David Brooks’

David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

January 4, 2014

This story has been covered plenty, and the deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Adriaen_van_Ostade_024

I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

I think I know where Brooks got his 1/6 figure.  One quick bit  of Googling led me to this summary from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  It states:

It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens)…

Already, you can see the error.  Brooks says marijuana is addictive for 1/6 teenagers, full stop.  Not so: it’s only 1/6 of those who use the stuff.

Neufchâtel_-_Bildnis_des_Nürnberger_Schreibmeisters_Johann_Neudörffer_und_eines_Schülers

Go one step deeper into the literature.  In the underlying paper [PDF/paywall] to which the NIDA document refers, it turns out

The lifetime risk of dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9% rising to one in six in those who initiate use in adolescence.

Same problem: the risk of dependence is only for those who use.

Note one complication:  there’s an issue with what it means to use here.  Daily? Weekly? Annually? This paper implies that the term refers to at least a weekly date with Mssrs. Zig and Zag, but the underlying source for the figure on adolescent dependence is a book to which I don’t have ready access.  So take that as a bit of unfinished business.

In case a little more context might help, one more turn to the internet turns up the invaluable Monitoring the Future folks, who provide a wealth of data about what Kidz Theze Dayz are really thinking and doing.  (Thanks again to Maia Szalavitz for help getting to the right sources for this post.)There you find that regular (daily) teenage marijuana use (PDF) runs about 1% for 8th graders, and rises to about 7% for high school seniors.  Loosening the definition of user to all those who blow a little dope once a year, (PDF) you get the scarier numbers — about 17% for the younger cohort and close to 40 % of twelfth graders.  Those numbers still don’t get you close to any reasonable interpretation of Brooks’ throwaway remark.

This isn’t rocket science.  Rather, we’re talking journalism 101.   That line should have tickled any experienced newshound’s bullshit detector.   If you read Brooks as claiming that one in six teenagers will be addicted then you run up against the actual lifetime risk for marijuana dependence, which, depending on the study, runs between 4 and 8 % of the population.  You just can’t get from here to there.

And if you read him as saying that there’s some independent measure that whether or not they actually smoke, still, if they did, one in six kids would be unable to control their ganja jones, you have to ask, how could you know that?  What possible experiment could show how many of the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana even once a year would nonetheless be utterly unable to control their urges after that irreversible first toke?  It’s just nonsense…

…which makes me wonder, first does no one edit the Op-Ed. pages anymore?  Even if Brooks can’t or won’t do the work needed to deliver a minimally competently reported piece, someone else had to have read it before it hit print.  If I were the boss of the Times, I’d be asking who missed what and why.

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The thing is, Brooks commits sins like this all the time, but usually disguises them better.  Here he just flat out blew it, which makes it easy to say that this is the kind of crap journalism a place like The New York Times simply shouldn’t allow to reach the outside world.  But don’t mistake this as an aberration; this is how Our David rolls.  The wonder is that the Times seems willing to trade little bits of its credibility with each new BoBo-ism for the clicks and visibility that the mysteriously but undeniably influential Brooks delivers.

Sad…and in the long run a bad bargain for the Grey Lady, if you ask me, which they didn’t — and won’t.

*Weigel really did nail it, but for sheer awesomeness, no one did better than Gary Greenberg, whose remembrance of bonging with Bobo had a lot of folks fooled earlier in the day.  Check this out:

…let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just great stuff.  (Also — what’s great is the list of folks who believed Greenberg’s piece was true.  Andrew Sullivan, for one (appending a correction to his post after a bit) but my favorite reaction came from Tim Carney, who snapped at  those ridiculing the gullible, tweeting, “That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”

‘Bout sums up the state of the too much of the media, wouldn’t you say?

Images:  Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants Drinking and Making Music in a Barn, c. 1635.

Nicolaes Neufchatel,  Portrait of Nurenburg Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a student, 1561.

Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

 

 

David Brooks Agonistes, Outsourced to Mr. Charles Pierce

December 17, 2013

I was going to go all, “Look! David Brooks has written an inadvertent autobiography” in this, his latest and perhaps strangest column.

There are some in the Twitterverse who think that the piece, titled “The Thought Leader,” is actually triple-secret irony, with Brooks — that famously introspective savant — fully aware of the self-parody/indictment.

Me? I think Brooks has the self-knowledge of a capybara, and that he is (or was, until this morning’s point-and-laugh-fest) blissfully, almost heroically gifted with false consciousness, of such total potency as to blind him to the utter vacuum that lies at the core of his life and work.  It takes a special sort of man to surf past salad bars at Applebees to a self-appointed role as the always-wrong philosopher king of American public discourse.

Thomas_Eakins_-_The_Thinker,_Portrait_of_Louis_N._Kenton

Anyway, despite the end of term slough of despond/mountain of unchecked papers on which I descend/ascend,* I was all set to do a line by line fisking — until I reflected that in this vale of tears we are yet blessed by the FSM with the existence of Charles Pierce.

He does not disappoint.  Admittedly Brooks’ catastrophe of a column is an astonishingly target rich environment — but Pierce rises to the challenge of swatting each and every offering.

For example: here’s Brooks’ lede:

Little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wanting to be philosophers. In Renaissance Florence they dreamed of becoming Humanists. But now a new phrase and a new intellectual paragon has emerged to command our admiration: The Thought Leader.

If that’s Brooks’ serve, see in awe Pierce’s return, an untouchable backhand down the line:

Actually, most little boys and girls in ancient Athens grew up wishing they weren’t slaves, and wishing they weren’t chasing sheep across a rocky hillside, and hoping they wouldn’t be dead of cholera before they were 15. In Renaissance Florence, they dreamed of not catching the Black Plague. Brooks seems to believe antiquity was populated entirely by over-educated spalpeens. Who was left to herd the goats, I ask you.  And something can’t be both a phrase and a paragon, not even If You Capitalize It. Any little boy or girl in ancient Athens could have told you that.

It goes on from there.  It’s not pretty.   Read the whole thing.  Then lie back and grin.

*Just to show I can butcher metaphors with the best of them…

Image: Thomas Eakin, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900.

David Brooks Is Always Wrong, Part (n)* — Numbers and Horrors Edition

August 30, 2013

Despite its many flaws,The New York Times is an indispensible institution right now, producing more and better actual journalism than any other major American media outlet. Setting aside the low-bar-snark, though, its ongoing willingness to offer David Brooks a platform is a running chancre that infects every hard-won story from the real reporters whose beat has the ill-fortune to attract BoBo’s fancy that day.

That’s true even when he arrives at something of a defensible argument, because to get there, he pays his way in counterfeit intellectual coin.

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See, for example, today’s dog’s breakfast of an attempt to go all big-think-wise-man on “the biggest threat to world peace right now.”

That would be his attempt to frame the situation on the ground now in Syria as an example of the great war of Sunni versus Shiite.  As he works his way through to a (to me) surprisingly modest end, Brooks displays several of the tropes that make his work such an embarrassment to anyone who actually cares about either journalism or honorable argument.

Let’s go to the videotape.**

First up, there’s an old Brooks standby:  useful innumeracy in support of a claim intended to raise stakes beyond the facts on the ground:

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions…

Bullshit.

What’s going on in Syria is awful. Horrible. Wretched. Vicious.  Supply your own adjectives.

