David Brooks

Baseball or Soccer? David Brooks Misunderstands Life

David Brooks — who is what passes for a conservative at The New York Times — once again plays useful idiot to the left. Brooks’s latest offering to the collectivist cause is “Baseball or Soccer?” Here are the opening paragraphs of Brooks’s blathering, accompanied by my comments (underlined, in brackets):

Baseball is a team sport, but it is basically an accumulation of individual activities. [So is soccer, and so is any team sport. For example, at any moment the ball is kicked by only one member of a team, not by the team as a whole.] Throwing a strike, hitting a line drive or fielding a grounder is primarily an individual achievement. [This short list omits the many ways in which baseball involves teamwork; for example: every pitch, involves coordination between pitcher and catcher, and fielders either position themselves according to the pitch that's coming or are able to anticipate the likely direction of a batted ball; the double play is an excellent and more obvious example of teamwork; so is the pickoff play, from pitcher to baseman or catcher to baseman; the hit and run play is another obvious example of teamwork; on a fly to the outfield, where two fielders are in position to make the catch, the catch is made by the fielder in better position for a throw or with the better throwing arm.] The team that performs the most individual tasks well will probably win the game. [Teamwork consists of the performance of individual tasks, in soccer as well as in baseball.]

Soccer is not like that. [False; see above.] In soccer, almost no task, except the penalty kick and a few others, is intrinsically individual. [False; see above.] Soccer, as Simon Critchley pointed out recently in The New York Review of Books, is a game about occupying and controlling space. [So is American football. And so what?] ….

As Critchley writes, “Soccer is a collective game, a team game, and everyone has to play the part which has been assigned to them, which means they have to understand it spatially, positionally and intelligently and make it effective.” [Hmm... Sounds like every other team sport, except that none of them -- soccer included, is "collective." All of them -- soccer included -- involve cooperative endeavors of various kinds. The success of those cooperative endeavors depends very much on the skills that individuals bring to them. The real difference between soccer and baseball is that baseball demands a greater range of individual skills, and is played in such a way that some of those skills are on prominent display.] ….

Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. [To the extent that any of us think such things, those who think they are playing baseball, rather than soccer, are correct. See the preceding comment.]

At this point, Brooks shifts gears. I’ll quote some relevant passages, then comment at length:

We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.

This influence happens through at least three avenues. First there is contagion. People absorb memes, ideas and behaviors from each other the way they catch a cold…. The overall environment influences what we think of as normal behavior without being much aware of it. Then there is the structure of your network. There is by now a vast body of research on how differently people behave depending on the structure of the social networks. People with vast numbers of acquaintances have more job opportunities than people with fewer but deeper friendships. Most organizations have structural holes, gaps between two departments or disciplines. If you happen to be in an undeveloped structural hole where you can link two departments, your career is likely to take off.

Innovation is hugely shaped by the structure of an industry at any moment. Individuals in Silicon Valley are creative now because of the fluid structure of failure and recovery….

Finally, there is the power of the extended mind. There is also a developed body of research on how much our very consciousness is shaped by the people around us. Let me simplify it with a classic observation: Each close friend you have brings out a version of yourself that you could not bring out on your own. When your close friend dies, you are not only losing the friend, you are losing the version of your personality that he or she elicited.

Brooks has gone from teamwork — which he gets wrong — to socialization and luck. As with Brooks’s (failed) baseball-soccer analogy, the point is to belittle individual effort by making it seem inconsequential, or less consequential than the “masses” believe it to be.

You may have noticed that Brooks is re-running Obama’s big lie: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.” As I wrote here,

… Obama is trying, not so subtly, to denigrate those who are successful in business (e.g., Mitt Romney) and to make a case for redistributionism. The latter rests on Obama’s (barely concealed) premise that the fruits of a collective enterprise should be shared on some basis other than market valuations of individual contributions….

It is (or should be) obvious that Obama’s agenda is the advancement of collectivist statism. I will credit Obama for the sincerity of his belief in collectivist statism, but his sincerity only underscores and how dangerous he is….

