Saturday, February 13, 2016

David Brooks Lives in a Superbowl Commercial Fantasy Land

David Brooks published an annoying article in the New York Times yesterday in which he suggests that Bernie Sanders and his millennial supporters are un-American non-patriots intent on squelching innovation, destroying colleges, taking away freedoms, and fundamentally altering the American economy and culture. 

This article is so glib. Let me count the ways:

1. Brooks claims that the U.S. has more entrepreneurial creativity than Europe. That’s a pretty broad sweeping statement. An examination of this, say starting with the invention of the printing press, would take in a fair amount of history where the U.S. was not even competing. Is he talking about the 20th century? Where does he think all those Manhattan project scientists came from? Was Europe less entrepreneurial in the 20th century than the U.S.? Brooks is shouting rah rah America. Yes, “We’ll make America Great Again.” Go Trump.

2. The U.S. has always favored higher living standards for consumers, says Brooks. What does this mean? Which consumers does he have in mind? Is he speaking of the broad bottom 60 percent, or the top 1%? How do you measure this “higher living standard?” Does he mean lower product costs? Does he mean products are more expensive in Europe because of higher taxes? If true, and he makes no pretense of saying anything about this, I suppose one would have to look at the total trade offs before one could conclude America’s consumers have a “higher living standard.” He's dog whistling to Republican mindsets.

3. There is a bipartisan consensus that we should stick to “our form of capitalism” and “our style of welfare state,” he says. Does Brooks really think there is consensus between R’s and D’s on this? Between Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan regarding “our form of capitalism’ and “our style of welfare state?” Really?

4. “There has always been a broad consensus that a continent-size nation like ours had to be diverse and decentralized, with a vibrant charitable sector and a great variety of spending patterns and lifestyles.” Well, no. There has been a marked lack of consensus on this going back to Jefferson and Hamilton. Federalism vs. state’s rights. Slavery vs. not slavery. School integration vs. Jim Crow. Living wage and health care and free education and voting rights vs. where Rubio and Cruz--and apparently Brooks--want to take us.

5. "American values have always been biased toward individualism, achievement and flexibility,” says Brooks. Certainly, that is how we like to think of ourselves. Brooks must be thinking of Superbowl commercials. There is not much meaningful content in this statement that would say anything about Hillary vs. Bernie. In the real world of America we have environmental regulations, consumer product regulations, bank regulations, social security, and medi-care. And good for us.

6. America nurtures Bell Labs, Wallmart, Google and Apple, crows Brooks. As opposed to Europe, which does what? Give me a break. Bell Labs was started with an award from the French Government and was supported for decades by a monopoly supported by the U.S. government. Walmart started as a dime store business in the 50’s and became the worlds largest retailer on the back of the bar code invented thanks to some graduate student hanging around Drexel Institute of Technology, and on the back of Chinese manufacturing, and on the back of global finance and supply chains. Bar codes are pretty great—but the fact that it was invented in America rather than in Europe has nothing to do (that I can see) with rugged individualism in America vs. Brooks’s imagined stultifying socialism in Denmark. Nor do I see anything particularly American about Walmart or Apple these days.

7. “It’s amazing,” marvels Brooks, "that a large part of the millennial population generation has rejected this consensus.” What is Brooks suggestion here? That they are traitors to the American way? The consensus that he says is being rejected here exists nowhere but in the Republican mind... and in Superbowl commercials.

8. Sanders “fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system and thus reshape American culture and values,” says Brooks. How so? Sanders is saying there is something unfair about the top 10% of income earners receiving 50% of all income and heading higher. Of course the top income earners also pay most of the taxes (top 10% pay 53% of all federal taxes). See also Pew report Here. But, of course, wealth (property and financial assets) is even more heavily skewed—with the top 3% holding 50 percent of wealth. This inequality of income has risen dramatically since the 70’s. Is it un-American to put these issues front and center for discussion? Is it un-American to want to do something about this as Sanders and “a large part of the millennial population" is ready to do? No, David Brooks, it’s not.

9. Brooks warns that Sanders wants to “radically increase the amount of money going to the Washington establishment,” and he cites the Wall Street Journal for the proposition that if Congress enacted everything Sanders would like it would cost $18 trillion over 10 years. Well, even if we follow this silly fantasy that Congress would enact everything Sanders has suggested in his campaign to date, and that it would cost $18 trillion over 10 years…. that is not the same as giving $18 trillion to the Washington establishment; no more than taxes for social security gives money to the “Washington establishment.” Taxes for social security gives money to old people.

10. Brooks drones on in this alarmist vein: “Sanders would take away the ability of the middle class to make choices about their own lives!” Huh? How would finding ways to raise the income of middle class Americans at the expense of the top few percent reduce choices available to the middle class? Brooks doesn’t bother to make an argument. Because higher taxes, he says. Because no Tesla, he says.

