David Brooks Is Always Wronger: White People’s SOTU edition

Blogger’s note:  What follows is north of 2,000 words on the malign influence and intellectual poverty that is David Brooks — about which you already know.  Worse yet, it’s a screed I began a week ago in response to Brooks’ nonsense of a column in advance of the State of the Union address, so it’s long since fishwrap.  But I came across it this afternoon, mostly done, and maybe some of you might enjoy it.

One more thing, though:  the most dangerous and frustrating thing about Brooks is that there is no end to him.  There’s another column today about what he sees as the limitations of the use of big data (a term he doesn’t seem to grasp securely) that is full of yet more BS; this is his MO:  pour out the crap fast enough, with a sufficiently breezy assertion of knowledge broad and deep, and it becomes very difficult for the pricing mechanism of  the marketplace of ideas to keep up.  Alas for the Republic.

Anyway — much, much more below, for the punishment-gluttons among you.


One of the pleasures of my blogging life lately has been the divine Ms. MM’s descent into irrelevance.  As Megan McArdle slides down the Daily Beast’s incline of fail, she poses less and less danger to the body politic — and, more to the gratification of my selfish self, I don’t feel the same compulsion I once did to point and laugh.  Much more time in the week and all that.

The same cannot be said of David Brooks, inexplicably still the housebroken conservative, the one The Liberal New York Times™ vaulted into unearned prominence after his breakthrough — and unreplicated — discovery of Applebee’s salad bars.  He has real influence both as an insider and as someone with enormous access to mass communications.  And yet he combines a fundamentally dishonest approach to his writing with a very useful tendency to intellectual laziness:  he knows the conclusions his research must yield, and hence reasons no further than he must to comfort himself — and the comfortable.

The real problem is that he’s damned good at it — much better than McArdle or any of the other aspiring prematurely old fogies on their best days; there’s a reason Brooks has such a death grip on his bully pulpit.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently how difficult he finds the form of the 800 word column — the genre in which Brooks makes his living:

Here is an exercise: Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words. Perhaps you’d be very successful at this. Now try to do it for four weeks. Then two months, then six, then a year, then five years.

Brooks is smooth; his articles always cohere (at least until you read them with care), and if I’d not be quite ready to use the words “original” or “nuance” in their company, there’s no doubt that purely as a matter of craft, Brooks is damned good at his medium.

Which makes the use to which he puts those skills all the more grotesque.

All of which is preamble to a bit of fisking necessitated by his genuinely nasty State of the Union column yesterday.  Let’s review:

Europeans who settled America gave their lives a slingshot shape. They pulled back so they could shoot forward. They volunteered to live in harsh conditions today so their descendants could live well for centuries. The pioneers who traveled West did the same thing. So has each generation of immigrants — sacrificing the present for the sake of the future.

Pop quiz:  who’s missing here?


No prizes for the obvious answer.  All those Africans brought and bought by Europeans to help them “shoot forward.”  Not to mention a host of others who don’t fit Brooks’ whiter shades of pale view of the making of the American dream.  But hang on to that thought — we’ll get back to the nub of Brooks’ issue here in a bit.

This slingshot manner of life led to one of those true national clichés: that America is the nation of futurity, that Americans organize their lives around romantic visions of what is to be.

This is just pitifully bad history.  Hell, even the Mayflower carried at least as many merchant adventurers as pious romantics.  Brooks gives as examples of the distinctive American will-do spirit Sam Adams talking of the nation’s potential, Webster and his dictionary, and a fictional character telling a fictional visitor of his plans to build a prosperous farm.  I don’t know how to break it to our David, but this is pitiful.  Consider the founding fathers’ contemporaries in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Adam Smith was as full of futurity as the whole damn Adams family, and …hell, you get the idea.

But even more, what pisses me off about this opening gambit is that it takes prodigious amounts of willed blindness — the ability to persuade oneself that horse piss tastes like Petrus — to reduce American perspectives on time and deferred gratification to such nonsense. Ask the passenger pigeon about Americans’ gift for futurity.  How about the bison? (And yes — I do know that there was conscious policy that could be termed (in a ghastly way) future oriented in the destruction of a key economic pillar of Plains Indian life — but that’s at least part of the point.  Romantic visions don’t comport with the slaughter of buffalo in pursuit of the unraveling of inconvenient indigenous societies.)

