February 26, 2005

Column 2005-2-26 Commentary

In this column, Brooks puts on his rose-colored glasses. Then he puts on another pair. Then another. Then another. And then another. And then . . . well, you get the idea. Brooks is going to be relentlessly optimistic in this column, and just you try to stop him! Go on, try! Please try? Won't somebody please, please try?

Brooks begins by asserting that the most powerful question in the world today is "Why not here?" Personally, I often look at Canada and wonder "Why not here?", but that's not exactly what Brooks is getting at. Instead, he refers us to the inspirational examples of Eastern Europe, where people looked at Western Europe and said "Why can't we have parliamentary democracy here?", Ukraine, where people looked at Georgia and said "Why can't we have a bloodless popular revolution to overthrow the corrupt post-Soviet elites here?", and the Arab world, where people are presumably looking at Iraq and saying "Why can't we have our local despot overthrown by an American invasion which will kill thousands and create a deeply entrenched guerilla insurgency and an election carried out entirely along ethnic and religious fault lines which may well lead to a civil war?" Or something like that. I might point out that since most people in the Arab world are in fact Sunni Arabs, they might be more likely to look at the insurgency and think "Why not here?" But perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic.

Brooks then cites Thomas Kuhn to support his contention that things are changing. This is great, except for the fact that Kuhn was actually writing about science, as Brooks acknowledges. Is his description of the way science advances, via paradigm shifts, applicable to international politics? Personally, I don't know, and I don't think Brooks does either. It's certainly possible, but a little study might be in order. On the other hand, Brooks has never been one to let facts get in the way of sweeping claims.

As the first example of change sweeping through the Arab world, Brooks cites Lebanon. Specifically, he quotes Walid Jumblatt saying that the American invasion of Iraq has sparked a process of change. For those of you not in the know about Lebanese politics, Jumblatt is a leader of the Druze community in Lebanon (the Druze follow a religion derived from Shia Islam). He leads the Progressive Socialist party, which is the Druze party in the Lebanese National Assembly, Lebanon's democratically elected legislature. In fact, Lebanon would be, by any measure, one of the most democratic countries in the Middle East. According to the CIA World Factbook, Lebanon has held "several successful elections" since 1991, when the civil war ended. While Syria certainly exerts considerable influence on Lebanese politics, it is worth noting that not all of that influence is military: for instance, last September the National Assembly voted by a margin of 96 to 29 to extend the term of the current president, Emile Lahoud, by three years, largely because Lahoud is strongly pro-Syrian. It should also be pointed out that Lebanon is not exactly representative of the Arab world: it is 39% Christian and also contains more Druze and Shia than Sunni Muslims. And while a number of opposition groups (largely Druze and Christian) want Syria out, there are also groups, most notably the main Shia parties, Hezbollah and the Amal movement, that support Syria's continued presence. (For information about Lebanese political parties, see here; for the Lebanese political scene, see here.) Furthermore, as the CIA World Factbook mentions, groups have been calling for Syrian withdrawal ever since Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000. And the fact is, the recent developments in Lebanon that Brooks mentions -- protests, people camping in the street, etc. -- have been largely prompted by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, not the Iraqi elections. Jumblatt is probably attempting to butter up the U.S. so the heat is kept on Syria to withdraw, and judging from Brooks's reaction, it's working pretty well.

The next place where things are changing is Palestine. Many Arafat cronies have been ejected from the Palestinian cabinet. "Fresh, more competent administrators are in", Brooks says. But are they more competent? Well, given that they have only just been inaugurated, I'd say it's too soon to tell. But there I go again, foolishly looking for evidence to back up the assertions I present as facts. Brooks also quotes Saeb Erakat as saying that "What you witnessed is the real democracy of the Palestinian people". Once again, Brooks fails to identify the man he's quoting, so I'll step into the breach: Erakat is the Palestinian Authority's chief negotiator, a Fatah (the party of President Abbas) member, and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. One might say that he has something of a vested interest in the recent elections being regarded as democratic, though given that turnout was less than 50%, "real democracy" may be an overstatement, especially considering Hamas's victories in recent local elections and the fact that Hamas boycotted the Palestinian presidential elections. However, Palestine is not quite as convincing an example as Lebanon, so Brooks doesn't spend nearly as much time on it.

The final concrete example is Iraq, where, as Brooks says, "there is actual politics going on". Well, there's also an actual insurgency going on, but Brooks ignores that. He also ignores the fact that the actual politics include things like the Kurds demanding that they be allowed to retain their militia. In fact, the Kurds are also demanding the city of Kirkuk and autonomy in turn for their support of any candidate for prime minister. Call me cynical, but it looks to me like the Kurds are making preparations for secession. "The leaders of different factions are jostling" Brooks says, neglecting to mention that this is true only for non-Sunni factions, since the Sunni factions are barely represented. Even more laughable is his characterization of the leaders as "more or less secular". The next prime minister of Iraq is almost certain to be Ibrahim Jafaari, a member of the Dawa party, which was originally founded with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Iraq. Last February, Jafaari championed the idea of making Islam the sole source of the constitution. I'd say Jafaari is considerably less secular: one might almost say not secular at all. (All information taken from www.juancole.com). Brooks's assertion that we should broadcast this politics to the entire Arab world is also questionable. Do we really want Sunni Arabs across the Middle East to watch as Kurds and Shiites representing the Shia clerical establishment negotiate on how much autonomy the Kurds are to get in return for their allowing Islamic law to be imposed on the rest of the country? Given that far more Sunni Arabs are participating in the insurgency than the new government, I'm not really sure that we should hold Iraq up as a role model.

Apparently, Brooks isn't that sure either, because he doesn't talk about Iraq for very long. Instead, he goes on to compare the situation in the Middle East now to Eastern Europe in the late 80's, with the democratization, or possible democratization, or democratization-related program activity, of Iraq being compared to the reunification of Germany. He cites a member of the Council of Foreign Relations as saying that American diplomacy is best when it pursues a "maximalist" approach, such as pushing for the reunification of Germany. And we all remember how American troops were greeted as liberators when they finally invaded East Germany over the protests of our pusillanimous so-called allies. Wait a minute, maybe this isn't such a good analogy after all. And I'm not even going to comment on the assertion of Claus Malzahn, a columnist for Der Spiegel, that "We Europeans always want to have the world from yesterday, whereas the Americans strive for the world of tomorrow."

