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September 18, 2011 9:15 AM David Brooks and the ‘absurd view’ of government

By Steve Benen

I’d missed this the other day, but David Brooks took a rather striking approach to the social safety net in his latest column.

When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers. That will reduce the suffering of real people who would otherwise be jobless. You have the power to streamline regulations and reduce tax burdens. That will induce a bit more hiring and activity. These are real contributions.

But you don’t have the power to transform the whole situation. Your discrete goods might contribute to an overall turnaround, but that turnaround will be beyond your comprehension and control.

Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t. [emphasis added]

This seems wrong on all kinds of levels, but it’s Brooks’ use of the word “sin” that really rankles. It’s not even subtle — the columnist is arguing that those suffering in the midst of a weak economy are themselves to blame. Never mind circumstances beyond their control; never mind macroeconomic conditions that have worked against the middle class for far too long; if you’re struggling, you’ve done wrong. Don’t bother looking to Uncle Sam.

Has Brooks ever actually spoken to anyone who’s falling further behind? As poverty rates reach one in six, does the columnist sincerely believe systemic sin is responsible? With unemployment over 9%, is Brooks convinced that all the jobless deserved to be forced from their jobs?

As for the role of the state, Brooks believes the public simply needs to be conditioned — stop thinking government will provide a net, and you won’t be disappointed when government intervention seems inadequate.

But this is backwards. Matt Yglesias had a good item on this.

Here’s a story about bus drivers in Clark County, Nevada getting laid off as a result of state/local budget woes. Are those soon-to-be-unemployed bus drivers really suffering for their sins? Is it really true that a federal government currently able to borrow money at a negative real interest rate can’t do anything to protect them? The amazing thing about this crisis is the extent to which suffering and responsibility are completely out of proportion with one another. If you think about the people who are really suffering in the developed world today, none of them were executives at major banks, none of them were politicians involved in the construction of the euro, none of them were senior financial policymakers in any government, etc.

Governments around the world have immense power to protect people from negative consequences. And they’re using that power. Nobody, thank god, is starving to death in the United States of America. But the government has done immensely more to protect creditors, shareholders, and managers of major banks from the negative consequences of their sins than it’s done to protect bus drivers.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • c u n d gulag on September 18, 2011 9:28 AM:

    I think Bobo's been trolling the 'salad bars' at Applebee's for teh real Murkin people's opinions again!

    I wonder what people like Dumbo Bobo think it was that kept the American economy from the mid-30Œs to the early/mid-00Œs from huge downward spikes, where recessions never made it to full-blown depressions? And what it is that we now have, or donft have, that caused todayfs virtual depression?
    Prayer?
    Luck?

    How about regulations?
    Nah, canft be that. eGovernment canft protect us,f so it just have been Jesus. And now, I guess we ainft prayinf hard enough to him.
    Hit those knees, folks!

    Here Dumbo Bobo, let me reword this for you:
    eOver the past decades, Americans had developed an EXPECTATION of the government.
    Many voters seemed to think that government HAD the power to protect them from the consequences of OTHERS sins.
    NOW they get angry and cynical when it turns out, NOT THAT IT COULDNfT AND CANfT, BUT THAT IT WOULDNfT AND WONfT!f

    How Paul Krugman keeps from bringing in a eDick Cheney Do-it-Yourself Home/Office-based Waterboarding Kitf and enhanced interrogating Brooks is a testament to the mans infinite patience.

    Me?
    Ifd be tasering the stupid SOB every minute until it looked it looked like he was trying to win eDancing With the Punditsh by performing a tacky imitation of a coked-up St. Vitasf Dance victim gtripping the light fantastich to a Talking Heads song.

    A$$HOLE!

  • DAY on September 18, 2011 9:30 AM:

    many diseases take years- decades- to develop. Think about that prostrate, gents.

    Speaking of decades, one or two earlier, we developed a leaky roof. Nothing serious, replace a few shingles, and we were good to go. So the wife and I took out another home equity loan. But it wasn't raining, so we decided to take a cruise, instead.

