January 29, 2005

Column 2005-1-29 Commentary

This website was established to prove a simple and seemingly obvious fact: David Brooks is a moron. However, based on his latest columns, we have to face the possibility that we are wrong about this. It seems increasingly likely that Brooks is simply insane: unable to face reality, he has withdrawn from it and lives in a fantasy world of his own creation. Of course, it could also be that he is simply a moron who has bought completely into the fantasy world created by the administration. Either of those hypotheses could explain Brooks writing a column about how the Bush administration will be pursuing a kinder, gentler foreign policy in Bush's second term. However, this column is definitely incompatible with any scenario in which Brooks is paying any attention to what is actually going on in the world.

Let us begin by looking at a couple of articles in the very same edition of the New York Times that this column appeared in. One page A3, there is an article entitled "United States and Europe Differ Over Strategy on Iran". The substance of the article is that the United States continues to saber-rattle at Iran -- Bush has refused to rule out military action, Cheney calls Iran a top trouble spots and suggests that Israel might attack Iran -- while distancing itself from the European initiative to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions via negotations. This article from Reuters has more on the U.S. refusing to join talks on Iran's nuclear program. The NYT article also references a piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh reporting that the U.S. has teams in Iran preparing target lists (this article from the Guardian has more on Iran, as well as stating that U.S. officials have confirmed Hersh's claims). All together, this article does not suggest that the U.S. will be taking a softer path in Bush's second term.

But that's not all. On page A5, I see the headline "US Lobbies UN on Darfur and International Court". It seems innocuous, but the article is actually about American efforts to prevent those responsible for the Darfur atrocities from being tried by the ICC. According to the article, "Almost all of the members of the Council are known to favor that course [referring atrocities to the ICC for prosecution]". This includes Britain, America's staunchest ally. Apparently, the Bush administration's new commitment to playing well with others goes only so far.

Of course, Brooks is careful not to mention Iran in his column, except at the end in a disclaimer (essentially, he says "Warning: actual events may not match predictions"), and only mentions the UN in a sentence admitting that the administration is not likely to be making up with Kofi Annan anytime soon. However, he does make some specific claims on other foreign policy issues, ranging from the completely ridiculous to the merely unfounded.

Claim 1: "The campaign is over". By this, Brooks means that there will be less fighting in Bush's second term. There certainly won't be any new wars, because the Army can't handle it and a draft would hand Congress back to the Democrats, but the wars we currently have aren't going away and most likely will not get any smaller. Specifically, Brooks seems to think that the American role in Iraq is going to reduce steadily and that after the election, the American burden of offensive operations against the Iraqi insurgents will drop rapidly. The kind of wild, unbounded optimism needed to make this assertion verges on lunacy. Consider that only three days before the column was published, the U.S. experienced the deadliest day for its forces in Iraq. The day after the column was published, up to 15 Britons died, in what may well be Britain's single deadliest day in Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. is constructing "enduring bases" and will most likely maintain over 100,000 troops in Iraq until 2007. Maybe, as Brooks says, they'll be doing more training and less fighting, but even though they may not be there to fight the insurgents, the insurgents are there to fight them, and it only takes one to start a firefight.

Claim 2: The administration is much more interested in working with other counties than it was in the past. This sounds nice, but reading down reveals that Bush is still opposed to most international institutions. What they like are coalitions of the willing: i.e., a bunch of countries who are willing to do whatever the administration tells them. This is not actually working with other countries: this is merely adding an international cast to American unilateralism. It is interesting that Brooks mentions the institutions developed in response to the tsunami as instances of the administration making nice, given that Germany, Australia, and Japan were all more generous in absolute terms and most European countries were more generous in terms of dollars as percentage of GDP.

Claims 3: The administration is going to concentrate more on the soft power aspects of diplomacy, specifically trade, education, and anti-AIDS programs. The evidence for this? Well, Brooks thinks "they mean it". Call me cynical and jaded, but I'm not particularly impressed.

Claim 4: The reduction in friction between the State Department and the Pentagon is a sign of the new beginning in American foreign policy. Well, that's one interpretation. I have a different one: friction was reduced because the war between State and Defense is over, with Defense winning hands down. The appointment of Rice gives Bush and Cheney direct control over the State Department: as Powell and Richard Armitage leave, they take the State Department's independence with them (see this editorial in the Guardian). The influence of the realists is further reduced with the ejection of Brent Scowcroft. "It's hard now even to see a split, at least within the administration, between so-called realists and so-called neocons", says Brooks. He is correct, but he neglected to note that this is because there are no more realists in the administration.