Well, yes, everyone is strongly influenced by what has gone before, and by the social and economic milieu in which one finds oneself. Where does that leave us? Here:

  • Social and economic milieu are products of individual acts, including acts that occur in the context of cooperative efforts.
  • It is up to the individual to make the most (or least) of his social and economic inheritance and milieu.
  • Those who make the most (or least) of their background and situation are rightly revered or despised for their individual efforts. Consider, for example, Washington and Lincoln, on the one hand, and Hitler and Stalin, on the other hand.
  • Beneficial cooperation arises from the voluntary choices of individuals. Destructive “cooperation” (collectivism)  — the imposition of rules through superior force (usually government) — usually thwarts the individual initiative and ingenuity that underlie scientific and economic progress.

Brooks ends with this:

Once we acknowledge that, in life, we are playing soccer, not baseball, a few things become clear. First, awareness of the landscape of reality is the highest form of wisdom. It’s not raw computational power that matters most; it’s having a sensitive attunement to the widest environment, feeling where the flow of events is going. Genius is in practice perceiving more than the conscious reasoning. [A false distinction between baseball and soccer, followed by false dichotomies.]

Second, predictive models [of what?] will be less useful [than what?]. Baseball is wonderful for sabermetricians. In each at bat there is a limited [but huge] range of possible outcomes. Activities like soccer are not as easily renderable statistically, because the relevant spatial structures are harder to quantify. [B.S. "Sabermetrics" is coming to soccer.] Even the estimable statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gave Brazil a 65 percent chance of beating Germany. [An "estimable statistician" would know that such a statement is meaningless; see the discussion of probability here.]

Finally, Critchley notes that soccer is like a 90-minute anxiety dream — one of those frustrating dreams when you’re trying to get somewhere but something is always in the way. This is yet another way soccer is like life. [If you seek a metaphor for life, try blowing a fastball past a fastball hitter; try punching the ball to right when you're behind in the count; try stealing second, only to have the batter walked intentionally; try to preserve your team's win with a leaping catch and a throw to home plate; etc., etc., etc.]

The foregoing parade of non sequitur, psychobabble, and outright error simply proves that Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I hereby demote him from “useful idiot” to plain old “idiot.”

*     *     *

Related posts:
He’s Right, Don’t Listen to Him
Killing Conservatism in Order to Save It
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
Three Truths for Central Planners
Columnist, Heal Thyself
Our Miss Brooks
Miss Brooks’s “Grand Bargain”
More Fool He
Dispatches from the Front
David Brooks, Useful Idiot for the Left
“We the People” and Big Government
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility

David Brooks, Useful Idiot for the Left

David Brooks’s latest atrocity, “The Role of Uncle Sam,” appears in The New York Times of yesterday. I quote, in relevant part:

[T]he federal [government's] role [in the economy] has historically been sharply limited. The man who initiated that role, Alexander Hamilton, was a nationalist. His primary goal was to enhance national power and eminence, not to make individuals rich or equal….

But this Hamiltonian approach has been largely abandoned. The abandonment came in three phases. First, the progressive era. The progressives were right to increase regulations to protect workers and consumers. But the late progressives had excessive faith in the power of government planners to rationalize national life. This was antithetical to the Hamiltonian tradition, which was much more skeptical about how much we can know and much more respectful toward the complexity of the world.

Second, the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt was right to energetically respond to the Depression. But the New Deal’s dictum — that people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day — was eventually corrosive. Politicians since have paid less attention to long-term structures and more to how many jobs they “create” in a specific month. Americans have been corrupted by the allure of debt, sacrificing future development for the sake of present spending and tax cuts.

Third, the Great Society. Lyndon Johnson was right to use government to do more to protect Americans from the vicissitudes of capitalism. But he made a series of open-ended promises, especially on health care. He tried to bind voters to the Democratic Party with a web of middle-class subsidies.

In each case, a good impulse was taken to excess. A government that was energetic and limited was turned into one that is omnidirectional and fiscally unsustainable. A government that was trusted and oriented around long-term visions is now distrusted because it tries to pander to the voters’ every momentary desire. A government that devoted its resources toward future innovation and development now devotes its resources to health care for the middle-class elderly….