That doesn’t mean it is comparable to what occurred in Rwanda.  In the genocide there, between 500,000 and a million Rwandan civilians  were slaughtered, accounting for up to 10% of the population as a whole. The best current estimates of the toll of the Syrian civil war place the number of dead at a still-horrific 100,000 or so – less than 0.5% of Syria’s approximately 22 million inhabitants.

In raw numbers and — to focus on Brooks own term — as a proportion of the affected population, the two disasters are not equivalent.

God_the_Geometer

I’m not suggesting, of course, that Syria is anything less than an utter humanitarian disaster and tragedy.  But holding on to the problem of Brooks here, look at what his rhetoric is doing:  calling something a genocide or its equivalent raises the moral and international-legal stakes for action by a lot.  Such claims need to be earned, not (as so often with this source) simply and wrongly asserted.

Onwards.  Brooks has a long-standing difficulty untangling cause and correlation, not to mention his long dance with the dread might/must fallacy:

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected.

Some of the difficulty here isn’t simply a failure of causal argument.  Brooks is perfectly capable of making sh*t up.  Despite his claim that the current battles in Syria are causing violence in Iraq, Sunni-Shiite conflict is, as most of us with a functioning nervous system may recall, hardly a recent phenomenon. Consider just this cursory timeline, courtesy of the BBC:

2011 April – Army raids camp of Iranian exiles, killing 34. Government says it will shut Camp Ashraf, home to thousands of members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

2011 August – Violence escalates, with more than 40 apparently co-ordinated nationwide attacks in one day.

US pull out

2011 December – US completes troop pull-out.

Unity government faces disarray. Arrest warrant issued for vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading Sunni politician. Sunni bloc boycotts parliament and cabinet.

2012 – Bomb and gun attacks target Shia areas throughout the year, sparking fears of a new sectarian conflict. Nearly 200 people are killed in January, more than 160 in June, 113 in a single day in July, more than 70 people in August, about 62 in attacks nationwide in September, and at least 35 before and during the Shia mourning month of Muharram in November.

Nearly 200 people are killed in bombings targeting Shia Muslims in the immediate wake of the US withdrawal….

And so on.  But Brooks isn’t merely wrong as a matter of fact.  Rather, these facts point to the deeper problem, one that has crippled his (and many others’) arguments for American action in far off places.  That is:  the suggestion that Syrian events are driving Iraqi conflict includes a crucial unstated assumption:  that Iraq’s own problems, fractures, circumstances and history are irrelevant.

You get this a lot amongst grand strategy or Great Game thumb-suckers.  Countries, movements, peoples, funny-looking or sounding foreigners are all objects, not agents, mere counters in the game.  Except, of course, as we found out the hard way from 2003 onwards, they’re not. They’ve got their own stories and they stick to them, by gum. Does an increase in conflict, a decrease in stability within a region matter to countries nearby?  Sure.  But other things matter more.  Otherwise, El Paso’s murder rate during the last years of last decade might look a lot more like Ciudad Juarez’s than it does, if you catch my drift. (Happy to report, BTW, that the news there is getting a bit better.)

And there’s more! File this next one in the “fighting the last war” category:

It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.

I’m not actually sure what the hell Brooks means in the first sentence above.  We left Iraq under treaty, at the insistence of the Iraqi government.  Is Brooks really saying we should have maintained a force under those circumstances?  If so, he should make that clear, and then suggest some way that could be done…and then tell us how 100,000 or so (post-surge levels) US troops could actually police the kind of violence Iraq has seen in recent months and years.

Or to put it another way: this is pure REMF bullshit; thereoughtabealaw material:  Brooks only gets to say we need more armed Americans in conflict zones if he’s willing to embed with a tooth unit for a full year.

And as for that “nation-building at home” line — WTF?  Really — what does he mean?  Or rather, please, sign me up.  Get us a Nancy Pelosi speakership so that we could actually pass a jobs or infrastructure bill.  Then we’ll talk.

And last:  about that “we could have intervened in Syria back when…” Tell me, Mr. Brooks, what in detail you think we should have done.  “Intervene” is such a usefully vague word.

Hell, don’t.  Let’s read the chicken entrails you’ve left for us in this column.  To me, the most revealing note in the whole piece is that phrase “reasonable opposition to mold.”

That sense of a plastic organization ready for whatever the U.S.’s child-like hands chooses to pinch or fold recalls nothing so much as Chalabi worship, the delusion that actors in a place about which we know little are dolls for us to dress-up and move and pour pretend tea for as we choose.

Brigitte_mit_Puppe_Margret_Hofheinz-Döring,_Öl,_1946_(WV-Nr.20)

Never mind that they actually are the heirs and current proprietors of their ownlong history of faction and party and ideology and interest of which Mr. Brooks (and me, to be sure) have asymptotically close to zero grasp.  Does he think that American blood or just American artillery would have persuaded anyone involved not to fight their own corner?  Didn’t happen in Iraq, where US intervention brought out into the open long-(violently)-suppressed sectional conflict.  Flash forward to the harsh tyranny of now, and still Brooks offers not one shred of evidence or argument to suggest that we had a better grasp of internal Syrian tensions this time around.

Astonishingly (to me) — and in all fairness, to be lodged on the credit side of his ledger — Brooks does land at a more or less reasonable conclusion.  Echoing his colleague Nick Kristof, he endorses a strike against the Syrian government in support of what both columnists call the norm that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.  (More on that later, perhaps.)  But then he suggests something resembling restraint:

[There are] at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.

Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.

Brooks even concedes the crucial uncertainty:

…at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them.

Given that, he concludes:

Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.

I’ll take it anytime an Iraq cheerleader reins in his or her lust for another great adventure for someone else’s kids.  Really.  So I’ll pull back on my own bridle and note only that the claim that we are on the verge of a great Sunni-Shiite apocalypse is a conclusion assumed in advance.

Once again, the idea that the Syrian conflict might be, well, actually and in important ways distinctly Syrian is never actually entertained.  The fact that the strife now in Egypt has nothing to do with sect-based religious rivalry and a great deal to do with very specific and long-standing fissures in Egypt’s society and polity never seems to enter Brooks spotless mind.  And so on.

Which is to say that a glass-half-full kind of person might say well, at least our Bobo is learning.  As for me, I’m no such Pollyanna: even when Brooks, blind pigging and all that, does reach a point that isn’t crazy, the way he gets there remains a problem.  I guess it is the incuriousness that gets me the most.  There’s a lot of sunshine in his spotless mind.

And as for the Times?  They’ve made their bargain:  Brooks’ celebrity is secure now; he gets clicks and he gets tons of exposure, both gold in this transitional media moment.  He’s a smooth — I’d say glib, but YMMV – writer, to be sure, but he’s a genuinely crappy thinker.  And that’s not going away.  Still, even if his work does or ought to bring a flush of shame to those  in the building who do put their minds (and sometimes their bodies too) out into the fray is something the powers that be in Timesland seem willing to worry about another day.  The tricky thing is that places are only indispensable until they’re not, and it’s after the rubble settles that those long-ago first cracks reveal themselves as warnings unheeded.

*Where n is an arbitrarily large number

**obligatory h/t to Warner Wolf.

Images:  Clara Peeters, A Vanitas Portrait of a Lady, c. 1613-1620.

