Tuesday, May 24, 2011

David Brooks' hackery crosses the Atlantic

It finally happened. David Brooks has finally slid off the brink into a deranged fantasy world. Unable to find a real-world example of moderate conservatism attaining ever-greater glories, he has instead constructed one from thin air. This government bears some resemblance to real-world Britain, but don't be fooled: the characters and events he discusses are entirely fictional.

I know I have occasional readers in the UK and Ireland, and you guys in particular ought to check this column out. For instance, it contains the following gem:
The United Kingdom seems to be in the middle of that sort of constructive quarrel now. Usually when I travel from Washington to Britain I move from less gloom to more gloom. But this time the mood is reversed. The British political system is basically functional while the American system is not.
It's good that Brooks, technically speaking, avoids suggesting that Britons have escaped from their gloomy tendencies altogether, and instead only focuses on their relative level of gloom. Because while my Gloom Sensors are less finely tuned than Brooks', I do have access to something Brooks apparently does not: numbers. And those numbers are ugly. Over the last six months, the British economy has achieved zero growth. Zero! Nothing! Zilch! Nada! In the last quarter of 2010, the GDP actually shrank by 0.5%! Hey, Britain, 2008 called, and it wants its recession back.

Oh, and it's not over yet: the Bank of England just downgraded its growth forecast for the next two years.

Well, okay, I don't want to misquote Brooks here. And he didn't say Britain was overflowing with exuberance, only that it was less gloomy than the US. Surely the numbers reflect that:
[American real GDP] increased at an annual rate of 1.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011 . . . . In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 3.1 percent.
Oh, wait. No. They don't. They really, really don't.

So who do we have to thank for this veritable explosion of good cheer in the UK? Now, I'm inclined to say David Cameron and the Conservatives. But I'm just some random dude with a blog, so don't listen to me. Instead, let's turn to that stalwart defender of progressive economics, the Financial Times: "Most mainstream economists argued that the impact of the government's fiscal consolidation on confidence and consumer demand would be negative; so it has proved." Or Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, who acknowledged that "the Government's fiscal consolidation to continued 'to weigh on activity.'"

By "fiscal consolidation," they mean the austerity agenda that was the shining centerpiece of the Conservative government's policy platform. It's the platform the Tories have pursued come hell or high water, in the face of economic backsliding and massive street protests. The austerity program, and more importantly, its failures, are the defining feature of UK politics right now. I wonder what Brooks has to say about that:
Prime Minister David Cameron is a skilled politician who dominates the scene. His agenda doesn’t merely touch his party’s hot buttons, but moves in many directions at once.

His austerity program includes tax increases as well as spending cuts. He’s vigorously protecting the foreign aid budget as he cuts almost everywhere else. He has aggressively reformed welfare and education while retreating on health service reform.

By balancing his agenda, by conveying a sense of momentum, by insisting on fiscal responsibility, he’s remained popular. His party did well in the recent local elections, even amid the fiscal pain.

You'd think that somewhere in his paean to British austerity, Brooks would see fit to mention that austerity has wreaked havoc on the British economy. You would be wrong.

As the passage above demonstrates, the man also seems bizarrely convinced of the Conservatives' continuing popularity.

I suppose, on a certain level, it's an understandable mistake. After all, in his world, there are two parties and two parties only. There are Democrats, decent people who are fundamentally unserious. They want to give money to the poor, they want to make government work better, but they have forgotten to pay for the things they want. Then there are Republicans. Republicans might be a little mean, but they're grownups, real working people, who intuitively understand money. And always, at all times, in all places, the best solution is to split the difference: Democratic compassion tempered with Republican fiscal maturity.

So it's understandable that when Brooks looks at the UK, he sees Labour as Democrats with accents, and the Conservatives as Republicans with accents, and he forgets everything else.

But here's the thing, David Brooks. The United Kingdom has three major parties. And right now, there's a coalition government. So for your beloved Conservatives to stay in power, not only do they have to keep their seats in Parliament, so do the Liberal Democrats.

If David Cameron is as skilled a politician as Brooks claims, preserving the coalition should not be difficult. The Tories apparently did well in local elections, so let's see how the Liberal Democrats have fared:
The Liberal Democrats are bracing themselves for the loss of up to 600 seats in Thursday's local elections in England, prompting fears that their activist base across the country could be devastated.
Uh oh.

