David Brooks Is Always Wronger: White People’s SOTU edition

Blogger’s note — Attention Conservation Notice (descriptor baldly stolen from Cosma Shalizi): What follows is north of 2,000 words on the malign influence and intellectual poverty that is David Brooks — about which you already know.  Worse yet, it’s a screed I began a week ago in response to Brooks’ nonsense of a column in advance of the State of the Union address, so it’s long since fishwrap.  But I came across it this afternoon, mostly done, and maybe some of you might enjoy it.

One more thing, though:  the most dangerous and frustrating thing about Brooks is that there is no end to him.  There’s another column today about what he sees as the limitations of the use of big data (a term he doesn’t seem to grasp securely) that is full of yet more BS; this is his MO:  pour out the crap fast enough, with a sufficiently breezy assertion of knowledge broad and deep, and it becomes very difficult for the pricing mechanism of  the marketplace of ideas to keep up.  Alas for the Republic.

Anyway — much, much more below, for the punishment-gluttons among you.


One of the pleasures of my blogging life lately has been the divine Ms. MM’s descent into irrelevance.  As Megan McArdle slides down the Daily Beast’s incline of fail, she poses less and less danger to the body politic — and, more to the gratification of my selfish self, I don’t feel the same compulsion I once did to point and laugh.  Much more time in the week and all that.

The same cannot be said of David Brooks, inexplicably still the housebroken conservative, the one The Liberal New York Times™ vaulted into unearned prominence after his breakthrough — and unreplicated — discovery of Applebee’s salad bars.  He has real influence both as an insider and as someone with enormous access to mass communications.  And yet he combines a fundamentally dishonest approach to his writing with a very useful tendency to intellectual laziness:  he knows the conclusions his research must yield, and hence reasons no further than he must to comfort himself — and the comfortable.

The real problem is that he’s damned good at it — much better than McArdle or any of the other aspiring prematurely old fogies on their best days; there’s a reason Brooks has such a death grip on his bully pulpit.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently how difficult he finds the form of the 800 word column — the genre in which Brooks makes his living:

Here is an exercise: Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words. Perhaps you’d be very successful at this. Now try to do it for four weeks. Then two months, then six, then a year, then five years.

Brooks is smooth; his articles always cohere (at least until you read them with care), and if I’d not be quite ready to use the words “original” or “nuance” in their company, there’s no doubt that purely as a matter of craft, Brooks is damned good at his medium.

Which makes the use to which he puts those skills all the more grotesque.

All of which is preamble to a bit of fisking necessitated by his genuinely nasty State of the Union column yesterday.  Let’s review:

Europeans who settled America gave their lives a slingshot shape. They pulled back so they could shoot forward. They volunteered to live in harsh conditions today so their descendants could live well for centuries. The pioneers who traveled West did the same thing. So has each generation of immigrants — sacrificing the present for the sake of the future.

Pop quiz:  who’s missing here?

No prizes for the obvious answer.


All those Africans brought and bought by Europeans to help them “shoot forward.”  Not to mention a host of others who don’t fit Brooks’ whiter shades of pale view of the making of the American dream.  But hang on to that thought — we’ll get back to the nub of Brooks’ issue here in a bit.

This slingshot manner of life led to one of those true national clichés: that America is the nation of futurity, that Americans organize their lives around romantic visions of what is to be.

This is just pitifully bad history.  Hell, even the Mayflower carried at least as many merchant adventurers as pious romantics.  Brooks gives as examples of the distinctive American will-do spirit Sam Adams talking of the nation’s potential, Webster and his dictionary, and a fictional character telling a fictional visitor of his plans to build a prosperous farm.  I don’t know how to break it to our David, but this is pitiful.  Consider the founding fathers’ contemporaries in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Adam Smith was as full of futurity as the whole damn Adams family, and …hell, you get the idea.

But even more, what pisses me off about this opening gambit is that it takes prodigious amounts of willed blindness — the ability to persuade oneself that horse piss tastes like Petrus — to reduce American perspectives on time and deferred gratification to such nonsense. Ask the passenger pigeon about Americans’ gift for futurity.  How about the bison? (And yes — I do know that there was conscious policy that could be termed (in a ghastly way) future oriented in the destruction of a key economic pillar of Plains Indian life — but that’s at least part of the point.  Romantic visions don’t comport with the slaughter of buffalo in pursuit of the unraveling of inconvenient indigenous societies.)

There is something more than mere crayon history going on here though.  As with many, many Brooks columns, what you have here is the attempt to assert one pole of a dichotomy of virtue.  Our ancestors:  distinctive heroes…and what comes next?

You know what comes next:  present decay, the failure of moral fibre and the betrayal of history.

An aside:  Ta-Nehisi gets this right:  it’s hard to write a good 800 word column once — it really is an unforgiving form.   Doing it week after week for years or decades?  Brutal.

And you see it here.  I said above that Brooks is smooth, facile.  And so he is.  But it seems to me that he’s slipping, that his ear for the music of argument is betraying him.  He used to bury the false assumptions so much better, and the turn from his initial scene to the actual sting of his pieces used to come as much more of a stiletto thrust, and less of this kind of bludgeon:

This future-oriented mentality had practical effects. For decades, government invested heavily in long-range projects like railroads and canals.