Brooks finishes by saying that the Bush agenda is clearly dominating the globe. Is this supposed to be surprising? After all, Bush is the leader of the world's only superpower, which might have just as much, if not more, to do with the dominance of his agenda than the agenda's content, especially when we realize that by "dominating", Brooks means "everybody is talking about it". Well, to quote Mark Twain, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it". When Bush meets with Putin, there is certainly a lot of talk about democratization. Do we expect to see democracy flowering in Russia any time soon? Not unless we have David Brooks-level naivete, we don't. When politicians gather in Ramallah, Brooks says, they talk about democratization. This is presumably a reference to the selection of the cabinet of the new Palestinian Prime Minister (since that's what he was discussing earlier), and is interesting because they're not actually talking about democratization. Maybe Brooks missed it, but that happened. There was an election, even. What the politicians were discussing was the constitution of the cabinet. Everything happened in a perfectly democratic way: a cabinet was submitted to the legislature, it was rejected, and a new one was selected, submitted, and improved. While this is new and important and deserves to be talked about, it doesn't really qualify as democratization. And to say "When there's an atrocity in Beirut, the possibility of freedom leaps to people's minds" is somewhat misleading, given that people have, in fact, been talking about freedom, and voting in relatively free elections, for a number of years now.

Of course, Brooks's relentless optimism may be justified. But even he is forced to acknowledge suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq at the bottom of his column. And really, the whole "Why not here?" argument is flawed. Consider, for instance, Eastern Europe. Western Europe did not suddenly become democratic in the mid-80's, leading the Eastern Europeans to rise up and demand democracy in their turn. The question "Why not here?" was one that many Eastern Europeans had asked before: see Hungary in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, for examples. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was far more complicated than a lot of people suddenly thinking "Wait a minute, how come they have democracy in Western Europe and we don't have it here?" The Ukraine example makes more sense but is far less applicable to the Arab world, where even in those countries (with the exception of Lebanon) that have elections there is no thought that the opposition leader could actually win. As for the idea that having elections in Iraq will suddenly make Arabs think "Hey, we could use some of that democracy stuff here", I don't buy it. It's not as if no Arab had heard of democracy before the Iraqi elections. Or as if there were no Muslim countries with elections: consider Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Bosnia, Albania, and Senegal, all of which have had democratic elections in the last ten years. Even Pakistan had (relatively) democratic elections prior to the Musharaff takeover. Millions of Muslims vote in India's elections. What has prevented the development of Arab democracies is not the inability of Arabs to believe that Arab democracy can exist, but consistent American support for Middle Eastern tyrants, because the tyrants were willing to negotiate with Israel or could provide oil. And the best way to promote democracy in the Middle East is to promote peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, thus obviating our need for the Mubaraks, who torture their pro-democracy reformers but are willing to make peace with Israel for a billion or so in military aid a year, and drastically reduce our oil dependency, thus reducing our need for the House of Saud and their ilk, who ruthlessly suppress democratic agitators but sell us oil on fairly reasonable terms. This would allow us to press for democracy in the Middle East using diplomacy without worrying that we would be undermining our two most important strategic goals there, ensuring the survival of Israel and a supply of oil sufficient to our needs. The fact is that Arabs have already asked "Why not here?", and come up with an answer: because the Americans won't let us.

And, of course, we must recognize that asking the question "Why not here?" can have a downside as well. After all, the editors of the Times must have asked themselves "Why not David Brooks here?", and look how that turned out. We must hope that they figure out their mistake soon.

February 22, 2005

Column 2-22-2005: There Is No Column

For one glorious moment, I thought the Times had finally come to its senses and that we would no longer be tormented by Brooks's idiocies, but it turns out that he's simply on vacation. Oh well. Better than nothing at all, I suppose. Perhaps, if circumstances permit, some reviews of older columns may be forthcoming.

February 20, 2005

Column 2005-1-20 Commentary

In this column, Brooks is shocked -- absolutely shocked to his core -- to find that Bush has been playing fast and loose with the federal budget. Brooks simply cannot believe that Bush is not a fiscal conservative. He is appalled that Bush has been lying about the costs of some of his programs. After all, the idea that Bush would lie is pretty much unthinkable, right? Well, not really, David, as you would know if you had been paying any attention to politics over the past few years. In fact, Bush has been aggressively unbalancing the budget on the backs of the poor and middle class ever since he was elected. But there is more going on in this column than Brooks's cluelessness, real or feigned. If you read through the column closely, you will note that nowhere does Brooks suggest the possibility of raising taxes. Instead, he calls constantly for benefits to be cut and talks about the necessity for scaling back (not militarily though, of course). This is a classic conservative move -- Krugman actually nailed it in a column a little while back -- known as "starve the beast". The idea is to cut taxes and run up deficits until it is absolutely necessary that taxes be raised or programs be cut to restore fiscal sanity. Then you call loudly for the cutting of benefits, ignoring the fact that taxes as a percentage of GDP were the lowest they have been since 1955 in 2003. If you want to know why we're facing huge fiscal problems, consider the drop from 20.9% to 16.5% since 2000. Consider the fact that corporate income taxes were 1.2% of GDP in 2003 and averaged about 4.25% of GDP from 1950-1969. And we all know how awful the economy was during those twenty years, right? But the far right's agenda has nothing to do with the reality of lower taxes and everything to do with abolishing any government programs that help people. Brooks's imitation of a man who has been in a coma ever since Bush was elected has nothing to do with a desire for a reasonable fiscal policy and everything to do with wanting to destroy Social Security and Medicare.