Claim 5: "People are even tired of fighting with Europe." Evidence: "'Let's stop analyzing this relationship' somebody pleaded". First of all, Brooks doesn't say who the somebody is. Hell, it could even be him. And secondly, there is a difference between being tired of talking about fighting with Europe and actually being tired of fighting with Europe. And finally, there is a difference between being tired of fighting with Europe and being determined to stop fighting with Europe: in fact, given various pieces of evidence presented above, it seems very unlikely that the U.S. will have fewer conflicts with Europe in Bush's second administration.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is a basic problem with Brooks's column: he does not recognize that while the U.S. busied itself with Iraq, the world has changed. While the U.S. is still unchallenged militarily, the limits of its military power are clearly apparent, and it is no longer the pre-eminent diplomatic and economic power of the world. Three years ago, we lived in a unipolar world: now, it is increasingly recognized that the world is multipolar. For instance, Brooks says that the administration is eager to talk about Latin America. At one point, the creation of the U.S.-led Free Trade Area of the Americas was a major goal of American foreign policy. But then Iraq happened, and in the meantime South America began moving in a different direction. Led by Brazil, they are forming their own group to compete with the proposed FTAA, the South American Community of Nations. Elsewhere, Russia, China, and India are potentially moving closer together, with the possible addition of Brazil to form a potentially powerful bloc of emerging economies. India no longer regards the US as central to its foreign policy, and may even be fairly indifferent to America. The fact is, the Iraq debacle has seriously damaged the U.S.'s position in the world, and emboldened other countries to form their own alliances and use their soft power while the U.S. was wasting its military in the Middle East. See this article for an interesting analysis of the movement towards multipolarity (I apologize for the fact that it is from Pravda, but it definitely appeared somewhere more reputable: I just can't remember where or find it anywhere else). Since it is rather unlikely that the Bush administration will accept that America has lost its position as the sole major power since the Iraq war started, having been joined on the stage by the E.U., Russia, China, India, and Brazil, it seems that the soft power initiatives that Brooks trumpets are unlikely to go very far.

Brooks's refusal to face certain realities about the world strongly suggests that he has decided to write columns about a personal fantasy world. If the New York Times plans to switch all its reporting to Brooks's fantasy world, then they should keep him as a columnist: otherwise, it may be time to find someone who actually lives in this world.

January 25, 2005

Column 2005-1-25 Commentary:

Amazingly, Brooks manages to top the idiocy and naivete of his last column in this one. Taking a break from promoting rampant militarism, Brooks looks at the home situation and realizes, with a gasp, that all is not well. Shockingly, social mobility in the U.S. is limited! Amazed, Brooks calls on the President to take up social mobility as a new cause. Since this an economic issue, and thus something that Brooks is usually reluctant to touch, it is completely unsurprisingly that he achieves new heights (or perhaps depths) of foolishness in this column.

First, to get some perspective on Brooks's surprise at finding that there are serious barriers to upward social mobility in our perspective, note that there have always been such barriers, and social mobility in the U.S. has never been as pervasive as everybody likes to think (see, for example, this article. "Our favorite stories involve immigrants climbing from obscurity to success" Brooks says. Absolutely true. Americans also love stories about witches, dragons, talking animals, dwarves, and fairies, but that doesn't mean that such things exist. Of course, many immigrants certainly do achieve success from obscurity, but many, many more don't.

Brooks's belief in the widespread presence of upward social mobility in the U.S. is painfully naive. Consider this sentence: "That suggests that the family you were born into matters more and more to how you will fare in life." Not only is it a bad sentence (read it out loud, and ponder the "to"), and probably ungrammatical, Brooks is presenting as a surprising and disturbing discovery the deeply obvious fact that the class level you are born into has a major effect on the class level you end up in. Brooks's assertion that we are developing a hereditary class system is similarly laughable. We've had such a system ever since the country was founded. Sure, it's somewhat flexible, but it ought to be obvious that being born into a wealthy, and so most likely educated, family gives one significant advantages over being born into a poor and less educated family. The main reason we think of the U.S. as having so much social mobility are its immigrants. The children of the dirt-poor immigrants who come to the U.S. have always been (with the exception of slaves) likely to make more than their parents. Otherwise, the Horatio Alger stories are exceptions to the rule.

Furthermore, it is completely ridiculous that Brooks is making his appeal for more social mobility to George W. Bush, a man who symbolizes the hereditary upper class of the United States. Bush has been pushed by the family name and the family fortune on every step of his way to the Presidency. Despite the fact that he was a mediocre student at Andover, with a SAT score of 1206 and grades that caused his college admissions counselor to suggest that he might want to think about other schools than Yale (my source for this is his officially-sanctioned biography, written by Karen Hughes), he was admitted to Yale. Later, he used his name to get into the National Guard and then blow off part of his obligation so he could go to Harvard Business school. His failed business ventures were routinely bought out by family friends. He bought part of the Texas Rangers for a fairly small sum, and then made a huge profit when the team was bought by Tom Hicks, another Bush family friend. The only basis for his election first as governor of Texas and then as president was name recognition which his father and grandfathers had earned. Despite Brooks's assertion that we now have a "hereditary meritocratic class" in this country, Bush obviously owes far more to the hereditary part than to the meritocratic part. And this is the person that Brooks wants to start campaigning for more social mobility. Somehow, I don't think that this is too likely to happen.

Finally, the sheer awfulness of this column as a piece of writing is depressing. First of all, Brooks doesn't actually go anywhere in this column. He has no conclusion, no plan of action, no real point to make: he just wants to say that a lack of social mobility is bad, and it would be nice if the President could address it. He doesn't even suggest any ways to remedy the problem, though he does make sure to say that simply spending more money in trying to improve inner-city education is definitely not the way to go. He presents some statistics, makes some obvious points, and calls it a day. And his writing is poor. I've noted a couple of examples above, and there are others. Consider the last paragraph: "President Bush spoke grandly and about foreign policy last Thursday, borrowing from Lincoln. Lincoln's other great cause was social mobility. That's worth embracing too." Bush spoke "grandly and about foreign policy"? Well, that's grammatical, but what he probably wants to say is simply that Bush spoke grandly about foreign policy. Brooks also refers to Lincoln's other great cause, suggesting that Lincoln's first great cause was foreign policy, which is probably not the effect he wants to produce.

