June 02, 2005

Column 2005-6-2 Commentary

Today's Brooks column makes the (typically) moronic argument that because Europe is having some problems, "large swathes" of liberalism have been discredited. There are two ways to approach this piece of stupidity. One could be camly reasonable, for instance by pointing out that the U.K. boasts a far more comprehensive welfare state than the U.S. while still having relatively strong levels of economic growth compared to the U.S. (U.S. vs. U.K. [the comparison should be made to the blue line in the U.K. chart, which represents annualized quarterly growth, rather than to the green bars which are quarterly growth]) and enjoying an unemployment rate which is, in fact, lower than the U.S. rate. One could also say that just because liberals believe that we should move more towards a European model doesn't mean that we must slavishly copy that model: in fact, it would be perverse not to try to learn from European mistakes. And one could note that specific parts of the European model -- single-payer health insurance, for instance -- are still a good idea even if the model overall is flawed (for more on why American health care sucks compared to every other industrialized nation, see this great series at Angry Bear). On the other hand, prolonged exposure to Brooks makes a less reasonable approach, one in which we talk about how the failures of the American system are discrediting large swathes of conservatism, more appealing. For instance, the child poverty rate in the United States is far higher than it is in any other Western country. And the United States also has an overall poverty rate that is higher than that of any other Western country (France, the conservative bete noire, has a poverty rate that is less than half of what is in the U.S.). Or how about the awful health care system we have here, with a child mortality rate and life expectancy that are, again, higher than any other Western country has. If Brooks ever reads his own paper, he might have noticed a recent series concluding that economic mobility in the U.S. is at best the same as it is in Western Europe, and is less than that of some European welfare states. Income inequality in the United States is more comparable to that of third world countries than it is to Europe, and despite high GDP growth, real wages in the United States have been stagnant since 1960 (while real wages have continued to grow in other Western countries). In fact, one might go so far as to say that Europe has simply made different choices than the United States has, choices that restrain growth and raise unemployment but also provide a higher quality of life and ensure that fewer people fall into poverty. Of course, this would require taking a nuanced approach to the situation and moving away from the conservative fetishization of economic growth, two things that are well beyond Brooks's capabilities.

Brooks was, apparently, inspired to write this column by the rejection of the E.U. constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands. To Brooks, this means that " Western Europeans seem to be suffering a crisis of confidence," and " Right now, Europeans seem to look to the future with more fear than hope." As opposed to Americans, 60% of whom think the country is going in the wrong direction. European electorates have lost faith in the their leaders, Brooks says, while the fact that a whopping 34% of Americans think that Bush shares their priorities (and 20% think that Congress does) suggest that American leaders and the American people are comfortably on the same page. To Brooks, the defeat of the E.U. constitution shows that Europe has lost "momentum": he argues that "It is happier to live in a poor country that is moving forward . . . than it is to live in an affluent country that is looking back." I think the stupidity of this sentiment speaks for itself.

Brooks then goes on to perpetuate the usual canards about how low the standard of living in Europe is. I have no doubt that there are averaging measures that place Europe's standard of living well below that of the United States, but this is simply more of the Bill Gates walks into a bar fallacy. If you have a bar, and Bill Gates walks into it, the average worth of everyone in the bar immediately increases by a few billion dollars, but of course this doesn't improve their life at all. And given that poverty rates in Europe are less, and often considerably less, than those in the United States, it's hard to believe that these standard of living comparisons are particularly meaningful. Brooks acknowledges this when he writes that "Once it was plausible to argue that the European quality of life made up for the economic underperformance," but of course now "those arguments look more and more strained . . . ." Why exactly it's so much of a stretch to say that the average person in Europe lives as well or better than the average American is mostly unclear. Brooks says that it is "in part because demographic trends make even the current conditions unsustainable," but fails to mention what the other reasons are, most likely because they don't exist. And while demographic trends in Europe certainly don't look good now, one can hardly blame the welfare state for that, as demographic trends look bad in all Western countries. "Public spending on retirees will have to grow by a third" in Europe, Brooks asserts, but here at home Medicare spending alone is expected to quintuple in the next 75 years. Brooks is free to advocate simply cutting old people loose, but I doubt that this argument will be very popular.

Brooks then returns to the assertion that Europeans are simply fearful, arguing that most of their fears are "mutually exclusive" and that "[t]he only commonality was fear itself . . . ." What were these mutually exclusive fears, you ask? Well, according to Brooks, they were "the threat of economic liberalization" (i.e., making European economies more like the U.S.), "the threat of Turkey" (which presumably includes general worries about immigration), "the condescension of the Brussels elite", and "the prospect of a centralized European superstate" (interestingly, Brooks doesn't mention the Dutch worry that the new constitution would interfere with their policies on marijuana and gay marriage, or the common worry that the constitution was insufficiently democratic, which would seem to be one of the more important fears that voters had). Apparently, Brooks thinks it's incomphrensible that someone could worry both about the condescension of the elites and the imposition of greater economic liberalization, or that the threat of Turkey could be compatible with fear of a European superstate. To a non-moron, though, it should be obvious that all these worries flow from a general fear that the new E.U. is being constructed without regard to what the people living in it want, and their incompability is a mirage of Brooks's fevered brain.

Brooks's next argument is "the core fact is that the European model is foundering under the fact that billions of people are willing to work harder than the Europeans are." Well, naturally billions of people are willing to work harder than the Europeans are. Not coincidentally, billions of people can only dream of living a European lifestyle. Essentially, Brooks seems to be suggesting that the Europeans need to let a large fraction of their people drop into poverty (and, if the U.S. is any indication, stay there) because lots of other people are even poorer. How this would help the situation is unclear, though it would, of course, greatly help Europe's rich people, and the Republican party probably has a certain amount of fellow feeling for the wealthy on the other side of the Atlantic.

Finally, Brooks, who would presumably define himself as a conservative, finishes up by denouncing the welfare state for breeding conservatism. Yes, this does indeed make no sense. Furthermore, a little over a month ago, Brooks wrote a column in which he said that the American people were innately conservative, which was why they opposed every major program the Republican party has put forward since Bush's election. Yet, strangely enough, in a more recent column about the differences between poor Republicans and poor Democrats, Brooks noted that "Eighty percent [of poor Republicans] believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt." Given the most Democrats believe the same thing, and there are probably at least as many, if not more, poor Republicans as rich Republicans, we find that Brooks believes that the American people are conservative because they are opposed to Social Security privatization and want the government to do more to help the needy. If this doesn't convince you of Brooks's intellectual incoherence, nothing will. Perhaps the real answer here is simply that people in Western countries, Europeans and Americans, have seen unfettered capitalism and want no part of it. With the exception of some of the elites, they can see the value of a safety net, and would, miracle of miracles, rather not dismantle it on the off chance that they get lucky and become rich enough not to need it. To Brooks, Western Europe has failed, or is in the process of failing, but the people who actually live there seem to disagree, and given Brooks's track record in analyzing American society, it's far more likely that they are correct.