He gives himself away in the first paragraph when he talks of people who are "offended by the horrendous burden seniors are placing on the young". Those damn seniors, wanting to be able to live with dignity in retirement! And, get this, they want access to good medical care, too! Why do they hate America? The fact is, of course, seniors always place a burden on the young, unless they're made to keep working until they drop. But if we allow seniors to retire, they're not going to be making money any more. Sure, there may be some savings, but for the average senior those are only going to last so long. And if there are catastrophic medical expenses, which is not unlikely, those can eat through savings really rapidly. At this point, the government helps, by providing Social Security and Medicare payments. Here I'm going to take a page from the Republican playbook and use proof by anecdote by discussing my grandmother, a woman from an upper-middle-class family who developed Alzheimer's after she retired. Not only was she taking various drugs, for various ailments that old people get, she had to have somebody live with her on a full-time basis. All of this cost money, which she and her children, including my mother, would have had trouble putting together. And remember, none of the people in this anecdote are poor: they're all solidly middle or upper middle class. According to my mother, Social Security and Medicare allowed them to support my grandmother, even with her Alzheimer's, without forcing them to, say, sell the house she had lived in for the last thirty years, or plunder my college fund. The point of this story is that Social Security and Medicare actually relieve the burden seniors place on the young by preventing their children from having to support them in old age. Remove those two programs, and my parents and aunts and uncles have to assume the burden of supporting my grandmother all by themselves. Sure, they can sell off the house, which my grandmother had lived in for more than thirty years, and the furniture which she had had for even longer than that, but my grandmother lived with her condition for years, and could have lived longer. That money might not have been enough, after which every dollar spent on my grandmother would have been one less to spend on me, my siblings, and my cousins. And for a poor family, the necessity of choosing whether to spend money on its elderly dependents or its young ones would arise quite soon. Personally, I don't think anybody should have to make this choice, but apparently Brooks disagrees: he think that the elderly should just be kicked out in the street. After all, they're providing a burden for the families of their children, and that is, apparently, offensive.

After swinging out wildly at old people, Brooks reveals what has angered him so: the revelations that the recent Medicare prescription drug bill is going to cost more money than Bush initially claimed. First of all, this is not a new development. Sure, the $700 billion number is new, but Bush lying about the costs is not. See, for example, this story from March of last year. But we didn't hear Brooks complaining about the duplicity of the administration back then, did we? And if it turns out that Bush came up with those ten-year cost estimates by including a couple of years before the program began, well, that shouldn't be too surprising either, given that over the past few months the administration has done exactly the same thing with the transition costs for moving Social Security to private accounts. And guess what? Back in 2000, Bush did the same thing again (scroll down to "It's Always Been Easy") when he discussed the size of his proposed tax cuts. But we didn't hear a thing out of Brooks back then. But for some reason, Brooks is simply blown away by these "revelations". "That means we're going to be spending the next few months bleeding over budget restraints that might produce savings in the millions, while the new prescription drug benefit will produce spending in the billions" he says, to which the only possible response is "Well, no shit, Sherlock."

As Brooks spends some time foaming at the mouth over this but fails to note why the benefit will be so expensive, I'll say it for him: it will be so expensive because it's a giveaway to drug and insurance companies. It will cover Viagra, for crying out loud. The bill specifically forbids the government from negotiating with drug companies to try to lower prices. Brooks complains that the bill covers some people who have insurance: well, duh. Insurance companies would really rather not have to pay for prescription drugs that are growing more and more expensive (especially since the government can't negotiate to bring the price down), so the bill has the government step in to do it for them. Lots of people made these points at the time the bill was proposed. Paul Krugman did a whole series of columns on it. But did we hear a peep out of David Brooks? Nope.

Next, Brooks is shocked that Bush may not have meant some of the things he said while campaigning in 2000. Doesn't he know that in this post-9/11 world, everything is different? Maybe back in 2000 it would have made sense to limit the prescription drug benefit, but since 9/11 doing that would be giving in to the terrorists! But seriously, if Brooks is surprised that Bush might have said one thing while campaigning and is now going to do something else, he really has no business writing a column about politics in the New York Times. If he's shocked that maybe Bush isn't all that interested in restraining the growth of government and would prefer to reward the corporations whose money got him to the White House, he really needs to go to some none-reality-based publication. And as for this quote -- "Have we entered another world, where up is down and rationality is irrational?" -- well, let me just say that Doonesbury got there first. Three years ago. (Sadly, no link available). But Brooks's inability to believe that Bush might do something simply for political advantage is ridiculous.

As for this quote -- "Every family and business in America has to scale back when the cost of something skyrockets. Does this rule not apply to us as a nation?" -- well, go back to the first paragraph.

Finall, in his second-to-last paragraph, Brooks takes the gloves off as he attacks the elderly for, well, um, getting old. Brooks cites a figure of 55% of government spending going to the elderly as support for his claim that some sort of massive generational wealth transfer is going on. This figure is misleading because it includes Social Security and Medicare spending which does not come out of the general fund but instead out of their respective trust funds. See, for instance, this chart for a more accurate representation of what the government spends money on. In fact, both those trust funds are actually running a surplus right now (for example, see here). Brooks claims that there is "a gigantic transfer of wealth from struggling young families and the next generation to members of the AARP". Actually, the real transfer of wealth is from the poor to the wealthy, via tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations. This transfers the burden of paying for programs like Medicare -- both directly and indirectly through measures to bring down the deficit and pay off the debt, which would allow future gaps in financing to be covered by the general fund -- directly to those struggling young families that Brooks is so worried about. If he really cared, of course, he'd be calling for the repeal of Bush's tax cuts and for raising corporate income taxes. But all he wants to do is eliminate Social Security and Medicare, and the struggling young families are just a handy rhetorical device. The fact that Brooks does not want to face is that calling for vast cuts to Social Security and Medicare will simply either force seniors to keep working until they die or force the families he worries about so much to support them when they are unable to work.

But Brooks moves on to a final flight of rhetoric, prophesying that a new leader will arise to lead us from the wasteland of deficits to the promised land of milk, honey, and budget surpluses. Or something like that. We can expect this budgetary messiah, Brooks says, if we fail to reform Social Security this year. Because moving to private accounts will definitely help resolve Social Security's budget problems. Unless, of course, you ask the administration, which has admitted that they won't do a thing to help move Social Security out of the red (quote: "A Bush aide, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity, was more explicit, saying that the individual accounts would do nothing to solve the system's long-term financial problems"). Instead, they will force the U.S. to borrow at least $4.5 trillion over the next two decades, and possibly up to $15 trillion before privatization starts to save money, if it ever does. And this reform is going to cause those who are upset about out-of-control budgets to relax with a relieved sigh? Brooks also throws in a jab at Democrats, claiming that their "own entitlement proposals would make the situation twice as bad." This makes sense, of course: remember the last time Democrats controlled any part of the government, back in the Clinton years, and how huge the deficits were then? Oh, sorry, wrong president. That was the Reagan years. Clinton actually balanced the budget. The difference between Republican proposals to give money to corporations and Democratic proposals to actually try to help people is that Democrats plan to pay for their programs: remember, TAX and spend liberals, as opposed to borrow and spend conservatives. Also, Democrats don't cut taxes when beginning a war that has cost about $150 billion so far and will probably cost far more than that by the time it's done. If we're lucky, they might not even begin the war. Brooks's attempts to ignore the fact that the Democratic party is now the party of fiscal responsibility is valiant but ultimately doomed to failure.