Frontspiece of the Bible Moralisee, God the Geometer, c.1250.

Margret Hofheinz-Döring, Brigitte with Doll, 1946.

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?

Cranach,_Lucas_d._Ä._-_Doppelbildnis_Herzog_Heinrichs_des_Frommen_und_Gemahlin_Herzogin_Katharina_von_Mecklenburg_-_1514

Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.

Some Days, It’s Enough That I Don’t Have To Cop To Having Gone To Yale…

December 19, 2012

…because if I had, I’d have to pull up my hoodie and duck my head low to avoid association with this:

this “spring,” Brooks will be bringing his famed self and his less-well-known teaching credentials (?) to our very own campus.

And what’s he teaching? It would only make sense for this course to be called “Humility.” Brooks is not only a real big name in general but also kind of an expert on the topic—a quick Google search reveals that he’s written on it in the NYT and discussed it at the Aspen Ideas Festival—so we can pretty much agree that this is fitting. As if the irony weren’t already enough, this class is also a Global Affairs seminar, so, like, humility, guys. Perfect. Especially recommended if you were tempted by Grand Strategy but really just don’t have the ego for it.

That was in the Yale Bullblog.  The story then was picked up by New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli, who noted that the course promises to explore:

“The premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness,” as demonstrated by men such as Moses, Homer, and others,” like maybe Paul Krugman.

It would, perhaps, be unkind for me to note that Mr. Brooks is in fact more qualified to teach this course than it might at first seem. After all, he does have much to be humble about.

Trophime_Bigot_Allegory_Vanity

(Apologies to the apocryphal Winston Churchill, and, I suppose, even more to the real Clement Atlee, who deserves better than to have Brooks mentioned in the same breath.)

But I should surrender pride of place to the invaluable Mr. Charles Pierce, who first led me to this little gem, and to whom I’ll give the last word:

I swear I’d almost pay someone to audit this mess.

Hell, Charlie! Pass the hat.   I’d chip in.

That’s all I got tonight.  The sun is over the yardarm somewhere, so raise a glass to the vision of Yale’s latest adjunct holding forth with all due (overdue) humility.

Image: Trophime Bigot, Allegory of Vanity, before 1650

As Long As We’re Cataloguing Intellectual Failure On The Right: Heeeere’s Davey!

October 2, 2012

So, Megan McArdle spits the bit in her inimitable (thank FSM!) style, and George Will adds complaining about not being able to say N*clang! like the black kids do to his list of analytical and moral failures, when along comes David Brooks to remind us that he is a truly dreadful author of fiction.

Charles Pierce has gone medieval on today’s column soon enough, and work continues to do a tap dance on my butt (in these shoes, I’m guessing), so I’ll keep my fisking as telegraphic as possible.  Which is hard, as the fecking hopeless Brooks has outdone himself this time. [ETA:  I failed at this even more conspicuously than usual.  You have been warned.]

What Brooks offers is his fantasy of the real Mitt Romney, along with the speech that David Brooks is somehow convinced would save the nation that this goateed Romney could deliver at the debate tomorrow.

Let’s view the carnage.  Brooks begins:

I’d like to say that I wish everybody could have known my father, George Romney. He was a great public servant and I’ve always tried to live up to his example.

Uhno.  And that doesn’t even begin to get into the racist dog-whistling by the son that his father, on the evidence, would never have tolerated.

I’m a nonideological guy running in an ideological age, and I’ve been pretending to be more of an ideologue than I really am. I’m a sophisticated guy running in a populist moment. I’ve ended up dumbing myself down.

Easy for you to say, Mitt…er David. And at first glance a hard claim to engage, much less refute.  How do you know what’s in someone’s heart, when all you have to go on is what they say and do?  Except that we do have some indications of the private Romney’s real character.  The essential significance of the “47%” speech is that in both text and delivery it offers a glimpse of what Romney says among his peers and when he believes he can unburden himself outside the glare of public notice.  And just as a reminder, this is what the actual, flesh-and-blood (probably) RomneyBot said:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.. [via]

There’s nothing of sophistication there — no understanding either of the tax code or of the human experience of the old and the young, those in uniformed service and those with disabilities and no cash for a dancing horse to aid them in their difficulties.  Then there’s a metric tonne of ideology to compensate for that willed — I assume — ignorance: no-income tax = mooching and looting victims.  Right wing commitment to claims not in evidence doesn’t get more distilled than that.

Onward!

 It hasn’t even worked. I’m behind. So I’ve decided to run the last month of this campaign as myself.

I do not believe the dear FSM loves me enough to make this true.

Or rather, as Brooks is loathe to admit, there’s been plenty of talk out of Boston [Warning! Politico link] about the problem with the client already.  And, you know, there’s a truth about presidenting.  It’s hard, and micromanagers fail.  If you haven’t already, go read Michael Lewis’ piece on what Obama actually does with his time — and then having done so, come back and tell me whether a CEO type used to deference to any damn stupid idea is really the right choice for the job.

With that, Brooks/Goateed Romney go onto substance. Or, as I like to call it, “substance:”

The next president is going to face some wicked problems. The first is the “fiscal cliff.” The next president is going to have to forge a grand compromise on the budget. President Obama has tried and failed to do this over the past four years. There’s no reason to think he’d do any better over the next four.

Errrr.  Whatever you feel about the terms of the various proposed grand compromises (I think they suck, and that they miss the crucial point that it’s the policy, stupid, but that’s for another post), there’s this published just yesterday in the very newspaper for which Mr. Brooks sucks his thumb.  More on point, the two concepts — the fiscal cliff and some large budget deal are not necessarily paired; there is no need either in law or in principle to forge a giant deal to confront the specific questions of taxes and savings coming up on deadline. Brooks knows this, I’m sure, but chooses not to engage it because he is wholly committed to the demand that the US transfer more money to the best off at the expense of the old, the sick and the poor, no matter how many times the failure of the economic claims for such a transfer have been batted back into his face.

Forward!

He’s failed, first, because he’s just not a very good negotiator. …

Which, of course, is why his administration has been the most legislatively successful in memory, despite sustained and unpatriotic opposition by a party that has values power over country.

Furthermore, he’s too insular. …

See above.

The second reason there’s been no budget compromise is that Republicans have been too rigid, refusing to put revenue on the table. I’ve been part of the problem. But, globally, the nations that successfully trim debt have raised $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts. I will bring Republicans around to that position. There’s no way President Obama can do that.

This is, of course, just wankery.  Even worse, it ignores the basic arithmetic of the largest public commitment the Romney-Ryan campaign has made, to pare tax rates below the Bush tax cut levels, to be offset by closing unspecified loopholes — a proposal that, as President Clinton famously pointed out, fails the test of arithmetic.

Let me just jump on this one again:  The Romney budget proposal if taken at face value must blow up the deficit, blow up government, or raise taxes on middle-earners — or some combination of all three.  Brooks has to know this — I’m pretty sure he can count to five (trillion), and that’s really all this one takes, for that is the amount of lost revenue from the top line of the Romney-Ryan tax plan that will go on the deficit that has to come from somewhere.  That Brooks knows this and still pumps out this garbage is a measure of the ethical and moral quality of the man.  Just sayin.

