March 29, 2005

Column 2005-3-29 Commentary

Brooks's latest column is an interesting departure from the norm. Not because it is completely trivial -- God knows that Brooks has written completely trivial columns before -- but because it lacks the usual features of Brooks's completely trivial columns. Brooks's musings on whether he should abandon being a Mets fan to root for the brand-spanking-new Washington Nationals (for those of you who are not au courant with the baseball scene, the Nats used to be the Montreal Expos) are far more self-indulgent than usual. There is no attempt to make a connection to the ongoing moral decay of the country, or even of the liberal part of the country. Brooks doesn't even try to be funny (or if he does, he's even worse at it than usual). Even Maureen Dowd tries to connect her most self-centered columns to a national trend or a political event: Brooks doesn't even try to suggest that other Washingtonians are suffering a similar crisis. Was he simply at a loss for a topic this week? Is he attempting to segue from the editorial pages to the sports pages? Perhaps that's the explanation. After all, the constant intellectual dishonesty must get to him. Having to parrot the party line in almost every column cramps one's creativity. And it's much less problematic to predict the wrong team to win the N.L. East than to predict the existence of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and there is no need to write a column after the season about how the Phillies' third-place finish actually vindicated your expectations.

Regardless of Brooks's motivations for writing this columns (he can't resolve any personal crises, no matter how small, without first writing a column about them?), he can't escape my criticisms by writing about baseball fandom, as I am just as qualified to write about that as about politics or culture. Where by qualified, I mean that I have a computer and some free time. Actually, I do have a solid eighteen years of being a Mets fan under my belt -- among my first memories is one of watching the 1986 World Series, and when I was four I could tell a policeman that my favorite player was Keith Hernandez -- compared to about five or so of really caring about politics, so I will probably never be more qualified to write about a Brooks column, unless Brooks starts writing about math, physics, or the works of P.G. Wodehouse. Anyway, let me just say that I really do hope that Brooks decides to start rooting for the Washington Nationals, because I'd prefer not to have him as a fellow Mets fan. In fact, when I started reading this column, my first reaction was horror at the thought that I might have to actually give Brooks a bit of grudging respect, since he was, after all, a Mets fan. Luckily, the fact that he is considering switching allegiances to the Nationals, just because they happen to have moved to town, removes the necessity for any such action. In fact, my respect for Brooks has never been lower. Well, that's not strictly true, as it couldn't actually have fallen, but let me just say that I'm not surprised that Brooks is the kind of fan who would contemplate moving from one team to another. He probably rooted for the Yankees AND the Mets when he was a kid, too.

Brooks posits three sources for fandom. The first source is location: you are a fan of the team from where you live. Having moved to Washington, Brooks says, it is only natural that he become a Nationals fan. This is patently ridiculous. To abandon a team just because you have moved is one of the worst forms of treachery. I have not lived in New York City since I was six years old, yet I have never been tempted by any other sports team. My grandfather has lived much of his life in the Midwest, yet he did not stop being a Giants fan simply because he no longer lived in New York, or even because the Giants stopped living in New York. Even the metaphor Brooks gives for this kind of fandom, patriotism, breaks down. Many immigrants maintain a loyalty to their home country. Their children may be Americanized, but they speak the language they brought from the old country and try to keep as many of the traditions as they can. Not that it would be relevant if all immigrants immediately assimilated one hundred percent: it would still be wrong to change team loyalties just because one no longer resides in the same city as the team.

Brooks's next way to explain fandom is that "the love of a team is primarily a psychological connection. It is a bond forged during a lifelong string of shared emotions - the way I felt when Tommie Agee made that diving catch in 1969, the way I have suffered through the disappointment of Mo Vaughn." And he is, for once, absolutely correct. This is fandom, created from the exhilaration of Robin Ventura's grand slam single and the crushing disappointment of Kenny Rogers walking in the winning run the next day. It is a bond strong enough that not only can't you stop watching a meaningless September game against the Expos, you get increasingly caught up as it goes along, become excited as the Mets rally to take the game into extra innings, and then cast down as the Expos win anyway. However, Brooks is not entirely correct when he says that to abandon the Mets would be to abandon himself and send him off on "a life of phoniness and self-alienation." For if he is contemplating, even for a minute, becoming a Nationals fan, then his bond with the Mets obviously isn't very strong. It's not even as if this is August of 1993, or even 2003, when the Mets were down and not going anywhere, and one could excuse a bout of doubt caused by depression, as long as the doubter recanted afterward. But the Mets are (probably) on the way up: they won't win the division this year, unless everything breaks right, but in 2006 and 2007, watch out. If Brooks is contemplating leaving the team this year, and at this time, when everything is bright and full of promise, nobody has been injured (well, except for Steve Trachsel, but he's not irreplaceable), and everybody is excited about the upcoming season, then he clearly just doesn't care that much.

Brooks's third reason why one becomes a fan is devotion to a philosophical ideal: i.e., for Yankees fans, pure hatred of all that is noble and good, (Brooks says, "All cower before the greatness that is Rome," but I like my formulation better), for Red Sox fans, "nobility through suffering", for the Cubs, "It is better to be loved than feared", and for the Mets "God smiles upon his darlings". This is, frankly, bullshit. First of all, it applies only to a handful of teams. What ideal do the Mariners embody? The Reds? God help us, what ideal do the Devil Rays embody? Secondly, this is applicable only to particular eras. The Yankees may be the Evil Empire now, but back in the 80's and early 90's they were busy sabotaging Don Mattingly's Hall of Fame case by sucking. The whole "nobility through suffering" meme for the Red Sox is a product of the 1986 World Series, which spawned the idea of The Curse of the Bambino. And the Mets haven't really been about miracles since 1969. Sure, there was Mookie Wilsons's grounder through Buckner's legs, but the 1986 team was a well-constructed team with some very good, and even outstanding, players that was expected to compete. The 1969 team really came out of nowhere: the Mets won 100 games in 1969, after setting a team record in 1968 when they won 73. And the 2000 World Series appearance had nothing miraculous about it. Actually, one could argue that, if one allows for negative miracles, the years after 2000 were pretty miraculous. The Mets acquire sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Roberto Alomar, .300 hitter and Gold Glove second baseman, and he immediately sucks! It's a miracle! But somehow, I don't think that this is what Brooks is going for.

Unsurprisingly, this is the type of love Brooks has for the Mets. He doesn't care about the team, just some ideal that they once represented and now no longer do. While it's great that the Mets teach Brooks that "miracles happen and the universe is a happy place", what this means is that Brooks doesn't actually care about baseball, much less the Mets. Instead, he's desperately searching for a team that embodies his philosophical vision of a world where miracles happen. To which all I can say is, good luck and good riddance. Oh, and don't become a Nats fan: with their bullpen practically nonexistent and their lineup full of holes, it's going to take direct divine intervention for them to win anything this season.

Why the Times allows this to continue is beyond me. Are they really paying for Brooks to wonder whether to abandon the Mets (in the pages of a New York newspaper, to boot)? Can they at least prevent him from wasting his space on trivial topics? Or prevent him from wasting his space altogether by giving it to someone else?

March 26, 2005

Column 2005-3-26 Commentary

Well, Brooks's last column was a nice change of pace, but today things are back to normal. Today sees Brooks take on the Terry Schiavo case by using one of his favorite column structures, the false equivalence: in this case, he draws a false equivalence between the arguments of so-called "social conservatives" (actually fundamentalist Christians) and so-called "social liberals" (actually most Americans). Before we go any further, let's make one thing clear: the "social conservatives" Brooks refers to are extremists whose views are not shared by most Americans. Polls have consistently shown that most Americans believe that Congress should not intervene in this case, that Congress is intervening purely for political advantage, that the decision to remove the feeding tube was the correct one, that if their spouse or child was in Terry Schiavo's state they too would remove the tube, and that if they were in a persisent vegetative state, they would not want to be kept alive (this last viewpoint was endorsed by more than 80% of respondents). Even self-identified evangelicals are evenly split between supporting removing the feeding tube and demanding that it be kept in. "No wonder many of us feel agonized this week, betwixt and between," Brooks says at the end of today's column, but it appears that this is not actually the case, or not the case outside of Brooks's social circle.

