David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden: Part One

David Brooks is providing the blogosphere with what we might unkindly — but accurately — term a “target rich environment.”

I’m going to get on some more recent failures of craft, thought and journalistic practice soon, but if you want an immediate takedown of the up to the minute Brooks farrago, you can’t do better than Matt Taibbi’s brutal takedown on Brooks’ paean to the deserving rich. (h/t Anne Laurie over at Balloon Juice.)

I agree with Taibbi to the last jot and tittle,* but what I want to do here  and in some posts in gestation (I know y’all have heard that one before) is to explore how Brooks achieves his extraordinary use of strategic error and ignorance in the service of conclusions that would otherwise be obviously — as opposed to merely actually — risible, not to mention grotesque.

One of the notions that Brooks is currently striving to appropriate lies with his canny use of the word  “culture” — and the conclusion he seeks to reach is that culture has the character of an inherent quality, something that you either possess or not, that determines certain critical outcomes.

In other words, Brooks wants to be a determinist in favor of social facts he regards as just or fair, but without invoking genetic claims or the historic tinge of racism and bigotry that has come from too eager an interest in the pollution of the blood.

I’m thinking all of this in the context of a column Brooks wrote on Dec. 22 2009, on something he calls “the protocol society.”  It’s a disaster of a column, incoherent, clearly unresearched and almost disdainfully slapped together, all landing up at predictable destinations — conclusions so muddled as to be either meaningless or indecipherable (I’ll demonstrate below), along with a hint of jingoist self-love that tiptoes towards that ever-tempting territory that concludes poor people do it to themselves.

I’ll get to that too.  I’m deliberately burying the lede here, because what interests me most is not simply the hateful folly to which Brooks commits himself in this piece, but the techniques he employs to try to seduce his readers to follow him into the swamp.  Let’s see how it’s done:

Brooks starts off as he means to go on:

In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions.

Vintage Brooks:  a generalization, a cliche, and a false premise from which to draw the false conclusions to come.

In fact, this one brief line displays the central failure of so much of Brooks’ work:  Even though Brooks here surely channels received wisdom, the essential assumption that past = making things/present = bits and bytes and all that jazz dismisses the America in which amazingly more stuff is made than at any point in our history.**

Consider industrial output:  This is a little kludgy — but if you look here, you’ll see figures for US industrial output between 1997 and 2006, and you will find, unsurprisingly, that the US makes substantially more up to within a whisker of the current recession than it did at the height of the Clinton boom — 700 billion dollars,*** or almost one third over the 1996 total of 2.25 trillion smackers.  And if you look here, you will see that US industrial output  — you know, making stuff, steel, trucks, planes, electricity and all that —  in 1996 was about fifty percent higher than it was in 1980…and you get the idea.

That is:  the proportion of traditional industry to service in our economy has changed enormously — see this brief PDF for an overview of the shift in the proportion of service to manufacturing over the last half of the twentieth century.****  There is no doubt that the way the service sector works, or doesn’t, matters enormously.

But it is simply false to say that we don’t make stuff any more — and worse it is an error to neglect the enormous interpenetration of what are thought of as services with manufacturing and vice versa…about which more in a moment.

The obvious rejoinder would be that I’m just being a pedant here, that Brooks’ point — that intangible ideas count for more than stuff in today’s economy — is true whether or not the actual amount of industrial work in the US has gone up or down in the last few decades.

But in fact, the flaw in Brooks’ lede lies not simply with the factual error, the false claim, but with the false dichotomy.

This kind of bald claim sets you up for mistakes to come, because neither side of the seeming sequence is actually true in at least some important wasy.  And if you get that much wrong from the very start, you don’t have much of a chance of finding your ass with both hands tied behind your back further down.  Which we will discover as we work through Brooks’ column.

So, from that unpromising beginning, Brooks proceeds to this:

A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

More vintage Brooks.  This time it is mostly PGOs**** masquerading as insight, with the added logical howler of false equivalencies.

To begin with the obvious: I don’t know quite what Brooks means when he claims that one pays more for the knowledge than the parts of a car. What about labor?  What about the energy costs involved in transporting the bits to the final factory, and carrying the accreting cars down an assembly line…and so on.  Lots of inputs go into making a complicated machine, and to say the raw materials aren’t all that much tells you — not much.  It’s a nonsense of a statement, a “thought” only by the most charitable understanding of the verb “to think.”