Some of these problems could probably be avoided if the NYT just got Brooks an editor. But I have a counterproposal: just get rid of Brooks. It would save the cost of an editor and at the same time improve the quality of the editorial page by about 200%

January 22, 2005

Column 2005-1-22 Commentary: Fantasy and Reality

The only possible response this Brooks column can provoke is hysterical laughter. Well, that may be an exaggeration: it is possible that a reader might just laugh, without actually going into hysterics. Brooks honestly expects us to believe that Bush's inaugural speech is going to cause a sea change in U.S. foreign policy. Now that Bush has declared, in a speech, that freedom is America's calling, and we should all fight tyranny just as hard as we can, we are immediately going to start putting pressure on every dictator in the world to reform. Most-favored-nation trade status for China? Gone. Foreign aid to Egypt? No more. Bush is going to stop being nice to Vladimir Putin, dump Pervez Musharraf, and kick Uzebekistan out of the coalition of the willing. I may be more cynical than Brooks is about American foreign policy, but it would take extreme naivete (or, of course, extreme idiocy) to believe that Bush's speech actually heralds any significant changes.

"His words will be thrown back at him and future presidents", Brooks says. First of all, I can think of only three inaugural addresses that are actually still remembered: Lincoln's two, and JFK's. The chances of this one being added to this list are pretty slim. Second of all, it's not as if Bush is the first significant American, or for that matter the first President, to speak about spreading freedom. Ronald Reagan, for instance, talked about spreading freedom a lot: see, for instance, this speech, from 1982. Did this stop him from supporting pro-U.S. dictators? Not at all. In fact, one might argue that this 1982 speech had no effect on U.S. foreign policy outside of its relations to the U.S.S.R. Similarly, Bush's speech is unlikely to have any effect on foreign policy other than providing ongoing justifications for anything Bush happens to feel the need to do in the war on terror. At any rate, that's what a senior administration official says: Daily Kos has the story. It's a good thing that Brooks thought to include a sentence about how Bush will not live up to his own standard.

This pretty much demolishes Brooks's column, but let us examine a few of the concrete consequences he claims anyway, because otherwise my commentary will be way too short. First, he says that when Bush visits China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there. Perhaps so. Perhaps Bush will mention them. Briefly. Before going on to more important subjects, like the billions of dollars American companies have invested in China, and the fact that China is playing a large role in subsidizing the U.S.'s debt. Sure, it's not entirely in China's interest to decide that they're going to stop subsidizing the debt and start selling off treasury bonds, but then again, it's not as if the rulers of China are accountable to anybody. If the rulers of China are unhappy about the way Bush is treating them, they could probably cause a serious depression in the U.S, and I imagine that Bush is more worried about this possibility than about the sufferings of some political prisoners, horrible though they may be.

In fact, Brooks states the Bush will never be able to have warm relations with dictators, because he has said no relations with tyrants can be successful. I guess those family friends from the House of Saud are going to have to stop coming around. Or maybe some sort of grandfather clause can be put together to allow Bush to keep hanging out with them. And I bet Pervez Musharraf is going to be disappointed to hear that his relations with Bush will never be warm. For this, he went through two assassination attempts by Islamic fundamentalists? This might lead him to think that he perhaps he should be listening to those guys from the ISI who keep telling him that Osama Bin Laden isn't such a bad guy if you get to know him.

Brooks says, with a straight face: "It will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades -- support strongmen . . . because they happen to be our strongmen." First of all, as noted above, Reagan was a big guy for spreading freedom, and also a big fan of supporting Latin American strongmen. Secondly, Bush has already tried to incite a coup in Venezuela against a democratically elected but anti-American president, Hugo Chavez. In the old days, it would have been because Chavez had gotten too close to the U.S.S.R.: in this brave new world of ours, Bush was worried about Venezuela's oil. The result, however, was the same.

It will also be harder, Brooks says, to "cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror." And allowing them to be overthrown and replaced with fundamentalist Islamic theocracies helps the war on terror how? Anyway, we've been spending most of our time cozying up to Asian dictators to help us win the war on terror, such as Karimov, in Uzbekistan, and Musharraf. Incidentally, here's a piece of trivia for you: on the eve of the Iraq war, there did exist a dictator with WMD's, ties to Islamic terrorists, and possibly even links to 9/11 (there were certainly very strong links to the Taliban). That dictator was Pervez Musharraf. So, naturally, we invaded Iraq. Anyway, Brooks doesn't eliminate the possibility of cozying up to Arab dictators for their oil, so we don't even have to start figuring out who can be included under the grandfather clause.

Finally, Brooks claims that this speech of Bush's will help military morale. Well, this may be so. It could probably use some help. What is interesting is that he then lists some people who have articulated "the core ideals of this country": Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, FDR, Truman, JFK, Reagan, and Bush. Yes, you read that correctly: Walt Whitman. Now, I will freely admit to an unfamiliarity with Walt Whitman's oeuvre, much less his life and times, but I'm pretty certain on one point: Whitman was never President of the United States. And frankly, when one thinks of people who have spoken of the core ideals of the U.S.A., Whitman's is not a name that leaps to mind.

