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August 26, 2012
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Prestidigitator

Among my favorite columnists is David Brooks, of The New York Times. One reason is because he’s unpredictable. I never know when I begin to read where he might end up. He surprised me again last week with (Paul) Ryan’s Biggest Mistake.

What would that have been?  Brooks thinks that it occurred when the presumptive Republican vice-presidential candidate, then an up-and-comer in the Tea Party, led a bloc of three House Republicans in killing the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction agreement before it could be presented to Congress, even though most Democrats and all three Republican senators on the 18-member panel backed the plan. Ryan and his fellows were members, too.

Their opposition prevented the measure from going to the floor, where its combination of 3-1 combination of spending cuts and tax increases would have faced an up-or-down vote.

Ryan opposed the agreement because it deliberately left out spending on Medicare, to be dealt with separately.  It was the first of many times the Tea Party’s leaders declined to participate in a “grand bargain” that would have trimmed the federal debt by nearly $4 trillion over a decade.

Ryan’s opposition in 2011 amounted to a bet that Republicans would run the table in 2012, winning the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, and that this Republican majority would then combine to slash the most popular government program, after Social Security.

None of that is likely to happen, wrote Brooks.  So Ryan thus traded away the prospect of significant progress on redressing government’s balance sheet for “a political fantasy.”  It is true, Brooks continued, that plenty of magical thinking is in the air.  Both parties hope for a landslide that would render their opponents powerless, he said. It is “the No. 1 political fantasy in America today.”

In the real world, there are almost never ultimate victories, and it is almost never the case (even if you control the White House and Congress) that you get to do what you want.

The display of this sort of apparent level-headedness (clue: notice the double  “almost” in his sentence) that enables Brooks to describe himself, as he did last week, as spokesman for “the moderate mind.” But then another reason I enjoy reading Brooks is because he is a master of magic tricks that make inconvenient facts disappear.

This knack for sleight-of- hand was also on display last week, in another column.  Seldom do I take the time with a Brooks column to figure out the mechanism of the trick. Guide for the Perplexed was an exception.  Herewith an explication of how he did it, for those perplexed by Brooks.

Let’s say you’re generally a moderate voter, he begins.

You look at the Romney-Ryan ticket and see that they are much more conservative than you. They don’t believe in tax increases ever. You think tax increases have to be a part of a budget deal. They want to slash social spending to the bone. You think that would be harsh on the vulnerable and bad for social cohesion.

You look at the Obama-Biden ticket. You like them personally. But you’re not sure what they want to achieve over the next four years. The country needs big changes, and they don’t seem to be offering many. Where’s the leadership?

The big issue, Brooks asserts, is “national decline.”  In the mid-twentieth century, government spent money on future-oriented programs — NASA, infrastructure, child welfare, research and technology.  Today most government spending goes for tax loopholes (presumably he meant interest expense on the soaring national debt) and health care for people over 65.  Hence the pressing question:  which candidate can get Medicare costs under control so we can devote more resources toward our future?

Oh sure, President Obama deserves some credit for taking on entitlement spending. Brooks writes:

He had the courage to chop roughly $700 billion out of Medicare reimbursements. He had the courage to put some Medicare eligibility reforms on the table in his negotiations with Republicans. He created that (highly circumscribed) board of technocrats who might wring some efficiencies (sic) out of the system.

Still, you wouldn’t call Obama a passionate reformer. He’s trimmed on the edges of entitlements. He’s not done anything that might fundamentally alter their ruinous course.

Romney, on the other hand, by choosing Ryan as a running mate, has displayed “surprising passion.”   Between the two of them, at least they have a plan. They may come across as free-market purists, but their proposal features “heavy government activism, flexibility and rampant pragmatism.”

The federal government would define a package of mandatory health benefits. Private insurers and an agency akin to the current public Medicare system would submit bids to provide coverage for those benefits. The government would give senior citizens a payment equal to the second lowest bid in each region to buy insurance.

And the whole adventure would touch off a process of discovery.  If Medicare could do it cheaper, it would drive the private insurers out of the business for core services.  A medical safety net would be preserved, but most enterprising citizens would be free to buy insurance for themselves.