Brooks begins his column by claiming that "The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic." Which explains the massive evangelical demonstrations against the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Who could forget the protests by fundamentalist Christians when the news that over a hundred prisoners had died in U.S. custody abroad was released? Or the vigils held outside the Texas state capitol when Governor Bush signed a law allowing doctors to deny life support if they believe that it is useless, even if the family wants to keep the family member alive? Oh, that's right, no such protests actually happened. Apparently, individual lives have intrinsic value only when they are the individual lives of brain-dead white women, and not when they are, for instance, black babies. In fact, National Right to Life, which is helping to lead the fight to keep Terry Schiavo alive, helped write the Texas Futile Care Law under which Sun Hudson was removed from life support. And it's hard to reconcile the belief that life has intrinsic value with statements such as this one, by extreme right-wing talk radio host Hal Turner, or with the arrest of a man who tried to steal a gun to help Schiavo, or the man who put a bounty on the heads of Michael Schiavo and a federal judge who refused to order Schiavo's feeding tube to be reinserted. But if the hypocrisy of the foot soldiers in the pro-Terry fight is stunning, the hypocrisy of the leaders, such as Tom Delay, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush, is even worse. For instance, Bush finds the Terry Schiavo case of such importance that he is forced to cut short his vacation to return to Washington and sign the bill moving her case to the federal courts. Those of you who can remember as far back as December may recall that it was several days after the tsunami struck before Bush could be bothered to leave the ranch and return to D.C. Tom Delay isn't even trying to hide his politicization of this case: "This is exactly the kind of issue that's going on in America, that attacks against the conservative moment, against me and against many others." Or consider this statement from the head of the Traditional Values Coalition: "What this issue has done is it has galvanized people the way nothing could have done in an off-election year. That is what I see as the blessing that dear Terri's life is offering to the conservative Christian movement in America." And note further that the money to pay for Terry Schiavo's medical care for the past 15 years has come from two sources: a malpractice settlement against the doctors who orginally treated her and Medicaid. If the Republicans had had their way years ago, neither source of funding would be available, or would be greatly reduced.

Some "social conservatives" base their assertion that Terry should be kept alive on the contention that she is actually not in a persistent vegetative state, so it is worth pointing out that every single reputable neurologist who has actually examined her personally, as opposed to looking at a view minutes of videotape, has concluded that she is in in a PVS. A representative example of the non-reputable neurologists (leaving out the diagnoses of such people as Frist, who is a heart surgeon) who have examined her is one Dr. William Hammesfahr, touted as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in Medicine (yes, you read that correctly), who was disciplined by Florida in 2003. Another common source for allegations that Schiavo is somewhat conscious is Carla Iyer, who was Schiavo's nurse in 1995 and 1996, but Ms. Iyer is so lacking in credibility that Schiavo's parents never even called on her to testify. Others point to a 260 second video clip in which Terry Schiavo appears to be responding to stimuli, ignoring the fact that the tape was created from four and a half hours of footage. And then there are the affidavits -- ably debunked at the previous link -- by 17 "experts" who claimed that Schiavo could be revived on the basis of the above video clip and various news reports. The facts are quite simple: Schiavo was bulimic, her heart stopped due to a potassium imbalance, her brain was denied oxygen for up to five minutes, and as a result her cerebral cortex was liquified (this link has a CAT scan image of Schiavo's brain). This kind of brain liquification is irreparable: the brain tissue is just gone. Consequently, Schiavo cannot perform any higher brain functions, and will never be able to again. She cannot even swallow, which is why she requires a feeding tube (one wonders if the people arrested as they tried to bring her cups of water understood that if they actually put that water in her mouth, she would have choked to death). From a strictly biological viewpoint, she is alive, but from any other perspective she has been dead for years.

And this leads directly to Brooks's definition of a "social liberal" as one who believes "that the quality of life is a fundamental human value." Whether or not this is true, it is completely irrelevant to this case. Schiavo cannot be said to be living except in a strictly biological sense. Her higher brain functions are gone and will not be coming back, and as those higher brain function include things like consciousness and personality, it is entirely reasonable to say that Terry Schiavo, the person, is dead, and all that remains is a collection of cells being kept alive artificially. In fact, the best reason for Schiavo's feeding tube to be removed is to allow the people around her to accept the fact of her death and move on: it makes no difference to Schiavo, who cannot even feel hunger or thirst. And even if Brooks is right about "social liberals" in general believing that quality of life is more important than living, the conclusions he draws from this assertion are as unwarranted as they are vague. This argument is "morally thin", according to Brooks, but it is really unclear why. Perhaps he thinks that this argument can be generalized to the point where the ability of serial killers to kill becomes a quality-of-life issue, in which case the only possible response is to laugh in his face. It seems fairly reasonable to me, and according to polls, to most of the American people, that if it is obvious that someone is going to die, and that they are suffering considerably, and they decide that they would rather die now than hang on through a few more agonizing months, then they should be allowed to die. Similarly, if someone has lost consciousness and will not regain it, and family members or a living will make it clear that they would not wish to continue existing on life support, they should be allowed to die, in accordance with their wishes. Naturally, if the available evidence suggests that they would want to be kept alive, they should be kept alive as long as possible, but the option to choose death should be there, and there is nothing morally thin about that. In fact, one could argue that it is immoral to prolong someone's life against their wish if they are suffering. And whatever happened to the conservative shibboleth of personal responsibility?

But the real reason that Brooks brings up the morality argument is so he can dismiss the liberals questions about "jurisdictions, legalisms, politics and procedures" as mere attempts to change the subject. This allows him to ignore the extent to which the Republican Party is ignoring basic Constitutional principles in its attempt to pander to the extremists of the religious right, or rather to keep Schiavo alive. Tom Delay, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush are combining to undermine the independence of the judical system in the United States, an attack on a basic Constitutional principle that is all the more amazing for coming not in a time of war (like Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, for instance) or national emergency but to prevent a brain-dead woman from dying. From the pinkos at, we find that "The independence of the federal judiciary and the societal agreement that its pronouncements must be honored is a hallmark of the American political system." According to the American Bar Association, "An independent judiciary with judges who decide issues under law without fear or favor is a necessary means by which to accomplish both real and apparent justice for all." Some guy named Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 78 that "The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution." By using the powers of the legislative and executive branches to overturn a decision in the courts -- a decision that, moreover, went through multiple courts over a period of seven years -- the Republican party is, at the behest of the religious right, doing its best to destroy one of the basic principles of American democracy. The legal analyst for CBS calls this law "the most blatant and egregious power-grab by one branch over another in my lifetime." And Brooks dismisses liberal unease about this as an attempt to "shift arguments away from morality and on to process." There are certainly moral questions involved, but the fact that the independence of the judiciary is being compromised is not exactly unimportant.

The Schiavo case gives Brooks a chance to pontificate on morality, and there's nothing Brooks likes better than a chance to pontificate on morality, especially if it gives him the opportunity to talk about how immoral liberals are. And that's especialy understandable in this case, because the alternative is to try to explain why a Republican Party that supposedly opposes big government is intervening in a family matter. Or why a Republican party that is supposedly conservative is attempting to undermine the basic Constitutional principle of judicial independence. Or why a Republican Party that supposedly supports states' rights is attempting to take the authority to resolve this case from the state of Florida. Or how the religious right obtained such a chokehold on the Republican Party that it could go ahead with this issue despite massive opposition from the American people. But that would require that Brooks actually look at what the Republican Party is, rather than what he thinks it is, and it appears that he exhausted his quota of that for this year in last Saturday's column on corruption. Well, at least we know what to expect now: more of Brooks making excuses for the Republican party, no matter what they do. Unless, of course, we get lucky and the Times decides to fire him.

March 22, 2005

Column 2005-3-22 Commentary

For once, I have nothing to say. In a good way. Today's Brooks column is spot on. In fact, it's so spot on it makes you wonder why somebody who can see the Republican party this clearly is so blind to so many of its other deficiencies. The one criticism that could be made of this column is that Tom Delay is in this cesspool of corruption up to his neck, if not higher, yet his name only gets mentioned twice in the column. On the other hand, Brooks makes no attempt to cast this as an isolated case of a few bad apples. I urge you to read the column if you haven't already, both as a pointed indictment of the straight-up corruption that infests the Republican Party at the moment and because this may well be the only time I will ever urge you to read a Brooks column.

Additionally, Tom Delay should take note: this is a warning that some Republicans are ready to turn on him before the taint of corruption become too obvious and widespread. If Delay decides to fight it out, don't be surprised to see more and more Republicans, including elected ones and likely starting with Bush or people who can be expected to speak for Bush, distancing themselves from him.

However, this by no means lets the Times off the hook. The guy has been a columnist for over two years, and he's delivered one good column. The success rate is not exactly stunning.

March 19, 2005

Column 2005-3-19 Commentary

It appears that David Brooks was too lazy to come up with a new column topic for this column, so he just read the criticisms of his previous column, figured out a way to circumvent them, and rewrote it. The last column was too obviously partial to the Republicans, so Brooks works harder on hiding his partisanship. The last column lamented the failure of Social Security reform, but Social Security really isn't a problem that requires immediate intervention, so Brooks instead talks about the coming crisis in entitlements. Finally, the solution to the problem that Brooks obviously favored in the last column, privatizing Social Security, would not actually help, so this time Brooks doesn't even propose a solution, settling for a prophecy that someone who has a solution will eventually show up. The result is one of Brooks's sneakiest columns, where it is very important that the reader not simply analyze what Brooks does say but also keep a close watch on what he does not say.