There is one reasonable explanation for the inclusion of Whitman in this list that I can think of. It could be a subtle signal that the NYT has actually gotten rid of Brooks, and has replaced him with an extremely clever Brooks parodist. That would actually make sense. After all, no one could really be stupid enough to write this column and naive enough to believe it. But then again, I wouldn't have thought that anybody would be stupid enough to hire David Brooks as a columnist and naive enough to believe that he would write good columns either.

Column 2005-01-22, "Ideals And Reality"

David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:

If you want to understand America, I hope you were in Washington on Thursday. I hope you heard the high ideals of President Bush's inaugural address, and also saw the stretch Hummer limos heading to the balls in the evening.

I hope you heard the president talk about freedom as ''the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul,'' and also saw the drunken, loud and privileged twentysomethings carrying each other piggyback down K Street after midnight.

What you saw in Washington that day is what you see in America so often -- this weird intermingling of high ideals with gross materialism, the lofty and the vulgar cheek to cheek.

The people who detest America take a look at this odd conjunction and assume the materialistic America is the real America; the ideals are a sham. The real America, they insist, is the money-grubbing, resource-wasting, TV-drenched, unreflective bimbo of the earth. The high-toned language, the anti-Americans say, is just a cover for the quest for oil, or the desire for riches, dominion and war.

But of course they've got it exactly backward. It's the ideals that are real.

Two years from now, no one will remember the spending or the ostrich-skin cowboy boots. But Bush's speech, which is being derided for its vagueness and its supposed detachment from the concrete realities, will still be practical and present in the world, yielding consequences every day.

With that speech, President Bush's foreign policy doctrine transcended the war on terror. He laid down a standard against which everything he and his successors do will be judged.

When he goes to China, he will not be able to ignore the political prisoners there, because he called them the future leaders of their free nation. When he meets with dictators around the world, as in this flawed world he must, he will not be able to have warm relations with them, because he said no relations with tyrants can be successful.

His words will be thrown back at him and at future presidents. American diplomats have been sent a strong message. Political reform will always be on the table. Liberation and democratization will be the ghost present at every international meeting. Vladimir Putin will never again be the possessor of that fine soul; he will be the menace to democracy and rule of law.

Because of that speech, it will be harder for the U.S. government to do what we did to Latin Americans for so many decades -- support strongmen to rule over them because they happened to be our strongmen. It will be harder to frustrate the dreams of a captive people, the way in the early 1990's we tried to frustrate the independence dreams of Ukraine.

It will be harder for future diplomats to sit on couches flattering dictators, the way we used to flatter Hafez al-Assad of Syria decade after decade. From now on, the borders established by any peace process will be less important than the character of the regimes in that process.

The speech does not command us to go off on a global crusade, instantaneously pushing democracy on one and all. The president vowed merely to ''encourage reform.'' He insisted that people must choose freedom for themselves. The pace of progress will vary from nation to nation.

The speech does not mean that Bush will always live up to his standard. But the bias in American foreign policy will shift away from stability and toward reform. It will be harder to cozy up to Arab dictators because they can supposedly help us in the war on terror. It will be clearer that those dictators are not the antidotes to terror; they're the disease.

Bush's inaugural ideals will also be real in the way they motivate our troops in Iraq. Military Times magazine asked its readers if they think the war in Iraq is worth it. Over 60 percent -- and two-thirds of Iraq combat vets -- said it was. While many back home have lost faith, our troops fight because their efforts are aligned with the core ideals of this country, articulated by Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, F.D.R., Truman, J.F.K., Reagan and now Bush.

Americans are, as George Santayana observed, ''idealists working on matter.' ' On Thursday in Washington, the ideal and the material were on ample display. And we're reminded once again that this country has grown rich, powerful and effective not because its citizens are smarter or better, but because the ideals bequeathed by the founders are practical and true.

January 18, 2005

Column 2005-1-18 Commentary:

Every once in a while, David Brooks decides that the Democratic Party desperately needs the benefit of his advice. Whether he does this to destroy the Democrats by misleading them or hopes merely to pull them further to the right so that the Republicans can go even further right is unclear. It's also possible that he's just a moron and honestly believes that he is giving the Democrats the best possible advice. As this column illustrates, though, the leaders of the Democratic Party should not be asking themselves "What would David Brooks do?"

Brooks begins by drawing a distinction between two types of Democrats: those inspired by Clinton and those inspired by Gingrich. The Clintonites, according to Brooks, are Democrats like Gene Sperling and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, who are trying to come up with a compromise proposal for Social Security reform that could possibly attract bipartisan support. Brooks says, approvingly, that these politicians still have "a governing mentality -- even in the minority". The "Gingrich Democrats", on the other hand, are attempting to fight the Republicans with the same ruthlessness and discipline that the Republicans have used on them for so long and which are associated in particular with Newt Gingrich, especially during the health care fight in Clinton's first term. This is a bad idea, Brooks says: if the Democrats want to stay competitive, they must not get "caught in a cycle of negativity and oppositionism".