Today, Americans have inverted this way of thinking. Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Pop quiz:  who are these “Americans” who aren’t allowing the government to invest in long range projects.  It ain’t me.  I want high speed rail from Portland (or Brunswick!) to Miami.  It ain’t my wife — she thinks we ought to be pulling much weight on the alternative energy front.  It ain’t…you get it.  Last time I looked it was all those folks with R-folly after their names.  You look for those who vote against infrastructure; governors who turn down bridge projects (Christie); high speed rail (Walker, Scott); hell, Medicaid support (lots of them) and you see one common thread:  they’re Republicans, for whom the present in the form of tax cuts for the rich trumps the future made concrete in capital investment and support for that next generation of kids who will use such constructions.  Any analysis of why we can’t have nice things to come that doesn’t address this fact of our current politics is trying to hide from reality.  Or to put it more simply:  Brooks’ omission here reveals him as part of the problem, not the solution.

And next question: how is this sacrifice being arranged? Are we throwing virgins into volcanoes (instead of grandparents who ought to be sucking lava)?  Well, actually, that seems to be what Our David thinks:

Today, Americans have inverted this way of thinking. Instead of sacrificing the present for the sake of the future, Americans now sacrifice the future for the sake of the present.

Federal spending is the most obvious example. The federal government is a machine that takes money from future earners and spends it on health care for retirees. Entitlement spending hurts the young in two ways. It squeezes government investment programs that boost future growth.

A couple of preliminaries here:  for one, the federal government is an organization that takes money from present earners, mostly, and borrows some, to spend on lots of things. National defense, for one obvious example, which affects, of course, those of us who are defended at this moment, as well as (at least so the theory goes) those of us who will live into a future rendered safer by the investment in national security now.  Highways, national parks, port inspectors…you know the drill.  It’s always astonishing to me that the media lets propagandists like Brooks get away with defining government so far down, but you go to war with the feckless declining institutions you have, I guess.

Second:  the framing.  I said Brooks was clever, and he is, so you will find in his writing that whenever there is a choice about the descriptors, he picks the one that most comforts the comfortable at the expense of the rest of us.  To be fair, the case-in-point here has become a universal, but we need to push back.  Social Security and Medicare are not “entitlements” in the sense that they are things a spoiled child would demand.  They are social insurance programs, vessels you pay into when you don’t need the protections they provide so that those benefits will be there when you do.

Again, this is obvious, I’m sure, to anyone reading this.  But the language of Washington has so thoroughly turned a concept familiar to everyone who owns a car or a home (or private medical insurance) into language that carries the penumbra of an unearned goody, something that somehow rewards the wrong people, people not like us.  Much better to remind folks that we all pay throughout our working lives for critical needs we know will come later in life.  As I say, Brooks surely didn’t invent this framing, but he certainly uses it to convey an essentially false point.

And that point is the main event of this passage:  he argues here that securing old age is a theft by the aged from their children and grand children, that it inverts the American drive to the future.


Leave aside the moral cretinism implied here — that we may imagine cutting off grandpa once he can’t tote that barge anymore.  The claim is wrong in at least two major ways.  I think Brooks knows this.  He should — if he doesn’t then he’s simply intellectually incapable of doing his job, and I don’t think that’s so. Those two errors are, first, that the social insurance programs on which the aging depend were in fact paid into by the aged when they were younger.  That’s an obvious statement, I know, but it seems to escape our “exemplary (other-people’s) pain” caucus.  The federal government has taken money from my paychecks for three decades or so.  In a little over a decade more, I’ll begin drawing on pension and health care programs into which I — not my son, yet — have paid into all that while.  And so it goes, for each of us.

Yes, it’s true:  there is an ongoing balancing act between current revenue and outgoings; yes, the government does tax younger folk (not so very much younger, what with rising ages to retirement and all that) while paying out the sums due octogenerians who have contributed lo-these-many-years.  But the framing of social insurance as theft by the present from the future neglects the reality of the past, and the long history of today’s present paying their obligations against later necessity.

The second form of error is that spending on the elderly today should be seen as simply a constraint on the future.  To see the historically – ignorant folly here, assume what I hope remains the counterfactual:  we substantially reduce our commitment to health care for seniors.  To begin, recall the way such care used to be delivered, before the idea of universal access to medical care for at least those who made it more or less advanced age.  Who took care of grandpa and grandma when the grew creaky?  Sons and (especially) daughters and daughters-in-law.  Who paid?  Same again.  Now imagine that in the current medical and demographic framework we undercut public and socially-shared responsibility of the care of the aged.  What happens?