But what's really awful about this column is that Brooks has apparently forgotten that this crusade happened, as recently as ten years ago. It was led by people like Newt Gingrich, who swept into office claiming that the era of big government was over. It reached its high point with the election of Bush, who promised to shrink the size of government further. And then, once the Republicans got control of the whole government, they proceeded to expand it hugely and cut taxes at the same time, with Brooks standing on the sidelines cheering himself hoarse. And now Brooks is rising up and railing against this budgetary madness? The rank hypocrisy here is absolutely sickening. I'm starting to wonder if anybody on the Times staff actually reads his columns, because if they did, it would be hard for them to justify retaining him.

February 16, 2005

Column 2-15-05 Commentary

Brooks opens this column by saying that it was going to be "exclusively about the trans-Atlantic security conference in Munich last week". But then, it appears, he ran into some marines on their way back home in Ireland, and so the first three paragraphs have to acknowledge this event. Plus, this lets him frame the whole column as if he were discussing the security conference with those marines, which he hopes will help prevent people from actually thinking that much about what he says. After all, we must support the troops! But this is just window dressing: it's great that Brooks interacted with some soldiers in an airport, but doesn't really have anything to do with anything. The point of Brooks's column is to bash the Europeans for not supporting the war in Iraq more. Before we go any further, it is necessary to point out here that there are perfectly good reasons for the Europeans to not support the Iraq war. First of all, Bush was wrong about all the reasons he proposed for going to war. Secondly, the war is wildly unpopular in Europe, even among those countries with troops there, and countries like France and Germany have democratically elected leaders who are responding, as they are supposed to, to the will of the people who elected them. Thirdly, Bush has consistently taken a "my way or the highway" position and refused to use diplomacy to lure the Europeans in: for instance, he has consistently refused to join European diplomatic iniatives, such as the European attempt to make a deal with Iran to get rid of the Iranian nuclear program. Furthermore, there are other issues, like capturing Osama bin Laden, that are more important to fighting terror. And finally, there is the situation in Iraq itself: despite the election, it's still a mess, with a Sunni insurgency that shows no signs of ending, steadily increasing Iranian influence, and the question of what will happen when the Shia figure out that, even though they voted, the Americans still have control of their country. None of these issues, of course, are discussed in Brooks's column: instead, he simply attacks the Europeans as obstructionists.

Consider first the misleading way he frames his attack. First, so you can tell that he's being fair, he praises the Democrats for giving "pretty specific, productive suggestions on winning the war against Islamist extremism". Then he attacks the Europeans for not "giving specific ideas on how to make Iraq a success". But wait a minute: those two things are not, despite what Brooks wants you to think, the same thing. Europeans are, in fact, very interested in winning the war against Islamic extremism. For one thing, they live a lot closer to it than we do, despite 9/11. This contributes to another reason why the Europeans would be interested in winning the war on Islamic extremism: they have a lot more Muslims in their countries than we do here. According to this report, Muslims make up about 2.4% of the American population. In Germany, that percentage is 3.7, and in France it's about 7. On the other hand, for a number of reasons discussed above, Europeans are reluctant to get involved with Iraq. In fact, involvement with Iraq probably hurt our chances of winning the war on Islamic extremism more than it helped them. So far, the two unqualifed successes of the war are producing an Islamic terrorist network in Iraq where there wasn't one before and installing a government friendly towards Iran, one of the major state sponsors of Islamic extremist terrorism. It's hard to say just how this contributes to our victory in the war against Islamic extremism, especially since the war has actually helped Al Qaeda with its recruting.

Having dealt with the general issues, let's consider some specifics. Brooks starts off the substantive part of his colum by bringing out the old assertion that we must "make the most of those 22 Marine deaths". While it is certainly true that we would not like for the Marines to have died for nothing, at a certain point we must accept that, thanks to Bush's incompetence, that's pretty much what happened. In Vietnam, too, people often said that if we left, all those soldiers would have died in vain, and that would be bad. Well, yes, but what would be worse would be to allow more soldiers to die in a vain effort to prove that there was a good reason why the first soldiers had died. That's the problem with the "those soldiers died for something" argument: eventually, it appears that soldiers are dying for no better reason than the fact that other soldiers have died.

Next, Brooks says that Democrats and Republicans alike both came out with "specific, productive suggestions" on how to win the war on Islamic extremism. What were those suggestions? Well, Lindsey Graham wants NATO troops to protect a larger UN presence in Iraq. Apparently Senator Graham missed the last few years, where we did our best to keep the UN from being anything more than a rubber stamp to our Iraq policy and also attacked its usefulness and effectiveness. Now we're coming to them to increase their presence in a very dangerous Iraq? And we're calling for more NATO troops, even as NATO allies like Poland and Hungary prepare to withdraw the troops they already have there? Specific, yes: productive, not so much. There is one scenario in which this might work: if the US hands all responsibility for rebuilding Iraq over to the UN, Bush might well obtain increased international involvement. Given that the chances of this are about on par with the chances of Brooks ever writing a good column, I'm not holding my breath. Speaking of the UN, it appears that Hillary Clinton is continuing her campaign for the presidency in 2008. Already having reached out to the anti-abortion forces, she now reaches out to those who hate the UN, "blasting its absurdities" and saying "'Sometimes we have to act with few or no allies.'" That's the way to get more people to cooperate, isn't it? And how does this contribute to winning the war on Islamic extremism again? The only specific, productive suggestion Brooks supplies is from Rep. Jane Harman, who was apparently pushing the Europeans to classify Hezbollah as a terrorist group, a step they should certainly take. Unless, of course, it would hurt their negotations with the Iranians, because it's much more important that the parent body of Hezbollah, Iran, not acquire nukes than that Hezbollah be declared a terrorist group.

