March 23, 2009
NYT's David Brooks and 'Moderate Conservative' Journalism
"David Brooks's Op-Ed column in The New York Times started in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer." Source
David Brooks, a self-described "moderate conservative," illustrates the intellectual schizophrenia that conflicts that breed of thinkers.
Six months ago, on September 30, 2008, in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Revolt of the Nihilists," Mr. Brooks, mad at the 228 House members who voted down the first version of the bailout bill, wrote:
"And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no - the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed. They did the momentarily popular thing, and if the country slides into a deep recession, they will have the time and leisure to watch public opinion shift against them."
Shame on them was his message. In calling the 288 "nihilists," he accused them of believing that all things are unknowable, and nothing can be asserted to exist. Harsh criticism, indeed. We'll blame them, he implied, if the country suffers a recession.
Mr. Brooks laid the bulk of the responsibility on Republicans for a prevailing Nihilist attitude displayed in that first House vote. He warned that
"House Republicans led the way and will get most of the blame. It has been interesting to watch them on their single-minded mission to destroy the Republican Party. Not long ago, they led an anti-immigration crusade that drove away Hispanic support. Then, too, they listened to the loudest and angriest voices in their party, oblivious to the complicated anxieties that lurk in most American minds... If this economy slides, they will go down in history as the Smoot-Hawleys of the 21st century. With this vote, they've taken responsibility for this economy, and they will be held accountable. The short-term blows will fall on John McCain, the long-term stress on the existence of the G.O.P. as we know it."
He was angry! Six months later, in retrospect, it's apparent that Mr. Brooks wasn't just very angry. He was very wrong. The bailout passed and failed.
So, the question is: What is it about some "moderate conservative" journalists that vector them toward political approaches that both lack consistency and often find them criticizing those they consider rightwing conservatives?
Perhaps Mr. Brooks, and other prominent "moderate conservatives like him, have intellectual schizophrenia -- a deeply-ingrained confliction that leads them, not to embrace contradictory or incompatible political positions simultaneously, but to oscillate back-and-forth between contradictory positions, perhaps in order to gain favor with the ruling political philosophy de jour.
Who can say if this reflects a conscious, intentional, Chameleon-like flexibility, or, if it's merely an aversion to taking and holding a definitive position until reason and experience provokes a shift?
You decide as we track how Mr. Brooks' moderate conservatism has ricocheted around since he angrily announced the Revolt of the Nihilists six months ago.
In his January 16, 2009 op-ed entitled "An Economy of Faith and Trust," he wrote,
"Once there was just Newtonian physics and the world seemed neat and mechanical. Then quantum physics came along and revealed that deep down things are much weirder than they seem. Something similar is now happening with public policy. Once, classical economics dominated policy thinking."
It did? Which classical economics? Adam Smith's laissez faire, Keynesian economics, Friedman's monetarism adjustments, Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School? Whatever "it" is, three months after the Revolt of the Nihilists, Mr. Brooks applied his "classical economics" to some "new body of thought."
"Markets tend toward efficiency. People respond in pretty straightforward ways to incentives. The invisible hand forms a spontaneous, dynamic order. Economic behavior can be accurately predicted through elegant models. (When I declared economics as a college major long ago, my favorite professor said, "Some call economics ‘the dismal science,' but this stuff is not science at all.")This view explains a lot, but not the current financial crisis - how so many people could be so stupid, incompetent and self-destructive all at once. The crisis has delivered a blow to classical economics and taken a body of psychological work that was at the edge of public policy thought and brought it front and center."
Without defining the "classical economic model," he wrote,
"This crisis represents a flaw in the classical economic model and its belief in efficient markets. Republicans haven't begun to grapple with the consequences."
Who's the Nihilist now?
"Mechanistic thinkers on the right and left pose as rigorous empiricists. But empiricism built on an inaccurate view of human nature is just a prison."
Too Zen for me.
By February 10, in his op-ed entitled "Showing Some Discipline," Mr. Brooks was no longer promoting support for what he once called "the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed."