In his engrossing new book, “Our Divided Political Heart,” E.J. Dionne, my NPR pundit partner, argues that the Hamiltonian and Jacksonian traditions formed part of a balanced consensus, which has been destroyed by the radical individualists of today’s Republican Party. But that balanced governing philosophy was destroyed gradually over the 20th century, before the Tea Party was even in utero. As government excessively overreached, Republicans became excessively antigovernment.

We’re not going back to the 19th-century governing philosophy of Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln. But that tradition offers guidance. The question is not whether government is inherently good or evil, but what government does.

Brooks begins by assuming that the Hamiltonian approach to government is the correct one: An assertion that Madison and Jefferson would refute.

Beyond that, Brooks ignores the evidence of his own analysis, which is that each aggrandizement of governmental power (economic and social) — beginning with Hamilton’s nationalism — fostered subsequent expansions of governmental power. It is a combination of ratchet effects and slippery slopes. The status quo is a baseline from which retreat is nigh impossible because of vested interests; the only possible next step, therefore, is an expansion of government to serve the newest “compelling need.”

Dionne’s so-called consensus never was a consensus. Consider, for example, the relative narrowness of FDR’s and LBJ’s “mandates,” which were in fact  60-40 splits. The fact of the matter is that the rules of the political game — as they have evolved through utter disregard of the real Constitution and the wishes of large segments of the populace — simply have allowed the accretion of power in Washington, even when there has been a “consensus” to diminish that power. I am, of course, thinking of the election of presidents like Harding, Coolidge, and Reagan by margins as great as those bestowed on FDR and LBJ.

If “government excessively overreached” — as Brooks admits — how could it be that “Republicans became excessively antigovernment”? It would seem that their (largely imagined) excessiveness is necessary and proper.

Nor should the “antigovernment” label be allowed to pass without comment. There is a difference between being “antigovernment” (i.e., anarchistic) and “pro-limited-government” (i.e., Madisonian and Jeffersonian rather than Hamiltonian). The “antigovernment” label is a cynical libel routinely deployed by the forces of big government in an effort to discredit those who are bold enough to point out that the expansion of governmental power has undermined social comity and prosperity. (The most cynical of efforts to discredit the opponents of big government occurred in the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh’s atrocious act in Oklahoma City. McVeigh was an antigovernment terrorist. And so it became the theme-of-the-month among the NPR crowd that everyone who is for less government is “antigovernment” and, by extension, a kind of terrorist.)

Brooks wants a limited government, but only if it is limited to a Hamiltonian scope. But the instant that government is allowed to exceed its brief, as it was when Hamilton’s “nationalism” became the central government’s leitmotif, the proverbial genie comes out of the bottle. It can only be stuffed back into the bottle by getting government completely out of the business of trying (in any way) to help business (except to protect it from domestic and foreign predators, of course).

Markets respond quite nicely to real needs, thank you. On the other hand, powerful governments (Hamiltonian and worse) respond to the capricious and costly commands of those who govern.

Related posts:
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
Blame It on the Commerce Clause
The Slippery Slope of Constitutional Revisionism
Substantive Due Process, Liberty of Contract, and the States’ Police Power
The Price of Government

The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Left
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Our Miss Brooks
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Undermining the Free Society
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis
The Left’s Agenda
The Public-School Swindle
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
Miss Brooks’s “Grand Bargain”
More Fool He
Externalities and Statism
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
Society and the State
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
A Nation of (Unconstitutional) Laws
Are You in the Bubble?
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”

Conservatives vs. “Liberals”

David Brooks occasionally writes something with which I agree. For example, in “Hey Mets! I Just Can’t Quit You” (The New York Times, March 8, 2012) he says:

There’s a core American debate between [Jack Kerouac's] “On the Road” and [Frank Capra’s}“It’s a Wonderful Life.” “On the Road” suggests that happiness is to be found through freedom, wandering and autonomy. “It’s a Wonderful Life” suggests that happiness is found in the lifelong attachments that precede choice. It suggests that restraints can actually be blessings because they lead to connections that are deeper than temporary self-interest.

