Brooks Explains

The Republicans have a problem. If they make sure the wrong sort of people find it hard to ever vote in an election ever again, then they’ve got this in the bag – they’ll win back the Senate in the fall and win back the White House in 2016 and be in full power again. If minorities and the poor, and the elderly and the young, can be kept from voting, then things will work out well for them. The new voter-ID laws and other restrictions on the time and place of voting, passed in every state where the Republicans have full control now, should take care of that, and last year the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – so that helps too. But a Pennsylvania judge just struck down that state’s voter ID law – it was so stunningly unconstitutional, and cynically lacking in any real purpose for the public good, that there was no point in even arguing about it.

That’s a bad sign, but there’s a Plan B. If they can rid America of Obamacare, which everyone hates, then they’ll be fine – but Obamacare is starting to work better and is becoming part of the fabric of how life is now, and not that bad a thing, with more and more voters relieved that it’s in place. Running on the promise to rid America of Obamacare has become risky now. Do you really want to take people’s new health insurance away from them, offering no alternative way to rearrange healthcare in America at all, for anyone – because that would really stick it to Obama? Voters might not support your seething spite, and they’d rather not be forced into bankruptcy because of unforeseen medical costs just so you can get your jollies. More and more Republicans are beginning to realize the whole kill-Obamacare thing is a loser.

There is a Plan C – falling back to the old standby position. That’s the usual Republican argument that they’re the Serious and Responsible ones, willing to make Hard Choices when everyone else is wringing their hands, afraid to do what’s necessary. Everyone else is the Democrats of course, but there’s no major war on the horizon and there’s hardly anyone left around to torture these days. That’s a problem. There must be some way to show they are willing to make those hard choices, but cutting off the unemployed and the poor and disabled, to show their amazing fiscal responsibility, could backfire – no one votes for heartless bastards, except other proudly heartless bastards, and there may not be enough of those around to pave the way back to power. Benghazi will have to do, except that’s now a loser too – the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee signed off on their final report, agreeing that there’s no scandal there at all. That was Plan D – useless now.

Chris Christie might have saved them – the blunt guy who didn’t ever give a damn what anyone thought, who’d insult anyone to their face, any time, and just get stuff done, Christie is everything Obama isn’t – the manly man as opposed to the effete snob who thinks you can reason with people – but the bridge scandal is a problem. See Chris Christie’s Crisis Plunges Republican Party Deeper Into The Wilderness and  GOP donors on Christie fallout: “I think we need Mitt back” and GOP establishment panics over Christie’s troubles and so on. Brit Hume on Fox News, seconded by Bill O’Reilly, argued that the “bully” accusation against Christie was sad evidence of the “feminized atmosphere” in our dysfunctional politics, and then Jon Stewart had a great deal of fun with that – and that’s the kiss of death. Also see GOP Fundraiser Says Christie “As a Person, Is Horrific” – so the Big Guy isn’t going to save the Republican Party. Plan E is in the process of being shelved.

Now what? Someone has to argue that the Republicans aren’t horrific people, to argue that they’re not gleefully heartless and cruel, always seeking Hard Choices when none really need be made, that they actually care about someone other than the One Percent and what they consider the most important people in America, corporations. They need an apologist, someone thoroughly conservative but also amiable and pleasant, able to make their arguments in nonthreatening ways. In short, they need the New York Times’ David Brooks – a nice guy if there ever was one – who has decided to explain that everyone’s got it wrong about income inequality:

In the first place, to frame the issue as income inequality is to lump together different issues that are not especially related. What we call “inequality” is caused by two different constellations of problems.

At the top end, there is the growing wealth of the top 5 percent of workers. This is linked to things like perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street, assortative mating (highly educated people are more likely to marry each other and pass down their advantages to their children) and the superstar effect (in an Internet economy, a few superstars in each industry can reap global gains while the average performers cannot).

At the bottom end, there is a growing class of people stuck on the margins, generation after generation. This is caused by high dropout rates, the disappearance of low-skill jobs, breakdown in family structures and so on.

If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality then you assume growing affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor, but, in reality, the two sets of problems are different, and it does no good to lump them together and call them “inequality.”

He goes on to argue that there’s no point in raising the minimum wage, because that’s targeting the wrong people. That won’t do a damned thing about poverty – as the “primary problem” for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. They need better jobs. The rich can create them, somehow, if we let the rich do what they will – or something. And there’s the breakdown in family structures down there on the bottom too. Rich families always stay intact. The poor should learn from them – or something. Talk about income inequality “contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic problems” – so we shouldn’t talk about it. But not really – Democrats should just cut Republicans some slack here:

There is a growing consensus that government should be doing more to help increase social mobility for the less affluent. Even conservative Republicans are signing on to this. The income inequality language introduces a class conflict element to this discussion.