At least two things:  an enormous ramp up in the constraints faced by families in their middle age, at the peak of their productivity, presumably, and at a time when they might be most able to contribute to Brooks’ dream of endless innovation and capital formation.  Every unpaid family nursing hour is one that comes out of the hide of Brooks’ “future.”  Not to mention the transfer of wealth from individual families to the medical-industrial complex, as families striving to care for the aged in the context of a medical industry vastly more expensive than anything that depression-era clans confronted.  Social insurance is as forward looking an investment as anyone can imagine — as Brooks could long since have gleaned from the pages of his own newspaper.  See e.g. David Leonhardt’s 2009 (sic!)  piece analyzing the value of health care reform on innovation. (Leonhardt there addresses a different question than old-age care; but the argument he advances applies to the latter situation as well.)

Finally — and this is really the subject for a stand alone post (to come in a bit, I hope) — this whole piece turns on an assumption not in evidence (one of Brooks’ standard rhetorical misdeeds, btw).  That would be the one contained in this suggestion for the President:

He’d means test Medicare and use the money to revive state universities and pay down debt.

The assumption here is that the only way to confront the cost of Medicare is to take that number and its future trend as givens; if that is so, then the argument is just about who pays — all of us together, through our government, or winners and losers chosen among those who can influence the process of change the best.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — Brooks and Friedman, and now apparently a regurgitation of Bowles-Simpson all make this same claim, and they’re all determined to be wrong.  Ed Kilgore called out this issue today.  Basically, it can be summed up as “It’s the policy, stupid.”

That is, as Ed writes,

I’d add there is obviously another path: maintaining our commitment to the elderly but finding ways to reduce the cost, especially through health care cost containment measures that don’t simply shift costs and risks to the old folks themselves.

Exactly so — as in fact the ACA attempts in a number of ways, in ways that it and other factors are already producing good effects.

Again, I say.  If David Brooks read his own damn paper, he might grasp some of this.

There’s lots more absurd in this colum — see, e.g. some painful nonesense about “culture” (a word he should be forbidden to use, IMHO) and yet more stunningly bad history, this time about the ’50s — but given how far I’ve already dived into TL;DR territory on a bit of Brooksian effluent that poured out over a week ago, I guess I should stop.

Images:  J. W. M. Turner, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on (“The Slave Ship”) 1840.

Hendrick ter Brugghen, The Liberation of Peter, 1624

66 replies
  1. 1
    Belafon (formerly anonevent) says:

    Will have to read when I get home, but are you saying Brooks is the living embodiment of the Gish Gallop?

  2. 2
    BGinCHI says:

    Kthug has a blog post on Brooks’s “big data” assertions.

    He gently points out that DB is a DB.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    Tom Levenson says:

    @BGinCHI: He was way too kind to his “colleague” allowing him a number of good points. Feh. Want to HulkSmash the column. Want also to see my son before bedtime.

  5. 5
    jl says:

    Cripes what tripe. For sure, economic historians have all agree since forever that the canals and government investment in the transcontinental railroad were successful big investments that increased productivity! Fer sher. Except, not, no, they have not agreed.

    This miserable pastiche is Brooks’ version of the Rubio speech. Dress up hard core fanatical failed reactionary GOP policies in some new costume and hope it sells. Kind of like wrapping up last weeks trash fish that was inedible to begin with, and is now rotting, in today’s newspaper with a hot topic headline showing on the outside.

    The real mess is compacted, kind of like those old garbage compactors did it, into three paragraphs:

    ” Federal spending is the most obvious example. The federal government is a machine that takes money from future earners and spends it on health care for retirees. Entitlement spending hurts the young in two ways. It squeezes government investment programs that boost future growth. Second, the young will have to pay the money back. To cover current obligations, according to the International Monetary Fund, young people will have to pay 35 percent more taxes and receive 35 percent fewer benefits.

    But government is not the only place you can see signs of this present-ism. Business has slipped into this pattern, too. C.E.O.’s serve short stints and their main incentive is to make quarterly numbers, not to build for the long term.

    Banks can lend money in two ways. They can lend to fund investments or they can lend to fund real estate purchases and other consumption. In 1982, banks were lending out 80 cents for investments for every $1 they were lending for consumption. By 2011, they lent only 30 cents to fund investments for every $1 of consumption. ”

    Thomas Friedman and crazy ol’ Alan Simpson couldn’t do it better.

  6. 6
    Face says:

    Christ this is a long post.

  7. 7
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    Hell, even the Mayflower carried at least as many merchant adventurers as pious romantics.

    Well, not to mention that a fair number of the folks on the Mayflower and the ships which followed in its wake were trying their best to put an ocean between themselves and the David Brookses of 17th Cen England, the latter having become intolerable to the point where it was either that, or fight a civil war to put them down (and within a few decades it did come to that, too).

  8. 8
    Maude says:

    Means test Medicare means no more medicare. It would be Medicaid.
    In other words, get rid of Medicare.
    See, it won;t hurt Brooks if Social Security retirement and Medicare are gone. He can always sell his 3. whatever million dollar house.
    Must be nice to lecture the lower orders.

  9. 9
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Face: And your point is?

    (You were warned…)

  10. 10

    Is anyone here taking his class on Humility at Yale?

  11. 11
    Yutsano says:

    @Tom Levenson: Well one assumes that KThug and Bobo have to interact at least somewhat on a professional level. Get the goo professor away from that constraint an it might just be game on for how he really thinks.