"It's no fun being a leader in a financial crisis. You've got to be bold but reassuring, free-spending but disciplined. You must decisively crush the short-term problem without freaking everybody out and leaving a long-term mess.To my mind, the stimulus packages on Capitol Hill fail to strike these balances. They are broad but sloppy, too slow to make a quick difference and too enduring to avoid fiscal damage."
Did we tune into a live episode of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Where has the September Mr. Brooks gone?
The remainder of his February 10 op-ed is an Ode to the Brilliance of Tim Geithner. It ends,
"The whole policy is still unfolding. But one gets the sense that it is being designed to fit the crisis, not a prefab agenda. Geithner is proposing a huge intervention, but at least he seems to be running against his natural instincts. If we're going to have a finance czar, he should at least dislike the role."
Hold it! I thought the op-ed Mr. Brooks wrote on January 16 was all about "classical economics" being enlightened by an equally undefined "body of psychological work," but one that would, it seems reasonable to infer, include "natural instincts."
Buckle-up - more turbulence ahead.
The title of Mr. Brook's February 20 op-ed, "Money for Idiots," was a tease. He didn't really mean it, sort of.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Likewise, foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of some moderate conservative journalists. For example, compare this...
"The Bush and Obama administrations have compensated foolishness and irresponsibility. The financial bailouts reward bankers who took insane risks. The auto bailouts subsidize companies and unions that made self-indulgent decisions a few decades ago that drove their industry into the ground.The stimulus package handed tens of billions of dollars to states that spent profligately during the prosperity years. The Obama housing plan will force people who bought sensible homes to subsidize the mortgages of people who bought houses they could not afford. It will almost certainly force people who were honest on their loan forms to subsidize people who were dishonest on theirs."
It makes sense for government to try to restore some communal order. And the sad reality is that in these circumstances government has to spend money on precisely those sectors that have been swinging most wildly - housing, finance, etc. It has to help stabilize people who have been idiots.
So Revolt of the Nihilists becomes Bailout of the Idiots.
And now, for La Grande Finale of conflicted schizophrenic moderation.
But at least they [those he called the "propeller heads around Obama" Yes, he did.] seem to be driven by a spirit of moderation and restraint. They seem to be trying to keep as many market structures in place as possible so things can return to normal relatively smoothly.And they seem to understand the big thing. The nation's economy is not just the sum of its individuals. It is an interwoven context that we all share. To stabilize that communal landscape, sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we're all in this together. If their lives don't stabilize, then our lives don't stabilize.
Now Bailout of the Idiots becomes the Community Rule of the Propeller Heads.
On March 3 Mr. Brooks completes a full circle in "A Moderate Manifesto." (Can a manifesto be moderate?) He was commenting on the proposed Obama budget when he wrote this:
"But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor - caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once."
"Those of us who consider ourselves moderates - moderate-conservative, in my case - are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was. [Whoops.] His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice." [Revolt of the Centrists?]
"Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, "a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal." On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama's experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it. [ A false dichotomy here, a common tactic of a pseudo-intellectual.]
Those of us in the moderate tradition - the Hamiltonian tradition that believes in limited but energetic government - thus find ourselves facing a void. We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We're going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force."
So if moderates assert themselves, can they still be moderate?
Mr. Brook's meandering, intellectual confliction displays the underlying condition of some high-profile "moderate conservative" journalists. Theirs is an exercise in political punditry based on narcissistic omphaloskepsis (i.e., self-adoring navel gazing).
There is a verse in perhaps the most puzzling book in the Christian New Testament that reads, "Since you are lukewarm and neither hot nor cold, I am going to spit you out of my mouth." Revelations 3.16
In the build-up to the midterm elections, the GOP should prepare to rebut storylines that come from some prominent moderate conservative journalists, like Mr. Brooks. Temper not by spitting them out, but by not accommodating the midterm GOP message - when it crystallizes - to the lukewarm passions of moderate conservatives.
Why? Because it takes passion to win.