The first problem with this analysis is that Brooks is exaggerating the extent to which Democrats are preparing to imitate Gingrich. He states that "they [the "Gingrich Democrats"] feel that Social Security reform is to Bush what health care reform was to Clinton -- the big overreach that will allow the opposing party to deliver a devastating blow to the president", which is pretty much true, or at least proves that Brooks and I read the same liberal blogs (for instance, see this article, Hardball 101, in The New Republic). However, Brooks's assumption that this is part of a grand Democratic strategy is unwarranted. Democrats are, quite rightly, banding together to prevent any sort of Social Security reform that involves privatization from being implemented. Should the president actually come up with any reasonable programs -- for universal health insurance, for instance -- I would hope that the Democratic party would support them. Luckily for my faith in the Democratic party, no such thing is likely to happen.

Furthermore, the Clinton way that Brooks approves of is a guaranteed failure, for a reason that Brooks himself admits: the Democrats are now in the minority. They are no longer governing, which makes the "governing mentality" something of a handicap. Clinton could float proposals that might draw bipartisan support because he had the presidency, which gave him some leverage. But right now, the chances of any Democratic proposal garnering enough support to pass both the House and the Senate and override a veto by Bush are, essentially, zero, unless these proposals have such major public support that it would be very difficult politically for the Republicans to oppose them. Therefore, negotiation with the Republicans is probably pointless, even assuming any Republicans want to negotiate, or will be allowed to negotiate: Bush's idea of reaching out is offering the Democrats a chance to lie down so he can walk all over them, instead of knocking them down. In fact, such negotiation helps the Republicans, by giving them a veneer of bipartisanship which they can use to help sell their plans to the public. The Democrats will extract a handful of meaningless concessions, most of which will be removed when the Senate version of the bill is reconciled with the House version, the Republicans have another legislative triumph to boast about in the next election year, and the country continues to go straight to hell. All this could be gathered by anyone who was paying attention to what happened in the last Congress. Apparently, Brooks had other things on his mind.

The only way the Democrats can get anything that Bush does not approve of passed is to swing public opinion to their side. If polls suggest that the public prefers the Democratic approach by large enough majorities, it is likely that enough Republicans will defect to the Democrats to get a Democratic bill passed. But this requires that the Democrats be loud about the virtues of their own plan and louder about the problems inherent in the Republican one. And in the case of Social Security, it is actually counterproductive for the Democrats to trumpet their plan to save Social Security. They want to establish that Social Security is not in need of saving, that anybody who says so, including the president, is simply lying, and that privatization would not improve the problem and would actually probably make it worse (see the Daily Howler for presidential lies, There Is No Crisis for the non-existence of the crisis, and every column Paul Krugman has written for about a month for lucid explanations of what is going on). Making a big fuss about their plan for Social Security suggests that there are serious problems. Instead, once the Democrats have proved their point, they can introduce a plan which makes a few small tweaks to the system. For other issues, introducing a competing proposal right away will make more sense, as long as it is born in mind that the point is to make one's case to the public, not to come to common ground with the Republicans.

Brooks's column suggests that Democrats would be best off trying to accommodate the Republicans, too compromise when necessary and to avoid, above all, being obstructionist. Or, alternatively, to avoid above all standing up for their principles. Given that the common complaint about the Democratic party these days is that nobody knows what it stands for, this sounds like bad advice to me. Brooks justifies it by claiming that demographics are against the Democrats: there are three conservatives for every two liberals. Not only is this number unsourced, it is irrelevant. After all, the Republicans do not control 60% of the House. Bush did not get 60% of the vote in the last election. In fact, if anything, it suggests that the Democrats are doing a better job of appealing to moderates than Republicans are. His claim that a Republican can be quite conservative and still win the presidency ignores the fact that Bush ran as a moderate in 2000. Compassionate conservatism didn't last long, but Bush certainly did not present himself as the kind of far-right conservative he proved to be. As for 2004, well, let me take a leaf from Bush's book for a moment: 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, . . . . And, of course, all these arguments are rendered completely moot by the fact that the number of eligible voters who did not vote in the last election outnumbered those voting for either party.

In closing, Brooks advises the Democratic party to find a leader who will "make liberals feel uncomfortable", a piece of advice that is just as good as anything else Brooks writes in this column. I have some advice, too. It's for the New York Times, and it has to do with finding a columnist who is not a moron.

Column 2005-01-18, "The Gingrich Democrats"

David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:

The Social Security debate has exposed interesting differences within the Democratic Party between those who are inspired by Bill Clinton and those who are inspired by -- wait for it -- Newt Gingrich.

The Clintonites oppose President Bush's plan to carve out private accounts. But infused with those reconciling ''third way'' instincts, they are quick to come up with alternative plans they hope will win bipartisan support.

Clintonites like Gene Sperling or Representative Rahm Emanuel still tend to have a governing mentality -- even in the minority, they are always proposing things, rarely just opposing.

The Democratic Gingrichians are different. They feel that Social Security is to Bush what health care reform was to Clinton -- the big overreach that will allow the opposing party to deliver a devastating blow to the president, and maybe even regain control of Congress.

Their core belief is that Republicans have won of late because they have been ruthless and disciplined while Democrats have been responsible and wimpy. It is time, the neo-Gingrichians say, to scorch the earth. ''I believe that the Republican majority has acted in such a dictatorial fashion that a full-scale revolt is the only solution,'' the Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson told Michael Crowley of The New Republic.

That means waging a Gingrich-style war on the entire Congressional power structure. That means furiously opposing every other Bush initiative. That means giving up any hope of trying to work with Republicans, but staging an all-out effort to crush and delegitimize them.