  12. 12
    BGinCHI says:

    @Tom Levenson: As Frankie counsels: choose life.

  13. 13
    BGinCHI says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I’m way, way too fucking smart and handsome to take it.

  14. 14
    jl says:

    Brooks column on ‘Big Data’ is pretty sad too. Full of non sequiturs and fallacies. I guess now that it is undeniable that people like Silver, Wang, Krugman and Alan (totally disagrees with Krugman as Mornin’ Joe can tell you) Blinder are looking good by looking at data, I guess it is time for the GOP propaganda machine to try to take looking at data down a notch. Yessir…

    What Data Can’t Do,

    Is there any indication at all that Brooks has even the slightest idea of what he talking about here? My bet is ‘no’:

    ” As we acquire more data, we have the ability to find many, many more statistically significant correlations. Most of these correlations are spurious and deceive us when we’re trying to understand a situation. Falsity grows exponentially the more data we collect. The haystack gets bigger, but the needle we are looking for is still buried deep inside.

    One of the features of the era of big data is the number of “significant” findings that don’t replicate the expansion, as Nate Silver would say, of noise to signal. “

  15. 15
    BGinCHI says:

    On a saner note (sorry Tom), here’s a useful Ed Kilgore post on sequestration, with a quote and link to Tomasky that shows us exactly what the truth is on this matter:


  16. 16
    Anoniminous says:

    There’s another column today about what he sees as the limitations of the use of big data

    For those who (you lucky buggers) don’t know what that is, Big Data is the latest brain wave among the corporate IT crowd. The idea is thar be gold in them thar petra-bytes of data they’ve been squirreling away, mostly because they can. Gartner (them big enchilada in hi-tech marketing) forecasts Big Data will be a $15 billion/year business, employing 1.5 million people, by 2015.

    Alas, Gartner goes on to say, “nobody knows how to do it.”

    Anyone not in the corporate IT crowd would immediately wonder how the devil they can forecast Big Data to be $15 billion/year business, employing 1.5 million people, by 2015, when nobody knows how do it.

    The answer, my friend, is … LOOK! a SHINY OBJECT!

  17. 17
    Tom Levenson says:

    @BGinCHI: No apologies necessary. It does seem unfair that I’ve traded in my McArdle folie for Brooks. I’ve got work to do. I need my brain back!

  18. 18

    @jl: Uriah Heep Brooks would probably fail Stats 101. Why does this innumerate idiot have this forum?

  19. 19
    jl says:

    The Center for Policy and Economic Research (CEPR) has some blogs that do regular reviews of horrible pundit and media coverage, as well as reliable analysis of gummint statistical releases.

    CEPR blogs

    Dean Baker’s Beat the Press is good on the pundits and bad media stories.

  20. 20
    J says:

    I’m sick at home, so I was able to read the whole of this post, which is terrific.

  21. 21

    @BGinCHI: Me 2. I wish someone was auditing it and blogging about it. Comedy gold.

  22. 22
    Sly says:

    @Belafon (formerly anonevent):
    The Gish Gallop entails peppering the opposition with so many half-truths and/or lies that they cannot counter them in real time and substantiate their own arguments. Brooks doesn’t do that. It’s fairly quick and easy to refute a Brooksean argument on factual grounds.

    Instead, what Brooks does is structure his argument around a preconceived bias that seems intuitive to people who don’t know any better, and thus grant it the status of an essential truism. And he draws from the same set of preconceived biases held by upper-middle class and upper class white men; that history is a process driven by the individual achievement of a “Great Person,” that demands put upon the status quo to concede power are inherently dangerous, that tradition for its own sake is inherently virtuous, etc.

    Brooks gets away with this because those assumptions are taken for granted by those who hold social and cultural capital within American society, which includes those most likely to care about what appears in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times. He speaks their language, and it’s the only language he, or they, feel the need to speak.

    He’s essentially a middle-brow Bill Buckley.

  23. 23

    @Tom Levenson: Have you seen Cole’s new kitteh, she looks like Tikka’s little sister. How is his highness?

  24. 24
    MikeJ says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: It’s not on oyc. I can’t imagine anybody paying for it.

  25. 25
    Tom Levenson says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Kitten Tikka Masala is lord of his entire domain.

    Surreal experience from last night: while we were watching Life of Pi, he jumped up on my lap and stared at the set. I grew rather concerned that he was taking notes from Robert Parker.

    I sleep with one eye open with that cat, I tell you.

  26. 26
    Anoniminous says:

    @Tom Levenson:


    Laboratory rats, after prolonged exposure to Brooks, have a statistical significant increased risk of developing brain lesions versus the control group.

  27. 27
    jl says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I teach my beginning and intermediate students techniques to avoid the problem of chance correlations in ‘big data’. Every statistician, especially any economic statistician knows them. My long standing cynical view is that pundits like Brooks get some talking points texted or faxed to them, and they print them up under some ‘talking point of the day’.