For example, Brooks talks of two waves combining to cause vast problems for America, the two waves being entitlement spending and political polarization. While political polarization is certainly a fact of politics at the moment, it is hardly of the importance of the coming growth in entitlement spending. Rapidly increasing health care costs are going to be a fact for some time to come due to steady increases in life expectancy and constant increases in what medicine can treat (or at least, so we predict by extrapolation). Political polarization is a function of the views of the voters and could change at any time. Brooks may seriously believe that the current atmosphere of polarization is unlikely to change anytime soon, but the real reason for his making it one of the two waves is that he can shift some of the blame for the partisan deadlock afflicting politics today on to the Democrats from the Republicans and still appear even-handed. What he does not say, of course, is why there is so much polarization in politics, because he does not want to admit that it is the result of a decade-long Republican effort. He does not talk about the scorched-earth tactics of the Republicans who refused to even consider a compromise on Clinton's health-care plan. He ignores the anti-Clinton witch hunt of 1996-2000. He does not mention the profoundly un-democratic fashion in which the House Republicans run the House of Representatives. He leaves out the Republicans' unprecedented mid-decade redistricting efforts in Texas, Colorado, and now Georgia. No mention is made of how Bush consistently refused to hold up his end of deals with Democrats on bills such as No Child Left Behind, or of the Republicans' bitter attacks on those who actually make deals with them. Instead, he simply presents political polarization as a fait accompli, and then proceeds to chide both parties for being so polarized, allowing him to appear evenhanded even as he heaps far more blame on the Democrats than they deserve. In exactly the same manner, Brooks decries "the emergence of rigid donor and activist bases in each party that use their power to inflict Stalinist party-line orthodoxy on potentially independent leaders," but again fails to give the whole story. In reality, such a rigid base is a very recent development in the Democratic party and has arisen as a response to the effectiveness of the Republican establishment (which Brooks describes with remarkable accuracy). This can be seen most easily in the Republican party's dealings with what's left of its moderate wing, as exemplified by the constant attacks on Arlen Specter over the past year. Brooks's cries of polarization are simply attempts to deflect attention from the fact that the Republicans are not even trying to be bipartisan any more, and the Democrats are naturally reacting by becoming more insular.

The two examples of polarization he gives reinforce this point. First, he cites the Social Security debate again, calling it a "straightforward problem compared to Medicare" and wondering why Congress is deadlocked. Well, we've covered this ground a few times before, but once again, it's deadlocked because the Republicans refuse to consider any idea without private Social Security accounts, even though that would amount to phasing Social Security out and would not even solve the problem they claim to be worried about, as well as being massively unpopular. To blame the lack of progress with Social Security reform on political polarization is deeply misleading, giving as it does the effect of making it appear that the Democrats are just as responsible as the Republicans. His other example is the looming fight over judges, where again the accusation of polarization is used to suggest that blame should be assigned equally to both sides of the aisle. In fact, a glance at the records of the three judges that the Republicans are currently trying to get through the Senate suggests that the Democrats are perfectly correct to try to filibuster them and the blame here should accrue only to Republicans who are trying to push unqualified partisan hacks through to top judicial positions (and these judges were the ones who were thought to have the most bipartisan support).

But the most blatant example of how Brooks's faux evenhandedness really serves only to disguise his partisanship comes when he examines how both the Democrats and the Republicans will become obsolete as the coming entitlement crisis challenges their raisons d'etre. According to Brooks, the goal of the Democratic party is to pass "domestic programs that address national needs - like covering the uninsured." I guess I must just have missed John Kerry's fiery speech calling for national health insurance and making that the centerpiece of his campaign. Obviously, this is a massive oversimplification. Similarly, Brooks claims that Republicans "owe their recent victories to the popularity of tax cuts", and that this is "a core reason for being." Again, a massive oversimplification, and one that ought to make the reader suspicious. Why on earth would Brooks peddle oversimplifications so ridiculous that even he knows they are wrong? The answer is, again, to appear to be evenhandedly attacking both parties for fiscal irresponsibility, and thus to hide the sizable role that the Republican fiscal irresponsbility of the past four years has played in exacerbating the entitlements crisis. Once again, let me direct you to the following table of tax revenues as a percentage of GDP, where you can observe that 2004's tax revenues were the lowest percent of GDP since 1959, and 4.6 points lower than the 2000 value. It should also be noted that the war on Iraq has cost over $150 billion, and is almost certain to cost at least as much more before it is over. What does this have to do with the rapidly spiraling cost of entitlements? Well, one way in which Clinton hoped to address the problem was to save money by running surpluses. The saved money could be kept to help at least cushion the impact of increasing Medicare spending. Some of you may even recall Gore talking about a lockbox in the 2000 campaign, which meant that surpluses of the Medicare trust fund would be saved rather than spent, and running surpluses reduces the pressure to spend this money (and the surpluses from the Social Security trust fund as well). Furthermore, spending on interest on the federal debt is one of the major drivers of federal spending. In fact, according to this 2002 CBO fiscal policy paper, by 2075 interest spending would actually outstrip Medicare as a percentage of GDP. Since then, projections of Medicare spending have gone up considerably, but Bush has also cut taxes further, and the report assumes that revenues will stay at a steady 19% of GDP, when they have actually fallen to 16.3% of GDP. Thus, interest payments on the federal debt would present a fiscal challenge very close to that of Medicare by 2075. Therefore, a logical approach for the government to take would be to run surpluses in an attempt to at least prevent the debt from growing, and if possible to pay it down, and so reduce some of the funding pressure on future governments which will have to deal with Medicare expenses at a level at least five times today's. Alternatively, the government could take the Republican party approach and piss the surplus away with tax cuts so as to make the argument for getting rid of Medicare when it gets more expensive easier to make (see here for examples of Republicans realizing that the tax cut orthodoxy might not always be the best policy).

It should also be noted that Brooks's constant references to entitlements is, at the very least, intellecually dishonest, as the entitlement crisis is really a Medicare crisis, and to a slightly lesser extent a Medicaid crisis. Brooks talks about entitlements because the Republicans are determined to get rid of all of them, and so try to hide the fact that Social Security is really in relatively good shape (compared to Medicare and Medicaid) by combining all three programs into a single entity, "entitlements", which is in serious fiscal difficulty. For a nice illustration of this, see Chart D in this official summary of the 2004 Trustees of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds report. Medicare is projected to be 14% of GDP by 2078, more than twice Social Security's 6.6%. This represents an increase of 11.3% of GDP for Medicare and an increase of 2.3% of GDP for Social Security. Obviously, Medicare cost increases (and also Medicaid cost increases, which according to the above-cited CBO report are expected to increase more than fourfold to 5.3% of GDP) are driving the increase in entitlement spending, with Social Security, despite the all the sound and fury that has been expended on it over the past few months, really not being all that important. This, if nothing else, should convince all political observers that the Republican party is determined to destroy Social Security: if they were really worried about entitlement spending, they would be talking about Medicare, and certainly would not recently have passed a major increase in Medicare spending.

Interestingly, though, Brooks has no solution to propose. He talks vaguely of an "anti-politician" emerging to "crash through the current alignments and bust heads", of current politicians deciding to "reorient their careers" (whatever that means), and of Americans growing "even more disenchanted with the political status quo", but he has no ideas on how to deal with Medicare and Medicaid, or at least none he'd like to share. Or, more likely, none he really wants to think about. For the fact is that there are only two real options: either the steady advances of medicine will be available in the future only to the rich until they are no longer even close to cutting edge, or the government will have to raise taxes considerably so it can afford to pay for ever-improving medical treatments for the middle class and poor. Given that the non-rich outnumber the rich, and the idea of creating a medically-advantaged and longer-lived overclass is probably not one that the American people are likely to support en masse, the second option is almost certain to be the one that is chosen, likely through a series of small tax increases, especially on corporations and the rich. It is possible, of course, that medical advances and increases in longevity will slow down considerably, or even come to a stop, but most likely any such development would be associated with other changes which would render the argument over how large Medicare should be moot. Brooks is probably not too dumb to figure this out for himself, and naturally this revolts him to his Republican hack's tax-cut-loving core. So he consoles himself with visions of a Schwarzenegger or a Perot riding in a white horse to slash the size or government. More likely, though, is the arrival of another Roosevelt to preside over a new New Deal. At this point, even corporations like GM are calling on the government to take on more of the costs of health care, as these costs put them at a disadvantage compared to European and Japanese auto makers that don't have to pay for health care. Brooks does not propose a solution because even he can see what's coming, and he's hoping that if he doesn't think about it, it won't happen.

I can't think of a clever, or even not-so-clever, way to tie in a call for Brooks to be fired with the topic of this column. Jeez, won't the Times just fire him already? What exactly are they waiting for?