And not only are the Lib-Dems facing virtual annihilation, but the Conservatives aren't actually popular in their own right. Currently, they're polling at a mediocre 37%. A huge number of Britons passionately hate the coalition government. The British economy, quite frankly, sucks. If a national election was held today, the Conservatives would be catapulted back to the minority. It's very simple: you cannot describe the Conservative party, circa 2011, as an electoral success.

And yet, somehow, David Brooks wants to convince us that the Tory government is popular and capable -- more popular and capable than the moderate liberal government in the United States. He's unable to cite actual substantive victories, so instead, he relies on rhetorical vagaries. David Cameron is "conveying momentum." Cameron has remained popular by "insisting on fiscal responsibility." America is gloomier than Britain. These claims are both stupid and meaningless. The broader point is completely false.

Besides fabrications masquerading as British political reporting, the column contains plenty of other little buried idiocies. For instance, he reports on one diagnosis of the UK's long-term woes:

As the British politician Oliver Letwin has argued, a generation of misrule between 1945 and 1979 left the U.K. with three large problems: a stifled industrial economy; an overcentralized welfare state; and an enervated people, some of whom are locked in cycles of poverty.

Makes sense so far. Lousy economy, clunky welfare state, and too much poverty. And then, here's how Brooks characterizes the progress on these three fronts:

By liberating the economy, Margaret Thatcher tackled the first of these problems, and subsequent Labour governments consolidated her gains. Meanwhile, a series of governments have been fitfully tackling problems two and three, reforming the welfare state and energizing the populace.
Wait, wait --he wants to address poverty by energizing the populace?! The problem isn't that people don't have enough money to participate meaningfully in the economy and in civil society. No, the problem is that they are literally too lethargic to do so. The poor don't need a handout; they need a Red Bull.

Of course, there are lessons to be drawn from the British experience (hint: austerity doesn't work), and of course, Brooks refuses to draw them. Instead, he once again turns to the one point he's been making, year in and year out, without variation, for the last two decades. You see, apparently, in the UK, as in the US, the correct solution is always the one lying between the ideological extremes of the parties:
Each party took different whacks at pieces of the great national problem, depending on its interests. Opposing parties, when it was their turn in power, quietly consolidated the best of what the other had achieved. Gradually, through constructive competition, the country quarreled its way forward.
Yes! Compromise! Centrism! Both sides are usually wrong and the solution can always be found slightly right of center!

Or, as long as we're talking about Brooks' creepy fetishization of the political center, how about this:
The British political system gives the majority party much greater power than any party could hope to have in the U.S., but cultural norms make the political debate less moralistic and less absolutist.
Brooks sees no connection whatsoever between the content of British political debate and the structure of British government. Well, he wouldn't. David Brooks, perhaps more than anyone, is married to the all-talk-no-action system of overgrown checks and balances that characterizes US governance.

But here Brooks simply has no idea what he's talking about. While he seems impressed that British parties embrace moderation in spite of majority rule, it takes all of about twelve seconds to realize that British parties are moderate precisely because of majority rule. In the UK, voters expect the parties to enact the agenda they campaigned on. Knowing they'll be expected to keep any promises they make, the parties steer clear of overheated rhetoric. If you want American parties to follow suit, the key isn't to adopt British cultural norms (what would that even be? Massive consumption of brown sauce?), but to change our political system so that the people in office can be held accountable for policy outcomes.

What's incredible about this last point in particular, is how close Brooks comes to noticing something both profoundly true and profoundly obvious, before suddenly diverting into his centrist fantasyland. So close, and yet so very far.

And then, for the grand finale, Brooks attacks the very idea of democratic government:

Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school. This makes it gossipy and often incestuous.

But the plusses outweigh the minuses. . . The big newspapers still set the agenda, not cable TV or talk radio. . . British leaders and pundits know their counterparts better.
Short version: British politics are dominated by a wealthy, insular elite. This is good and desirable.

Not coincidentally, David Brooks is a man who has used his position among the journalistic upper crust not to spread truth or report facts, but to inch ever further into the halls of power. He coddles the influential and he expects them to coddle him back. Oh, he's not above issuing the mildest of rebukes now and again. But only in between dinners with the President and media elite. So it's small wonder to discover that, at the end of the day, this is a person who prefers that as few people as possible run the country. Just so long as he is chummy with those people, anyway.

In summary, David Brooks, you are bad pundit. You lie with misdirection. You blame the poor for being poor, while you yourself earn six figures by endlessly churning out the same lazy column. You think "national character" explains all sorts of things, but you ignore facts and figures. You don't understand policy. You don't care about good government. Please, please, for the sake of all of us, just go away.

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