The problem with the neo-Gingrichians is that they have their history backward. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 with only 43 percent of the vote. When Gingrich began his assault, there already was a potential conservative majority in the country; it's just that many of these conservatives, for historical reasons, tended to vote Democratic in Congressional races.

What the Republicans achieved in the first two years of the Clinton term was simply this: By exploiting issues like health care, gays in the military, midnight basketball and so on, they persuaded conservatives to vote Republican. The 1994 election was the culmination of a long process in which voters' ideology finally got in line with their partisanship. Gingrich, Armey and company only had to appeal to conservatives to win big.

The Democrats today are in a very different position. They already have all the liberals. What they lack is support from middle-class white families in fast-growing suburbs. But by copying the Gingrich tactics -- or what they think of as the Gingrich tactics -- of hyperpartisanship and ruthless oppositionalism, they will only alienate those voters even more.

They won't turn themselves into the 1990's Republicans. They will turn themselves into the 1930's Republicans or the current British Tory Party. They will become a party caught in a cycle of negativity and oppositionalism. They will score occasional victories against the majority party, which will yield no lasting benefits to themselves. They may delay Social Security reform, but that doesn't mean voters will trust them with power any time soon.

There is an essential asymmetry in American politics today. There are three conservatives in this country for every two liberals. A Republican can be quite conservative -- like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush -- and still win the White House. But only one Democratic presidential candidate has won over 50 percent of the vote in the past 40 years (Jimmy Carter got 50.1 percent in 1976).

That means Republicans can rely on their core instincts and still win, while Democrats cannot. If you look at the race for Democratic Party chairman, you get the impression this is a party that understands this and will seek out people who see the world differently.

But if you look at the campaign against Social Security reform in Congress, you see a party still believing the old ideas will work if only they are pursued more ruthlessly.

This is a delusion. Newt Gingrich did help Republicans regain the majority. But that doesn't mean his tactics, even in caricature form, will work for the Democrats, whose problems are deeper. The truth is that Democrats probably need a leader who will make liberals feel uncomfortable, the way Clinton did, not someone who will make them feel righteous and good.

January 15, 2005

Column 2005-1-15 Commentary: Empty Heads, Empty Words

In this column, Brooks manages to identify an actual societal problem: the difficulty many educated middle-class women have of balancing children and a career, though typically for Brooks, he is more worried about women who sacrifice children for a career than those who sacrifice a career for children. His solution is simple: change society so as to make it easier for women to have children before moving into the workforce. Interestingly, the only way Brooks, supposedly a conservative, can think of to accomplish this change is a massive government-run social engineering program in which young couples are paid to have children. How will we pay for it? Well, perhaps we can take some money from the elderly: says Brooks, "the government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families". I suppose this is as good a reason for dismantling Social Security as any. And if those damn old people complain, well, they can just go back to work.

For once, Brooks starts off his column with some facts. Naturally, this doesn't last long, and by the second paragraph, he is into full-fledged speculation: "this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness". While this is very poetic, and may be true for some childless women, Brooks makes no attempt to back this assertion with facts and fails to mention for just how many women this is the case.

Brooks follows this up by pointing out the obvious: women can't always choose when to have children and when to work on a career. His claim that this is the most important reason why women have smaller familes these days is considerably more dubious and is presented, as per usual, with no evidence. Instead, Brooks describes a typical career path for a middle-class woman, with, probably, some accuracy -- as no evidence is given, it's hard to tell how much -- and claims that it is completely turned around: when women are most fertile, they are working, and when they should be working, they're raising their kids. How much better, Brooks says, if they made an effort to marry early and had kids in their twenties, and then headed out into the world of work.

Who knew that the solution to this problem was simply for women to marry earlier and have kids earlier? All they have to do is "make a . . . effort": how complicated can it be? Well, in fact, there are a couple of complications Brooks is eliding as he blithely urges women to "make a greater effort to marry earlier". There's the question of finding someone to marry, for one thing. This is not always quite as easy as Brooks seems to think. Furthermore, people often want to use their early twenties to do things -- join the Peace Corps, join the Army, travel around the world, etc. -- in which a spouse might, and children certainly would, be a hindrance.

There are also economic reasons for not marrying and having kids early: college-educated people in their early twenties tend to not be making as much money as they will be later on, especially if they are pursuing advanced degrees. This may not stop two people from marrying, but it will most likely encourage them to delay having children, especially as the one of the wage earners will abrubtly bring in far less money or stop bringing money in altogether. Having one child, much less the two or three that Brooks mentions as being the ideal size for a family, requires some significant expenses. A larger apartment or possibly even a house, perhaps in a nicer neighborhood, is one big one. Given how much college costs these days, it's probably best to start saving fairly soon. And then there are the basics: food, clothes, toys, etc. For a couple in their twenties, likely still paying off college loans, and possibly law/medical/business/other school loans as well, this may well represent more money than they feel they can come up with, which is one big reason children are put off until their thirties, when they feel they are making enough money to afford them. We should not be surprised, though, that Brooks ignores all of these factors in his column: he routinely overlooks economics when he attempts to analyze some aspect of American culture.