March 15, 2005

Column 2005-3-16 Commentary

In this column, Brooks laments the failure of Social Security reform, leading to mixed feelings on the part of his readers. On the one hand, if Social Security reform, or at least Bush's version of Social Security reform, does fail, that is undoubtedly excellent news. On the other hand, that would involve Brooks being right about something, and the odds of such an occurrence are fairly slim. We can only hope that the failure of Social Security reform is so obvious that even Brooks is forced to acknowledge it, but from this column it appears that this is the only aspect of the debate over Social Security reform that he understands. Says Brooks, this episode is "a compendium of everything that is wrong with contemporary politics." This is incorrect, but does give a good way of describing this Brooks column: it is a compendium of everything that is wrong with David Brooks columns. To be fair, that's not entirely correct, as this column contains no bullshit cultural analyses, but other than that, it's got everything. To start with, Brooks fundamentally does not comprehend what's going on in the debate over Social Security reform. He sees it as purely a political issue: some form of reform is necessary. The Republicans want reform with private accounts, the Democrats want reform without private accounts, and the responsible thing would be for the parties to reach a compromise deal in which a scaled-down version of private accounts is combined with benefit cuts and tax increases to make the whole thing solvent. This is, of course, a completely, totally, 100% wrong interpretation. The fight over Social Security is not political but ideological. First of all, it should be made clear that privatization would inevitably lead to the elimination of Social Security as, well, Social Security. No longer would the elderly receive a guaranteed benefit from the government following their retirement: instead, they would be dependent on the vagaries of the economy and the stock market. Make no mistake: those pushing privatization are not just trying to improve Social Security. Their agenda has always been to eliminate the program, and that has not changed. Private accounts have nothing to do with helping to ensure Social Security's solvency: even Bush has admitted that "Personal accounts do not solve the issue". Furthermore, Social Security exemplifies liberalism: the basic idea of Social Security is that those who work their whole lives deserve to be able to retire with dignity -- not just those who got rich or were lucky in the stock market -- and that since the free market cannot provide a decent retirement to every worker, the government should do so. And on top of all this, Social Security is a vastly successful program: so successful, in fact, that it is held up as a model for other countries to emulate in constructing their pension plans. This is why the Democrats are opposing the privatization of Social Security: they are making a principled stand in defense of a program that works and that the American people support (barely one-third of Americans back Bush's plan). Brooks failure to understand this basic dynamic is an egregious error that discredits his entire column.

Brooks does get one of the mistakes the Republicans made right (he has to criticize the Republicans a little, so he can appear balanced when he puts most of the blame on the Democrats). He points out the obvious: most Americans don't want the Republicans version of Social Security reform. Brooks covers this with a claim that Republicans didn't realize "how much they would have to show they love [Social Security], too," though the actual problem is that the Republicans don't love Social Security and they did a really bad job of concealing this fact from the American people. Or perhaps the veneer of compassionate conservativism is finally wearing thin. However, Brooks immediately exposes his cluelessness again when he claims that if the Republicans had just had a better strategy for pushing reform through, they would have won out. Once again, he seems to think that this is simply a matter of the Republicans being more savvy politically, when in fact the issue is an ideological one, and simply trying to do tax reform first would not have smoothed things over. Finally, Brooks says that the Republicans just aren't good at compromising: "These anti-political creatures of conviction find sticking to orthodoxy easier than the art of compromise." This is a compliment disguised as a criticism. If Brooks were actually trying to be fair, he would have said something like "The Republicans, having taken Grover Norquist's advice that bipartisanship is just another word for date rape, were completely unwilling to undertake any compromise in which the end result is not something very close to what they want." It is interesting, though, that Brooks doesn't directly criticize Bush. After all, privatization is Bush's big plan: he was the one who started this whole debate, and he has spent much of his second term thus far criss-crossing the country in what the polls show is a largely futile attempt to drum up support for this proposed reform. Presumably, he shares some of the blame for the failure, does he not?

Well, of course not, because it turns out that the Democrats are the ones who are really at fault. Sure, the Republicans are a little stiff-necked, they misjudged the temperament of the populace, and they may not have thought through just how they were going to pass this piece of legislation (apparently, simply repeating the word mandate over and over again just doesn't cut it), but these are minor errors compared to the Democrats, who are full of hatred and living in the past. After all, the Republicans even made proposals containing a number of fairly progressive measures, and yet the Democrats just walked away! (Note that the Democrats are not "anti-political creatures of conviction", but instead obstructionists.) The fact is, of course, that no matter how many progressive sweeteners surround the poison pill of private accounts, the whole package is still poison. And the Democrats have a number of other reasons not to compromise. For one thing, they're in the minority in Congress, and though they can influence the Senate via the filibuster, they have no control over anything in the House of Representatives. Any compromise Social Security reform bill that they force through using the threat of a filibuster would have to be reconciled with the reform bill proposed by the House in a committee composed entirely of Republicans. The negotiators from the House would insist that the progressive parts of the compromise, which would certainly not appear in their version, be eliminated. Bush might even threaten a veto if those parts are not stripped out, and the Senate Republicans will gladly comply. Shorn of their power to filibuster, the Democrats would only be able to watch as their carefully crafted compromise became the bill the Republicans had originally proposed. Then there's the political standpoint. Why would the Democrats give the Republicans a victory on this issue when the Democrats are easily winning? The public is solidly behind the Democrats on Social Security. Bush has been unable to drum up support for it: in fact, the poll cited above reveals that almost 60% of people say that the more they hear about his plan, the less they like it. And Republican congressmen are feeling the heat from their constituents (for more, simply browse the archives). Perhaps Brooks has forgotten that the Republicans swept to power on the heels of their refusal to compromise on any sort of health care reform back in 1994, but the Democrats have not, and intend to use the Republican's tactics on them (but of course, as Brooks has already made clear, such tactics are only ok when the Republicans use them). Brooks even resorts to the familiar canard that the Democrats have no plan for Social Security (ignoring the fact that Bush himself has not yet laid out a plan). Actually, they do. It's called Social Security. It's worked just fine for the past 70 years or so, and with a few minor tweaks could continue working for the foreseeable future.

Brooks then resorts to an out-and-out falsehood. First, he accuses the Democrats of making "demagogic speeches about Republican benefit cuts". While this is a great exaggeration, we're willing to let it pass. However, in an ill-advised attempt to drive the point home, he follows up by adding "as if it is possible to fix the system without benefit cuts." If Brooks has not completely lost your confidence yet, this should be the final straw, for the simple reason that it is just not true. At all. Here are two plans to eliminate the funding shortfall without cutting benefits: phasing in a payroll tax increase (scroll down to "It's So Easy") and repealing the Bush tax cuts and using the revenue from one-fourth of the cuts to preserve the solvency of Social Security for the next 75 years (the Social Security trustees only project over a 75-year horizon). While it is likely that Social Security reform will eventually include some sort of benefit cuts, likely in the form of an increase in the retirement age, Brooks's assertion that Social Security cannot be saved without benefit cuts is, simply, a lie. While we're on the topic, it should be noted that it may not even be necessary to fix the system. The shortfall of $3.7 trillion over the next 75 years that is commonly cited is obtained (scroll down to "Those Gloomy Trustees") by assuming the economy grows at the rate of 1.8% over that time. Chances are that the economy will grow faster than that, which would eliminate a large part of the shortfall and might even get rid of the whole thing. So that when Brooks says that if Social Security reform fails, "it will be many years before any sort of big entitlement reform will come up again," that's really not a problem. It won't be necessary to dip into the Social Security trust fund until 2018, thirteen years from now, and that date may well be pushed back, so letting another decade expire before trying to fix social security again should not be an issue. After all, the last time Social Security was fixed, in 1983, Congress was told that it would have to act by April 1983 in order to prevent the checks from stopping in June. There is no such urgency here. Also, Brooks says that the failure of Social Security reform now will not just make Social Security reform unlikely in the near future, but will condemn "big entitlement reform" to oblivion, and we will end up "catastrophically buried under our own debt." This is a typically dishonest attempt to conflate the problems of Medicare and Medicaid with those of Social Security. The mountain of debt will be that of Medicare and Medicaid: the CBO predicts that the increase in Social Security costs will be dwarfed by government health spending. Unless, of course, Social Security reform with private accounts is implemented, in which case the government will need to borrow at least $15 trillion over the next few decades.

Finally, Brooks finishes up by criticizing the voters. How dare they expect low taxes and high entitlement spending? Maybe it has something to do with their being promised as much by the Republican party? While it is a truism to say that politicians always lie, if tax cuts were ever presented as not simply free money but as money that the government would not get to spend on popular programs, the people might have a change of heart. Regardless, I don't think this attack-the-voter strategy is likely to prove too popular. But that's really the least of the offenses of this column. Partisanship masquerading as fairness, straight-up lies, and basic misunderstandings of what he's discussing: is there nothing that Brooks won't stoop to? More to the point, is there nothing the Times won't let him stoop to?