    That is, of course, both an allegory, and a cautionary tale.

    here's another one, for the denser folks in our listening audience:
    My wife's dad, William Clinton, was a smart man, and left us a nice legacy. As soon as we got our hands on it we bought a bigger house, car, and took that vacation. Did I mention my name is Bush?

  • Paul Gottlieb on September 18, 2011 9:32 AM:

    David Brooks is a courtier; his role is to flatter and cosset the rich and powerful, assuring them in one adoring column after another that they are the bravest, the truest, the hardest working people in the world. Of course they deserve their riches, and of course the poor deserve to be poor--just look at their sins!

    When Jaimie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein farts, it's David's job to suddenly cry, "Do I smell roses?"

  • c u n d gulag on September 18, 2011 9:33 AM:

    Steve,
    For what it's worth - this site is turning some of my apostrophe's into the letter "e." And some other wierd stuff, like turning quotation marks into "f's."

    Let's see what it does with the work "let" at the begining of this sentence.

  • c u n d gulag on September 18, 2011 9:34 AM:

    Well, that was weird...

  • wordtypist on September 18, 2011 9:40 AM:

    My thoughts on this column had to do with Brook's misunderstanding of the limits of presidential powers. The president can't get roads paved or teachers hired on his own authority. He can't lowers taxes`on his own authority.these require a congressional appropriation, which would mean 60 votes in the senate and a majority in the house, neither of which is within his grasp. You'ld think Brooks would know that.

  • Michael on September 18, 2011 9:41 AM:

    As offensive as Bobo's closing paragraph is, I thought this was just as bad:

    "When you are the president...You have the power to streamline regulations and reduce tax burdens. That will induce a bit more hiring and activity. These are real contributions."

    No. Wrong. Exactly backwards. "Streamlining" regulations, i.e. watering them down to ineffectiveness is what brought about the recession in the first place. And tax burdens are at their lowest in decades, yet have not led to more hiring and activity. And yet, Brooks blithely tosses these off as if they were universally accepted truths, instead of failed economic theories whose evidence is only, what, two years old?

    The real sin is that this clown has a well-paid job writing this tripe.

  • Fritz Strand on September 18, 2011 9:55 AM:

    When you want to know about David Brooks, see driftglass. This is not a sock puppet post.

  • Josef K on September 18, 2011 10:22 AM:

    Wonder if Brooks would change his tune if he was discovered to have a 'pre-existing' condition or three, his insurance drops him, his papers drop him, and he has to declare bankruptcy just to get necessary medications for one week.

    Bit of a stretch, granted, but this guy is really pushing buttons these days.

  • mpilkanis on September 18, 2011 10:26 AM:

    "Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t."

    Is that so, Brooks? Yet the banks have no such problem making this assumption. Their "sins" were underwritten by the taxpayers as it turns out. Would this have anything to do with this cynicism of which you bleat? Put it this way, Brooks: you SUCK.

  • JEA on September 18, 2011 10:32 AM:

    I don't have vast credit card debt. I didn't buy a home four times what I could afford. I didn't pick up all the newest, shiniest gadgets because I "had to have it."

    And I don't think I should have to pay for the people who DID...

  • Steve Paradis on September 18, 2011 10:46 AM:

    "Sins" is the tell; Brooks is in the realm of theology, and at the altar of the market. Some people live in a world in which the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
    For the rest of us, the world can be unjust and psychopathic in its indifference to human misery, and one of the Lord's works on earth is to alleviate that misery.
    I don't wish that misery on anyone, but if Brooks felt it firsthand he might be a little more unbending.

  • tko on September 18, 2011 10:50 AM:

    "But the government has done immensely more to protect creditors, shareholders, and managers of major banks from the negative consequences of their sins than it�s done to protect bus drivers."

    Sins or Crimes? Maybe it is trickle-down-justice we are waiting for since no one in the DOJ has sent anyone to prison from Wall Street for the events leading up to 2008, nor has it pursued anyone for waterboarding, warrantless electronic surveillance, war crimes, lying to Congress (and the public) to take us to war, etc. Still waiting for the Change I Can Believe In. That would have been one way to build confidence in the government, bringing some of those criminal motherf**kers to trial, not courting them for campaign contributions.