What Brooks didn’t say, but probably thought, is that “On the Road” is “liberal” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” is “conservative.” For, as Brooks observes in the next paragraph, “happiness research suggests that ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is correct and ‘On the Road’ is an illusion.” That’s consistent with a point I make in “Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness,” namely, that persons of the right (which includes most libertarians) are happier than “liberals.”

But the happiness of persons of the right — and therefore most of the happiness that’s in the air — is threatened by the “liberal” agenda. And most conservatives are hard put to refute that agenda with reasoned argument. Maverick Philosopher explains, in “Why Are Conservatives Inarticulate?“:

Conservatives, by and large, are doers not thinkers, builders,  not scribblers.  They are at home on the terra firma of the concrete particular but at sea in the realm of abstraction.  The know in their dumb inarticulate way that killing infants is a moral outrage but they cannot argue it out with sophistication and nuance in a manner to command the respect of their opponents.  And that’s a serious problem.

To beat the Left we must out-argue them in the ivory towers and out-slug them in the trenches.  Since by Converse Clausewitz  politics is war conducted by other means, the trench-fighters need to employ the same tactics that lefties do: slanders, lies, smears, name-calling, shout-downs, pie-throwing, mockery, derision….

Politics is war and war is ugly.  We could avoid a lot of this nastiness if we adopted federalism and voluntary Balkanization.  But that is not likely to happen: the totalitarian Left won’t allow it.  So I predict things are going to get hot in the coming years.

To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, inarticulateness in the defense of liberty is no virtue.

The intelligentsia of the right — a select group that includes George Will and does not include the likes of O’Reilly and Hannity — must arm themselves to do battle on the left’s terms. I would avoid slanders, lies, and smears, but name-calling, shout-downs, pie-throwing, mockery, and derision are certainly in order — as is the truth about the baneful effects of leftism on its supposed beneficiaries: the poor and (mostly imaginary) downtrodden. Their raison d’être, in the left’s scheme of things, has been to supply the votes that have enabled the left to exert its totalitarian will on all of us.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
The Left
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Undermining the Free Society
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis
The Left’s Agenda
The Public-School Swindle
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
Externalities and Statism
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
Society and the State
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
Are You in the Bubble?
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down

More Fool He

David Brooks, The New York Times‘s ersatz conservative, writes:

When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill….

This wasn’t a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible.

Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around….

Being a sap, I still believe that the president’s soul would like to do something about the country’s structural problems. I keep thinking he’s a few weeks away from proposing serious tax reform and entitlement reform. But each time he gets close, he rips the football away.

No s***, Sherlock. Being a bit smarter than Charlie Brown isn’t exactly a mark of distinction.

Welcome to the party David, even if it has taken you three years to get here.

Oh, but wait…

The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. I’m a sap.

Fool David once, Obama’s to blame. Fool David twice, David’s to blame. Fool David thrice (at least), and you know that David’s no sap — he’s a fool.

Miss Brooks’s “Grand Bargain”

The idiot known as David Brooks — The New York Times‘s idea of a conservative — is true to form today:

Imagine you’re a member of Congress. You have your own preferred way to reduce debt. If you’re a Democrat, it probably involves protecting Medicare and raising taxes. If you’re a Republican, it probably involves cutting spending, reforming Medicare and keeping taxes low.

Your plan is going nowhere. There just aren’t the votes. Meanwhile, the debt ceiling is fast approaching and a national catastrophe could be just weeks away.

At the last minute, two bipartisan approaches heave into view. In the Senate, the “Gang of Six” produces one Grand Bargain. Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner, the House speaker, have been quietly working on another. They suddenly seem close to a deal.

There’s a lot you don’t know about these two Grand Bargains….

You are being asked to support a foggy approach, not a specific plan. You are being asked to do this even though you have no faith in the other party and limited faith in the leadership of your own. You are being asked to risk your political life for an approach that bears little resemblance to what you would ideally prefer.

Do you do this? I think you do….

You do it because while the Grand Bargains won’t solve most of our fiscal problems. They will produce some incremental progress. We won’t fundamentally address the debt until we control health care inflation….

