Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Fun With David Brooks

I haven't written about Brooks for a while.  I forgot how hilariously he writes.  His schtick is to zoom right in with a very assertive assertion, demanding that it be taken for truth.  Then he builds sand castles on that assertion.

That's what his most recent macroeconomic column does.  It begins with the assertion of two-types-of-people:
The country is divided when different people take different sides in a debate. The country is really divided when different people are having entirely different debates. That’s what’s happening on economic policy.
Many people on the left are having a one-sided debate about how to deal with a cyclical downturn. The main argument you hear from these cyclicalists is that the economy is operating well below capacity. To get it moving at full speed, the government should borrow and spend more. The federal government is now running deficits of about $1 trillion a year. Some of these cyclicalists believe the deficit should be about $1.4 trillion.
The cyclicalists rail against what they see as American austerity-mongers who resist new borrowing. They really rail against the European ones. They see François Hollande’s victory in France as a sign that, in Europe at least, the pendulum might finally be swinging from austerity to growth.
Other people — some on the left but mostly in the center and on the right — look at the cyclicalists and shrug. It’s not that they are necessarily wrong to bash excessive austerity. They’re simply failing to address the core issues.
The diverse people in this camp — and I’m one of them — believe the core problems are structural, not cyclical. The recession grew out of and exposed long-term flaws in the economy. Fixing these structural problems should be the order of the day, not papering over them with more debt.
Quite lovely!  Except for the fact that the two-types-of-people Brooks creates are his creations:

Just in case you thought that the failure of austerity in the United Kingdom and across the euro zone, and its rejection by voters in France and Greece, might be cause for changing course, David Brooks has a column to tell us otherwise. He says that there are two different arguments going on over economic policy which unfortunately don't intersect.
First, we have the cyclicists who worry about silly things like 25 million people who are unemployed, underemployed or out of the workforce altogether. These people are also likely to worry about the millions of people who are losing their homes and probably also the children of the unemployed, underemployed and displaced homeowners.
Then we have the far-sighted structuralists like Brooks who worry about the long-term. They worry about fixing government deficits and getting us the labor force that we will need in the future.
This is a great division that has considerably less to do with reality than Middle Earth and the Munchkins. What could Brooks possibly be drinking when he thinks that he has identified a group of economists/policy wonks who are only concerned about the cyclical problem of high unemployment and not the structural problems that created them.

Brooks loves to form imaginary groups of people in his columns!  He does that often.  He also puts opinions into the mouths of his imaginary groups and then tells us how the country (according to the creator Brooks) thinks on various issues by moving the lips of his puppets.

Thus, we get the small-town-good-Murkans who are conservatives and care about their families and really know what Murka is all about, and we get the uppity latte-sipping rich people in the east coast ivory towers who know nothing about Murka.   Brooks sets such groups against each other and then interprets the outcomes to his readers.  That the groups are not real or at least omit many other groups is irrelevant.   They are used from the other end:  To support the conclusions Brooks wants to reach.

And in this case the conclusion (once again, not based on any empirical proof) is this:
But you can only mask structural problems for so long. The whole thing has gone kablooey. The current model, in which we try to compensate for structural economic weakness with tax cuts and an unsustainable welfare state, simply cannot last. The old model is broken. The jig is up.

Just in case you didn't get that yet, Brooks repeats it:
Make no mistake, the old economic and welfare state model is unsustainable. The cyclicalists want to preserve the status quo, but structural change is coming.

That's  what the column really is about:  Brooks' personal belief that we cannot afford a welfare state.

But he does not offer any proof for that argument and neither does he map out what his desired alternative world would look like?  Neofeudalism?  A global concentration of a few large firms running everything?  And if the public sector should be shrunk who then will educate those future workers so that their skill sets will match the needs of those multinational behemoths (without teaching them anything that might make them socially belligerent, I presume)?  How would the problem of increasing income inequality and its impact on the society be solved in Brooks' future world?  Gated communities for the rich?   What for the rest of us?

It's perhaps understandable why most of those who argue against the welfare state have little to offer as alternatives.  The history of the nineteenth century Britain, say, suggests that the alternatives of unrestrained capitalism are not pleasant for most individuals. 

I don't know.  Looking at Greece, for instance, makes me think that what we cannot afford, as civilizations, is the demise of the safety net for ordinary people.