March 12, 2005

Column 2005-3-12 Commentary

As always, Brooks follows up a highly partisan and extremely wrong column with a non-partisan column taking on some trivial aspect of society (these appeasement columns are also generally meant to be funny, with an emphasis on meant). This time, he discusses the "pusillanimous age" we live in, though the column reveals far more about Brooks than it does about American society. In case you missed it, or have forgotten the story with which Brooks begins, and which, like most proofs by anecdote, reveals more about Brooks than the statement he is attempting to illustrate, I excerpt the first few paragraphs here:

"Let me tell you a story to illustrate that we are living in a pusillanimous age. I was in New Orleans last Saturday night, dining with a wonderful group of people at a culinary landmark called Antoine's. Our host had arranged for a remorseless avalanche of delicious food, served in prodigious 19th-century style. There were about six appetizers, including oysters, foie gras and various lobster confabulations. There were main courses aplenty - fish, then crab, then steak.

Then dessert floated onto the table: a meringue pie roughly the size of a football helmet. And with it came coffee, but not just any coffee. It was called "devil's brew." A copper bowl was put in the middle of the table with some roiling mixture of brandy-ish spirits inside. Coffee was poured in and the concoction set aflame.

The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:

'Is it decaf?'"

This story is important for two reasons: it is one of the few times that Brooks has actually succeeded in being funny in his columns (though readers are laughing at Brooks, rather than with him, so it doesn't really count), and it really tells you a lot about Brooks. Brooks is attempting to prove that American society is overly fixated on health and worries too much about danger, so he takes a story applicable only to the upper middle class and generalizes wildly. That, in a nutshell, is every piece of social commentary David Brooks has ever written.

You can see this tendency in the entire column. "Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo," Brooks opines, and apparently this means that the American people as a whole are fit and working hard to stay that way. Where the 64.5% of Americans who are overweight and 30.5% who are obese fit into this picture in unclear. He talks of kids who "go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships." Well, they do if they're from middle- or upper-middle-class families. Otherwise, they probably don't have the benefits of these programs, not to mention "foam corner protectors" or being "drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals" (Brooks also mentions flame-retardant construction paper as sapping the children's vitality, presumably because he was late for his deadline). Or consider the fact that "the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form". Since these people represent a tiny fraction of the American population, it seems unlikely that this is particularly relevant to any argument about society. But as Brooks continually conflates the upper-middle-class Eastern establishment, especially in Washington D.C., with the United States as a whole, to him this is a sweeping indictment of our modern age. If he wasn't a conservative, I would call this elitist, but of course only liberals are elitist and out of touch with the people.

Brooks also manages to throw in a bit of nostalgia for the moral values of the 19th century as he blames "the arbiters of virtue" for making the unsafe more objectionable than the immoral, i.e. that which is not consistent with Christianity. "Smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments," Brooks says. Well, I looked up the Ten Commandments, and he may be right. On the other hand, four of the ten are specifically Christian and can be ignored, and the one about not coveting your neighbor's stuff is also relatively minor: in fact, one might even argue that it is actually the basis of our economy. It gets a little tricky at this point, as adultery and honoring parents, which would probably be the next to go, are a little more important. But let's not quibble over one measly commandment: the point is simply that, for those of us who are not evangelical Christians, a good half of the commandments just aren't that important (the Jewish version has not worshipping graven idols instead of not coveting, but that's also purely religious and can be thrown out). And Brooks also gets in a dig at those for whom "the word "sinful" is most commonly associated with chocolate." Zing! Take that, moral relativism!

But the most important thing to take away from this column is just how out of touch Brooks is. He examines the foibles of the other members of America's upper middle and upper classes and self-satisfiedly proclaims that they apply to society as a whole. If he ever, at any point, implied that he was doing an analysis only of the upper socioeconomic strata of society, that would be fine, but nowhere is that suggested. We can only conclude that he is clueless, or that he just doesn't care about the lives of most Americans, who would love to live in the world that Brooks describes.

At this point, I suppose I should acknowledge that my prediction is wrong: it appears that Brooks is not going to write about Larry Summers. How was I to know know that he was about to abandon topicality completely? Reading David Brooks's mind, such as it is, is something that is difficult even for the professional (kids, don't try this at home). We can only hope that the Times gives up trying and decides to cut the Gordian knot by firing him.

March 08, 2005

Column 2005-3-8: Commentary

In this column, Brooks discusses the great contributions Paul Wolfowitz has made to the spread of freedom in the Muslim world. Or rather, he rails at those who have not acknowledged these contributions and predicts that these naysayers will be consigned to the dustbin of history. He spends a lot of time heaping praise on Wolfowitz and calumny on his detractors, yet hardly talks about his record at all, except in terms of the utmost generality. In fact, Brooks vilifies those who have attacked Wolfowitz recently to a degree unusual in his columns. This is the first sign that his case is not quite as strong as he would like you to think. The kind of smears that Brooks uses on Wolfowitz's opponents -- calling the left "infantile", the conservatives who opposed the war (generally known as realists) such as Brent Scowcroft, "condescending", and throwing a general accusation of anti-Semitism at all those who opposed Wolfowitz's policies -- are fairly unusual for Brooks, who generally tries to appear as a reasonable guy. Their presence here is meant to signal that Brooks is deeply disturbed by the fact that Paul Wolfowitz is not getting the praise he supposedly deserves, and to obscure the fact that Brooks doesn't actually present much evidence in support of his position. It's worth noting that Brooks has played the anti-Semitism card before when discussing opposition to neocon policies, though it's even more ridiculous this time, as I doubt that even the lunatics who propose "Zionist conspiracy theories" would put Wolfowitz at the center of them: after all, he's hardly the player that Cheney or Rumsfeld is. Brooks will undoubtedly claim, as before, that he did not intend to say that all Wolfowitz's critics were anti-Semites, just those who believe that he is part of a Zionist conspiracy, but any such claim is mere dissembling. Brooks obviously implies that criticism of Wolfowitz and anti-Semitism are closely linked, and posits "a hundred zillion" conspiracy theories in which Wolfowitz is the "clever-Jew-behind-the-scenes", obviously suggesting that this is a mainstream view (and perhaps it is in Iran, but if Brooks just meant Iran, he should have said so). And this really discredits his whole column. If Brooks had a substantive refutation of Wolfowitz's detractors, he would only address substantive criticisms of Wolfowitz (Zionist conspiracy theories do not qualify), and would refrain from deeply insulting everyone who has ever disapproved of Wolfowitz's actions -- especially the role he played as one of the chief architects of Bush's current foreign policy -- including the vast majority of American Jews, who voted against Bush in 2004.

After this attack on Wolfowitz's critics, Brooks neatly sidesteps the question of Wolfowitz's responsibility for the mess we are in Iraq. "Historians will figure out who was responsible for what, and Wolfowitz will probably come in for his share of the blame." Probably is a decided understatement. Wolfowitz will definitely come in for a sizable portion of the blame. It's possible that his motives were better than those of, say, Cheney. It's possible that he really believed what he said in his testimony to Congress (though that would cast serious doubts on his competency). But you can judge for yourself: the following excerpts from Wolfowitz's testimony to Congress on Feb. 27, 2003 were all taken from Informed Comment, the website of University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole:
"First, it's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine . . ."
"And the horrors of Iraq are very different from the horrific ethnic cleansing of Kosovars by Serbs that took place in Kosovo and left scars that continue to require peacekeeping forces today in Kosovo."
"The slaughter in Iraq -- and it's been substantial -- has unfortunately been the slaughter of people of all ethnic and religious groups by the regime. It is equal opportunity terror."
(For more on the ethnic conflicts that Wolfowitz is ignoring, see here. Wolfowitz also seems to have forgotten that when we talked about Saddam using chemical weapons against his own people, it was against the Kurds, not Sunnis or Shiites. And for more on the oppression of Kurds in Iraq since it was founded, see here.)
"And I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's reconstruction."
"Moreover, the Iraqis themselves can provide a good deal of whatever manpower is necessary. We are already training free Iraqi forces to perform functions of that kind, including command of Iraqis units once those units have been purged of their Baathist leadership."
"On the other side, we can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators, although based on what Iraqi-Americans told me in Detroit a week ago, many of them -- most of them with families in Iraq -- I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down."
Wolfowitz was wrong -- seriously wrong -- about every single point quoted here, and these none of these issues are trifling ones where a misstep might be acceptable. Either he was lying, or he was blinded by his own prejudices, and neither of those possibilities casts him in a particularly favorable light.