Note that there is nothing here about how Obama, upon being elected in 2008, did precisely what Brooks, in his next column, avers can never be done:  seized a fleeting Congressional majority to undertake a massive reform, namely the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Nor is there any hint here about the scope of the Act’s slow-moving reorganization:  the way it extends medical insurance to all citizens through the artifice of a mandate, later deemed by Chief Justice John Roberts to be a legitimate tax; the way the single-payer system that is Medicate continues to co-exist with various investor-owned insurance companies; the way a Medical Payments Advisory Board (Brooks’  “board of technocrats,” Sarah Palin’s “death panel”) serves as place-holder for one of the elements of a decentralized Federal Health System, modeled on the Federal Reserve Board, and designed to oversee the medical industry in much the same way that the present-day Fed has supervised the banking business for a hundred years.

A true moderate, it seems to me, trying to decide, would weigh one system against the other, considering the political salability of each; might even mention the large head-start that one approach had already achieved (witness, for example, Aetna’s $5.7 billion purchase last week of Coventry Health Care, a large provider of Medicare and Medicaid programs, a signal that the company expects the Democrats to prevail).

Instead, Brooks simply ignores the implications of Obamacare and winds up his Guide for the Perplexed with a vigorous plump for the Ryan plan.

 [F]irst things first. The priority in this election is to get a leader who can get Medicare costs under control. Then we can argue about everything else. Right now, Romney’s more likely to do this.

All of which causes you to look over to the Democrats and wonder: Why don’t they have an alternative? Silently, a voice in your head is pleading with them: Put up or shut up.

If Democrats can’t come up with an alternative on this most crucial issue, how can they promise to lead a dynamic growing nation?

Brooks is a prestidigitator, that wonderful word borrowed from the French, descended from the Latin, meaning juggler, deceiver. He is all the more successful because of his earnest nice-guy manner.  But he’s a slippery fellow, frequently passing off Tea Party sleight-of-hand as moderate magic. That’s what makes him fun to read.  It also drives his NYT stable-mate Paul Krugman to distraction.

.                                  xxx

EconomicPrincipals prides itself on (meaning, is grateful for) the quality of its copy editing.  It’s not that infelicities and typos don’t creep in, but, when they do, they’re not the fault of the copy editor, who, by widespread agreement, is among the most talented in the business (and that’s just his day-job spare time).

Last week his eye caught a WSJ editorial page copy editing error in a quotation (“Nearly everyone in the Beltway thinks it’s impossible to reform entitlements like Medicare, and or (sic) even to restrain the size of government…”); this week, one from the editorial page of the NYT (“… wring some efficiencies (sic) out of the system.”)

It is no surprise that he’s so good, but that, in such a limited sample, the others are so sloppy.  He says, in fairness to them, that he has only one writer to deal with.  Still, it’s been more than ten years of vivifying Saturday afternoons with him and, too often, evenings, a  wonderful and indispensable transitivity.

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10 Comments

  1. Tom Stickler wrote:

    It is rather perverse to be entertained, rather than enraged, by such hackery as Brooks foists on an unenlightened public.

    Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

  2. Uncle Jeffy wrote:

    Brooks is, imho, the worst of the “moderate” columnists operating anywhere. Unlike other actual moderates, he offers nothing involving his own insights. Instead, he recycles whatever he can find from the AEI, Heritage Foundation, and others, honing off the sharper edges and offering them as the ponderings of a “reasonable man.” No wonder he drives Krugman (and you) crazy, and now I’m happier because I realize I’m not the only one he reduces to boiling rage.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

  3. HCG wrote:

    You are far too polite. David Brooks, more baldly put, is simply intellectually dishonest. If a conservative tries to be intellectually honest, such as David Frum or Bruce Bartlett, he or she is simply drummed out of the community.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 1:09 am | Permalink

  4. Nathan wrote:

    It is unfortunate that the “copy-editing” note comes at the end of a post that refers to “Medicate” in the paragraph beginning, “Nor is there any hint…”. I guess none of us is prefect.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

  5. Jared Osoro wrote:

    What about the typo in the first setence of this column? Why do we have a comma after The New York Times instead of a full stop?