Or, the shorter:  if you think Republicans cut tax rates and raise revenues, you haven’t been paying attention for over thirty years.  Truly, we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we’ve got the T-shirt, and we can smell bullshit when folks like Brooks are kind enough to dump a trainload of the stuff on our doorstep, thank you very much.

Oh dear FSM, there’s more:

The second wicked problem the next president will face is sluggish growth. I assume you know that everything President Obama and I have been saying on this subject has been total garbage. Presidents and governors don’t “create jobs.” We don’t have the ability to “grow the economy.” There’s no magic lever.

Instead, an administration makes a thousand small decisions, each of which subtly adds to or detracts from a positive growth environment.

Dude, if I were writing propaganda in this day and age, I’d avoid references that recall “a thousand points of light” even in passing.  Just saying.

The Obama administration, which is either hostile to or aloof from business, has made a thousand tax, regulatory and spending decisions that are biased away from growth and biased toward other priorities.

And those would be?  Look, it is asking a lot of a putative public “intellectual,” but it is worth remembering (and I know this sounds like a broken record) what an abandonment of the principle of public regulation left us with in late 2008.  Banksters may not like financial regulation — but there is ample evidence (dating back to 1720, btw) that you damn well need it if you don’t like global financial collapse every few years.

More to the point, recent history is a pretty good guide here.  It’s a very flawed instrument, but the fact that the stock market consistently, over many, many years, does better under Democratic administrations that Republican ones is a signal that business may grumble, but does not actually suffer under greater scrutiny.  The reverse, in fact, which surprises no one who understands the concept of “market failure” — whose numbers seem not to include Mr. Brooks.

American competitiveness has fallen in each of the past four years, according to the World Economic Forum. Medical device makers, for example, are being chased overseas. The economy in 2012 is worse than the economy in 2011. That’s inexcusable.

This chart, please.  Also, too, if you look at the cited report (but not linked–always a Brooks tell) you find that the US is now ranked fifth internationally for competitiveness, behind such economic heavyweights as Switzerland, Singapore, Sweden and Finland.  Yup.  Brooks is a hack, but this is particularly hacktackular.

Also: please note that the leading reason cited for the US’s lagging behind these engines of the global economy is  that “the business community continues to be critical of public and private institutions…”  which raises at least the hint that perhaps GOP intransigence on things like the debt ceiling may have taken a toll. But I digress…

My administration will be a little more biased toward growth. It’ll treat businesses with more respect. There will be no magic recovery, but gradually the animal spirits will revive.

Ahh! The confidence fairy! It’s worked so well in Britain.

Seriously — this has gone beyond embarrassing to the point of an insult to Brooks’ readers.  We should vote for Romney because Mitt of all people will unleash the beast within us?  Implausible (and actually kind of icky) sexual innuendo aside — does anyone over at the Times remember what happened the last time we let the animal spirits run free?  Again, global financial disaster anyone.  Words fail me (and a good thing too, considering the heroic length of this screed).

The third big problem is Medicare and rising health care costs, which are bankrupting this country. Let me tell you the brutal truth. Nobody knows how to reduce health care inflation….

This is basically wrong.  Bluntly:  other countries get better outcomes for much less.  Their costs have been rising, to be sure, but there is no doubt that there are plenty of models out there that would reduce US medical costs in ways that would make the phrase “bankrupting the country” simply bullshit.  That there are possibly intractable political obstacles to emulating any other model or cherrypicking from several might be true.  But if so, that’s in part because compromised members of the media use the platforms of great influence to obscure the basic international facts of medical care.  One more thing:  following up on a recent slowing of medical cost inflation in Massachusetts (with its Romneycare prototype of the national system) we now have an ongoing attempt to capture some of the insights that have allowed other countries to contain costs here in the home of the bean and the cod.  We are not so ignorant as the writing of David Brooks would leave us.

The first, included in Obamacare, is to have an Independent Payment Advisory Board find efficiencies and impose price controls. The problem is that that leaves the painful cost-cutting decisions in Washington, where Congress rules.

This is simply incoherent.  An independent board is not of necessity a pawn of Congress, which is why the Republican party has tried so hard to limit the power of IPAB.

Congress wrote provisions in the health care law that have already gutted the power of the advisory board. The current law allows Congress to make “cuts” on paper and then undo them with subsequent legislation. That’s what Congress always does.

Which is why you raise the bar to Congressional attempts to reduce the independence of the board, rather than lower it.

The second approach, favored by me, is to scrap the perverse fee-for-service incentives and use a more market-based approach. I think there’s ample evidence that this could work, but, to be honest, some serious health economists disagree.

Evidence like this.

Again, I cannot help but believe that Brooks knows about the Medicare Advantage experiment in market-competition vs. single payer (Medicare) deliver of health services.  Health care is famously an example of a market prone to failure, and it should have come as no surprise that the program did not achieve the fantasies of those for whom the words “free market” are as potent an incantation in this worls as Expecto Patronum! would be.  Brooks is such a deluded creature, but still, the numbers aren’t even close.  That he writes this stuff is, again, a measure of his essential intellectual contempt for his audience.

Almost done… I promise

I’m willing to pursue any experiment, from any political direction, that lowers costs and saves Medicare.

No.  A vouchers are not insurance; the choice of Ryan shows what votes in the House have already confirmed:  the GOP approach to health care has nothing to do with cost containment and everything to do with shifting costs from the entire nation to the individuals confronting the need for care, many of whom will, most likely, be priced out of critical segments of the health care delivery system.  Whatever else Romney proposes, it is not “saving” Medicare

Democrats are campaigning as the party that will fight to the death to preserve the Medicare status quo. If they win, the lesson will be: Never Touch Medicare. No Democrat or Republican will dare reform the system, and we will go bankrupt.

No.  See above. Democrats, including those in my and Mitt Romney’s home state (sort-of, in his case) are currently touching medical care delivery in ways that do carry risk.  We can count, unlike our Laffable GOP friends.  The difference is we actually attempt to construct policy to do something about the numbers.

All right.  I’m done.  So much for telegraphy.  Did I mention how much I loathe the condescension of David Brooks?  It’s not the assumption that we’re dumb enough to buy this that gets me in the end, though.  It’s that he continues to use his very bully pulpit to advance ideas he has to know are based on bullshit that if enacted would harm so very many people.  I do not wish physical harm on him.  A year or two in a Trappist monastery would satisfy me just fine.

Images: Anthony van Dyke, Portrait of a Commander in Armour, with a Red Scarf,  before 1641.

Johann Heinrich Füssli, detail from The Fairy Queen Titania, 1793-1794.

David Brooks Is Always Wrong, Again–Both Sides Do It Edition/Tricky Dick Bonus Feature.

May 2, 2012

If I wrote for The New York Times it would piss me off beyond measure that I had to share type with David Brooks. I know from direct, personal conversation that actual Timesmen (or at least one of them) don’t feel that way — there’s a pervasive issue there with the self-conceit of a newsroom papacy with concommitant infallibility.  But still, it must gall on some deep level to know that all the hard work of doing actual journalism could get lumped in with the sloth and intellectual dishonesty of the newspaper business’s best two minute man.

Case in point: today’s Brooks keening that is almost a type specimen of the hackery.  It’s a perfect more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger column about the terrible nastiness of politics today (it wasn’t like that when honorable men walked the land!) that somehow manages to land on precisely the talking point the Romney campaign hopes will offer some cover for their candidate’s foreign policy and security weakness.

