The Prestidigitator

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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.

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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.