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Brooks, With Plum Sauce, Sage and Onions

Sauce for the Goose, Not the Gander

There are two bourgeois bohemians (bo-bo’s) that are David Brooks. One, the investment banker-salaried, neo-conservative punditster who smoothly and witily supports Republican politicians because they’ve always supported him.

He supports going to war for ego and oil on false pretenses. But calling it that would be shrill and cynical (even if true). He supports the government cutting taxes on the wealthy and proportionately increasing them on the poor and middle class, while spending like a Bush in Dallas on Saturday night. It works for Bobo; he’s too old to fight and he’s already in the top tax bracket. He’s as ready to find fault with Democrats as Maureen Dowd is to examine Bill Clinton’s underwear. It’s what conservative commentators are supposed to do.

The other David Brooks is the University of Chicago student of intellectual history. He’s the neutral public intellectual employed by the “liberal” newspaper of record and empowered to comment freely on public policy and public figures without fear or favor. That Brooks is a student of Burke, a defender of tradition, order and rationality, an upholder of fiscal conservatism and social and political responsibility.

The Chicago Brooks intersects the punditster Brooks when he comments on Democrats. He retains his “public intellectual” street cred while simultaneously fulfilling his role as gentleman protector of the Right.

That’s the David Brooks we have in, The Great Unwinding. He’s not talking about the innards of a golf or baseball. He’s speaking in his cosmic voice (like the voice of God in a Bill Cosby routine), about the origin-less problems that confront our first black President, whose leadership will lead to the demise of America-as-we-know-it.

Specifically, he’s talking about “unwinding” our debt. Not Bush’s historic deficits, our consumer debt. He’s talking about converting America from a consumer-driven society to a business investment driven society. Who, besides Jon Stewart, could have predicted that cure for our ills from a former Wall Street Journal editorial page editor?

Bobo’s implied starting premise is that America was OK until the 1960’s. Standard, Vietnam war era, anti-DFH perspective. Then we became a nation of debtors – and of consumption we couldn’t afford.

Charts that mark these trends are truly horrifying. There is a steady level of debt through most of the 20th century, until the mid-1980s. Then there is a steep accelerating rise to today’s epic levels.

This rise in debt fueled a consumption binge. Consumption as a share of G.D.P. stood at around 62 percent in the mid-1960s, and rose to about 73 percent by 2008. The baby boomers enjoyed an incredible spending binge. Meanwhile the Chinese, Japanese and European economies became reliant on the overextended U.S. consumer. It couldn’t last.

Not that he wasn’t an avid supporter, mind, of those who profited most from that binge. Where the money went or who its spending profited isn’t his subject. Nor is how we were persuaded to spend so much, such as President Bush’s prescription that we "Get out and shop!" to relieve our fears after 9/11. Nor is that while worker productivity kept increasing the last thirty years, workers’ share of it remained static. Workers lost headway as the fruits of their higher productivity went exclusively to others.

Nor does Bobo consider that we were oversold on credit. Like teens confronted with sex in everything from sugared drinks to sugared foods, from high-tech toys to jeans and computer games, Bobo wants us now to "Just say, No". Abstinence education alone doesn’t seem effective.

In the last ten years especially, credit products of all kinds – mortgages to credit cards – were aggressively sold to people that lenders knew couldn’t repay it, at least not on time. Their business model depended on that to generate late fees, extra charges and default interest rates that would have wiped the scar off Al Capone’s face. That was essential to selling those credit products into the global securities market as "AAA" – but high interest rate – debt.

Those who could just repay their debts were encouraged to take on more debt and repay it with their home equity. Take out another mortgage, spend our principal retirement savings today in order to generate another asset banks could securitize and sell.

Unwinding our collective debt is a cosmic problem, and Bobo trots out a parade of horribles to tell us so. But he suggests few specifics, and none that relate to reforming predatory lending. He doesn’t recommend reforming lending practices or banks that are "too big to fail". He doesn’t recommend improving consumer lending laws, or revising the bankruptcy code to allow credit cards to be written off or even to be repaid after child support and alimony. He doesn’t recommend enabling stronger unions, so that American workers have better income and working conditions. Nor does he recommend changing the tax code to reduce government subsidies to massively profitable businesses and to discourage them from taking their profits and employment offshore.

Higher personal savings is Bobo’s recommendation. (His Protestant personal responsibility meme.) He doesn’t say how that can be accomplished with dramatic reductions in wages and home values, and with jobs-for-a-career reduced to jobs for the moment. He doesn’t say how a family can save with a low-paid, part-time or contract job that has few or no benefits. And he doesn’t factor in Bush’s twofer: the rise in inflation induced by Bush’s historic debts and the consequent drop in the value of our currency. The double whammy on gas prices alone would nix many would be savings plans for those on modest budgets.

Brooks also recommends that the government raise taxes and cut spending. He doesn’t support raising taxes, mind, and didn’t when Bush cut taxes. He thought that was great, essential even, when waging two wars and expensively outsourcing reams of government jobs and services. He just thinks a Democratic administration should do it (and take the political flack for it), which is a preface to his most important recommendation:

There’s also a crying need for tax reform….[T]he tax code is rife with provisions that encourage leverage and discourage investment. The government will have to spend less on transfer payments and more on investments in science and infrastructure.

Typical fiscal scoldiness from a neocon still obsessing about the most successful and cost-effective program in American history – Social Security. That Bush has already taken pruning shears to our social safety net, and tried to do more, just means Dubya wasn’t effective enough. The tax code is rife with abuses, but those already favor the wealthy, big ag and big business.

Always happy to bring a Democratic Congress in on the act, Bobo says that,

Congressional leaders have been fixated on short-term conventional priorities throughout this entire episode. There is no evidence that the power brokers understand the fundamental transition ahead. They are practicing the same self-indulgence that got us into this mess.

That Brooks calls Obama’s efforts self-indulgence and Shrub’s as credible policy should be all the evidence the New York Times needs to rethink Mr. Brooks’ value to intelligent conversation. Pass the stuffing.

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