Let’s go to the videotape! (h/t Warner Wolf).  Brooks starts out by trotting out what appear to be casual, but are in fact carefully crafted assertions:

Maybe a campaign is like a courtship…Maybe a campaign is like a big version of “American Idol.”….Maybe, on the other hand, hiring a president is like hiring a plumber….You could make a case that most campaigns are a little of all three, though the proportions vary from year to year.

Study those phrases well, grasshoppers, for here you see one of Brooks’ standard tropes, and a measure of the skill he wields to much greater effect than lesser hacks like McArdle or his mini-me, Douthat.  What he’s written is mostly piffle, of course — but he has, as he usually does, inserted the crucial weasel words: “maybe…maybe…you could…are a little of…” Push him on any part of his claim here, and he can just pillsbury doughboy back into the “maybe nots” or the “perhaps you could make a different case…” and wobble on.

More important for his rhetorical aims, Brooks cleverly poses what appears to be an open ended list, which he then slams shut by declaring that “most [weasel again] campaigns are a little of all three.” What was a chain of musing suddenly becomes the ground of all that follows. He’s transformed assumptions into facts — his single most common stupid pundit trick — and we’re off to the races.

Up next, the pearl clutching:

So far, though, the 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories. It’s being organized according to a different metaphor.

As an aside: Dear David:  Out here where most of us live, campaigns are organized in the material world, and this one now confronts corporations, metamorphosized into  people, along with crazed billionaires, dumping unlimited boluses of cash into the race.  The framing of political dispute in that context is not built on a metaphor; it is a direct response to an actual present, in-the-world circumstance. Just saying, you pretentious sack of wind.

But I digress…

This year, both organizations seem to visualize the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion’s belt.

So far this year, both President Obama and Mitt Romney seem more passionate about denying the other side victory than about any plank in their own agendas.

Another sidetrack:  Dear David:  I know that this will cause you pain, but I have to break it to you that campaign politics at this (or really any) level is actually about winning.  Denying your opponent victory is not an aesthetic choice.  It’s the goal.  Sorry, old tool.

But I digress…

Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything, then, is permitted.

Oh my! Mabel get my nitroglycerin! I do declare that I feel palpitations!

Both sides do it.  Of course!  How could I have been so blind?

In both campaigns, you can see the war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside the campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment — answering volley for volley.  If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two.

Really?  First, again, it’s not exactly news to anyone who actual does politics that you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.  But anyone watching the actual Obama campaign claiming that they aren’t playing a long game as well as a short one isn’t paying attention.  In Brooks’ case, that means he’s willfully not doing so; he’s actively not-knowing anything that would confound his ability to depict his fantasy world. That’s what, in real journalism, we call failure. As for awareness of the world outside the campaign…let’s try to finish this screed before 0-dark-hundred and simply say that I haven’t noticed Obama ceasing to do his presidenting whilst kneecapping his eminently target-rich opponent.  Last I heard, walking whilst chewing gum is a requirement of the job.

Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles.

Oh, Thank You Lord.

He actually just says it.  “Both sides…” do it.  It’s the one sure sign that points to the howler to come. For we know that in just about any dyadic relationship, both sides don’t do it in the same way, whatever it may be.  Given that it’s Brooks, we know that what’s about to come is a beauty of false equivalence.  Let’s see…

In November, the Romney campaign ran a blatantly dishonest ad in which President Obama purportedly admits that if the election is fought on the economy, he will lose. The quote was a distortion, but the effectiveness of the ad was in showing Republican professionals and primary voters that Romney was going to play by gangland rules, that he was tough enough and dishonest enough to do so, too.

Note two things:  Romney is. by Brooks own statement, a blatant liar.

See also that Brooks is a rather more subtle corrupter of the truth:  he claims that the point of the ad was to persuade Republicans that Romney is enough of a thug to be president.  I’ll grant him that, but this was hardly the only point of the Romney spot; rather, this ad is one of a series, still ongoing, trying to paint Obama as a failure as a steward of the economy.  To suggest that this was mere inside GOP baseball and hence, by dogwhistle implication, not quite a real lie, is itself a material distortion.

But remember:  Both Sides Do It!  So what was the Obama sin, equivalent to Romney’s out-and-out lie?

Last week, the Obama campaign ran a cheap-shot ad on the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of the ad was Bill Clinton effectively talking about the decision to kill the terrorist. But, in the middle, the Obama people threw in a low-minded attack on Romney.

That would have been this ad:

This,  Mr. Brooks, is what Harry Truman meant when he said that he didn’t give the Republicans hell, he  just told the truth and they think it’s hell.

It is a fact that Obama made the final decision and gave the order to attack bin Laden.  It is true, as President Clinton says in the piece, that we hire our presidents to make exactly this kind of hard choice. It is true that Romney publicly suggested that this was not a high priority goal of his, and that it was not something he would necessarily do.  The record isn’t obscure or controversial here.

And it is just as true that this is a campaign.  We’re in the midst of making a choice presented to American voters as to which of two men we wish to take on such difficult tasks.  Directly comparing one record to another is not just an ordinary feature of any campaign; it’s essential. There’ nothing “low-minded” about pointing out that Obama did one thing, while Romney had indicated he would not.

Plus, of course, there’s that deeper problem:

Brooks himself admits Romney is a liar. Brooks himself acknowledges, in effect, that the Obama piece is accurate.  He just doesn’t like it.  So he lies himself, and says the two acts — lying, and presenting a  factually supported argument that caused Brooks pain — are the same.

It’s just a coincidence, of course, that this false equivalence falls directly into line with what has become the chorus-line GOP response to the embarrassing truth that Obama pursued and caught  bin Laden where Bush did not and Romney — taking W. Mitt at his word* — would not have done.

I admit that there isn’t much else available to the political hacks trying to prop up the kind of mendacious and unqualified candidate presented to them in the person of the failed one-term governor of Massachusetts.  But Brooks’ problem, and that of everyone who gets a byline at his shop, is that if you lie down too often with the hogs, it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference in between one mammal and the next in the wallow.

PS:  I realize I never actually got to the Nixon howler up top of the column.  Basically, Brooks claims that Nixon ran as a plumber (and yes, he made that joke) … the guy who would come in and fix stuff.  I guess Brooks has forgotten about the Southern Strategy and the “secret plan to end the war.”  Ah well.

*A high risk proposition, I’ll concede.

Image:  Leonardo da Vinci, Lady With an Ermine, c. 1490

 

 

Let’s Review: David Brooks Really Is a Boil on the Body Politic

March 4, 2012

I’ve pondered the mystery of why Gail Collins bothers to rise to “civil” in her exchanges with David Brooks, much less why she affords him a dignity he does not deserve – that of treating him as someone capable of sustaining the logic of his own argument long enough to be worth engaging.

I’m guessing she’s either a much nicer person than I ever hope to be — or  else she’s running a year-over-year longitudinal experiment to see just how long Brooks can sustain the pretence of independence as he trundles to his pre-selected conclusions.  Seriously — has anyone here been suprised by the last couple of grafs of a Brooks column, no matter where each piece began?  Anybody?

Thought not.

So, on to today’s text and exegesis.  (Hey, it is Sunday, right?)