    The ‘big data’ problems Brooks mentioned earlier in the column, and which we read about in critiques of ‘quant’ analysis that lead to the real estate bubble and mortgage mess resulted from ignoring just such relatively elementary techniques.

    In that column, wherever Brooks’ arguments have any connection and hang together to make a sensible case for anything, they are connected by misunderstandings, mistakes, and ignorance.

    The column reminds me of Mornin’ Joe citing Alan Blinder as an economist who disagrees with Paul Krugman. I guess Joe will stumble across DeLong’s blog next and cite him as a prominent economist who disagrees with Krugman.

  28. 28

    Here is an exercise: Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words.

    I applaud TNC’s high standards, while noting that they are rather obviously not job requirements for the likes of Brooks.

  29. 29
    gogol's wife says:


    You just know the class is full of smug, arrogant egotists.

  30. 30
    Trollhattan says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    On first gloss, “Kitten Tikka Masala” sounds rather cruel. That said, I’ve never had a _._._ tikka masala I didn’t love.

  31. 31

    This is me after reading a column by Bobo

  32. 32
    MikeJ says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    I grew rather concerned that he was taking notes from Robert Parker.

    Nothing worse than a cat that prefers fruit bombs to a more nuanced bottle.

  33. 33
    BGinCHI says:

    @gogol’s wife: To get an A you have to claim that you really only deserve a C+.

  34. 34
    gogol's wife says:


    That was my reaction! I obviously haven’t seen the movie.

  35. 35
    Hoodie says:

    @jl: It’s pretty clear he has no idea about what he’s talking about or, more likely, he has a vested interest in casting aspersions on modeling derived from actual data so hacks like Brooks can continue to get sinecures at the Times writing about non-existent salad bars and lost tribes of patio men. Those 800-word Brooks columns are the op-ed page equivalent of a Bob Timberlake painting.

  36. 36
    cokane says:

    great stuff, i read it all

  37. 37
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote recently how difficult he finds the form of the 800 word column — the genre in which Brooks makes his living…

    Brooks’labors in this regard are immeasurably eased by the fact that he just pulls things out of his ass.

  38. 38
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @jl: One of the features of the era of big data is the number of “significant” findings that don’t replicate the expansion, as Nate Silver would say, of noise to signal.

    Someone is utterly unfamiliar with Bayesian analysis.

    Not surprising. Barely covered it and I have a science degree. The liberal arts majors at my college were lucky to grasp even a post-medieval understanding of science. Apparently it’s perfectly acceptable to take a degree in letters and have NO FUCKING CLUE what reality is how to find that out. It’s all fallacy of argument by authority, all the fucking way down.

    It’s why I can’t read tripe like The Atlantic (except for TNC’s blog, and even then, can’t stomach it daily). All the long-form shit is chock full of misunderstandings, ridiculously outdated (and disproven) science, ascientific teleology, “just so” stories about human nature (which could be easily challenged by browsing Psychology Today online, never mind trolling PubMed), creaky old apologetics that modern Biblical scholars would blush to even mention, philosophy even philosophers (“the useless science”) would disavow, category errors about statistics or math, not even wrong assertions about natural history, all seasoned with the muddy thinking and pomo stylings so favored in American academe.

  39. 39
    Tom Levenson says:

    @MikeJ: Richard Parker dammit. Richard.

  40. 40
    BGinCHI says:

    This makes me want to murder/suicide some reporters:


  41. 41
    jl says:

    @Another Halocene Human:

    Brooks seems unfamiliar with all sorts of things.

    Like looking to see whether any correlations hold up when you try to replicate them in a new sample not used for the original estimate.

    (And what could be simpler than that? If you have ‘Big Data’ split it in two, estimate the sacred/suspect/nonsense correlations using each half, and try the results out on the other half of the data).

    Or, seeing how robust the estimates are using two different methodologies (like, comparing Silver’s and Sam Wang’s election predictions)

    Or, looking to see what the Big Data is data of, and what assumptions are needed to make it data about anything in the real world (like, forgetting all about fundamental real estate valuation analysis, and just assuming that observed transaction prices reflect reasonable analysis of fundamentals that somebody, sometime, somewhere, must of done…. otherwise, where did those obviously information-rich prices come from?)

  42. 42
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

    And next question: how is this sacrifice being arranged? Are we throwing virgins into volcanoes (instead of grandparents who ought to be sucking lava)?

    I found this bit of prose quite funny given that in the comment thread two posts down we were debating the merits of throwing the WH press corps into a volcano. [pro: it would rid us of a bunch of meddlesome idiots, con: might anger the volcano gods].

  43. 43
    Hungry Joe says:


    He’s essentially a middle-brow Bill Buckley.

    Bill Buckley was essentially a middle-brow Bill Buckley.

  44. 44
    Kathleen says:

    Who took care of grandpa and grandma when the grew creaky? Sons and (especially) daughters and daughters-in-law. Who paid? Same again. Now imagine that in the current medical and demographic framework we undercut public and socially-shared responsibility of the care of the aged. What happens?