For more on Wolfowitz's prejudices, we need merely examine his record on Al Qaeda. Consider these quotes (again, all from Informed Comment): "Well, I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden." "You give bin Laden too much credit. He could not do all these things like the 1993 attack on New York, not without a state sponsor. Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don't exist." "Well, there are others that [pose an immediate and serious threat to the United States] as well, as least as much. Iraqi terrorism, for example." These quotes are admittedly from a pre-9/11 meeting, but they don't reflect too well on his judgement. And this wasn't an isolated example, either: Richard Clarke wrote in his book about how Wolfowitz leaned on the State Department to recall Robert Gelbard, the American ambassador to Indonesia, in early 2001 because he was making the Indonesians, including Wolfowitz's old friends from his time in Indonesia, uncomfortable by talking about Al Qaeda infiltration too much. And in October 2002, over two hundred people were killed in a terrorist attack on a Bali nightclub. When the Indonesians finally cracked down on Jemmah Islamiyah, many of the people Gelbard had warned about were found to be connected to the movement. Wolfowitz was more than a little short-sighted when it came to the terrorist threat, and his unwillingness to believe that Al Qaeda is a significant threat capable of operating on its own was clearly a major contributor in the administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Brooks follows this sidestep by claiming that "political earthquakes" are shaking the Arab world. And he's probably right, only not in the way he thinks. After all, earthquakes have a tendency to be very destructive, and what is more, indiscriminately so. Presumably, Brooks is referring to the usual suspects here: Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Iraq I'm not even going to discuss, except to mention that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently admitted that the insurgency could last at least a decade. Given the massive -- 500,000 people (which could be as much as 20% of the country's population) -- pro-Syrian protest that filled the streets of Beirut on March 8 -- considerably more massive than the largest anti-Syrian protest of the previous few days, which totalled around 70,000 people -- it seems that not all Lebanese define freedom as a lack of Syria. And guess what: the Hizbollah protesters were all hoising the country's flag as well. Perhaps the flag isn't the unifying symbol that Brooks thinks it is when he describes Lebanon as "a country that was once a symbol of tribal factionalism". There are good reasons for this, many of them having to do with Western interference to preserve the power of the Christian minority, and for Brooks to think that a few demonstrations will suffice to cover up the wounds of years of sectarian civil war is rather naive. It should be noted that the Shiites may well be taking this opportunity to demand more representation: they may now be as much as 40% of the population, far more than the the Christians, the most anti-Syrian group, who make up only about 25% of the population, yet due to Lebanon's method of distributing seats among confessional groups, left over from another era when Christians were a majority, the Shiites only have 27 out of 128 seats in the National Assembly and the Christians 63. While this is certainly a move that will have to be made before Lebanon becomes truly democratic, it should be remembered that the last time Muslims attempted to gain more representation, Christian resistance led to a 15-year civil war. But the tendency of the Bush administration to ignore sectarian tensions in countries is hardly surprising. Palestine is also often cited as a place where freedom has recently made strides, and while there are certainly encouraging tendencies, I've already covered the questionableness of Palestine's most recent elections and the persistent popularity of Hamas. As for Egypt and Saudia Arabia, the latter's elections were purely cosmetic and the former's will probably be as well. For one thing, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egpyt's most popular political party, will likely not be allowed to field a candidate (in case the link expires, the relevant quote is: "Opposition officials pointed out that Mubarak's proposals applied only to candidates of authorized political parties, meaning that representatives of banned groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood would not be permitted to run.") Do these developments add up to a political earthquake? They may well, but recall that the last time a popular revolution overthrew a Middle Eastern despot and replaced him with a more democratic system was in 1979, in Iran. In all the Middle Eastern countries where freedom is supposedly on the march, any free and fair elections would almost certainly return a government dominated by Islamic fundamentalists. Would this be a victory for freedom?

But according to Brooks, Wolfowitz should not simply be defined by his involvement in the current administration's Middle Eastern policy. He has also been "an ardent champion of freedom" in Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It would take a lot to overcome his recent miserable record, but the United States never invaded any of those places (at least, not within the last 30 years or so), which is a good start. So, in what ways has Wolfowitz championed freedom? Well, Brooks doesn't actually say. Instead, he launches into an enconium to Wolfowitz's "personal commitment". He actually learned the languages of the places he cared about, says Brooks! And he patiently listened to the leaders he cared about, even though they bored him to tears! Well, not that last part, but the use of patiently in this context is a little strange. More importantly, though, these would seem to be basic tasks that a diplomat should undertake. It's great that Wolfowitz cares enough about his job to try to do it right, but that doesn't mean anything. If I am to praise Wolfowitz, I need some actual instances of Wolfowitz championing freedom in a way that produced concrete results, and Brooks is curiously reluctant to provide any. Instead, he claims that praising Wolfowitz is not triumphalism. My first reaction was "well, you could have fooled me," but then I realized that Brooks is actually right about this. After all, there are no triumphs to point to, so clearly Brooks cannot be indulging in triumphalism. Though, in that case, why praise Wolfowitz? Because "he, in the core belief that has energized his work, may turn out to be right." Note that even Brooks cannot bring himself to say that Wolfowitz IS right. Frankly, if Brooks is going to write a column about how great Wolfowitz is, he might as well go the whole hog and say that he's right, facts or no facts.

But perhaps Brooks is going to offer some evidence from Wolfowitz's past to suggest that there's a good chance that he's right. Once again, though, our hopes are dashed. Instead, Brooks recounts a conversation he had with Wolfowitz after the Iraq election, in which, to be fair to Wolfowitz, he comes off as a lot more reasonable than Brooks (not that that is setting the barrier particularly high). Interestingly, according to Brooks, Wolfowitz suggests that military interventions to promote democracy are and will continue to be the exception. It is true, of course, that most American military interventions are intended to overthrow democratically elected governments, or replace an anti-American dictator with a pro-American one. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that any proclamations by members of this administration should be taken as lies until it is proved that they mean them, it is heartening to hear this. And on the heels of this declaration comes some actual things that Wolfowitz did. First, raising the profile of the Philippine dissident Benigno Aquino by meeting with him, though it's unfortunate that Brooks uses this an example of the U.S. preventing dictators from killing dissidents by giving the dissidents exposure, as Aquino was, in fact, killed upon his return to the Philippines. Brooks also cites a speech Wolfowitz gave in Indonesia calling for more openness, something which Indonesians might not have felt as scared of talking about under Suharto as freedom or democracy, which sparked "a great national discussion". But Wolfowitz was ambassador to Indonesia under Reagan, and Suharto remained in power until 1998 (and his overthrow was probably mostly due to the Asian currency crisis causing Indonesia's economy to crash). While these actions are praiseworthy, they are also mostly cosmetic. This is not necessarily Wolfowitz's fault, of course, as threatening to cut military aid, or some similar indication that the U.S. was serious about democracy in Indonesia, would have required more power than the ambassador could command. Nonetheless, it is hard to see why we should shower praise on him for this.

Brooks concludes with another shot at Wolfowitz's critics -- there's one in just about every paragraph, as if Brooks is laying down a smokescreen to provide cover for the column -- and some approving comments about Wolfowitz's faith in people. But for a column supposedly about Wolfowitz, we really haven't learned much about the Deputy Secretary of Defense. So let us examine a biography: specifically, this one (which is admittedly biased, so see also this one, which is probably biased in the opposite direction). Wolfowitz's views become apparent fairly quickly, as we learn that he opposed detente and arms control during the cold war. On the other hand, he did oppose having the United States work with dictators and pushed for democracy in the Philippines and Indonesia, with more success in the former than the latter. Wolfowitz also has the distinction of being one of the only key players in the Reagan administration to not have been tainted by Iran-Contra. As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy in the George H.W. Bush administration, Wolfowitz was instrumental in persuading Bush to use force to evict Saddam from Kuwait, and it took Powell's persuasion to prevent Bush from going on to Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam. Incidentally, the more I learn about Bush I's administration, the more it seems like Bush II was the exact same thing, only with a few of the outcomes changed around. Following the election of Clinton, Wolfowitz retreated into academia and became one of the founders of the Project for a New American Century, one of the main aims of which was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the creation of a democratic Iraq by force. In case anybody still doubts that the Bush administration was simply looking for an excuse to invade Iraq, and was planning such an invasion ever since Bush was elected, consider that other signers of PNAC's Statement of Principles included Rumsfeld, Cheney, Jeb Bush, and Lewis Libby. Other statements of Wolfowitz's on Iraq, taken from a report he prepared shortly before leaving the Pentagon in 1992, include “the United States represented a powerful force for good and had a duty to play an activist role in the world [even if unilaterally]”, calling for “the United States to perpetuate its military supremacy and prevent the emergence of any rival superpower,” and “approach regional conflicts with an eye toward encouraging the spread of democracy and capitalism.” And upon the election of Bush, Wolfowitz returned to government, determined that Iraq was the most important foreign policy issue facing the administration, certainly more important than "this one man, Bin Laden." So what can we learn from this brief examination of Wolfowitz's record? Well, he did some good things, though of somewhat limited efficacy, under Reagan, doesn't appear to be actually personally corrupt, and does believe in democracy, as Brooks said, and so is better than Cheney or Rumsfeld. On the other hand, he clearly believes implicitly in the principle that the U.S. military is always a force for good -- a proposition that it is clearly laughable to anybody who has actually studied U.S. history -- and is philosophically opposed to most international treaties. In sum, it appears that Wolfowitz is a wild-eyed idealist, with a dream of an international order of democracy and free markets benignly enforced by the matchless might of the U.S. military. Under Reagan, he was in the State Department and thus had no control over the military, forcing him to use diplomatic methods to promote democracy in ways that many liberals would probably have been happy about, while still lacking sufficient power to do something like undermine the ABM treaty. But when he moved to the Pentagon and gained more power in Bush I and Bush II, the military aspects of his philosophy came to the fore, with disastrous results. The fact is, despite Brooks's hype, Wolfowitz's work in the Reagan administration is really a footnote to history. What will be remembered is Wolfowitz's work in promoting the Iraq war, both as one of the chief layers of its philosophical foundations in the 1990's and as a member of the administration that initiated it. So far, we know that he will be remembered for fixating on Iraq to the exclusion of all else, including Al Qaeda. And he will be remembered for badly misjuding Iraq prior to the war (or else baldly lying about it). In fact, badly misjudging may be too lenient a term: he will be remembered for being completely wrong about Iraq, and whether he was wrong from good motives or not will not matter much. Most of all, he will be judged on the outcome of the Iraq war, and frankly, from here it's not looking too good. Most likely, history will see Wolfowitz as one of the men who sent hundreds (we hope not thousands) of American troops to their deaths in Iraq and killed thousands of Iraqis in the unrealistic hope that American military might could establish a secular democracy, only to undermine his own cause by completely misjuding the response of the Iraqis and the world to the invasion, leading to a long, bloody, and profitless occupation that was eventually ended by an American withdrawal, leaving Iraq a mess. I doubt that this is the way Wolfowitz hopes to be remembered.

