David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden: Part Two
There is method to my tardiness (shez hoo? — ed.) To pick up on part one of this screed, What I’m trying to do here is to show how Brooks manages to present himself as a moderate, open minded public intellectual while actually, consistently, constructing bad faith accounts of others’ ideas in defense of conclusions reached long ago, ones that, to no-one’s ongoing surprise, comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.
As noted in part one of this screed, his December 22 column on the rise of what he calls a protocol economy displays the common habits of error and fuddled logic that Brooks routinely employs to assert that the sky is green. Here I want to look at some of the ways in which Brooks moves from mere bad reasoning and overt error into more subtle, and more insidious ways in which he builds to a truly … how to put this… interesting conclusion.
The trickery starts gently, almost imperceptibly. He writes:
Over the past decades, many economists have sought to define the differences between the physical goods economy and the modern protocol economy. In 2000, Larry Summers, then the Treasury secretary, gave a speech called “The New Wealth of Nations,” laying out some principles. Leading work has been done by Douglass North of Washington University, Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago, Joel Mokyr of Northwestern and Paul Romer of Stanford.
Their research is the subject of an important new book called “From Poverty to Prosperity,” by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz.
The thumb on the scale is light here, the pressure almost imperceptible.
But look at the way the experts Brooks invokes are identified. We learn that Summers (oh see how ecumenical this reasonable conservative turns out to be! The first wise man up is a Democrat!) is a former cabinet member. Four more names follow, all associated with major research universities. And then there are two more, the authors of the book that Brooks used as his crib for this column, presented with no further comment on credentials or affiliation.*
Who are they, beyond producers of that one tertiary source — a collection of interviews and eight brief essays on what the authors claim is a radical new paradigm for economics?
Well, Kling is in fact a Ph.D economist with fourteen years of work at the Fed and at Freddie Mac, followed by sixteen more in a variety of jobs. His only current institutional affiliation? An adjunct gig at the Cato Institute.
As for Schulz: no economist he.
He boasts a B.A. in philosophy from Vanderbilt, which was followed by a series of jobs in the right wing echo chamber, including Bill Bennett’s talking shop Empower America, an editorial gig at Fox News’ web operation, and his current gig as an American Enterprise Institute “scholar” (sic) and editor of an AEI online journal. In other words, a wordsmith, a hack in the service of the broad and very successful conservative attempt to construct an intellectual rationale for policy choices that run into trouble with reality.
Now, neither of those affiliations says anything directly about their ability to produce a book that makes a coherent argument. But there is a reason that Brooks chose to omit mention of the fact that his ur-text for a column in which he’s going to argue in favor of lasting economic inequality was assembled by two guys with very strong ties to the institutionalized radical right.
Why? Because it’s a detail that dilutes the case he wants to make that all he’s doing is transmitting an emergent mainstream consensus — instead of fluffing another bit of propaganda from right wing chattering classes.
And lest you think that this was just a slip, Brooks doubles down in the very next lines of his column. He writes:
Kling and Schulz start off entertainingly by describing a food court. There are protocols everywhere, not only for how to make the food, but how to greet the customers, how to share common equipment like trays and tables, how to settle disputes between the stalls and enforce contracts with the management.
Except this isn’t how they begin; rather, this is what they discuss in their second chapter. In their first, they declare the following: “Economics 2.0 says “Markets often fail. That is why we need markets…Innovation is best delivered by markets. It is rarely delivered by government. Hence the paradoxical conclusion that markets are often the best solution to market failure.” (pp. 2-3).
That is: Kling and Schulz set out in this book to make a very conventional argument, cloaked in a breezy conceit they call “economics 2.0” (the kind of coinage that hucksters of the business strategy guides and self help books use to give cover to glibly repackaged clichés).
To assert that what they are talking about is some new synthesis, the two men resort to antiquated caricatures of what both the fresh and salt water schools of economists actually think — but my point here is not to wrangle with a couple of guys who are in fact up front, more or less, about what they are trying to do (even if I think their work is poppycock).
Rather I want to keep on jumping up and down on the intellectual kidneys of the one person who is not.
And in that context: Brooks’ leap to the food court, skipping over the market fundamentalism that frames the work he cites is just one more of his habitual bits of misdirection.