  • rrk1 on September 18, 2011 11:12 AM:

    Brooks is a perennial whore to money and power, and a bad writer to boot. He's the NYT 's version of "Fair and Balanced". Actually, he's a schmuck. Some of my supposedly liberal friends think he's the "reasonable conservative" worth reading. Yuk!

    That he has resorted to using the Christian religious word 'sin' instead of 'recklessness' to describe personal irresponsibility is a new twist for this right-wing propagandist pretending to be a moderate columnist. It probably has rubbe off the Republican presidential candidates who can't control their public religiosity.

    Out of control bad things happen to the responsible and the irresponsible alike. Our culture encourages irresponsibility because it makes some people rich, as the housing bubble has aptly demonstrated. Had there been proper oversight and regulation of the mortgage lending business irresponsibility would not have been encouraged. Had Glass-Steagle not been repealed credit default swaps wouldn't have crashed the financial system, wiped out responsible 401Ks, and put millions of responsible workers on the unemployment line.

    Brooks' head is so far in the clouds his brain is deprived of oxygen, and that's just how his columns read.

  • meander on September 18, 2011 11:58 AM:

    What sins were committed by Midwestern manufacturing workers whose factories were shut down and off-shored to China? The sin of wanting a decent life and refusing to work for pennies?

    Or, to be more relevant to Brooks, what sins were committed by newspaper reporters who lost their jobs because their industry can't (or won't) keep up with the times?

  • Texas Aggie on September 18, 2011 12:09 PM:

    "Nobody, thank god, is starving to death in the United States of America. "

    Looks like Brooks isn't the only one who hasn't "spoken to anyone who’s falling further behind? " The soup kitchens are way over strained and don't have near the amount of resources, either food or money, that they need to feed people who depend on them. Everyone from Feed America to the Mennonite Central Committee is pleading for funds to feed Americans who otherwise would be suffering.

    Just as it is absolutely certain that Goodhair has executed innocent people besides Cunningham (TX leads the nation in people exonerated by the Innocence Project and you know that they didn't save them all), so it is also true that there are Americans dying of starvation in the US.

  • Texas Aggie on September 18, 2011 12:12 PM:

    JEA said I don't have vast credit card debt. I didn't buy a home four times what I could afford. I didn't pick up all the newest, shiniest gadgets because I "had to have it."

    And I don't think I should have to pay for the people who DID...

    So what does that have to do with anything? We're talking about real people here, not a fabrication of the right wing "welfare queen" mentality.

  • exlibra on September 18, 2011 4:41 PM:

    I didn't buy a home four times what I could afford. -- JEA, @10:32

    Time was... no responsible banker would have lent you money for such an irresponsible purchase. Time is... those bankers couldn't swallow drool fast enough to push the ignorant into borrowing more than was sensible.

    And that doesn't even account for people who -- also with the banks enthusiastic support -- borrowed what seemed within their reach to repay, and then lost their jobs. With the banks, suddenly, turning from the good Samaritans (let me help you across that financial bridge, sir) into a pack of Cains (am I my brother's keeper?).

    As for refusal to pay for others' sins... You're already doing that, like it or not. Those same, criminally irresponsible, bankers got their multimillion bonuses on your dime.

  • mudwall jackson on September 18, 2011 4:50 PM:

    Michael on September 18, 2011 9:41 AM:

    No. Wrong. Exactly backwards. "Streamlining" regulations, i.e. watering them down to ineffectiveness is what brought about the recession in the first place.

    bullshit. regulations are neither inherently good nor bad. it's how they're written and how they're enforced that matters. the idea that they are absolute and cannot be changed is as silly as the right wing freaks who argue that any regulation is a hinderance to the economy and must be eliminated.