    This. My sentiments exactly, and I’ve found it interesting but not surprising that none of the propatainment pundits and pimps (print or broadcast) have never even brought this up (this is the first place I’ve seen this statement outside of my head). If these “entitlements” are cut, can parents rely on their kids to help them? I can’t bear the thought of having to ask my child for help, and pray I never have to.

  45. 45

    There is something more than mere crayon history going on here though. As with many, many Brooks columns, what you have here is the attempt to assert one pole of a dichotomy of virtue. Our ancestors: distinctive heroes…and what comes next?

    You know what comes next: present decay, the failure of moral fibre and the betrayal of history.

    THIS. It’s a tired conservative cliche, but Brooks is the master of it.

  46. 46
    different-church-lady says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    Is anyone here taking his class on Humility at Yale?

    No, I’m too busy taking Tiger Wood’s class on celibacy at Harvard.

  47. 47

    I’ve been writing 200 word letters (all printed in Issa-Land), one every 2 weeks for 15 years :
    TITLE “ make gun sales, not possession, illegal
    We should go way beyond ALL gun sales having background checks; assigning liability to every gun, saddling every owner with that until the gun is terminated by being turned into authorities for destruction. So, sales become risky, as you don’t sell the liability – it sticks with you, making you responsible for letting that gun go. Improperly secured stolen guns retain responsibility.
    We should make EVERY sale of semi-auto guns illegal. This will shut down the churning market. It will immediately reduce the value of every semi-auto in existence to near zero. Since I don’t believe pasty-white young gameBOYS have good links to an underground gun market, they will not be able to find many guns.
    Ammo clips should have limited capacity. Make a free, anonymous exchange, then criminalize the large clips.
    I bet we can identify misfits through their efforts to find theses guns – since they start as misfits within a secure society and try to delve into the hastily created underground. Should be easy pickings for the ATF narks. Heck, I bet criminal gun sellers would turn in (anonymously) most of their encounters with these losers!
    Gun ownership is still legal, but their circulation is ended.

  48. 48

    200 words!!! :

    TITLE : Buy American, invest in America

    Solid Republican South Carolina invested (spent in Republican speak) $325M into subsidizing 2K jobs = $162.5K/job. (http://www.nctimes.com/busines.....6ff0b.html) Why government spending (stimulus in Democratic speak)? Because the factory, while growing to 7K jobs and lowering the per job investment, created another 14K ancillary jobs, making overall investment $15.5K per job. Republicans hate the $12B American investment in GM, an excellent yield of 1.5M jobs equaling $8K/job. (http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/201.....tudy-says/)

    A continuing misunderstanding is that stimulus money is “lost” – gone. Stimulus money is budgeted, but curative. It creates jobs in the short-term, and hopefully creates lasting and widespread value. Jobs make spending, but during unemployment peaks, spending makes jobs. The Highway 76 improvements are a perfect example. Tax cuts are stimuli, but a costly and inefficient application, especially compared to food stamps, unemployment, infrastructure construction, or really, every other way.

    But spending needs to stay in America, making American jobs.

    The real lesson is that 7K employees made 25K vehicles; each vehicle over a quarter of a job, before the 2X job multiplier effect. So, actually, 25K cars made 21K jobs! Look around at the cars not made here; every one is almost an American job shipped overseas. Tariffs are in order.

  49. 49
    MikeBoyScout says:


  50. 50

    Who took care of grandpa and grandma when the grew creaky? Sons and (especially) daughters and daughters-in-law. Who paid? Same again.

    There’s a really important point lurking here that you need to make explicit: today’s care must always be carried out by people today, and tomorrow’s care must be carried out by people tomorrow. That means we’ll always be spending today’s money on today’s care. Even if we invest money to pay for something in the future, we eventually have to cash the investment out and use the cash to pay for what we want.

  51. 51
    Mayur says:

    @Another Halocene Human: I would ask that you not blame the fucktarded nonsense that passes as “long-form editorial writing” in publications such as the Atlantic on the liberal arts education system. People throughout history (even dimbulbs like myself) have been able to pick up books and actually absorb some scientific knowledge even with a non-science major or concentration at school. (And, in fact, the opposite holds true as much or as little of the time, in my experience.) The problem is that the morons who rise in the ranks of these publications don’t seem to possess the same caliber as the smarter people I at least know from top universities.

    In short, I wouldn’t blame the university system on the scientific or mathematical illiteracy of people like Brooks, McMegan, or Yglesias. Most of my friends who are contemporaries of theirs would make mincemeat of them on any of the relevant topics. It’s why I have a hard time believing that the most venal examples (er, Brooks) are really at all saying what they believe as opposed to just phoning in a part.

  52. 52
    DougW says:

    Awesome as always…

  53. 53
    Tehanu says:

    Great post, Tom, thanks. I’ve grown to hate Brooks almost more than any other wingnut because he disguises his wingnuttery so well, until you actually start thinking about the crap he spews.

  54. 54
    Jennifer says:

    As I pointed out in one of my screeds against Brooks, he blithely sorts medical care and a modest monthly stipend for the elderly into the category of “luxury, not necessity.” While low taxes for people who already have more money than they could possibly ever spend fall into the must-have category.