Both Grand Bargains produce real fiscal progress. They aim for $3 trillion or $4 trillion in debt reduction. Boehner and Obama have talked about raising the Medicare eligibility age and reducing Social Security benefit increases. The White House is offering big cuts in exchange for some revenue increases, or small cuts in exchange for few or none. The Gang of Six has a less-compelling blend of cuts, but it would repeal the Class Act, a health care Ponzi scheme. It would force committees across Congress to cut spending, and it would introduce an enforcement mechanism if they don’t. Sure there’s chicanery, but compared with any recent real-life budget, from Republican or Democratic administrations, these approaches are models of fiscal rectitude.

You do it because both bargains would boost growth. The tax code really is a travesty and a drag on the country’s economic dynamism. Any serious effort to simplify the code, strip out tax expenditures and reduce rates would have significant positive effects — even if it raised some tax revenues along the way….

In other words, Republicans should simply give in, on Miss Brooks’s say-so.

But Miss Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

First, with respect to “health care inflation,” government is the problem, not the solution. There are two key reasons for rising health-care prices, aside from innovation that yields expensive but effective drugs, procedures, and equipment. They are (a) the tax break that enables employers to subsidize employees’ health plans and (b) the subsidization of old folks’ health care via Medicare and (indirectly) SS. Those two interventions result in the overuse of health-care products and services. (There’s a 25-year old but still valid RAND study on the subject.) A far better system — if one insists on government involvement — would be to provide means-tested vouchers that can be redeemed for a  limited menu of vital medical products and services (e.g., critical surgeries, cardiovascular medications, chemotherapy). That’s it — no more Medicare, Medicaid, or their expansion via Obamacare.

Second, with respect to “tax expenditures” — there ain’t no such thing. Any action that results in higher taxes is a tax increase, no matter what Miss Brooks and his fellow Democrats choose to call it. And tax increases are growth inhibitors, not growth stimulators.

So much for the wisdom of The New York Times‘s pet “conservative.”

Related posts:
The Laffer Curve, “Fiscal Responsibility,” and Economic Growth
Our Miss Brooks
Rationing and Health Care
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health-Care Reform: The Short of It
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Undermining the Free Society
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
“Tax Expenditures” Are Not Expenditures
My Negotiating Position on the Federal Debt

Our Miss Brooks

Some time back, Tom Smith referred to the NYT columnist and pseudo-conservative David Brooks as “prissy little Miss Brooks.” Smith’s recycling of the appellation has not diminished its satirical effect — or its substantive accuracy.

Miss Brooks recently cringed when she contemplated an America without government, in the aftermath of a victorious Tea Party movement. Miss Brooks, it seems, is besotted with the manliness of limited-but-energetic governments

that used aggressive [emphasis added] federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.

Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending — demanding work in exchange for dollars.

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire — a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

I am surprised that Miss Brooks was able to recover from her swoon and finish writing the column in question. I am less surprised that Miss Brooks omitted to mention Thomas “Louisiana Purchase” Jefferson and Theodore “I Can Do Whatever I Please” Roosevelt, given that Jefferson was an effete Francophile and Roosevelt was a squeaky-voiced nutcase.

Other than that, there are only two problems with Brooks’s prescription for beneficent government: The first is the impossibility of electing only those leaders who know how to use government power judiciously. The second problem is the assumption that the things wrought by Washington, Lincoln, et al. were judicious uses of government power.

As to the first problem, all I can do is note the number of times that a majority of Americans has been convinced of the goodness of a candidate, only to be disappointed — when not outraged — by his performance in office. Take LBJ, Nixon, Carter, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama — please take them! –not to mention myriad Congress-critters and State and local office-holders.

The second problem is a problem for reasons that are evidentlybeyond Miss Brooks’s comprehension:

  • Government action isn’t cost-less. It absorbs resources that the private sector could have put to use.
  • Government officials, despite their (occasional) great deeds, are not gifted with superior knowledge about how to put those resources to use.
  • Private firms — when not shielded from competition and failure by governments — put resources to uses that satisfy the actual needs of consumers, as opposed to the whims (however high-minded) of politicians.
  • Private firms — when not shielded from competition and failure by government — use resources more efficiently than government.