Brooks than goes on to praise John McCain for talking "bluntly to the tyrants". Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, let's see: McCain starts off by attacking the Egyptians for arresting opposition leaders. "The Egyptian foreign minister held his brow, as if in grief," Brooks says. Well, perhaps he was grieved. He's probably not suffering pangs of conscience for arresting opposition leaders, though: it seems more likely he's wondering if this is the way that Egypt is being repaid for being a key mediator in the recent Israel-Palestine peace deal and promising to return its ambassador to Israel and train the Palestinian security forces. Even Haaretz says that Egypt has a "growing role as a peace and security broker in the Middle East." (see previous link). While Hosni Mubarak is not a nice guy, and it would certainly be better if Egypt was a democracy, just about everybody seems to think that solving the Israel-Palestine question is an important first step to winning the war on Islamic extremism, and a democratic Egypt would almost certainly be ruled by an Islamist party that would be unlikely to support the kind of moves Mubarak has been making recently. Also, it should be noted that Egypt inviting the Israelis to a peace summit and even flying their flag is probably not very popular among most Egyptians. So, in summary, McCain just insulted a key ally in the Middle East, one who has been taking politically unpopular steps to help the Americans out. Call me a realist, but I don't think that this is a diplomatically shrewd move. As for McCain condemning the Iranians for supporting terror, I think they've heard that before. Maybe the Iranian representative was "hunched over like someone in a hailstorm", but I don't think he's likely to return home and call for Iran to mend its ways: if McCain's statements have any effect, it will be as encouragement for Iran to speed up its nuclear program before the U.S. invades. Finally, McCain criticized Russia for embracing electoral fraud in the Ukraine (apparently, the Russian representative just sat stolidly through it, for there is no blow-by-blow description of what he did from Brooks). The fact is, though, that while straight talk is sometimes good in diplomatic circles, and Brooks certainly loves it, it can also be counterproductive, because we're going to have to work with all three of those countries to achieve goals that may be more important to our security than their democratization. That's where the word "diplomatic" comes from. Egypt may be a repressive dictatorship, but we need it to promote peace between Israel and Palestine. Iran may be a repressive theocracy, but it's more important that it not obtain nuclear weapons than that it democratize (and don't say the latter will cause the former: most Iranians are in favor of their country acquiring nukes). And while Russia may be becoming more autocratic, and certainly hoped to install a non-democratically elected leader in the Ukraine, making sure that no Russian nuclear material gets into the hands of terrorists is more important than further encouraging Russian paranoia by attacking it whenever it meddles in the affairs of neighboring countries (which, of course, the United States would never dream of doing).

Having established that the Americans had a good showing at this conference, Brooks turns to the Europeans. First, he says that he is no Europhobe. Well, I'm glad to hear that he's not afraid of Europe, but I don't think too many people out there are. I think what he means to say is that he's no Europe-hater. Taking him at his word on this, despite the fact that Brooks almost invariably mentions Europe in a negative light in his columns, we move on to find out that, horror of horrors, the Europeans are not offering specific ideas for making Iraq a success. Most likely this is because they've learned from experience. After all, they did offer ideas at one point, such as turning things over to the UN, and the Americans rejected these suggestions out of hand. The Europeans are "
evading this current pivot point in history", Brooks laments, though one might argue that the invasion of Iraq was actually an American evasion of this pivot point, turning away from the real danger of Islamic extremism to overthrow a Middle Eastern despot who just happened to be sitting on a lot of oil. As a side note, it is interesting that Brooks quotes only Germans in this column, though presumably other Europeans attended. Laughably, Brooks claims that by not contributing to Iraq now, Europe is failing some sort of "credibility test". Perhaps the Europeans simply think that there are more important things they could be doing to fight Islamic extremism than supporting the failing U.S. venture in Iraq. Brooks's insistence that Europe drop everything and join the US in Iraq, under the US banner, is exactly the kind of undiplomatic diplomacy that so alienated the Europeans in the first place. Suggesting that the Europeans are not credible allies against Islamic terror unless they help the U.S. in Iraq is not going to encourage them to give more support. The diplomatic way to do it would be to, say, offer to join in the European negotations with Iran in return for European help in Iraq. That would also be good diplomacy in that it would reward Tony Blair, a very important ally, for being such a good friend, and suggest that we actually appreciate countries that help us and stick by us rather than turning them down flat when they request that we join them in a foreign policy iniative. But diplomacy is, apparently, not Brooks's, or Bush's, strong suit.

Brooks closes by saying that the fact that American politicians are constantly meeting combat veterans and making calls to bereaved families (with the exception, of course, of Donald Rumsfeld) and that this "concentrates the mind". What it concentrates the mind on is unclear. It appears that it certainly doesn't concentrate the mind on trying to avoid having to send more men off to Iraq so that they don't have to make more calls to bereaved families. One might well argue that it is concentrating the Europeans' minds on not sending their soldiers off to die in a pointless fight. To suggest that the Europeans are willfully ignoring the threat of Islamic terrorism is absurd. After all, it happened in Spain. England has been cracking down on extremist clerics, and France has experienced Islamic terrorism before. In fact, NATO troops have been in Afghanistan almost since the beginning. But for Brooks, Iraq is apparently the be-all and end-all of fighting terror.

Frankly, Brooks's column shows exactly why the Europeans don't want to send troops to Iraq: the American casualties, the American attitude that Iraq is a central front in the war against Islamic extremism, despite all evidence to the contrary, and the complete lack of anything approaching diplomacy on the American side all contribute to the Europeans preferring to stay out. We can only hope that this column also shows the Times that it is time to ditch Brooks in favor of a writer who is actually competent.

February 12, 2005

Column 2005-2-12 Commentary

Today's commentary will be short, because today's column is not really worth talking about. Brooks intends for it to be a humorously satirical look at the foibles of Washington's political and journalistic elites. Unfortunately, it's not particularly funny. And the particular foible which Brooks attempts to skewer is the strange tendency of Washington's elites to discriminate on the basis of careers. I'm just shocked. Of course, in a column like this, one can never be sure to what extent Brooks is serious because of the tendency of his jokes to not be funny. It's possible that he doesn't intend any of it to be taken seriously and simply lacks the ability to write humorous pieces. Regardless of the amount of humor he is attempting, he comes off as a consummate (and rather pompous) insider. Frankly, who cares how season tickets for the Washington Nationals are distributed? Does the fact that VIP's in Washington are taken care of first actually surprise anybody? I won't even go into the question of its relevance to anything outside of Washington. The most objectionable sentence in the piece is "Doesn't [Washington Nationals president] Tavares know that in the city of Washington the number of self-defined Very Important People surpasses the actual population by 150,000 percent?" Doesn't Brooks know that there are people living in DC who can't afford to buy season tickets to the Nationals? It sounds to me like Brooks might be a member of those very East Coast media elites that he and the Republican party are always condemning. Strange how these things work out, isn't it?

