Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Personal Aside: David Brooks Has His Limits
About The New York Times David Brooks, the house conservative who succeeded Bill Safire, this can be said: Brooks is better than Safire since Safire, a mere wordsmith, had no overriding feel for public policy pragmatic on all counts excepting (which absolutism I share) aside from the Middle East and Israel. Brooks has and he has been superior to his predecessor in many ways. When Brooks is good, he is very-very good. And even when hes bad he is not awfuljust mystifyingly obtuse.
Not long ago he ventured on one of his excursions into conservative philosophy. Brooks shouldnt do this because he is not a philosophical conservative but a visceral one. He started out saying that Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln and Margaret Thatcher were not just strivers but all three helped create an economy where people like [them] could rise and succeed. Right. Hamilton used government to bolster the merchant class to widen the circle of property owners. Lincoln championed roads, canals and banks so enterprising farm boys like himself could ascend and prosper. He is right that Lincoln, like Hamilton, used the federal government to aid commercethe Homestead Act and land grant colleges. Right so far as he goes; but these were pioneering effortsat a far different and more primitive time than ours..
Thatcher gave the British working class access to homes and property so that they would become more industrious and independent.
Hamiltons pioneering role linking government and the economy was indispensable at the time. If anything to build on it today is to exhibit more of the old politics. In a very real sense, he invented the old politics. It was needed to counter Jeffersons will-of-the-wisp agrarian dreams that made no role for cities or their commerce. . A strong central government, a national bank, assumption of states debts and responsibilities by the federal government; trade and duties on imports to help pay the bills; patronage tied to politics (Treasury money paid out to supporters and friendly newspaper editors): these were Hamiltons contributions and some of them not pretty. His strength was that at a time of outlandish Articles of Confederation weakness he incorporated a tough federal spirit. Dear God, in this era of federal government activism, we dont need more of that today, do we?
Lincolns domestic plan was a rather outrageous extension of federal power overshadowed by his mastery in outmaneuvering the South in running the War. His domestic policy linked federal power to the railroads (whom he had served earlier as lawyer, legislator and lobbyist). The land grant colleges and Homestead Act are not exactly applicable today unless we want more of the Great Society.
About Thatcher, Brooks is wildly wrong. Her contribution was to sharply reduce the role of government and cut the suffocating role of unionism. She was an abstemious monetarist which meant that at a crucial time even though it caused pain she increased taxes (violating her supply-side instincts) while pushing for tighter money much like what happened under Reagan and Volcker to wring inflation out of the economy. Thus the three comparisons dont merge as pertinent to these times.
What is glaringly incompetent political analysis is what Brooks decries.
And what he decries when he criticizes Republican candidates for president by saying that they merely declare their fealty to general principles: free trade, lower taxes and reduced spending But there was almost nothing that touched concretely on the lives of ambitious working class parents who are the backbone of the GOP.
Mystifying. If reduced taxes, free trade and cuts in spending dont help the working class nothing will. Certainly it is not another dose of big subsidies. He complains they talked far more about cutting corporate taxes, for example, than about a child tax credit for working families.
In contrast, he says, Hillary Clinton is stealing the Republicans lunch. She is offering a plan for families earning up to $60,000 a year. If they invest $1,000 toward a new 401(k) account they would get a matching $1,000 tax credit. The plan poaches on economic values that used to be associated with the Republican party. Moreover, it undermines the populist worldview that is building on the left of her party. Instead of railing against globalization and the economic royalists, Clinton gives working people access to Wall Street and a way to profit from the global economy. Brooks doesnt understand that these are routine throw-away ideas which have always intrigued liberalsno vision. Hillary has no vision she can afford to enunciate without shattering her coalition.
Brooks doesnt understand the need to support tax cuts and pared expenditures. Other times Brooks is very good. Its only when he gets into goofy Hamiltonian, Lincolnesque and Thatcherite comparisons as arguments for more statism that he lags.
But even Homer nods, right? Your comments?