There is something more than mere crayon history going on here though.  As with many, many Brooks columns, what you have here is the attempt to assert one pole of a dichotomy of virtue.  Our ancestors:  distinctive heroes…and what comes next?

You know what comes next:  present decay, the failure of moral fibre and the betrayal of history.

An aside:  Ta-Nehisi gets this right:  it’s hard to write a good 800 word column once — it really is an unforgiving form.   Doing it week after week for years or decades?  Brutal.

And you see it here.  I said above that Brooks is smooth, facile.  And so he is.  But it seems to me that he’s slipping, that his ear for the music of argument is betraying him.  He used to bury the false assumptions so much better, and the turn from his initial scene to the actual sting of his pieces used to come as much more of a stiletto thrust, and less of this kind of bludgeon:

This future-oriented mentality had practical effects. For decades, government invested heavily in long-range projects like railroads and canals.

Today, Americans have inverted this way of thinking. Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Pop quiz:  who are these “Americans” who aren’t allowing the government to invest in long range projects.  It ain’t me.  I want high speed rail from Portland (or Brunswick!) to Miami.  It ain’t my wife — she thinks we ought to be pulling much weight on the alternative energy front.  It ain’t…you get it.  Last time I looked it was all those folks with R-folly after their names.  You look for those who vote against infrastructure; governors who turn down bridge projects (Christie); high speed rail (Walker, Scott); hell, Medicaid support (lots of them) and you see one common thread:  they’re Republicans, for whom the present in the form of tax cuts for the rich trumps the future made concrete in capital investment and support for that next generation of kids who will use such constructions.  Any analysis of why we can’t have nice things to come that doesn’t address this fact of our current politics is trying to hide from reality.  Or to put it more simply:  Brooks’ omission here reveals him as part of the problem, not the solution.

And next question: how is this sacrifice being arranged? Are we throwing virgins into volcanoes (instead of grandparents who ought to be sucking lava)?  Well, actually, that seems to be what Our David thinks:

Today, Americans have inverted this way of thinking. Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Federal spending is the most obvious example. The federal government is a machine that takes money from future earners and spends it on health care for retirees. Entitlement spending hurts the young in two ways. It squeezes government investment programs that boost future growth.

A couple of preliminaries here:  for one, the federal government is an organization that takes money from present earners, mostly, and borrows some, to spend on lots of things. National defense, for one obvious example, which affects, of course, those of us who are defended at this moment, as well as (at least so the theory goes) those of us who will live into a future rendered safer by the investment in national security now.  Highways, national parks, port inspectors…you know the drill.  It’s always astonishing to me that the media lets propagandists like Brooks get away with defining government so far down, but you go to war with the feckless declining institutions you have, I guess.

Second:  the framing.  I said Brooks was clever, and he is, so you will find in his writing that whenever there is a choice about the descriptors, he picks the one that most comforts the comfortable at the expense of the rest of us.  To be fair, the case-in-point here has become a universal, but we need to push back.  Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements” in the sense that they are things a spoiled child would demand.  They are social insurance programs, vessels you pay into when you don’t need the protections they provide so that those benefits will be there when you do.

Again, this is obvious, I’m sure, to anyone reading this.  But the language of Washington has so thoroughly turned a concept familiar to everyone who owns a car or a home (or private medical insurance) into language that carries the penumbra of an unearned goody, something that somehow rewards the wrong people, people not like us.  Much better to remind folks that we all pay throughout our working lives for critical needs we know will come later in life.  As I say, Brooks surely didn’t invent this framing, but he certainly uses it to convey an essentially false point.

And that point is the main event of this passage:  he argues here that securing old age is a theft by the aged from their children and grand children, that it inverts the American drive to the future.


Leave aside the moral cretinism implied here — that we may imagine cutting off grandpa once he can’t tote that barge anymore.  The claim is wrong in at least two major ways.  I think Brooks knows this.  He should — if he doesn’t then he’s simply intellectually incapable of doing his job, and I don’t think that’s so. Those two errors are, first, that the social insurance programs on which the aging depend were in fact paid into by the aged when they were younger.  That’s an obvious statement, I know, but it seems to escape our “exemplary (other-people’s) pain” caucus.  The federal government has taken money from my paychecks for three decades or so.  In a little over a decade more, I’ll begin drawing on pension and health care programs into which I — not my son, yet — have paid into all that while.  And so it goes, for each of us.