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 5:20 am | Permalink

  6. Will That Other David Brooks (and the real one, too) Please Go AWAY!!?

    Actually, I really appreciate David, he almost always gets my juices going with all his lies and distortions– and his self perception as a moderate Republican and humanist. Today’s column is no different, same ol’ vile inspiring stuff wrapped in an enigma of “aren’t I so dignified?”

    He has attacked the President for his partisanism and “hoary brain dead cliches” attack against the Ryan budget and bemoans –Where is the Moderation? (Hint DB– it left with Dwight E.)…. stephenadairvernon.blogspot.com

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 6:20 am | Permalink

  7. admin wrote:

    fixed. thanks.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

  8. Aaron wrote:

    I agree with the gist of what Uncle Jeffy wrote. I read Brooks because he writes about subjects that I find interesting, but find him consistently maddening in that (sometimes out of apparent ignorance, but often out of what feels like willful ignorance) he is so quick to deviate from the facts. Why do I suspect intent in most occasions? Because when he departs from the facts, it’s always to the benefit of the Republican Party. If he gives a soft ‘benefit of the doubt’ to the Democrats it’s almost always followed by an overwhelming concession to the Republicans.

    When he speaks to the Democratic party, he’s a classic concern troll. “If you want to get elected, you should do X, Y, and Z”, with those steps being all but certain to harm the beneficiary of his “friendly advice” in the next election. He never does that with the Republican Party. And while it’s great that he stands up to the “Club for Growth”-type “no tax increases ever” faction of the Republican Party, he’s happy to give one of those very Republicans, Paul Ryan, cover over Simpson-Bowles (do you truly believe Ryan’s vote was about Medicare, not tax increases), while flushing Ryan’s history of voting for huge, unfunded expenditures down the memory hole.

    There is a huge money machine that pushes right-wing commentators to adopt particular stances, and there are huge rewards for serving that machine. (There are also significant penalties for standing against it, as David Frum can attest from his ouster following his “Waterloo” column.) Brooks is adept at taking the talking points that those factions want pushed, adding his own spin, and pushing them out through his columns. (Compare, e.g., how less capable columnists like Michael Gerson and Mark Thiessen barely disguise the nature of their stenography). Brooks also takes it upon himself to sometimes advise Republican candidates about what he actually believes they should do, columns that stand in stark contrast to his “concern trolling” about Democratic candidates as he actually believes his proposals will work for the Republicans.

    Brooks plays around the margins enough to convince some people that he’s moderate, or not as invested in that money machine, but when push comes to shove you always know where he’s going to end up – on the side of those monied interests and their preferred, Republican candidates.

    Monday, August 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

  9. Mac Gander wrote:

    Nice column–sorry it came too soon to include Brooks’ really strange piece about Romney on Monday. He sounded more like Maureen Dowd or Gail Collins than himself–even had the dog on the car-roof thing–in a way that makes me wonder whether the tension between his “smart, reasonable guy” persona and the actual reality of the current Republican Party has left him slightly unhinged. I like reading Brooks too, and listening to him on his NPR and cable stints–definitely slippery, in a soothing kind of way, as if the positions he points to were acually reasonable. I think you nailed him here.

    Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink

  10. John Albin wrote:

    More than anything, David Brooks is a propagandist and shill for the extreme (though not necesarily religiously insane) right. I also find him almost entirely predictable — with clock-like regularity he asserts facts that aren’t facts, draw analogies that aren’t analogous, and reaches conclusions that don’t in any way follow from what precedes them. Throw the smarmy pseudo-moderate demeanor, and you have the trifecta of bad writing. I gave up reading him a while back, and nowadays only do when someone sends me a “you have to read this” message. I would say that he should be forever banned from the word-o-sphere, except that would make Matt Taibbi very unhappy.

    Thursday, September 6, 2012 at 2:49 am | Permalink

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