From the March 3 Brooks – Collins Opinionator column, we learn that both of our pundits think Romney’s turned himself into a joke, a conclusion few of us, I’m guessing, would dispute.

Brooks begins badly as he contemplates the campaign to date, “My first emotion is pity, and the tremendous ocean of it I feel for Mitt Romney.”

Pity?  For a man who’s single campaign competence lies in spending his friends’ money on destructive ads, while lying about his own and his opponents’ words?

Brooks too must have reserves of the milk of human kindness I lack; or else a brain softened by years of trying to unlearn that which would make more difficult the task of comforting the comfortable.

Me, I just hope that Romney discovers just enough self-awareness to condemn him in the coming decades of an increasingly irrelevant existence to ponder the degree to which his father would be ashamed of him.  I wish Mitt a long life — make no mistake about that.  A miserable one, but long.

But I digress…

Brooks goes on to give his man some sage advice:

If I were Romney, I’d spend the next period of the campaign reading the Stoics, maybe Marcus Aurelius: “Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.” Or perhaps Epictetus: “Difficulties show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.”

I was going to break in here and call Brooks the intellectual pseud and poser he clearly is, when I realized that perhaps Collins is not quite so forgiving as she appears:

Gail: I do love the way you throw Epictetus in when I’m least expecting it.

Oh, snap!

I do think that talk of hooking up any GOP candidate with “a rough young man,” is exactly the image a supporter would wish to disseminate in the midst of a gay-and-women-loathing bash fest led by the most prominent Republicans around, but let that slide. I’m just loving the way Collins bursts Brooks’ balloon.  Of course she expects her dose of Epictetus; it’s how Brooks rolls.  But it does tee up nicely for her, doesn’t it — and no attentive reader will miss that which seems to glide past the glistening carapace of Brooks’ self regard.

It gets better, which is to say worse, when Brooks permits himself to lament the power of rich people within the GOP:

The primary campaign would be over if not for the Citizens United decision. If Gingrich and Santorum didn’t have “super PAC” sugar daddies, they couldn’t afford to run campaigns. They’d have dropped out and Romney would be cruising.

Super PACs empower protest candidates. Super PACs prolong primary campaigns. Super PACs weaken parties. The irony is that Barack Obama is the first beneficiary of the new campaign finance rules.

Uh, David.

If Super PAC’s (and their equivalent in the privilege a rich guy like Romney gets to self fund without limitation) did not exist, Romney would be dead in the water right now.  As your own newspaper reported two days ago, Romney has been consistently unable to present an affirmative case for his own candidacy — in just about every race he’s ever run, by the way.  But he’s been able to edge toward nomination by deploying negative ads with a scorched earth ferocity Stalin could have admired.  It’s that money, and only that money that has allowed Romney to overcome this fundamental truth: the more people know Mitt, the more they dislike him.

Brooks might be right, to be fair, that Gingrich’s Super PAC cash is all that made him viable.  But the reality is that it is Romney’s access to Citizen’s United-enabled cash in amounts far greater than the amphibian was able to muster is the only source of his “inevitability.  Brooks knows this, but he’s got an ulterior motive in asserting that Super PAC corruption tends to elevate only upstarts, whilst handicapping the “legitimate” candidacy of a Very Serious Person.

And that motive would be to fluff the establishment GOP.  Romney is their man. Truly, it’s the least surprising turn in journalism that Brooks goes on to tell Collins this:

I don’t know if he’ll be a great nominee, but I still think he’d be a fine president. I keep running into people who worked with him at Bain or when he was governor and they saw he was an awesome manager. Even Democrats say this.

Two things: 1) See Charlie Pierce for a taste of what folks say who actually watched Romney up close in Massachusetts.  As someone who was in fact conscious at the time and living not that far from the state house of our beloved Commonwealth, I can tell you that he is remembered as a guy who bailed on the state within two years, and ended his single term with such low approval ratings that it was even odds whether he’d leave town by air or on a rail.

2) Note a classic instance of the Brooks double tuck inverted weasel: “I keep running into people…Even Democrats.”

Oh yeah, tough guy?  Name them.

Brooks has risen as he has because he’s been careful in ways that fellow conservative hacks have not (broken calculators, anyone?) not to give critics any specific claim of fact to test — at least not since this debacle. So it is here.  His taxi driver tells him what a great guy Mitt was.  (A beautiful dancer, perhaps.)  And…you get the point.

Oh, and our weapons are 3)  Collins nails him on the obvious solecism in the chain of “reasoning” Brooks offers here. He claims good managers make good presidents.  Uh…assumption not in evidence, or, as Collins says,

I cannot stress too often that running the country is not the same as running a business. Not even remotely.

Yup.

Brooks doesn’t even try to respond to this; I’m guessing he knows he can’t.  Instead, he tries to rally just a bit more sympathy for his man:

One way to think about Romney is this: Are his troubles mostly a result of his weaknesses as a candidate or the oddities of the Republican electorate this year? I’d say it’s 30 percent Romney’s fault and 70 percent that large parts of the Republican electorate want someone who either is a joke (Cain) or can’t possibly win or govern (Santorum).

You know, I could almost go so far as to give this a “maybe.”

But actually…no.

The either/or here is an example of a classic fallacy, the problem of the non-excluded middle — not to mention a failure to analyze the direction of causality here.  On the one hand, the disaster could be overdetermined:  Romney could be both loathesome and confronting maniacs — but here I have to stand up for the poor Republican voter.  He or (increasingly rarely) she is not simply crazy in a vacuum.  These voters have become crazier  in part because Romney makes them so, because he is so wretched as a candidate and evidently so hollow as a human being.

All of which is to say that Brooks is in his I/My-Candidate-cannot fail-I/he-are-being-failed territory here. It’s not surprising to see him land in such a hole, though it ain’t pretty.  This is what happens when cheerleaders for oligarchy start to fear the mob.*

That said, I have to admit to a moment’s total agreement with our man BoBo.  He says:

Here’s what I think may happen. Romney gets the nomination and is defeated. Republicans decide they are sick of nominating “moderates” and next time they go haywire. Then the party gets really crushed…

To which I (and Collins) say, in essence, “from your lips to the FSM’s ear.”

But then, Brooks being Brooks, he has to go and botch the blow-off:

and sanity returns.

Good luck with that my friend.

*Oh, and can I vomit in my mouth at this little bit of Brooksiana?

Personally, I love the caucus process, while acknowledging its flaws. I remember once going to a Democratic caucus in Iowa where the supporters of John Edwards tried to lure away the vegan supporters of Dennis Kucinich by offering them steaks. It’s the sort of quirky artifact that us Burkeans love.

Now I get it:  the criteria for assessing the institutions of representative government are to be what what pisses off the kind of folks “Burkeans” disdain. I don’t doubt that Burke might have defended the caucus as a “prescriptive” institution, one whose reason for being was that it had been for a long time, and thus constitutes an accepted element of the system of governance.  (That this Burkean argument rests on assumptions that American democracy has explicitly rejected is a separate matter.)  But Edmund Burke, for all his traditionalism, was not an asshole.  And that is a fact his self-proclaimed heirs may wish to ponder.

Image: Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, Court jesters playing bowls, 1868.