Again: if Brooks’ readers knew that his column was based on a book that was at least in part a product of the old Washington right-wing noise machine, they would be inclined to read with perhaps a little more skepticism that Brooks’ argument can tolerate. Much better to pass over such inconvenient truths, don’t you think?
Throughout the piece, in fact, Brooks displays his strange and persistent aversion to grappling with the concept of work. There is no connection made to the hard reality of actually making and selling a car — or writing one segment of a multi-million line block of code, for that matter. Instead, his goal here is to create a myth, one that can then be used to deduce a moral. Trying to distinguish between the made economy and that one created out of thought, he writes…
….if you are making steel, it costs a medium amount to make your first piece of steel and then a significant amount for each additional piece. If, on the other hand, you are making a new drug, it costs an incredible amount to invent your first pill. But then it’s nearly free to copy it millions of times.
He can’t even get this right.
It costs a ton to make your first piece of steel, not “a medium amount,” however much that might be. See, for example, the experience of the innovative American steel maker Nucor, who faced a quarter of a billion dollars in start-up costs to get their first continuous-casting sheet-steel producing mini-mill up and running. (You can read the whole story of that adventure in Richard Preston’s excellent and insufficiently known American Steel.) It ain’t exactly cheap to make the millionth pill properly either — see, e.g. this industry article on efforts to reduce plant/manufacturing costs to deal with just that problem — though he’s closer to right on this one, certainly.
But the point here is that Brooks, again, has botched a seemingly simple fact that forms one pole of an alleged dichotomy. That might seem minor: even if a steel production line isn’t that cheap to set up, you can imagine some manufacturing process that might be — say to make bicycles, for example, or cereal, or anything where the cost of raw materials or parts is a major input.
But that apparently minor error masks the deeper flaw, which is why Brooks makes so many “careless” (actually, useful) mistakes.
The tension he’s trying to set up between economies dominated by either making or thinking turns on his concept, never defined with much precision,* of protocols. Sometimes he seems to be thinking of actual products that are lists of rules — software, most obviously or drugs as above — but more often he seems to be saying that protocols are the infrastructure of a whole new sort of economy. He writes:
You’re only going to invest the money to make that first pill if you can have a temporary monopoly to sell the copies. So a nation has to find a way to protect intellectual property while still encouraging the flow of ideas.
In this he is at least on the right track, but acute readers will recognize that patent protection is not exactly an “economics 2.0” idea, given, among many other historical roots, the presence of the line in Article One, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, which states that Congress may act “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries…”
But never mind.
Or rather, mind: perhaps I am being waspish, some crabbed academic soul demanding strict accuracy and clarity of thought and expression in what is, after all, fish-wrap opining.
But remember: Brooks’ purpose in this column is to persuade you, the reader, that we are living through both fundamental changes in economic behavior and in the analysis of economies — and that these developments shed light on the way we ought to organize our societies and our lives. If it turns out that a bunch of Enlightenment rebels wearing powdered wigs to mask curious bathing habits figured the essentials of “economy 2.0” (sic) out more than two centuries ago, whence our need for the deep ruminations of the aw-shucks conservative from the frozen north?
Or more precisely: Brooks’ breathless rediscovery of patent law exposes failures of both method and conclusion in his work. Method — because for all of Brooks pretensions to intellectual weight, it’s stuff like this that reveals the nakedness of this particular emperor. How else to explain this sudden momentary amnesia about the family tree from which intellectual property concepts descend?
And conclusion, because if there is nothing really there in this new, new concept of the protocol society, then there is no support for the gobsmacking claim toward which Brooks has been ever so gently guiding us .
I’m going to deal with that, finally, in the next part, passing over (thank FSM! –ed.) some other odds and ends of Brooks’ folly. (I’m thinking especially of his “look at how cool is my grasp of contemporary academic fashion” appropriation of the word “consilience.” Find it for yourself in the column if you care, and remember that most of the thinkers I know define consilience as “a paste of words we jumble out when we don’t want to actually tackle the hard work of thinking through our ideas.” Or perhaps they don’t, and that’s just me.)
But anyway…enough here. On to part three!
*I know, I know–Brooks and precision are ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. Bad things happen when they mix
Image: Lucas Cranach, “The Payment (An Unlikely Pair)” 1532