Democrats often see low wages as both a human capital problem and a problem caused by unequal economic power. Republicans are more likely to see them just as a human capital problem. If we’re going to pass bipartisan legislation, we’re going to have to start with the human capital piece, where there is some agreement, not the class conflict piece, where there is none.

So let’s talk about bad schools and no jobs for young men and broken families and so on, because income inequality is “a secondary issue and a statistical byproduct” – and thus it’s beside the point. Conservative Republicans aren’t heartless – they see the poor and feel for them – but there’s no need for the rich and successful to chip in more, or even what they chip in now. Defund the schools that have screwed up, make those poor people stay married, or get married in the first place, and keep the rich fat and happy so they’ll create more fulltime jobs – or at least that’s the general idea.

Isn’t that reasonable? Brooks didn’t sneer at anyone, or insult anyone – it was all sweet reason.

Robert Kuttner at American Prospect is a bit amused:

The funny thing is that whenever sensible policies produce episodes of full employment, as in the late 1990s, the long postwar boom, or the World War II economy, the supposedly feckless poor get decent jobs and their incomes go up. Cultural deficits are a handy alibi for bad economic policies.

Actually, Kuttner is not amused at all by Brooks’ cultural deficit alibi:

First of all, he leaves out about 70 percent of the population! Inequality isn’t just about the bottom and the top. It’s also about the declining middle. Wages have been flat or declining for the vast majority of workers for three decades.

The downward mobility of the working middle class is one of the great un-remedied issues of our time. Fixing it will require sharing the fruits of America’s growing productivity more equitably, so that the top one percent don’t make off with so much. Inequality isn’t just a problem of poverty.

As for the poor, right-wingers, like Charles Murray and George Gilder and Brooks in our own era have been blaming poverty on cultural deficits ever since slavery, and there were the English apologists for poverty such as Bernard Mandeville in the early 18th century, who warned that coddling the needy would only lead to idleness.

Kuttner has no use for such stuff:

Brooks can be reliably counted on to write one fatuous column after another. He oscillates between the faux-thoughtful essay, and simple-minded right-wing propaganda, often in the same column.

Ah, but at least he’s not a horrific person like Chris Christie, although Ed Kilgore adds this:

I have an issue with the tendency of conservatives to identify wealth with virtue and poverty with vice. It adds insult to injury to blame the poor for their difficult situation, and encourages greed and the abuse of power among those who already possess it.

And it’s just historically wrong, too. I often ask if many millions of people suddenly lost their moral fiber when the Great Depression and the Great Recession threw them out of jobs.

They didn’t, even if FDR’s government gave them those WPA jobs and food, shelter, and clothing – and they went on to become the Greatest Generation and all that. Kilgore thinks this sweet reason from Brooks on the right is nutty:

You don’t have to deny social dysfunction as a bad thing in order to recognize that powerful economic forces both help cause and more often transcend it. Moreover, bad as economic policies often are, government has a better record in macroeconomics than in identifying and rewarding virtue or discouraging vice (particularly the non-violent kind).

The idea that inequality reflects some sort of natural or divine moral judgment – and thus cannot be addressed without invoking a natural or divine backlash – lurks behind most conservative arguments against redistribution. It’s an offense to biology and to theology. There are plenty of efficiency arguments for tolerating inequality. Conservatives should stick to those.

The Republicans have a problem here, and the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein says it’s worse than you think, because it’s structural:

Follow the trail in the party’s recent budgets and what you find, hidden between appendix tables, are deep cuts to programs for the poor. That’s the inevitable consequence of Republican commitments to favored constituencies. The party promised its anti-tax wing no tax increases and lower tax rates. It promised older voters that Medicare and Social Security would not change for those over age 55. It promised defense hawks that sequestration cuts to military spending would be reversed. And it promised its tea party allies that it would cut trillions from government spending and balance the federal budget.

The only way to square all those promises is through draconian cuts to programs for the poor.

That’s why programs for lower-income Americans account for two-thirds of proposed Republican budget savings, including thirty-seven million Americans losing access to Medicaid – all in order to keep the promises they’ve made. That led to the filibuster that ended the current efforts to extend long-term unemployment benefits to the million or more who had those taken away just after Christmas. All the Republicans now talking about poverty – Klein cites Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan – voted for or, in Ryan’s case, authored these cuts, so this is a strange business:

“When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” Paul said.