I have to admit that my opinion of Wolfowitz was raised while doing the research for this piece. He does not appear to be quite as evil as Cheney or Rumsfeld (that may be the most left-handed complement ever). If Cheney and Rumsfeld are a ten on the evil scale (no, it does not go to eleven), Wolfowitz probably only rates an 8.5 or 9. And my opinion of Brooks did not go down, because there was nowhere for it to go. Allow me to summarize this column:
Paul Wolfowitz is great because he really likes democracy. And he may be right that the best way to spread democracy in the Middle East is to invade Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of American soldiers. Plus, he did some good things a long time ago. And all his critics are poopyheads. Oh, and Jew-haters.
Do the Times people even read his columns? And if they do, how do they justify allowing them to continue to appear on the editorial page?

March 05, 2005

Column 2005-3-5 Commentary

In this column, Brooks laments the passing of "The Public Interest", a magazine which he was a big fan of. In fact, according to Brooks, "over the past 40 years, The Public Interest has had more influence on domestic policy than any other journal in the country." Naturally, no evidence is given to support this contention. In fact, all we are told about the magazine's impact is that it never had more than 10000 subscribers. Was Reagan one of these subscribers? Did Clinton peruse it on a regular basis? Is George W. -- well, more likely Dick Cheney -- a regular reader? We are not told. It could be, of course, that everybody in Washington political circles knows about the magazine, and what we have here is simply a case of Brooks forgetting once again that most of his readers are not Washington insiders (I would call this elitism, except that only liberals are elitists, as is well known). However, I am left with a sneaking suspicion that Brooks, carried away by the influence that the magazine has had on him, is overstating its importance a wee bit. In fact, I can't help but wonder if this column is not the heartfelt cry of a writer who will have to find somewhere else to steal his ideas from, or, horror of horrors, actually have to think them up himself (assuming he's capable of that). Nonetheless, since this magazine clearly had a major impact on Brooks, an analysis of this column may give us some valuable insights on how he came to be the moron he is today.

In 1965, apparently, the magazine was founded with a fair degree of idealism and a strong liberal slant. It was based on the idea that the country's problems could be solved by pragmaticly designing government problems. "But the war on poverty did not go smoothly," Brooks says. True, and pointless, enough. Iraq hasn't gone smoothly either, and I don't think that Brooks would say that that's a reason to abandon it. Brooks then throws in a complete non sequitur: "All the indicators of social breakdown rose: divorce, out-of-wedlock births, violence, crime, illegal drug use, suicide." First of all, despite Brooks's attempt to tie this supposed social breakdown to the War on Poverty, there is no connection. Despite what Brooks might like to think, it is not only poor people who get divorced, have out-of-wedlock births, commit crimes (violent or otherwise), use illegal drugs, or commit suicide. An increase in divorce and out-of-wedlock births is likely tied to the fact that the taboos against those two things faded in the sixties. Brooks is certainly free to believe that this is a sign of the decline of Western civilization, and we are equally free to believe that this is just one more reason that he is a moron. The increase in illegal drug use is also more likely to have been caused by a change in societal attitudes than to the War on Poverty. In fact, much of the increase in drug use in the sixties was due to more middle-class whites using drugs. ("From the mid-sixties to the late seventies, the composition of drug users changed substantially. While drug use was still associated primarily with minorities and the lower classes, drug use by middle-class whites became a widespread and more accepted phenomenon.") Perhaps I may be misremembering the facts, but it seems to me that the War on Poverty targeted not middle-class whites, but rather poor minorities. Brooks is attempting to link some of the less savory aspects of the sweeping cultural changes of the sixties to the War on Poverty, a typically intellectually dishonest maneuver.

It could also be that he is simply reflecting the views of "The Public Interest", and that the magazine actually felt that the War on Poverty was responsible for some of these changes, which would immediately reduce any credibility it may have had (though finding out that Brooks worships the magazine eliminated most of its credibility). However, Brooks specifically fails to state that this is the case: what worries Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the co-founders of the magazine, in 1968 is the increase in the number of people on welfare and "the problem of dependency". These are perfectly reasonable things to be worried about, though it seems to me that anybody who thinks that four years is a reasonable amount of time in which to make great strides in eliminating poverty is a little naive. It is worth taking time here to defend the War on Poverty, a program that suffered from a succession of factors beyond its control ever since its inception in 1964. The first blow came in 1966, Republican gains in Congress combined with the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War made it very difficult for Johnson to pursue his domestic agenda, and no major new initiatives were passed from 1966-68. The centerpiece of the War on Poverty were the Community Action Agencies, established by 1964's Economic Opportunity Act. The CAA's were intended to encourage the poor to involve themselves in the attempts to lift them out of poverty, but in the late sixties they were steadily undermined by political elites who were worried about the development of a new power base. And then came Nixon, who hated the EOA and rolled back the its programs considerably. Finally, the seventies and early eighties saw economic problems that, understandably enough, distracted attention from programs to attack poverty.

It should be fairly clear that something as sweeping as an attempt to eliminate poverty would require a fairly long time. Some programs might not work, and new ones might have to be proposed and tried. A number of bright, dedicated people would be needed to work in the various programs, and also to evaluate the programs and attempt to improve the ones that were not working. Local communities would have to be involved. Money would be needed: at the very least, budget cuts every few years would have to be avoided. In 1964, it seemed that all of these conditions could be met for the foreseeable future, but such was not the case. There is a tendency now to see welfare as the central program of the War on Poverty, and to use this assumption to attack LBJ and the liberals for being foolish enough to think that poverty could be solved simply by giving poor people money, but a brief examination of the Economic Opportunity Act reveals that this is not even close to the truth. Johnson's plan was to use education (he was the first president to invest significant federal money in the public schools), job training and local community action to fight poverty. But without sufficient funding, continued government support, and community involvement, the War on Poverty was doomed to failure.

But to return to "The Public Interest", starting in 1968 the magazine became part of the anti-Great Society backlash. To quote Brooks, "It occurred to several of the editors that they had accepted a simplistic view of human nature. They had thought of humans as economically motivated rational actors, who would respond in relatively straightforward ways to incentives. In fact, what really matters, they decided, is culture, ethos, character and morality." Having realized that a purely money-based response to poverty was insufficient, the magazine swung around much too far in the other direction, disregarding the impact of economic status entirely. (At the same time, of course, the prong of the War on Poverty that was intended to change the culture of the poor and encourage them to help themselves through community action was being killed by Nixon.) Brooks mentions an essay that claimed that student achievement is influenced entirely by "family background and peer groups", with a small contribution from the "ethos of the school": things like how high the school's expectations were and what kind of environment the school provided. The amount of money spent, the teacher-student ratio, and the condition of the school were irrelevant. Of course, what James Coleman, the essay's author, ignored is that the ethos of the school is not completely independent from the amount of money spent on it. A dilapidated school is unlikely to provide a good evironment for learning. Teachers who are willing to work with students, encourage them, and provide a good environment are naturally going to be in high demand, so it may be necessary to spend money to hire them, and so the less money the school has to spend, the worse the teachers will be. But the main conclusion that one would draw from this essay is that students from poor family backgrounds in peer groups that don't care much about education -- i.e., poor inner-city minorities -- are just uneducable, and spending money to try to improve inner-city schools is simply a waste. Even assuming that there is no racism in this view, I don't believe that this is the case. After all, part of the point of teaching is to inculcate a certain amount of character in the students. This may well be more difficult with poor inner-city minorities, but the solution is not just to throw up one's hands and say "oh well, bad family background and peer group" but to work harder. Find better teachers. Create after-school programs and try to encourage all the students to attend them. Start earlier: provide affordable child care (the lack of which in the United States is a scandal) and use it to expose the children to education from an early age. Programs like Head Start and Upward Bound (both War on Poverty programs) already try to do similar things, and recieve nothing but budget cuts for their pains.