Finally, there are the obstacles faced by a woman -- or, for that matter, a man: there may be some stay-at-home dads -- who, after years away from her chosen field raising kids, attempts to break into it. For instance, what if she wants to do something that requires an advanced degree which she doesn't already have? To Brooks, the solution is easy: graduate programs specifically for parents. Even asssuming such programs are feasible on the large scale that would be required, some problems remain. For one thing, graduate/law/medical/business school can take up a lot of one's time, more than an ordinary job might, and with less flexibility. Can a woman with two or three young kids really go to medical school and get an M.D.? Well, yes, but it would probably require exceptional effort and an extremely understanding husband. Once again, economics rears its head: advanced degrees can be expensive. Much money is already being spent on kids: will there be enough left? And even if the woman already has sufficient credentials for the career she wants to pursue, she will have to compete against people who are years younger, more energetic, and without ties. The fact is, employers will most likely be reluctant to consider a woman in her mid-to-late thirties with several kids for a job that is usually given to someone in their early-to-mid twenties without any such obligations.

This whole colum was inspired by "those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret having kids, or not having as many as they would like", as Brooks puts it in his last paragraph. One solution to this problem which he does not seem to have thought of is for these middle-aged and childless couples to have children. Science has developed various ways of prolonging fertility, and if one does not want to risk having quintuplets because of taking fertility drugs, there is always adoption. Brooks claims that rising fertility rates would be good for the country: apparently he's never heard of the world's overpopulation problem. While adopting kids in one's forties is certainly not a perfect solution to the problem of balancing children and a career, it's a lot more feasible than Brooks's solution.

Brooks's motives for writing this column were good, but more than good intentions are needed, and once again I find myself at a loss to explain why the New York Times has given him a column.

Column 2005-01-15, "Empty Nests, And Hearts"

David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:

Over the past 30 years, the fraction of women over 40 who have no children has nearly doubled, to about a fifth. According to the Gallup Organization, 70 percent of these women regret that they have no kids.

It's possible that some of these women regret not having children in the way they regret not taking more time off after college. But for others, this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness.

And it is part of a large pattern. Most American still tell pollsters that the ideal family has two or three children. But fewer and fewer Americans get to live in that kind of family.


For some, it's a question of never finding the right person to have kids with. Others thought they'd found the right mates, but the relationships didn't work out. Others became occupied with careers, and the child-rearing part of their lives never got put together.

But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.

For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

Several years hence, she seeks to re-enter the labor force. She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for (two decades earlier). Nonetheless, she finds a job, works for 15 years or so, then spends her final 20 years in retirement.

This is not necessarily the sequence she would choose if she were starting from scratch. For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70.

This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous.

But the fact is that right now, there are few social institutions that are friendly to this way of living. Social custom flows in the opposite direction.

Neil Gilbert observes in the current issue of The Public Interest that as women have entered the work force, they have adopted the male model, jumping directly into careers. Instead, he suggests, it would be better to make decisions based on what he calls the ''life-course perspective.'' It's possible that women should sequence their lives differently from men, and that women may need a broader diversity of sequence options.

Gilbert, who is a professor of social welfare at Berkeley, points out that right now our social policies are friendly toward this straight-to-work sequence and discourage other options. Programs like day care and flexible leave help parents work and raise kids simultaneously. That's fine for some, but others may prefer policies that help them do these things sequentially.

It might make sense, for example, to give means-tested tax credits or tuition credits to stay-at-home parents. That would subsidize child-rearing, but in a way that leaves it up to families to figure out how to use it. The government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families.

I suspect that if more people had the chance to focus exclusively on child-rearing before training for and launching a career, fertility rates would rise. That would be good for the country, for as Phillip Longman, author of ' 'The Empty Cradle,'' has argued, we are consuming more human capital than we are producing -- or to put it another way, we don't have enough young people to support our old people. (That's what the current Social Security debate and the coming Medicare debate are all about.)

It would also be good for those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret not having kids, or not having as many as they would like. As it says somewhere, to everything, there is a season.

January 04, 2005

Column 2005-01-04, commentary

Brooks begins the column with meaningless generalizations about conservatives and liberals. He states "Conservaties have tended to favor...", and also that "Liberals have supported programs...". The existence of such conservatives and liberals is obvious, as is the existence of conservatives who have not "tended to favor" what Brooks thinks of as the "American model" and of liberals who have not "supported programs" leading to the "European model". Thus, Brooks has insufficiently qualified these claims; they mean nothing.

In his second paragraph, Brooks asserts as a fact that "the European model is flat-out unsustainable". This is a theoretical prediction, not a fact.

Generally, and in the third paragraph specifically, Brooks writes "Europe" but presumably means the members of the European Union at the time his sources were published. As the European Union has recently expanded to include a number of countries in Eastern Europe, all of which are considerably poorer than the old members, this introduces some ambiguity.

To begin his fourth paragraph, Brooks makes a comparative claim that he does not explain and that, more importantly, is irrelevant to the paragraph's purpose. Regardless of whether European pensions are "more generous" than American pensions and European retirees "more reliant" upon them, government spending on pensions will have to increase if the population ages. And, contrary to what Brooks claims, this does not imply an increase in government spending overall; other expenditures could be scaled back accordingly.

In his fifth paragraph, Brooks quotes a survey that "predicts that France and Germany could see their public debt grow...". Brooks does not specify the assumptions underlying this prediction, making it impossible to evaluate its quality or applicability.

Sixth paragraph: "Europe may find itself locked into a vicious circle...". Or, it may not.