But more to the point, if made objects embody the ideas of those who make them (which they do, say I, having written a book on the subject that polite folks would term fa succès d’estime) then the entire premise of the piece is false.  By this reasoning, protocols have been an essential component of industrial processes since before the industrial revolution — which is, in fact, true.  See, for just one pre-industrial example, the systematic knowledge transmitted from master to apprentice that produced objects like these.  And if you want one from the era of making, as Brooks would have it, rather than rule-formation, how about this story?

Brooks has a sense of the folly he’s committing, so his next move tries to find another distinction to make the alleged move into a virtual economy seem more consequential.  He writes,

For example, you and I can’t use the same piece of metal at the same time. But you and I can use the same software program at the same time. Physical stuff is subject to the laws of scarcity: you can use up your timber. But it’s hard to use up a good idea. Prices for material goods tend toward equilibrium, depending on supply and demand. Equilibrium doesn’t really apply to the market for new ideas. (Italics added; supply the jaw-drop on your own.)

Uh, what?  There is so much confusion here.  If you and I ride in a car together (or occupy neighboring straps on the D train uptown) we share pieces of steel.  If you and I actually legally license our software, we can’t use the same program at the same time, except in the same sense that we could each drive the nice reliable K cars that rolled off the assembly line one after the other.

Then there’s his stuff about scarcity.




I mean, of all the natural resources to pick as an example of an exhaustible slave to supply and demand, he chooses one of the most obviously renewable ones.  Maybe he doesn’t know some of the basic fun facts of American geography — like the one that tells you that — in large part, thanks to the wood-product industry — more of the great state of Maine lies under trees than in 1850?

But more than the banal incuriousness of Brooks’ writing (never forget his meditations on the salad bars of Applebees, that, alas, did not exist) the actual point he tries to make here, so far as it can be excavated from this pile of mixed confusion and simple error, is that new ideas, these protocols, are not subject to market forces, to competition and some version of the logic of supply and demand.

That would come as news in this context. Ebooks, the optimum reading of which is at issue in that link, are as pure an expression of a digital, immaterial product as Brooks could wish for.  And they are subject to competition — and to restrictions on their use — at every turn.  And there are sustained and lasting attempts to find equilibrium prices within each facet of the ebook world, from royalty shares (about which I’ve expressed my personal interest already) to retail pricing.

And so on — you can come up with a dozen examples of software or ideas subject to all the usual market forces in a minute, I’ll bet you — and so could Brooks, I’m sure, if he only stopped to think about the claim itself, rather than the conclusion he already knows he wants to reach.

So far, I’ve confined myself to dissecting rather ordinary — or at least very common — sins in Brooks’ work.  To recap:  he’s famously sloppy in his reasoning, and serially prone to error, a failing born, I’d guess, both of intellectual sloth and a really bad case of the “too good to check” disease — that should-be fatal journalist’s dropsy that encourages one to accept at face value any statement that supports your pre-existing prejudice.

In all that, Brooks is just one of the most prominent examples of a general pathology of mainstream opinion writing.  But as we move deeper into the column something else reveals itself.  That would be what appears, to me at least, to ba an active effort to persuade on false premises.

But by now, I’m guessing that this post is long enough.  So let’s take this thought up in part two.

*I can’t begin to tell you how long I’ve wanted to use that phrase in the blog.

**Cue Mark Twain, or perhaps Josh Billings.

***I can’t tell from a quick look at the source whether these are constant dollars; the essential point remains even if they are — we make plenty in this country, much more than we did in the twentieth century.

****It’s worth noting that while the shift from manufacturing to service is huge, even as early as the middle of the twentieth century, service sector work accounted for half of the non-farm economy.  So whatever Brooks is talking about here, it ain’t new.  This is in fact a common form of error, to mistake the time you notice something is the time it becomes important.  Lazy, lazy, lazy.

*****Penetrating Glimpses of the Obvious.  I know y’all know that, but my son wanted an explanation of the acronym, so here it is.

Image:  Factories

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, bad writing, Economic follies, Journalism and its discontents, MSM nonsense, Stupidity

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One Comment on “David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden: Part One”

  1. […] Inverse Square Blog science and the public square — by thomas levenson « David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden: Part&n… David Brooks Is Always Wrong — Steel vs. Code follies and the White Man’s Burden […]

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