William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment, c. 1755

David Brooks Is Always Wrong-Yeshiva Bocher edition

February 19, 2012

David Brooks is the plausible half of the Times’ con-op pair; Douthat, to be sneered at later, is the best known for not being as overtly, epically awful as William Kristol.  (Talk about the subtle bigotry of low expectations.)

Brooks’ trick, the one he’s mastered as his inferiors on the Right bloviating bench have not, is to present sentences that seem to imply great learning, whilst never falling into the temptation to make specific claims of fact that can be shown to be wrong.  It’s an important skill, and it fools lots of people who should know better.  Not so long ago, I was talking with a reporter from the Great Grey Lady herself — a good one, a real journalist covering a difficult beat and doing it well. Douthat, my interlocuter agreed, was an embarassment.  But Brooks.  Now there was someone, said my companion, who even if you disagreed with him, always managed to surprise you.

Well, I suppose, but not in a good way.

After I recovered from blowing bourbon though my nose, I put it to the room that the problem was that Brooks arrived not at unanticipated conclusions, but at pre-determined ones, to which he gave unmerited weight by grabbing the lustre of some intellectual antecedent or another whether or not that purported authority actually bore on the case at hand.

He does some variation on this gimmick over and over again.  It can be an appeal to anonymous “culture” — as in this catastrophe of a column — or it can be a more direct invocation of some exceptionally learned, and often obscure source.

So it is with Brooks now infamous  column on Jeremy Lin, basketball and Jewish Modern Orthodoxy.

Brooks of course has taken plenty of hits for his astonishing display of cluelessness about big time sports in general, basketball in particular, and the nature of the point guard position in fine detail. Charlie Pierce’s take down is vintage, but folks both here and many other places have had their way with the last-kid-picked-for-dodgeball poster child that is our David.  I agree with everything said in such pieces; it takes a willed choice to write so badly, so wrongly about something as broadly understood and loved as basketball.

But I think that all those snarktacular take downs stopped short.  Brooks is probably not as utterly dumb about this stuff as he appears to be in the first three quarters of the column; rather, as always with this sorry excuse for a public thinker, there’s a specific goal in mind.  You have to look carefully, because he tries to disguise the tell in such a way you won’t notice the bad faith that underlies what he presents as a self-evident conclusion.

So, in this column, the goal isn’t to make any kind of point about basketball, or the nature of sport, or even about what actually goes into superlative performance in any human endeavor.  The real end of Brooks’ barrage of high-toned word salad* comes late, almost buried in a gush of seemingly deeply pondered thought:

Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.

Translated: it’s OK for the bishops to meddle with your lady parts because they are really engaging the tragic tension between ambition and self-abnegation.  Don’t get angry, because, damn it, this moral balancing is hard.

Of course, had Brooks simply said that we should not resist the injection of one view of religious obligation into the discourse of civil society, it would have been much easier just to say what many have recently hammered home:  it’s not religious conscience that’s the problem; it’s the assertion of one person’s religious views (biases, delusions) at the expense of others’ ethical, moral, and or faith-derived perspectives.

So, what Brooks has to do here, slyly, is to assert a universal, inarguable property of moral thinking that could trump any picayune sectarian objection that, say, my interpretation of Jewish tradition would prohibit state-sponsored rape.  He does so with the rhetorical gimmick outlined above.  Lin, he tells us, is caught between his desire to excel as a basketball player, which Lin sees as self-glorifying, and the ability to direct the greater glory to the divine.  That tension, Brooks tells us, lies between “two moral universes” that are not reconciliable.

And here is where he rolls out his big gun, a suitably impressive sounding, but (outside certain circles) almost wholly unknown really smart guy:

Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures.

A couple of things to note here.  First, check out the very clever way in which Brooks appropriates to  himself the mantle of the wise man.  “Our best teacher,” he writes, to introduce Rabbi Soloveitchik, who is indeed a major figure in the construction of the Modern Orthodox view of Jewish life and faith.  The implication is clear.  Brooks himself has tilled these fields, has spent all the needed long hours in the study hall to master his Torah and his Talmud, the commentaries and the responsa — and from all this has distilled the labor of centuries to an essence captured by this one writer, hitherto utterly unknown to most of his readership.  It’s a lovely bit of sleight of hand: Soloveitchik’s asserted authority confers greater weight on Brooks himself in his role as the judge of the “best” source on matters of moral complexity.  How fortunate we are to have humble David as our guide!

The second feature to notice is that Brooks, in what appears to be his SOP, seems to hope that no one will actually go read the (outside Jewish Orthodox circles) reasonably obscure works he references.  You will note that links to the two essays Brooks singles out are strangely missing.  One might infer that such works — religious meditations by an orthodox Rabbi who died almost a decade ago (aeons in internet years!) could only be found in tattered volumes found in stacks to which most folks will never gain access.  Or one might wonder about the possibility of bad faith.

Bet on door number two.

Just to do what Mr. Brooks would not:  here’s the link (PDF) to “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and here’s one for “Majesty and Humility.

So what happens should you actually dive into that work?

Well — let’s look at what Brooks says he gets from his august teacher:

First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.In The Lonely Man of Faith and Majesty and Humility, he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the Earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

A couple of thing.  For one, it’s  “The Lonely Man…”  that engages the story of the two Adams. The other essay does draw a dichotomy based on two notions of the first man’s creation, but it draws on a rabbinical tradition to pick out two aspects of religious experience which Soloveitchik deploys to a distinct interpretative end — an astonishingly moving one when the essay shifts from a larger argument to an account of Soloveitchik’s search for some communion with the divine at the point of his wife’s death.

But really, all that’s trivial compared to the real sin Brooks commits here.  That would be — and I’m sure this comes as no surprise — that he simply gets it wrong.  What Brooks says about Soloveitchik’s teaching is not what can be found in the writing cited.  Look above:  Brooks claims that the  man of faith suffers loneliness because he must move between an active role building the world and the passive one of an observer humbled by the glory of God’s creation.  Here’s what the rabbi actually concludes:

Modern Adam the second, as soon as he finishes translating religion into the cultural vernacular, and begins to talk the “foreign” language of faith, finds himself lonely, forsaken, misunderstood, at times even ridiculed by Adam the first, by hinself. When the hour of estrangement strikes, the ordeal of man of faith begins and he starts his withdrawal from society, from Adam the first—be he an outsider, be he himself. He returns, like Moses of old, to his solitary hiding and to the abode of loneliness. Yes, the loneliness of contemporary man of faith is of a special kind. He experiences not only ontological loneliness but also social isolation, whenever he dares to deliver the genuine faith-kerygma. This is both the destiny and the human historical situation of the man who keeps a rendezvous with eternity, and who, in spite of everything, continues tenaciously to bring the message of faith to majestic man. (“The Lonely Man of Faith,” p. 65)

So, to Soloveitchik, a person engaged in this world, Adam the First, is demonic (his word) in his quest to succeed.  Adam the Second is lonely, but not because he has a dual allegiance, not because he flits between a sense of work and success in this world and a contemplative life of prayer and surrender.  Rather, he suffers solitude — or embraces it — because the men and women of the world pay him insufficient heed.