As he did earlier, Brooks fails to give the prediction in paragraph seven any context.

Eighth paragraph: "Already, high European taxes make the European model look obsolete." To whom? Brooks also states "... Americans work 50 percent more than Germans, French [sic] and Italians..."; presumably he means the statistically averaged American works more than the statistically averaged German, Frenchman and Italian.

In his ninth paragraph, Brooks says "Either way, high taxes have made Europe less productive just as it needs high output to support its retirees." If Brooks means that high taxes exclusively are responsible, then he is making a causal claim that is obviously unsupported by data. If he is claiming that high taxes are in some sense partially responsible, then his claim is too vague to contain meaning.

Tenth paragraph: "Back in the 1970's, European standards of living were catching up to U.S. standards. Now American G.D.P. per capita is about 30 percent higher than Europe's and the gap, if anything, is getting wider." Here, Brooks conflates two disparate economic measures, GDP per capita and standard of living. An increase in one does not necessarily imply an increase in the other.

In the eleventh and twelfth paragraphs, Brooks claims that the problems caused by aging populations in the United States -- specifically, problems with Social Security -- will be less severe than those in Europe because of the superiority of his "American model". In doing so, he ignores the fact that European populations are aging more rapidly than the American population, due mainly to the higher level of immigration to America.

When Brooks says "To the extent that's true, it is because we have not been taking their advice for the past 50 years.", he asserts a causal claim without identifying "their advice" or providing any support for the claim. We note also that Ronald Reagan's payroll tax increase unambiguously and signficantly improved Social Security's solvency. Although Brooks, as we said, does not specify just what "their advice" is, it seems to us that raising payroll taxes qualifies.

The last paragraph is totally meaningless.

In the ways described above, Brooks's column is unfit to print.

Column 2005-01-04, "A Tale Of 2 Systems"

David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:

Over the past 50 years, we've been having a big debate over two rival economic systems. Conservatives have tended to favor the American model, with smaller government and lower taxes, but less social support. Liberals have supported programs that lead to the European model, with bigger government, more generous support and less inequality.

I wonder if that debate is about to change. In the next few decades both models are going to confront a big test: aging populations. The U.S. model is going to be challenged by this problem, but the European model is flat-out unsustainable.

Populations in the U.S. and Europe are both aging, but Europe is aging faster. According to the O.E.C.D., the dependency ratio -- defined as the number of people over 65 as a percentage of the number of people 20 to 64 years old -- will rise to 37 percent from 22 percent in the United States by 2050. But it will go up to 52 percent from 26 percent in the European Union.

In addition, European public pensions are more generous and retirees are more reliant on them. To sustain these programs, European government spending will have to rise. According to the European Commission, demographic trends will push public spending up by five to eight percentage points of G.D.P. in the E.U. 's 15 richest members. In Germany, public spending on pensions will rise from an already huge level, 10.3 percent of G.D.P., to 15.4 percent by 2040. And that's after recent benefit cuts.

To pay for all of this, taxes will rise and public debt will increase. A Standard & Poor's survey predicts that France and Germany could see their public debt grow to more than 200 percent of G.D.P. by 2050.

Europe may find itself locked into a vicious circle: an aging population means more public spending, which means higher taxes, which means lower growth, which means higher unemployment, which means more public spending, which means more taxes and even lower growth.

The former Dutch prime minister, Wim Kok, recently released a scathing report that found that ''the pure impact of aging populations will be to reduce the potential growth rate of the E.U. from the present rate, of 2 percent to 2.25 percent, to around 1.25 percent by 2040.''

Already, high European taxes make the European model look obsolete. European and U.S. workers are about equally productive per hour worked. But Americans work 50 percent more than Germans, French and Italians. In the 1970's, Western Europeans actually worked more than Americans. But as taxes rose and incentives to work diminished, Europeans cut back their hours or dropped out of the labor force.

Some economists, like the Nobel laureate Edward Prescott, believe higher tax rates explain the drop in work. Others believe cultural preferences also played a big role. Either way, high taxes have made Europe less productive just as it needs high output to support its retirees.

Partly as a result, European economies have underperformed for a generation now. As Olaf Gersemann has pointed out, the U.S. economy has enjoyed an annual real growth rate of 2.9 percent over the past 25 years. That's 55 percent more than western Germany, 48 percent more than France and 39 percent more than the E.U. as a whole. Back in the 1970's, European standards of living were catching up to U.S. standards. Now American G.D.P. per capita is about 30 percent higher than Europe's and the gap, if anything, is getting wider.

Which brings us to the current moment. In Europe, everybody is aware of the problem, but the remedies are so bad that most countries avoid them. Meanwhile, we in the United States are embarking on our own debate over the future of Social Security. Many liberals are claiming that we don't need to fundamentally revamp our system because there is no crisis. To the extent that's true, it is because we have not been taking their advice for the past 50 years.

We have stuck with a low-tax, high-growth economic model. This gives us the resources and the flexibility to deal with the problems caused by an aging population without having to face, at least for now, the horrific choices that confront our friends across the Atlantic.

The question is: Will we leave our children a system as flexible, dynamic and productive as the one that was, fortunately, left to us? Or, by doing nothing, will we succumb to the same ineluctable pressures that now afflict Europe, and find that we are immobilized at the exact moment China and India are passing us by?