11. Free college is bad says Brooks. It would reduce the quality of education (??), it would cause students to hang around college longer (awful, just awful I tell you!), it would grant government more “control” over colleges, it would threaten expensive private colleges. There is nothing more American, implies Brooks, than for profit Universities. Not so much. Does he really mean to suggest the University of California system is “better” now that it charges $40,000 for graduate programs, now that it is forced to cater to foreign students to bring in money, now that it relies on football programs to build prestige to facilitate private fundraising? Does he think the UC system was a worse institution in the 1970’s when it was nearly free? The man has completely lost me.

12. “Sanders would create a centralized and streamlined” medical system, says Brooks. Oh the horror! He must not have heard that in Europe they spend half (as a percentage of GDP) of what we spend in America, or that life expectancy is higher in Europe. 

What makes the man drone on so? He cites no study or evidence. David Brooks is living in a Super-bowl commercial fairyland.


  1. [Every good rant needs a reset to start the discussion. Victor Rauch does his part in an email to me....]


    I have a few comments: (1.) European brain drain argues for Brooks’s point, not against, and we do in fact see this from India where a large part of their scientific elite migrate to the US for opportunity. Manhattan project scientists, actually not all, see Feinman, were leaving pogroms so are probably not on this program. Silicon Valley and now SF are full of economic immigrants. But yes, Europe was less entrepreneurial in the 20th century than the U.S. Their growth rate of employment in the last 50 years is very bad. ……..

    (2). Perhaps Brooks is dog whistling to the Republican mindset, but in fact goods are much cheaper in the US, cars, electronics, clothes, come to mind. In Europe there is little discounting, high VAT and then special taxes. Cars are about 50% more expensive, gas double, ..... These are facts. Other things are less expensive like health care, and education, so one would have to look at the whole bucket……

    (3). I think in general terms there is a consensus. Since Clinton One, both parties have tried to cut government and lower taxes, deregulate, lower welfare, ........ Clinton was the most effective at this and Obama has back-tracked a bit from the aggressive changes under Bush 2. Nobody, including Sanders has talked about nationalizing any industries. One could argue that single payer, inherently is nationalizing, but nobody that I have heard, including Sanders is making that argument….

    (4). I think Brooks is expressing his brand of broad optimism here. I don't think Brooks likes anyone on the Republican side. ….

    (5). I think it’s true that "American values have always been biased toward individualism, achievement and flexibility.” The aspirational nature of the 'middle class' in America is delusional. I assume you have seen the studies where folks are asked what stratum that fit in and they are off by an order of magnitude. ….

  2. Part 2 of Victor's email: ....
    (6). I think Brooks is right here that America nurtures innovative businesses more than Europe. Europe has many policies that discourage entrepreneurship, including making it very difficult/expensive to lay people off and very hard to set up new businesses. Most of my Danish friends and family experience the difficulties of entrepreneurship and participate in the black economy. As a result, growth rates and new business formation are much higher in the US. ….(8). Does Sanders “fundamentally want to reshape the American economic system and thus reshape American culture and values?” The answer to this question is “yes.” The more interesting question is if it is good or bad. …. (11). Free college. I believe in free education, trade schools and elite education. The latter is the case in France and Italy and not the case in Scandinavia. I hate the for profit education system and it is really a transfer of money from the feds to large companies. Duncan/Obama have tried to rein this in by regulating the predatory schools that have students sign up for federal loans in the hope of rising incomes. I think this is only marginally successful so far. UC Berkeley gets about 15% of its income from the State and less from tuition. If you turn this question upside down, it gets tricky. UCB wants to be an elite school. A very small percentage of the states students can get in or do the work. Should the broad population support this school that they and their offspring have no chance of attending? Law, medical and business students who attend will make a lot of money, should they get a free ride or should they pay a down payment on future income. In Denmark, medical education is free, in fact the students get a stipend, but their future income is taxed at Sanders type rates (yes, these taxes will not get through congress), and the salary is less less than a first year, non member of the Permanente medical group at Kaiser. Most non-professional graduate students get fellowships that are less than full support unless they are top tier. This causes some to hang around depending on massive support from their parents. There is much that is wrong with this. …. (12). We know that some people opt out of centralized medical systems in Europe. I am generally in favor of centralized medicine but think we don't have a chance of getting there here.

    I don't think Brooks likes Trump or Cruz and perhaps he likes nobody on the Republican side; perhaps Kasich.

    Haven't heard much from Bloomberg in the last few weeks.


  3. There is a rare confluence of David Brooks disdain going on. I forwarded his column to our friend Steve. Steve said that David Brooks had lost his way and was an idiot.

    1. Thanks, Don. I had not read the Obama article. I too will miss the guy. It will be a while before we have a President who can sit down with reporters one on one and make his pitch unscripted for an hour at a time. And the decency thing counts for a lot.

      I'm not sure about the "Sanderscare" analysis. Seems to me, the Dems took a beating in '10 in part because they were so wimpy. If they had had stood up proud and strong, done away with the filibuster, and pushed through single payer healthcare.... there would have been fewer legal problems, and they might have come across as can-do Americans and done better in the mid-terms. Just sayin' ...