That’s Soloveitchik’s view.  I think it suffers from a conclusion derived from assumptions not in evidence, but that’s not the point.  It is, rather, that Brooks distorts what his source plainly writes to bend that thinker’s ends to his own.  This is the most basic form of intellectual dishonesty, an attempt to bolster a bad argument by laying claim to the authority but not the actual sense of a mind greater than one’s own.  It is Brooks’ stock in trade.

And this takes us back to the end to which Brooks hoped to turn this bit of fakery.  Remember, we face an irreducible contradiction.  We must, he beseeches us, concede that the two goals of mastery — really authority over our own bodies, agency — and that of surrender, of devotion to something beyond ourselves are “irreconciliable” — which means we must at times defer to one side or the other.  And that, he says, is what those who object to religion’s intervening into politics don’t get, but should.

Which is to say — sometimes you have to let the bishops mess with your body, or your desire to have sexytime without intending to enjoy babytime.  That’s the price of living with the incompatibility of agency and surrender to established (moral) authority.

You can see why Brooks might not want to say that plain.

More simply:  Expressed clearly Brooks’ conclusion does not follow from his premise:  a this-world focus does not preclude a rich moral life, nor does it bar the recognition that life is tragic, that man (and woman) born of woman is bound to die.  Those who oppose the injection of particular religious views into politics are unable to see complexity in life?  Really?  In what corner of the multiverse?

And that’s why you get all the wind and the flapping of authorial buttocks in this piece: Soloveitchik is this week’s victim of David’s friendly fire, just a name to be propped up to obscure the fatuousness of the underlying argument.  No orthodox anything me, but the old Rabbi deserves better, and Brooks should, but won’t, be ashamed of himself.

I’ll give him this, though:  he’s good.  You do have to work to find the con in his work.  But it’s always there.

So, in conclusion, let me simply say to Mr. Brooks (having finally exhausted any last reserve of politesse)…

…F**k you.  With an oxidized farm implement.

*Think of Brooks as the rocket, goat cheese, and heirloom pear end of the spectrum of the baffle-with-bullshit crowd.

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, The Old Rabbi, 1642

Pedro Berruguete, Burning the Heretics (Auto da fé), c. 1500

Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante (Divine Comedy, Inferno, 8) ,1822.

Jacob Jordaens, Suzanna and the Elders, before 1678.

By The Way, David Brooks Is Still Always Wrong

November 13, 2011

I know this is already long since fishwrap, but amidst the many disembowelings of David Brooks discovery that he has always been at war with Eurasia   always  loved Mittens, I have to rage, rage, at the relentless, endless, fetishization of the deepest, most degrading fantasy of the right.  No, not that one.  Nor that one either.  Nor this.

No it’s the almost touching faith evinced by Mr. Brooks and the entire GOP presidential field in the existence of a free market in health care.  So, just to flagellate a truly dead horse, let’s take a look at one specific passage from Our Lady of Perpetual Broderism’s Romney tongue-bath:

True Medicare reform replaces the fee-for-service system with premium support. Government gives people money, rising slowly over time, to shop around for their own private insurance plans. The system would reward efficiency and quality, not just quantity. Competition between providers would unleash a wave of innovation.

The only problem is that the marketplace for health care that exists in the world real people inhabit bears little or no resemblance to Brooks’ pleasant vision of informed consumers, with full information in hand, shopping around for the perfect combination of benefits and price they need — not just now, but through the life (and death) cycle all of us endure.

 

That is: most evocations of the free market in just about anything call up spherical cows, simplified (and dangerously convincing) models of what actually happens in the world.  But to imagine a genuine Ec. 101 free market in health care — and to praise someone as “serious” for building policy on the assumed reality of such delusion — that takes real effort, a true commitment to avoid knowing inconvenient facts.

At least, so says such a DFH as Daniel McFadden.  That would be the 2000 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught at such dens of raving lefty lunacy as USC, UC Berkley, and (ahem) MIT.  And that would be the same fellow who has spent quite a bit of time analyzing the notion of consumer driven health care.  Here’s what he had to say in 2008 in a working paper co-authored with Joachim Winter and Florian Heiss:

Most, but not all, consumers are able to make health care choices consistent with their self-interest, even in the face of novel, complex, ambiguous alternatives. However, certain predictable irrationalities appear – excessive discounting of future health risks, and too much concentration on dimensions that allow easy comparisons, such as current cost and immediate net benefit. Some consumers are inattentive, particularly when prior choices or circumstances identify a default “Status quo” alternative.

These behavioral shortcomings imply that some degree of paternalism is essential if Consumer Directed Health Care is to allocate resources satisfactorily. Health care markets need to be regulated to keep out bad, deceptive products, particularly those that offer “teaser” current benefits but poor longer-run benefits. Consumers need good comparative information on products, and they need to have this information brought to their attention. Consumers appear to underestimate the probabilities of future health events, [or] anticipate the resulting disutility, and as a result they systematically underspend on preventative or chronic care. Socially optimality will require that these services be subsidized, or choices regarding them be framed, to induce desired levels of utilization.

[From the second paper listed on McFadden's website, linked above: "Consumer-Directed Health Care: Can Consumers Look After Themselves?" pp. 19-20]

Note what McFadden et al. do not say.  They don’t say market mechanisms can’t work.

They do say that human beings display predictable behavior that makes it impossible to rely on an unregulated market to deliver health care.  They point out that those irrationalities fall most heavily in the area of guessing what you or I might need some years down the road…i.e. when we are likely to need good care the most.*

Hence, the need for what the authors above call “paternalism,” and what I would term the normal function of the concept of universal insurance — mandated if necessary under the particular policy choice — against risks all members of a society face.

McFadden and his colleagues are hardly the only ones who get this.  This paper is exemplary, not determinative.  And again, it’s not that these writers represent some radical wing of anti-classical economics clinging to the margins of the profession.  In fact, McFadden and his co-authors display some familiar, reflexive thinking.  I’d argue with the Nobel laureate in his offhand dismissal of a different approach, what he terms “a government single payer/single provider program.”

Partly, the difficulty I have with the expert here is that single payer is not the same as single provider.  Conflating the two allows one to damn one with the flaws of the other — which is hardly cricket in a serious policy discussion.  And when anyone — even a distinguished fellow like McFadden — says that he “believes” the problems of such a system will be the same as for private plans, then I become an honorary Missourian: “Show me.”

But that’s an aside.  The core point is that even folks with a deep institutional and disciplinary engagement with the idea of markets understand that you can’t run health care on the principle that the customer knows best.  We don’t — we can’t, really.  And that’s why Romney, and Ryan, and all the other GOPsters trying to transfer risk to the American people and profits to American insurers are never, ever “serious.”

Which is just another long way round to repeating the obvious. David Brooks is always wrong.  He kind of has to be, given how he has dedicated his career to the notion that Republicans belong in power, no matter what.

*Brooks — like the GOP candidates — might argue at this point that they never have contemplated an unregulated private market in health care.  Which may be accurate, but not true (to channel my inner Sally Field).  That is — the degree of regulation in the market to which all calls to repeal Obamacare would return us was the one in which a host of problems along the lines McFadden et al. point out, and many more besides.  More broadly — even if you take the GOP as sincere in its stated principles, they oppose “paternalism” in individual decisions.  Which means they oppose exactly what is needed in the delivery of health care.

Images:  Edouard Manet, The Dead Bullfighter, 1864-1865

Pompeo Batoni, Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, c. 1746


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