What this viewpoint -- "What matters most is the character of the individual" -- really represents is a throwback to the old Calvinist belief of predestination, only instead of whether or not a person is saved, it's now all about his or her character (of course, these two concepts are not that far apart). Quoting Brooks again, "When designing policies, it's most important to get them to complement, not undermine, people's permanent moral aspirations - the longing for freedom, faith and family happiness." Ignoring the question of whether or not those are people's permanent moral aspirations, the logical consequence of this approach is to say that, if people fail to be helped, they must not have the right moral aspirations and we shouldn't be helping them anyway. From there, it's a short step to saying that the poor with good characters will work their way up, and the others are poor because they deserve to be. Of course, the idea that character can be divorced completely from economic status is ridiculous. If everyone you see around you is poor, and their parents and their parents' parents were poor, well, it's not particularly surprising that you would come to the conclusion that no matter how hard you work, you're going to be poor as well. It's difficult to devote yourself to education if you can't see its good effects and aren't exposed to it outside of school. This is the kind of mentality that causes poor people to commit crimes: if there's no point in working within the system, why even try? And, of course, all these tendencies are exacerbated by racial tensions.

The flaws in this approach can be seen in the two great successes Brooks cites: welfare reform and foreign policy in the Middle East. First, welfare reform, which Brooks says encourages "work and responsibility", responsibility being another code word for "anything that happens to you is your fault." It's too late now, but the best way to reform welfare would be to include a sizable job training and education program (or to expand existing programs to cover welfare recipients) and to provide child care, as most welfare recipients are single mothers and child care costs are a significant barrier to work for low-income mothers (from this study, which you may not be able to access: the abstract is here). The kind of welfare reform that Brooks advocates simply pushes welfare recipients to get any low-paying, dead-end job they can find as soon as possible. Those who, for health, child care, or other reasons, can't find or hold a job, just have to make do however they can. One of the worst consequences of this policy is that the worst-off welfare recipients are the ones who get lost the soonest. Forty percent of women who were removed from the welfare rolls remain unemployed, and two-thirds of these mothers had incomes below half the poverty line. Even for those who do manage to find a job, success is not guaranteed: two-thirds have incomes below the poverty line. And many are unable to get the training or education they need for better jobs because they need to spend so much time working to support their families, or simply because of strict work requirements. Many of those who had found work still needed public support, often for health problems (as almost all had no health insurance). This doesn't seem to furthering a goal of ending poverty. And it should be noted that all the analyses done thus far were based on data gathered up until 2001, during a national boom in which many new jobs were created. Since then, the economy went into recession and employment stagnated: Bush only barely avoided a net loss of jobs during his first term, and it wasn't until January that nonfarm employment broke the pre-recession high of February 2001. Single mothers without education or job skills are likely to have considerable difficulty finding a job in this environment. Furthermore, the five-year limit imposed on welfare recipients did not take effect for most recipients until 2002, meaning that many were being kicked off of welfare right into an awful labor market. These two factors are likely to combine to create a considerably grimmer picture of welfare reform than we have seen yet. (All information from this site, which contains many studies from a study of welfare recipients commissioned by the federal government to evaluate welfare reform. See especially "Not By Jobs Alone").

The second example Brooks gives of the positive effect of adopting a character-first approach is a foreign policy example, Bush's Middle East policy, which is strange since "The Public Interest" is a magazine about domestic policy. But what is stranger is that Brooks claims that this foreign policy is "now contributing to the exhilarating revolutions we're seeing across the Middle East." I guess it isn't only Bush who hasn't been reading the newspapers recently. How many exhilarating revolutions are there currently in the Middle East? Well, unless Brooks intends to include Ukraine and Georgia in the Middle East, just one: Lebanon. Which may or may not qualify as a revolution, and the exhilaration was somewhat reduced by Hizbollah's announcement that it would support Syria (and since Hizbollah largely represents Lebanon's Shiites, and the Shiites are the largest confessional group in Lebanon, this is an important development). I don't think that the U.S. invading Iraq qualifies as a revolution. Iran has actually regressed, as the reform movement there has been crushed. Palestine has potentially become more democratic following the death of Arafat, but I don't think that a revolution has occured. There might still be one, of course, but if it does, the odds are good that Hamas will be behind it, and I don't think that Brooks will be particularly exhilarated. Finally, President Mubarak of Egypt has offered to hold show elections, and Saudia Arabia had some sham elections in which women were not allowed to vote that will change nothing. So to say that, thanks to Bush's foreign policy, exhilarating revolutions are sweeping across the Middle East is something of an overstatement.

Brooks concludes by talking of his growing sadness as he read over some back issues of "The Public Interest", (I can imagine his tears flowing as he realizes that now he's going to have to come up with his ideas himself) but I can't share in his grief. Brooks's column makes it clear that the magazine promoted a deeply wrongheaded view of domestic policy in which economic factors were disregarded in favor of more nebulous issues of character and culture, and we can but hope (though probably in vain) that the demise of this magazine is followed by the demise of the political philosophy it promoted. There is one potential positive outcome of applying this philosophy, though: the New York Times may examine Brooks's character and, finding him wanting, dismiss him from the editorial page.

March 01, 2005

Column 2005-3-1 Commentary

My first reaction on reading this column was relief: since I'm fairly busy this week, it was a good thing that Brooks had chosen today to write about couples not having joint bank accounts any more, a trivial topic to end all trivial topics. Incidentally, I really can't see how on earth Brooks manages to justify his wasting a column on this issue. Kristof has been writing about genocide in Darfur, Krugman about Social Security, Herbert about torture, and Friedman about the Middle East. Even Maureen Dowd has gotten into the act: her last two columns have been incisive attacks on Bush. And here we have Brooks with a column about how lots of couples have separate checking accounts. Apparently, Brooks didn't watch enough Sesame Street when he was a child. "One of these things is not like the others . . . ." I'll give you a hint: it's the one nobody cares about.

However, this column is not as completely trivial as, for instance, Brooks's recent column about how he can't get season tickets to the Washington Nationals because he's not as famous as Robert Novak. There are two points to be made about this column. The first one concerns the way Brooks frames the issue: it's about the communalism of the home vs. the individualism of everything else. Given that the Republican party has spent the last twenty-five years or so trying to dismantle all vestiges of communalism in our society and holding up individualism, in the form of free-market capitalism, as the greatest good, for Brooks to complain about "the powerful force of individualism" destroying "the communal ethos of the home" seems a little bit hypocritical to me. Brooks attacks the foremost symbol of communalism in our society, Social Security -- promoting personal accounts to replace it -- endorses Bush's call for an "ownership society" and constantly promotes personal responsibility, and then claims to be shocked that these things are being logically extended to family finances? Please. If he's worried about how nobody's sharing anymore, perhaps we can start with sharing the risks of retirement, or even (gasp!) sharing medical expenses.

A glimpse at the more important point here can be gained from looking at the examples that Brooks cites in this column. He starts out by discussing "Family Happiness", a Tolstoy novella narrated by a young woman who comes to realize that domestic happiness consists of sacrifices for her husband and children. Later, he mentions a Texas woman who is happy to have separate accounts, and sneers that he's not sure whether she was "talking about a marriage or a real estate partnership." In the first case, a woman comes to realize that true happiness comes from sacrifice: in the second, we have a woman who is, Brooks implies, a bad wife because she enjoys having a checking account all to herself. Similarly, a theme of sacrifice runs throughout the piece: true marital happiness, Brooks says, comes from sacrifice and saying farewell "farewell to the world of me, me, me." And this is all fine and dandy, except that, as Brooks's two examples illustrate, it is almost always women who are expected to make the sacrifices, giving up their careers and independence to become wives and mothers and not much else. Is he really glorifying marriage as it was in Tolstoy's time and holding that up as an example to be emulated? It is possible, of course, that Brooks honestly didn't think of any of this when he wrote the column, though given that Brooks believes that women need to marry earlier and have more children (thus sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the race -- I mean, nation), I'm disinclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Still, we must be fair. Brooks may not realize that he's endorsing a sexist worldview that's a throwback to the Victorian era, but that is what he is doing nonetheless, and it should be pointed out.

Since this commentary is so short, I'm going to fill in the extra space with a fearless prediction: Brooks will write a column in defense of Larry Summers within the space of his next three columns. In fact, I'm surprised he hasn't done it yet: this is exactly the kind of cultural topic that I would expect Brooks to sound off on, explaining how women are wrong to be upset over the suggestion, backed by no evidence at all and made by somebody who knows nothing about the topic, that they aren't as good at math and science as men. Obviously, they need to get married and have some kids. And they better not even think of having their own checking account.