    The way I’ve taken to explaining it to any nimrod who buys into the “your family has to live on a budget – and the gubmint should too!” BS is that when families get in tight financial straits and they have a choice between defaulting on a mortgage they’ve been paying on for 15 years or getting rid of the stupid boat in the driveway that they have almost never used and can’t afford to use now, most of them get rid of the boat.

    Medicare and Social Security are the equivalent of the mortgage in that situation – we’ve all been paying into them steadily for a long time (some of us longer than others), while the historically low rates of taxation on multi-million and billionaires are the stupid boat in the driveway. If we got rid of them tomorrow (the stupidly low tax rates, that is) we’d never miss them. And the multi-million and billionaires who already have more money than they can ever spend won’t miss a few more dollars paid to improve the commonweal, either, no matter how loudly they squall about how it just isn’t fair that they don’t get to have and keep ALL the money. Medicare and Social Security are long-term investments for the rest of us, and the only ones really open at all to the poorest workers. Dollars trimmed from benefits there are felt very keenly by millions of people – and in the larger economy itself. Seniors barely scraping by at subsistence levels in deteriorating housing don’t tend to do a lot of consuming of products or services requiring cold hard cash. That flows out into the larger economy in the form of less business for those still in the workforce, because a whole age segment of the population who may need what we can provide can’t afford to buy it. And of course less business generates less tax revenue, which only makes funding the programs, even at some new reduced level, harder to do. It’s a negative feedback loop you can see from a mile away. But even as it anally rapes the rest of us, it does satisfy the requirement that very wealthy people get out of paying much in taxes, so the Brooksian conclusion to the question is preordained.

  55. 55
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @jl: Like looking to see whether any correlations hold up when you try to replicate them in a new sample not used for the original estimate.

    A good example of this would be cross country comparisons of sociological variables, which is completely politically incorrect in Republican circles.

  56. 56
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Mayur: The problem is that you can easily exit with a degree and skip all the math/science. The people you know who ran rings around those clowns had dual majors or at least took classes outside of their major. There are lots of amazing people in academia who can both count and spell. Yet the academy in the US will still confer a supposedly worthy degree (with high honors, even) to someone who does not want to sully themselves with facts and factology. That’s the problem, IMO.

    I also took my share of “smell the roses” Western Civ classes and was frankly SHOCKED at how Enlightenment “science” was presented without any sort of context, as in “sure, they believed that shit then, but they were dead wrong, because evidence, math, evidence”. Heck, the professor got annoyed at me when I tossed a little George Gamow’s science of infinities at Alexander Pope. Even in the last few threads somebody here referring to what Plato “plainly meant” as if Plato was right about much of anything. Sorry, just because Plato said it DOES NOT SETTLE IT. Jeez.

    I think this is a truly American problem. I have read some utterly genius stuff out of Europe where the author is able to use historical method on historical documents, plus a smattering of philology and fuse that with a deep understanding of modern science to provide a clearer picture in context, both past and present. Being utterly ignorant but feeling terribly learned seems to be rampant among the scions of the upper middle class here.

    It’s possible that somewhere early in elementary education we’re fucking up the future English majors by making them fear math tests so much that they never manage to learn a serviceable amount of it… But I still don’t understand why it’s acceptable to teach freshmen and sophomores in survey courses rot and call it education.

    Final note: here’s my statistical proof: bachelor’s degree only are MORE LIKELY to vote GOP than Dem. Hmmm, I wonder if it’s because most of them did NOT get a well-rounded education, either they’re engineers who don’t understand the world of the humans or they’re humanities majors who believe any sort of mythology because they don’t even have a skeptic’s toolkit, a baloney detector, never mind a basic understanding of math, statistics, physical science, how the fucking human body works, or how to read the abstract of a scientific paper. Or… some of them will always be the drunks who majored in coeds who had daddies’ business/farm to return to and got gentleman’s C’s. But they are not and will never be a majority. Yet the majority of BA only vote GOP. Hmmm.

  57. 57
    Jennifer says:

    @Another Halocene Human: I think you’re being a bit harsh on the humanities majors there.

    The folks you’re describing more neatly fit the label of Bachelor of Business Administration.

  58. 58
    mclaren says:

    As Megan McArdle slides down the Daily Beast’s incline of fail, she poses less and less danger to the body politic…

    What a great sentence. You’re on fire today, boy. Great stuff!

  59. 59
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Another Halocene Human: And another thing: most people on this blog know who Noam Chomsky is and are passingly familiar with his theories about linguistics. Well, part of the reason he’s still around and credible is that evidence has been lining up over the years supporting his school of linguistics (a field that is utterly littered with dead theories). Yet, I think you would struggle mightily to find a college professor or high school teacher who presents Rousseau within the context that his linguistic theories are demonstrable bosh. Rousseau is over and over again presented at face value. I think this is a massive disservice, as great a lie as anything in Sunday school classes, which passes without comment daily in America. Ditto for Plato, who also had some utterly ridiculous theories about linguistics and cognition. He didn’t label them as such because he evidently was a monolinguist. Plato is presented, not only at face value, but as some sort of unassailable authority on, well, everything. I guess I lucked out in that my teacher had us read his Socratic dialogues first, which made me quite skeptical of everything that followed! And, oddly enough, watching TNG had made me think about Plato’s table problem before it was posed… gah! The stupid… it burns! Of course, Christianist weirdoes have a vested interest in Plato because Western Christianity depends on his philosophy so heavily. So much for secular education.