Frankly, if this, coming on top of his recent run of lunacy, doesn't get him fired, I fear that nothing will. I even think that Brooks is having a bad effect on Friedman and Kristof. If the Times doesn't watch out, the whole editorial page may be going down the tubes.

February 09, 2005

Column 2005-2-8 Commentary

In his latest column, David Brooks makes a return to reality, and even rises to the point of displaying a certain amount of low animal cunning. In fact, this column is more dangerous than many of his recent columns, which were too obviously stupid, naive, and divorced from reality to actually influence the opinions of anybody with half a brain. But in this one Brooks strives, with a modicum of success, to appear reasonable. He acknowledges facts, talks about spreading the wealth, and even suggests that Bush's tax cuts be allowed to expire. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? But in fact, even as Brooks reaches out to Democrats with one hand, he prepares to stab them in the back with the other. The whole column is a classic misdirection ploy: watch closely, Brooks says, as I talk about the need for asset ownership among the poor, throw around the names of centrist Democrats, and generally extend the hand of bipartisanship. You can ignore my other hand, it's not doing anything important. It's certainly not gutting Social Security. No, it's definitely not doing that.

The fact is, though, that gutting Social Security is exactly what Brooks is proposing. In the first sentence he says "President Bush said he was open to other people's ideas on how to fix Social Security, so I hope he'll listen to mine." And he follows this up by a paragraph in which he makes "a blunt political observation": namely, that Bush's plan for phasing out Social Security is in trouble. This strongly suggests that he's actually going to discuss Social Security in this column, and the fact that he doesn't mention it again for nine paragraphs should set off alarm bells. Of course, as Brooks plans, by then most readers have been lulled into complacency by his distancing himself from Bush by pointing out that the latter is going to have trouble passing his plan to destroy Social Security and his talking about asset ownership for the poor and the necessity to fight poverty, not to mention his invoking the names of four current and former Senate Democrats: Bob Kerrey, Joe Lieberman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and John Breaux. The upshot is that when Brooks gets to Social Security, he can toss off a one-line proposal and quickly move on, confident that few readers will be alert enough to figure out what's really going on. This is Brooks's plan to fix Social Security (the rest of it being so much window dressing, or possibly protective camouflage): "We could start by indexing Social Security benefits to prices, not wages, so the system wouldn't go broke." He doesn't explain anything how this would fix Social Security or what the consequences would be (other than a reference to "reduced benefits" in the next sentence), because if he did so it would become obvious that this is not a mere tweak to ensure the system's solvency but a deep, deep cut.

First of all, let me point out the obvious: Social Security will never go "broke" (unless, of course, the conservatives have their way). Under the CBO's current projection, if no changes are made, then in 2053 Social Security will only be able to pay out 78% of promised benefits, which will still be a higher level of benefits than people recieve today, even after adjusting for inflation. This hardly seems to describe a system that is "broke". Those of you who have been paying attention may remember the year 2052 as being cited as the year when benefit levels would have to drop. And indeed, that was the predicted year, last year. This year, it's a year later. It doesn't take much thought to see what happens if that trend continues. (For more on Social Security and Republican fearmongering, see www.dailyhowler.com). However, Brooks's proposal would certainly mean that Social Security would be able to meet all of its obligations for the foreseeable future. (In this, he has the advantage over Bush's plan, which wouldn't even fix the funding problems: see here for more.) But first, an explanation for those of you who don't know what the difference is between wage indexing and price indexing, or even what either of those mean. Well, I didn't either, but it's really not that complicated. Wage indexing is the way benefits are calculated now: the Social Security administration calculates the mean wage of the whole workforce for each of your 35 highest-earning years before you turn sixty. Then it calculates the mean wage when you turn sixty and divides this number by the mean wage in each of the 35 selected years, obtaining a multiplier for each year. Then your wage in each of the 35 selected years is multiplied by the multiplier for that year, and the resulting wage-indexed amounts are added and divided by 35 years*12 months to obtain, essentially, your monthly social security payment. Actually, that number is massaged further, but for the purposes of understanding wage indexing, this is all you need to know (for a possibly more lucid explanation, with tables and things, you can go here). By contrast, price indexing would simply adjust each year's wages for inflation. Wage indexing reflects the overall increase in standard of living during the retirees lifetime (since standard of living goes up when wages increase faster than prices); price indexing would drop retirees back to the standard of living of forty years ago. For some solid numbers, you can go here: I'll just give you an example. If price indexing had replaced wage indexing in 1959, a worker who had earned an average wage over the course of his or her lifetime and retired in 2003 would recieve a benefit 40% lower than under current rules, which would live him or her 5% under the poverty line. This is why Brooks doesn't want to go into detail about his plan to fix Social Security.