Yes, it’s true:  there is an ongoing balancing act between current revenue and outgoings; yes, the government does tax younger folk (not so very much younger, what with rising ages to retirement and all that) while paying out the sums due octogenerians who have contributed lo-these-many-years.  But the framing of social insurance as theft by the present from the future neglects the reality of the past, and the long history of today’s present paying their obligations against later necessity.

The second form of error is that spending on the elderly today should be seen as simply a constraint on the future.  To see the historically – ignorant folly here, assume what I hope remains the counterfactual:  we substantially reduce our commitment to health care for seniors.  To begin, recall the way such care used to be delivered, before the idea of universal access to medical care for at least those who made it more or less advanced age.  Who took care of grandpa and grandma when the grew creaky?  Sons and (especially) daughters and daughters-in-law.  Who paid?  Same again.  Now imagine that in the current medical and demographic framework we undercut public and socially-shared responsibility of the care of the aged.  What happens?

At least two things:  an enormous ramp up in the constraints faced by families in their middle age, at the peak of their productivity, presumably, and at a time when they might be most able to contribute to Brooks’ dream of endless innovation and capital formation.  Every unpaid family nursing hour is one that comes out of the hide of Brooks’ “future.”  Not to mention the transfer of wealth from individual families to the medical-industrial complex, as families striving to care for the aged in the context of a medical industry vastly more expensive than anything that depression-era clans confronted.  Social insurance is as forward looking an investment as anyone can imagine — as Brooks could long since have gleaned from the pages of his own newspaper.  See e.g. David Leonhardt’s 2009 (sic!)  piece analyzing the value of health care reform on innovation. (Leonhardt there addresses a different question than old-age care; but the argument he advances applies to the latter situation as well.)

Finally — and this is really the subject for a stand alone post (to come in a bit, I hope) — this whole piece turns on an assumption not in evidence (one of Brooks’ standard rhetorical misdeeds, btw).  That would be the one contained in this suggestion for the President:

He’d means test Medicare and use the money to revive state universities and pay down debt.

The assumption here is that the only way to confront the cost of Medicare is to take that number and its future trend as givens; if that is so, then the argument is just about who pays — all of us together, through our government, or winners and losers chosen among those who can influence the process of change the best.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — Brooks and Friedman, and now apparently a regurgitation of Bowles-Simpson all make this same claim, and they’re all determined to be wrong.  Ed Kilgore called out this issue today.  Basically, it can be summed up as “It’s the policy, stupid.”

That is, as Ed writes,

I’d add there is obviously another path: maintaining our commitment to the elderly but finding ways to reduce the cost, especially through health care cost containment measures that don’t simply shift costs and risks to the old folks themselves.

Exactly so — as in fact the ACA attempts in a number of ways, in ways that it and other factors are already producing good effects.

Again, I say.  If David Brooks read his own damn paper, he might grasp some of this.

There’s lots more absurd in this colum — see, e.g. some painful nonesense about “culture” (a word he should be forbidden to use, IMHO) and yet more stunningly bad history, this time about the ’50s — but given how far I’ve already dived into TL;DR territory on a bit of Brooksian effluent that poured out over a week ago, I guess I should stop.

Images:  J. W. M. Turner, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on (“The Slave Ship”) 1840.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Liberation of Peter, 1624

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2 Comments on “David Brooks Is Always Wronger: White People’s SOTU edition”

  1. Welcome to the club of people whose blogs are being taken over by David Brooks. Yes, he is deeper and more dreadful than McArdle. I think he’s more ignorant than she is about numbers, by the way–and it is likely that he really cannot comprehend about Social Security or how medical care is cheaper here than in France.

  2. The Raven Says:

    “One more thing, though: the most dangerous and frustrating thing about Brooks is that there is no end to him.”

    “My story’s infinite, like the Longines Symphonette.”

    Oh, well. At least I am not a blue canary.

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