    It’s amazing how much TOTAL GARBAGE I was presented in my years and years of education, supplemented by reading daily papers and periodicals like The Atlantic and The New Yorker and Wilson Quarterly compared to what’s available to me reading Science Daily, biologist blogs, etc. Most of what I was taught about human nature, philosophy, psychology, social systems, etc were garbage or lies. Thank FSM for history class, or I would have been completely in the dark. Theory of knowledge class was also okay, but foundered on modern philosophers. (Kant? Really? To be fair, I had one (1) professor who questioned his OCD ass, wondering out loud if Kant’s terrible grasp of the English language had not led him to misread Hume and thus spend volumes refuting his misreading of the Scottish Sage. Nietzsche, meanwhile, in my experience was dismissed as a nutter, even though he destroyed Kant easily. But then again, any 12 year old English boy could disprove the “Categorical Imperative”. Why is this a mandatory topic again? It’s not like it has some huge impact on jurisprudence or anything like that. Kant’s idiocy about noumenal reality had more of an immediate impact on Western thought or at least the Western academy, as it apparently was the trigger for a rash of student suicides.)

    It’s one thing to have an educated elite. It’s another thing to have a miseducated elite. The latter is what we have. Science is like magic to them. Ooh. Aah.

    Not. Good.

  60. 60
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Jennifer: I went to school with them. They almost bragged about how bullshit their math distribution was. Maybe you were lucky to attend a school that was a little stricter? I had professors who wouldn’t know trufax (other than the various interpretations their favored topic of study) it they stepped on the handle and it donked them in the face.

    Not *all* professors were this way, mind you. But some of them, certainly, yes. And they had tenure and taught classes. To freshmen, even.

  61. 61
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Jennifer: The longer I live, the more I realize Keynes was dead right about rentiers.

    “Job Creators” is Orwell-speak. The real menace (and constituency of the Tea Party) is the rentier class. People who are still making money in the non-FIRE (parasitical) economy want their potential customers to have jobs and spending money.

  62. 62
    Another Halocene Human says:

    @Richard W. Crews: That’s great. Marion County, Florida, just paid an insane amount in tax rebates per job* for low wage call center jobs no guaranteed to stay after the tax bennies run out.

    Why not just hire county workers at a living wage (multiplicative in the local economy) so they don’t have to cut school to 4 days/week and so on and so forth (more ripples in the economy)? All money stays local, instead of more than half being extracted and sent elsewhere.

    *more than the jobs pay, year over year, unless I’ve drastically misunderstood something

  63. 63
    Ruckus says:

    Try having paid in for approx 50yrs and having no children to carry the load. If SS and Medicare go away, it’s called dumpster diving while living under that bridge. Of course one doesn’t generally have to do it for long as the life expectancy of a person old geezer living in the urban wild is probably not all that great.

  64. 64
    What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? says:

    Gee, I thought the Europeans came here to make a better life for themselves in the here and now, not because they though that their descendants two generations down the line would have it easier. That’s the beginning fallacy of his argument right there. Yes, he glosses over slavery and an American Indian holocaust, but the first sleight of hand is that argument right there.

    Maybe life was harder here than they expected when the first generation of Europeans came over, but they weren’t coming here to build a new nation for future generations. They came here for free land and a shot at escaping poverty in the here and now. The investments they made were to make life better in the here and now and the immediate future, not for their grandchildren.

  65. 65
    mds says:

    @Another Halocene Human:

    Maybe you were lucky to attend a school that was a little stricter?

    Such schools do exist, though they are unfortunately not the default. At my undergraduate institution, we science majors still had to take a lot of humanities and social science courses for the “general education requirement.” The flip side was that humanities majors had to take at least a smattering of physical science and mathematics. Yeah, it was still weighted towards the liberal arts side of things, but it was a liberal arts college. I was glad for the exposure to stuff I otherwise might never have considered, and many humanities types were glad as well, though sometimes only in retrospect.

    Now, the large state school where I did some of my graduate work? No comparable broad base of shared undergraduate requirements, so much more along the lines of what you have described. If anything, it was even worse, because a bunch of the innumerate students with no interest in the physical sciences were engineering students. There was a period during my darkest TA days when I was scared to drive on bridges.

  66. 66
    gorram says:

    @jl: This is particularly funny since the insistence by many in the GOP that Obama couldn’t win because no president with had won under the economic conditions we had faced seems much more specious than actually looking at aggregate polling data.

    The problem of course is that his article is going to be interpreted as a take that against the pollsters, when it actually makes more sense as a criticism of Brooks himself. It almost makes me want to read it to see if Brooks realizes he’s nearly attacking himself. Wonder if he’s actually humble enough…

Comments are closed.