But what about the rest of the column? Giving everybody a tax-deferred savings account of $3500 which could be invested in a few selected mutual funds but not accessed until retirement? Brooks says "by the time workers retired, they would each have a substantial nest egg, over $100,000, waiting for them" (assuming that they didn't invest in the wrong mutual funds), and it sounds pretty good, frankly. However, there are a couple of important points to be made here. First of all, Social Security doesn't only provide for retirees: it also provides disability and survivor benefts. Where would those be coming from under the Brooks plan? Also, what about the people who are too old right now to have had their tax-deferred savings account working for them since birth? Do they just get screwed? Amazingly, Brooks actually proposes a way to pay for these accounts: letting the Bush tax cuts expire. (Of course, according to Paul Krugman, it would only take 1/4 of the revenue from letting the tax cuts expire to put Social Security on a sound financial footing). But the final thing to consider is, will Brooks's plan even replace the Social Security benefits that he is cutting by switching to price indexing? A lump sum of $100000 or more sounds pretty good, but consider that Social Security pays out an inflation-adjusted amount every month for years. Under the current system, the average monthly payment is $1158 (according, again, to the socsec.org link above). Say you live for 20 years after retirement: that's more than 270,000 dollars, without even adjusting for inflation. Now consider someone born this year and thus retiring in 2072. If the Brooks plan is implemented right away, this person will have, say, $200000 (and that's being quite generous) in 2005 dollars from his Brooks account. Say this person was an average wage-earner throughout his life. The question is, can this $200000 replace the 46% or so of his monthly Social Security benefit that he lost? Well, let's say he lives for 25 years, a not unreasonable assumption for 2072. Then that $200000 pays out $667 a month until he dies. Yes, it will keep earning, but unless it's earning at considerably higher than the inflation rate, the new amount will be negligible. So the question is, what will his Social Security payout be? Well, according to this article (which is also a good explanation of why price indexing is bad), between 1988 and 2003 wages outperformed prices by 22%. Extrapolating using this number, between 2003 and 2072 wages will outperform prices by about 77%. Therefore, the promised benefit in 2072 will be 77% higher than it is today (in today's dollars), or about $2050. 46% of this is $942. Therefore, the private account that Brooks proposes will be able to replace lost Social Security benefits only if the recipient doesn't live that long past retirement: anything longer than 17 years or so, and he stands to lose. And the problem will only get worse as time goes by. Of course, inflation could be higher, reducing the value of the promised benefit, but then that will start to cut into the value of the savings account: if inflation is sufficiently high, the savings account will actually lose value, making it an even worse proposition.

At this point, I should insert a caveat: I am not an economist. Nor have I double-checked all these numbers. But I feel fairly confident in the general outline of the argument. And note that the $200000 figure I used is considerably higher than Brooks's.

Also, Brooks could point out at this point that by 2072 the system will only be paying out 80% or so of benefits. Possibly true (the CBO's predictions are very pessimistic), but even so there's a simple way to return solvency: raising the cap on payroll taxes. Income above $90000 is not taxed by the payroll tax. Raising or eliminating this cap would result in a lot of extra revenue. Need more money? Bring back the estate tax on all estates worth more than $500000, or a million. Or, as Brooks himelf has proposed letting Bush's tax cuts lapse, we could use that money.

All this is bad enough, but the real killer has yet to be exposed. I should say that I am indebted to this article in The New Republic for pointing this out: even I had been sufficiently lulled by Brooks to miss his attempt to privatize Social Security through the back door. That attempt comes out here: "or individuals could divert some of their payroll taxes into their KidSave accounts, trading guaranteed benefits for more ownership." And here we are, back at privatized accounts, only with some government seed money. Incidentally, since the accounts cannot be accessed until retirement, it's unclear how any more "ownership" would result. But the salient point here is that any movement of payroll taxes out of Social Security and into personal accounts is the beginning of the destruction of the system, because that money is needed to pay for people's retirements now. And that means that if your private savings accounts don't do quite as well as you had hoped, you will be in serious trouble when you retire, which is the whole reason that there is so much opposition to Bush's plan.

So, it turns out that Brooks's plan is basically just like Bush's, only with a lot of talk about spreading the wealth thrown on top of it. This isn't particularly surprising, really -- after all, how much original thought is Brooks capable of? What is surprising is the cunning with which Brooks presents his proposal, burying the key points behind a mountain of pointless verbiage about the ownership society. Perhaps we've been underestimating him all this time? Well . . . . Nah. But the moral is that when Brooks appears to be at his most reasonable (not a very high standard, admittedly), he is also at his most dangerous. We can only hope that the Times will be reasonable and get rid of him.

February 06, 2005

Column 2005-2-5 Commentary

Brooks loves to do sociological analysis of political trends in his column. Sadly, political trends are too complicated to be analyzed in a single column, and the result is generally laughable oversimplification combined with a couple of obvious points and some conclusions which are just plain wrong. In this column, Brooks manages to combine this predilection of his with a typically short-sighted and biased analysis of trends in the Democratic party, specifically the fact that Howard Dean will shortly be the new Chair of the DNC. When I say combines, I mean juxtaposes, as no real effort is made to link the first half of the column with the second half. So we get, essentially, two half-columns. Most columnists seem to have no trouble writing just a single full-length column, but, as we know, Brooks is not most columnists. For one thing, he's not bright enough.

Brooks begins by discussing the decline of fellowship associations like the Elks Lodge and the Rotary Club and their replacement by groups such as NOW or the Heritage Foundation. First of all, the Heritage Foundation is a think tank. It bears no relation to the Elks Lodge or suchlike organizations at all, as it does not have a national membership and exists purely to expand conservatism in America and allow conservative elites to do research. By contrast, NOW and Naral are both large organizations with state chapters and hundreds of thousands of members. To compare them to the Heritage Foundation is ridiculous. Secondly, Brooks says that membership in these new organizations involves nothing more than "sending a check once a year and reading a newsletter". Well, a brief examination of the websites of NOW and Naral (since Brooks mentions them, I will assume that they are typical of the kind of organizations he's talking about) reveals that members of those organizations have an opportunity to get much more involved than that. For instance, here is a list of things you can do from the website of Naral's Massachusetts website. Write a check and sit back on your ass is not listed. Of course, things may be different in the conservative organizations Brooks is a member of. Furthermore, Brooks claims that these organizations do not bring people together across class lines, and in support of this assertion cites some facts about two modern organizations from 25 years ago. He may be right, but would it be too much to ask for some contemporary statistics? And some evidence on how the Rotary Club brought together people across class lines would be welcome. The Rotary Club was dependent on local chapters, so my guess is that most Rotarians were in a chapter which had, as members, mostly people of similar income levels. I could be wrong, but since Brooks gives no evidence to support his assertion, who knows?

It is also worthwhile to examine the actual views of Prof. Theda Skocpol, who Brooks cites as a source for much of the first half of his column. Consider, for instance, this article by Prof. Skocpol in Public Affairs Report. Note that she mentions not only the Elks Lodge or the Rotary Club, but also organizations like the WCTU and the Grange, which were active campaigners for particular progressive policies. One could argue that NOW and Naral are natural successors to organizations like the WCTU and the Grange. Also, Prof. Skopcol doesn't seem as upset by these developments as Brooks is. "Americans are just finding new ways to relate to each other" she says, which is a far cry from Brooks's "The decline of fraternal associations and the emergence of these professionally run groups for the educated class diminished communal life." And given that Skopcol is the expert Brooks is citing, I feel that her conclusions are likely to be more accurate.