This is a correlation/causation mistake of staggering size and consequence. In effect, Paul sees that people who take medicine are more likely to die and concludes that we need to take away their medicine. When there are three job seekers for every open position, it’s pretty clear that a lack of jobs, rather than lack of interest in getting jobs, is the core problem for the long-term unemployed.

Klein says some conservatives are “beginning to develop more realistic approaches to joblessness and poverty” and he recommends Michael Strain in the latest issue of the journal National Affairs – even if the guy is a scholar at the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute, Klein just wonders if any Republican politician is brave enough to go where Strain goes:

Strain’s article acknowledges there is a jobs emergency. It pulls together almost every job-creating proposal Washington policy makers have thought of – as well as a few they haven’t – and suggests implementing them simultaneously.

Some of Strain’s ideas will thrill conservatives. He calls for policies that would reduce “oppressive licensing requirements” at all levels of government, reform the disability insurance system so it rewards work, facilitate immigration by highly skilled foreigners and expand union-busting right-to-work laws to more states.

He also proposes reforming the unemployment insurance system so it gives workers a cash bonus when they find a job, paying the long-term unemployed to move to regions with tighter labor markets, subsidizing employers to enable them to pay the long-term unemployed less than the minimum wage (the government would make up the difference), and massively investing in infrastructure.

The man is a heretic:

“What if we bought a whole bunch of buses and had them run express from low-income communities that are in exurbs into commercial centers?” he asked me during an interview. “We know mobility is inversely correlated to the degree of sprawl in a city. I think a simple explanation is that if you have people living two hours away from the jobs, that the commute is killing them and their economic potential. If you can cut that two-hour commute down to an hour, all of a sudden they can apply for a lot more jobs.”

That’s not the kind of idea you normally hear from Republicans. But Strain’s point is that these aren’t normal times – and Republicans have to stop acting as if they are. “I don’t think traditional solutions that people on the right typically turn to would be particularly effective here,” he said. “Lower taxes are important for long-run growth. Less debt is important for long-run growth. But cutting the top marginal income tax rate this year or doing draconian spending cuts to balance the budget won’t be particularly effective in getting the unemployed back to work.”

Strain’s article doesn’t offer much in the way of budget estimates. So I asked him point-blank whether his proposals would require spending more money.

“Yes,” he said.

That also might remind you of that famous line from the Ring Lardner story – “‘Shut up,’ he explained.” It’s the same sort of thing. Elected Republicans aren’t going to be comfortable with the obvious. Do we have to spend money? Yes.

They can’t do that:

In recent years, Republicans have backed themselves into a corner; virtually everything they’ve proposed entails deep cuts to programs for the poor. They’ve tried to escape this trap – and allegations by opponents that they are indifferent to suffering – by arguing that various reforms, such as turning federal programs over to the states, will unleash such miraculous efficiencies that meager budgets will stretch to cover existing needs.

They won’t.

The model they cite is welfare reform, which was enacted in 1996 during the highest-growth economy since the 1960s. Welfare cuts didn’t make the fight against poverty magically more efficient; they simply made it stingier. In 1996, 68 of 100 families living in poverty with children received welfare benefits. In 2010, two years after the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, only 27 of 100 such families were receiving benefits. The assistance once provided by welfare is now supplied by tax credits such as the earned income tax credit, which the government has vastly expanded.

The spending was shifted. The money was still spent. Deal with it:

Taking poverty and joblessness seriously doesn’t mean the government needs to spend more forever. But it does mean the government needs to spend more now – when poor people are squeezed by high unemployment and low growth. That spending could be reallocated from other programs, or it could be offset by future tax increases or spending cuts. But there is no getting around it: Any policy that sharply reduces government spending to alleviate poverty is a policy that will lead to more poverty.

Many sense that, and they vote, or maybe, if minorities and the poor, and the elderly and the young, can be kept from voting by all the new voter-ID laws and other restrictions on the time and place of voting, that won’t be a problem – but that judge in Pennsylvania may be the first of many to allow the people who can do the math to vote this year, and two years from now too. Drat. There’s a real problem here.

Heck, people may start listening to righteous rants from the left, like this one from Mike Shook:

In the past 34 years, the Republican Party has brought us a brand of cynicism that should have no place in government, whereby the people who work for us talk about the cost of everything and the value of nothing. They constantly pretend to cut the budget to the bone, when they’re actually diverting the money from programs that help the average American to contracts that line the pockets of those who put them into power, especially when it comes to their baby, the Department of Perpetual War. One of the worst legacies of the Democratic Party-dominated period has to be the Vietnam War, but the Republicans actually topped that by starting three preventable wars in the last 34 years, and turning two of them into major quagmires that lasted longer than Vietnam, and which did little more than line the pockets of defense contractors, to the tune of $2 trillion.

