erik lundegaard

Saturday June 16, 2012

The Annotated David Brooks

The following appeared on the New York Times op-ed page on Friday. Without annotations.

Democrats frequently ask me why the Republicans have become so extreme. As they describe the situation, they usually fall back on some sort of illness metaphor. Republicans have a mania. President Obama has said that Republicans have a “fever” that he hopes will break if he is re-elected. Obama's kind. I hope it kills them.

I guess I’d say Republicans don’t have an illness; they have a viewpoint. “I guess I'd say...” That sounds so ... folksy, David. Did you pull on your suspenders as you said it?
Let me describe it this way: In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower reconciled Republicans to the 20th-century welfare state. Between Ike and George W. Bush, Republican leaders basically accepted that model. Um... Wow. So all those attacks on the federal government over the last 30 years were just different ways of 'accepting the Eisenhower model'? Who knew?
Sure, they wanted to cut taxes and devolve power, but, in practice, they sustained the system, often funding it more lavishly than the Democrats. Then demonized Democrats further for something they did.
But many Republicans have now come to the conclusion that the welfare-state model is in its death throes.Yuval Levin expressed the sentiment perfectly in a definitive essay for The Weekly Standard called “Our Age of Anxiety”:

“We have a sense that the economic order we knew in the second half of the 20th century may not be coming back at all — that we have entered a new era for which we have not been well prepared. ... We are, rather, on the cusp of the fiscal and institutional collapse of our welfare state, which threatens not only the future of government finances but also the future of American capitalism.”

So what do you mean by “welfare state”? Social security? Medicare? Highways? Policemen? Speak up, David.

To Republican eyes, the first phase of that collapse is playing out right now in Greece, Spain and Italy — cosseted economies, unmanageable debt, rising unemployment, falling living standards. And Sweden? And Germany? Why are Greece, Spain and Italy seen as harbingers of the U.S.? Doesn't Germany, 'to Republican eyes,' have a bloated health care system? Are Republican eyes paranoid eyes? Can I look through them?

America’s economic stagnation is just more gradual. In the decades after World War II, the U.S. economy grew by well over 3 percent a year, on average. But, since then, it has failed to keep pace with changing realities. The average growth was a paltry 1.7 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. Highlighting stagnant years, which were led by a conservative administration intent on ending the so-called welfare state, isn't exactly a strong argument for ending the so-called welfare state.

It averaged 0.6 percent growth between 2009 and 2011. Well, it does take a while to climb out of a Republican-dug shithole.

Wages have failed to keep up with productivity. It's almost as if the rich keep taking ... and then giving to GOP candidates.

Family net worth is back at the same level it was at 20 years ago. Ditto. 

In America as in Europe, Republicans argue, the welfare state is failing to provide either security or dynamism. The safety net is so expensive it won’t be there for future generations. Or we could tax the rich at levels we taxed them at during most of the Reagan administration? Thoughts? Bueller?

Meanwhile, the current model shifts resources away from the innovative sectors of the economy and into the bloated state-supported ones, like health care and education. Bloated like babies in Africa. Numbers would be nice here. Or anywhere. And “like health care and education”? Are you against these things? WTF is the matter with you?

Successive presidents have layered on regulations and loopholes, creating a form of state capitalism in which big businesses thrive because they have political connections and small businesses struggle. I actually agree with this. The secret to your success, David: one good thought out of 20. You're an .050 hitter in the Major Leagues.

The welfare model favors security over risk, comfort over effort, stability over innovation. Money that could go to schools and innovation must now go to pensions and health care. I thought schools were bloated? Two sentences back. Numbers would be nice here. Or anywhere. And when did we stop innovating anyway? The 1930s? The 1960s? Last year? Was this before or after we created the internet?

This model, which once offered insurance from the disasters inherent in capitalism, has now become a giant machine for redistributing money from the future to the elderly. This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing. Or we could tax the rich at levels we taxed them at during most of the Reagan administration?

Mitt Romney hasn’t put it this way. Of course not.

He wants to keep the focus on President Obama. But this worldview is implied in his (extremely vague) proposals. As are yours, David. As are yours. 

He would structurally reform the health care system, moving toward a more market-based system. Pardon me, sir, but the free hand of the market needs to examine your prostate.

He would simplify the tax code. He would reverse 30 years of education policy, decentralizing power and increasing parental choice. I thought we already spent 30 years decentralizing power and increasing parental choice. Oh, right. That was centralizing corporate power and increasing corporate choice. My bad.

The intention is the same, to create a model that will spark an efficiency explosion, laying the groundwork for an economic revival. The level of wish fulfillment in this sentence outdoes the level of wish fulfillment in any Hollywood blockbuster. I wanted popcorn while reading it. I wanted to throw up after reading it. 

Democrats have had trouble grasping the Republican diagnosis because they don’t have the same sense that the current model is collapsing around them. Or because Republicans aren't upfront about what their proposal entails. Killing social security? Medicare? Highways? Policemen? Speak up, David.

In his speech in Cleveland on Thursday, President Obama offered an entirely different account of where we are. In the Obama version, the welfare-state model was serving America well until it was distorted a decade ago by a Republican Party intent on serving the rich and shortchanging the middle class. Don't be modest. Republicans began distorting our system three decades ago. 

In his speech, Obama didn’t vow to reform the current governing model but to rebalance it. The rich would pay a little more and everyone else would get a little more. I'd have the rich pay A LOT more. Erik 2016!

He’d “double down” on clean energy, revive the Grand Bargain from last summer’s budget talks, invest in infrastructure, job training and basic research. Obama championed targeted subsidies and tax credits. Republicans, meanwhile, envision comprehensive systemic change. The G.O.P. vision is of an entirely different magnitude: replace the tax code (with what?), replace the health care system (with what?) and transform entitlements (to what?).

This is what this election is about: Vagueness?

Is the 20th-century model obsolete, or does it just need rebalancing? Is Obama oblivious to this historical moment or are Republicans overly radical, risky and impractical? Are there national issues that require national solutions? Should the wealthiest people pay a smaller percentage in taxes than you and me? Do we want to return to the economic policies of 2001-2009? 

Republicans and Democrats have different perceptions about how much change is needed. I suspect the likely collapse of the European project will profoundly influence which perception the country buys this November. David, because of your column, I got off the schneid. I just donated $500 to Obama for America. Thank you.

Posted at 07:16 AM on Saturday June 16, 2012 in category Politics  
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