Brooks then asserts that since the '60's, the interests of the educated class have come to dominant politics, with the interests of the lower classes being sidelined. This is probably at least partly true. Strangely enough, this has coincided with the rise of the Republican party. Must be just a coincidence, right? Anyway, Brooks next claims that Republicans connect better to the middle class, through organizations like evangelical churches and the NRA. Certainly, the replacement of the economic populism exemplified by the Grange and labor unions with religious populism (see Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?) has helped the Republicans. However, what Brooks is claiming is that Republican elites are members of organizations that connect to the masses, while Democratic elites are not, and that's why the Republicans do better than the Democrats these days. This is a laughably simplistic view of the political changes in this country over the last 30-40 years. Furthermore, Brooks seems to think that the only way to connect to the working poor is to belong to some national organization with them. The fact that the Democratic "urban elites" actually live next to the working poor apparently counts for nothing. But, of course, these members of the working poor are often not white, and so don't count.

Having finally finished with his sociology lesson, Brooks now moves off in a completely different direction. His discussion of changes in civil assocations in the United States over the past century is abandoned. Instead of continuing it, he makes the claim that the "university-town elite" now dominates the Democratic party both intellectually and financially. John Kerry, he says, raised four times as much money from individual donors as Al Gore did. One would think that this is a good thing, suggesting that Kerry is connecting to people, but apparently not, since many of these donors were highly educated (how many is, naturally, not specified). There are, of course, good reasons for this, as most people in the U.S. probably can't afford to give money to political parties. Those who can afford it are likely to be more educated. That's just the way money is distributed in society. But Brooks can see only the pernicious influence of those damn "university-town elites", such as employees of Microsoft and Time Warner. Who knew that those were universities? There are also good reason that the influence of these small donors is larger than it was. Large corporations, having bought out the Republican party, no longer feel the need to contribute as much to the Democrats. And the continuing decline of labor unions lessens another source of contributions.

But Brooks ignores this and goes on to claim that these donors are to the left of the country on many issues, especially, he says, on social and security issues. Well, guess what: there's an excellent reason for this too. To actually give money to a party, you have to be really certain that the party of your choice is the only reasonable possibility and any other would result in policies which you would object to and would be bad for the country. Of course the people who give money to the Democrats are more liberal than the average American. The people who give money to the Republicans are also more conservative than the average American. Somehow, the Republican party manages to overcome this problem, and I imagine that the Democratic party could figure out some way to deal with this issue as well. And frankly, they aren't as far out of the mainstream as Brooks would like to think: for instance, support for the Iraq war has been dropping steadily, and will likely continue to drop. Bush enters office with approval ratings around 50%. All of that can't be laid at the foot of the so-called "university town elites". This is why the Democrats have, as Brooks says, "allowed Ted Kennedy and Barbara Boxer to emerge as the loudest foreign-policy voices". People are realizing that something was seriously wrong with the way the Iraq war was sold to the American people and the way it was carried out. The lack of an exit strategy is fairly obvious now, and will become increasingly obvious as it becomes clearer that the election didn't actually accomplish that much. Kennedy and Boxer (interestingly enough, Boxer recieved more votes in the last election than anybody who was not a presidential candidate) have merely been pointing out these facts. After all, what was the knock on Kerry? He was a flip-flopper; he wanted to have it both ways; he didn't believe in anything. So now some Democrats are trying something different: they're actually speaking with the courage of their convictions. The old approach didn't work, obviously, so why not go for something new, especially as the public is increasingly questioning whether the Iraq war was worth it?

(Small point: Brooks describes Daily Kos and other liberal blogs as places where liberals go to "savage Democrats who violate party orthodoxy". In fact, such blogs spend far more time on Republicans than on conservative Democrats, excepting Zell Miller, who is actually a Republican, and Joe Lieberman, who just rubs everybody the wrong way. Also, ultraconservative organizations like Focus on the Family and the Club for Growth are equally, if not more, vitriolic in their attacks on Republican moderates like Arlen Specter and Lincoln Chafee.)

Brooks, however, is mystified by this development. The only possibility he can think of is that the Democratic party is following the money, and heading straight, he thinks, for oblivion. Strangely, Brooks presents the idea that the Democrats are following the money as a clever solution to an otherwise intractable puzzle. Obviously the Democrats are following the money. So are the Republicans. Parties cannot exist without money these days. In fact, that's why Dean will be the next Chairman of the DNC: he's an excellent fundraiser. As long as we've (finally) reached Dean, let's discuss what the Chairman of the DNC is expected to do. He's expected to raise money. He's expected to organize campaigns. He's not expected to set the entire ideological agenda for the party. Dean is excellent at both of the first two items, and additionally did a good job bringing people, especially young people, into politics. This is why he will probably make a very good Chairman of the DNC, and has garnered endorsements even from the more conservative wing of the party. As for the party's ideological agenda, that will be hammered out separately. But back to the money. The Republicans have been following the money for years. It would take naivete beyond even Brooks's to suggest that there is absolutely no connection between the Republican's business-friendly policies and the fact that the preponderance of corporate contributions go to the GOP. In fact, the trend towards the predominance of the educated classes in politics that Brooks mentions earlier probably has something to do with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in this country: with wealth more concentrated, it becomes difficult for the poor to contribute sums significant enough to draw the attention of either party.

So, to recapitulate: in the first half of the column, Brooks presents a conclusion about the decline of the Democratic party that is laughably oversimplied based on some sociological analysis that he misinterprets. In the second half, he attempts to present that fact that Dean is going to be the next Chairman of the DNC because he's a good fundraiser as a strange and unusual idea. For those of you scoring at home, that makes him 0-for-2 today. Whether this is worse than his usual 0-for-1 is up for debate. Either way, he's killing the Times every time he comes up to bat, and the sooner they waive him, the better.

February 01, 2005

Apology to the readers

Assuming there are any, aside from Ted: but I feel bad, for some strange reason, thus this post. Anyway, I am sorry to say that, due to the somewhat unsettled nature of my life right now, I will not be writing about Brooks's column of Tuesday, Feb. 1 (which will be a great weight off of Brooks's mind, assuming he has such a thing). I am still hopeful of writing about Brooks's next column.