Republicans have also deregulated everything they could get their dirty little hands on. They cut regulations that were created to prevent another Great Depression, and they slashed regulations designed to keep markets fair and equitable. They have continually chipped away at regulations designed to keep workers safe on the job, as well as those intended to keep the environment safe. They even loosened regulations on food safety, and they virtually destroyed the regulations designed to ease our oil addiction. As one of his first acts, Reagan went so far as to take the solar panels off the White House roof in a sign of defiance.

Some are impressed by defiance, of course, but enough is enough:

Republican rule has transformed this young, vibrant nation from a nation that once believed it could do anything, into a nation that believes it’s broke and can’t afford to do anything. Think about it; everything we discuss doing these days is through the frame of how much it costs and whether or not it will make money, which is not rational. While we are still the richest nation in the world, with Republicans in charge – especially the current crop – we won’t be for long. The level of cynicism that courses through this government these days is not worthy of the United States.

Do you really want to argue that now, for the first time in our history, America really can’t afford to do much of anything, that America is broke, and always will be broke, and no amount of growth will make anything any better, so we need to cut off the poor and unlucky and disabled, because we can’t afford that sort of thing – or argue that they’re all lazy bums and should take care of themselves, damn it? That Republican fundraiser called Chris Christie horrific. Why is the Big Guy any different than the rest of them?

There are some things even the infinitely amiable David Brooks can’t explain away. Plan A isn’t working out, and Plan B then Plan C and so on aren’t working out either, because some things can’t ever be explained away.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Brooks Explains

  1. Rick says:

    A few observations:

    “Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee signed off on their final report, agreeing that there’s no scandal there at all.”

    What do you want to bet that, by the time the 2016 campaigns come around, that story will be that the Senate Intelligence Committee named Hillary Clinton the only person responsible for Benghazi — which is technically true, albeit ridiculous? It probably won’t be a very strong issue for them, since the Senate Committee report obviously didn’t make a big deal about blaming her, but Republicans have lots of experience taking a little tiny bit of innuendo and blowing it up into a shit-storm, then throwing into an admixture of all their other manufactured shit-storms [to be named later] to make it look like there’s too many reasons not to vote for this person. It’s what they do.

    “Republicans aren’t horrific people … they’re not gleefully heartless and cruel, always seeking Hard Choices when none really need be made…”

    It’s so easy to overlook that “Hard Choices” are always in the eye of the beholder. Republicans so often fool themselves into thinking they earn points for “Courage” every time they are seen making a “difficult decision” to do something they don’t actually have the courage to admit out loud that they wanted to do anyway.

    For example the Hard Choice of cutting benefits for the poor is actually very easy, if you happen to be a conservative who believes that programs for the poor only enable laziness. But this means the real “Hard Choice” for a conservative, especially a politician or pundit, is making the choice to increase spending on these programs, since that would have the dual advantage of (1) doing a good deed for the underprivileged or unlucky, who might need help getting out of a situation not of their doing, and (2) benefiting our country by helping the economy through increased spending.

    The main reason that doing the right thing is so often the “Hard Choice” that conservatives refuse to make, other than the obvious reason of favoring something that goes against everything you’ve been taught to believe, is that you risk pissing off other conservatives, who, of course, are the only people you have been taught to have any respect for in the first place.

    Despite any presumptions to objectivity to the contrary, Brooks’ main problem is that he can’t help but frame this problem of inequality in the way a partisan conservative would frame it — that is, as class warfare in which one side, the unworthy and dysfunctional poor, has a hankering for all the hard-earned wealth of the worthy upper-class, and in which Brooks himself is being called upon to concoct a strong defense of the good people — whereas a better, more objective formulation of the problem, at least I think, is that we’ve somehow allowed our economy to get dangerously out of balance, allowing one group, at the expense of the other, to unjustly reap the benefits of our economy, the profits of which belong to the community at large, which includes both “upper” and “lower” levels of society and everything in between, “producers” and “consumers” alike, and that in the long run, it would benefit both sides to realize this, and to do something to get the economy back into a healthy balance, and make sure it stays that way.

    Then again, it’s hard for me to avoid the temptation of thinking all it will take to fix our national problems is for both sides to sit down and really argue back and forth about our assumptions — with conservatives eventually being persuaded in the error in their thinking, of course.

    (Okay, stop laughing! I’m being serious here!)

    Rick

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