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.