In short, Miss Brooks, Washington may have been a great man for having led a rag-tag army to victory over the British, and Lincoln may have been a great man for having preserved the Union and (incidentally) freed the slaves, but neither man — and certainly no other man or collection of men exercising the arbitrary power of government — was or ever will be equal to the task of simulating the irreproducibly complex set of signals and decisions that are embedded in free markets.

In the end, Miss Brooks works herself into hysterics at the prospect of less government:

The social fabric is fraying. Human capital is being squandered. Society is segmenting. The labor markets are ill. Wages are lagging. Inequality is increasing. The nation is overconsuming and underinnovating. China and India are surging. Not all of these challenges can be addressed by the spontaneous healing powers of the market.

The social fabric is fraying precisely because government has pushed social institutions aside and made millions of Americans its dependents. Society is segmenting for the same reason, and also because millions of Americans are fed up with government and its dominance of their lives. Labor markets are ill and wages are lagging (compared to what?) because of various government actions that have slowed economic growth and caused (not for the first time) a deep recession. The nation is overconsuming (i.e., underinvesting) and underinnovating because of the aforesaid government-caused economic malaise, which (among other things) has reduced the demand for money (seen in the form of low interest rates) and the potential returns on innovative investments. That China and India are surging is no skin off our teeth; the more productive they are the less Americans have to pay for the goods and services they produce, and the more Americans can produce of other things — if government will only get off the back of American business.

None of these “challenges” would be challenges were it not for governmental interference in private social institutions and markets. As Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Amen.

So, Miss Brooks, I advise you to take two Valium and read Friedrich Hayek’s Nobel Prize lecture, “The Pretence of Knowledge.” Then pass it on to your politician friends.

Related posts:
Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government

Columnist, Heal Thyself

David Brooks’s recent column, “The Protocol Society,” is a typical Brooksian muddle, in which he attributes evolutionary changes in economic behavior to the “discoveries” of contemporary economists.

Despite Brooks, there is nothing new under the sun of economic analysis. The practitioners of today who draw on sociology and psychology are simply returning to the roots of economics — the description of human behavior — which can be found in Adam Smith and his successors, well into the 20th century. This “old school” of literary economics didn’t give way to the “new school” of mathematical economics until after WWII, when Paul Samuelson led the profession down the dead-end street of convoluted, abstract theorizing.

The difference between the old-old school and the new-old school is that the moderns rely less on introspection and casual observation and more on data collection, “laboratory” experiments, statistical analysis, and the research findings of sociologists and psychologists. That this is not an unalloyed blessing can be seen in the “accomplishments” of a leading member of the new-old school, one Richard Thaler, whom Brooks omits to mention. Thaler’s specialty, which has been dubbed “behavioral economics,” focuses on the psychology of decision-making and how it leads individuals to make what Thaler believes are sub-optimal and even unwise choices. From there, Thaler and his collaborator, Cass Sunstein, have ventured into normative policy recommendations, which they dub “libertarian” or “soft” paternalism. Needless to say, actual libertarians find much to criticize in Thaler’s normative prescriptions, which carve out a role for government in “nudging” people in directions that “wise men” like Thaler and Sunstein would like to seem them nudged.  For much more about the dangers of “libertarian” paternalism, see these two posts and follow the links therein.

In any event, Brooks writes as if there were a real difference between economic activity in the 19th century and economic activity in the 21st century. As if, for example, there wasn’t a lot of brainpower and organizational skill involved in the “second industrial revolution” of the last third of the 19th century. As if, to take another example, the “protocols” of the modern food court didn’t have their counterparts in the market squares of yore. As if, to take a final example, the manufacture of steel, autos, and other durable goods doesn’t (and didn’t) involve massive capital investments (many of which were made possible by patented processes and machinery), so that the average cost of making each unit declines markedly as the rate of output rises. It is as if the 21st century simply arrived, bright and shining, with no connection to the past.

On the whole, Brooks is onto something, which is that economists are getting back in touch with the realities of human behavior. However, he is guilty of a gross attribution error. He writes as if there were something new in economic behavior because economists are now better able to describe it. The same attribution error is found among teenagers (of every era), who believe that sex didn’t exist until they discovered it.