  • Hannah on September 18, 2011 5:15 PM:

    Of course there are some who practice financial irresponsibility and I admit to not feeling too sorry for them when reality sets in. Others are careful but find themselves in the hole due to job loss, health issues, family issues, etc. These folks deserve our concern and help.

    However... the right loves to yell about "personal responsibility". Yet I never hear them talk about "corporate responsibility". As exlibra said, a person could get a mortgage they couldn't afford, but where was the lending institution in all of that? Telling them "no, sorry" or "sure, here you go"? Were the Wall Street gamblers wary of these bad loans or did they bundle them into risky financial instruments, which then got a AAA rating from S&P? Workers are expected to show up and do their jobs; are their employers paying them a living wage, not sending American jobs overseas, making sure the workplace is safe, making a safe product for consumers?

    The point is that we all are responsible for being good citizens. Unfortunately at this point those who hurt the economy the most are not being held accountable, and are, in fact, celebrated and rewarded by too many of the powers that be.

  • Hannah on September 18, 2011 5:27 PM:

    Adding to what Texas Aggie said... people are hungry in this country, children are especially suffering, and I was surprised to see Matt Y make his statement. We have large numbers of kids in our community who are on reduced or free school meals. They don't have that food on the weekends, so many come to school hungry on Mondays (and yet we expect them to learn on empty stomachs). So our community, like many others, sends food home with these kids on Fridays so they can eat over the weekend.

    My church has its own food bank which is open for a couple of hours on Tuesdays (run solely on donations and volunteer labor). We serve a couple of hundred people a week, most of them children. I'm sure there are many areas of the country worse than ours.

    It's a mistake for anyone, especially a progressive, to say that "no one is starving" in the U.S.

  • Robert Waldmann on September 18, 2011 7:20 PM:

    How is David Brooks absurd -- let me count the ways.

    Here he slips into assuming that the poor are made poor by their sins. This is a typical conservative assumption and it is demonstrably absurd.

    I think his logic is to consider "voters" to be singular -- to be one entity capable of collective sin. "voters" sinned, because some borrowed and some lent recklessly. So the "voters" brought suffering upon itself. This is a typical error of Rousseau, Hegel and Marx and of communists and fascists. Brooks being an intellectual imports it.

    But he makes two other absurd claims. First he ignores Congress. It is simply not true that "When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers." That requires spending money which can only be disbursed as appropriated by Congress. Pretending to cut Obama slack, Brooks has declared him responsible for all of the actions of Republicans in Congress. He doesn't argue that they bear no blame (he can't) so he pretends that they don't exist. This is pure partisan hackery.

    He also presents himself as an expert on macroeconomics. He claims, as if it were obvious, that the Federal Government can ameliorate the suffering due to a recession but can't turn the economy around. The data beg to differ. The Federal Government changed a slack economy with high unemployment to a booming economy almost instantly during WWII. It also turned a growing economy into a depressed econonomy in 1937 (and back again in 1938). There is no evidence pre WWII that recessions have a life span -- the probability of a recovery starting in a month did not increase as the recession got older. Since WWII there hasn't been a recession without a policy response, and there hasn't been an effort at stimulus which wasn't quickly followed by a recovery.

    Brooks might argue that this is not true when the economy in recession is also in a liquidity trap -- that the effective policy is cutting interest rates which can't be cut any more (and never mind 1933, 1937, 1938 and 1942). But he doesn't. He just assumes that stimulus ameliorates but can't cure.

    There are almost no actual economists who agree. Many think that fiscal stimulus doesn't stimulate at all. Others think more can and should be done. Almost none think policy so far was about right (I think Narayana Kocherlakota might be the only one). Notably, Obama doesn't claim that the Federal Government has done all it can. He rejected Brooks' defence of himandCongress and proposed the jobs act.

    Frankly the only explanation of the column is that Brooks is trying to make Krugman's head explode.

  • Mark on September 18, 2011 7:44 PM:

    Maybe I'm miles off of what Mr. Brooks (whom I've never cared for, either) meant, but I can't help wondering if he was talking about those Americans who went in for a home loan to buy a four-bedroom house even though they didn't have a steady job. In those cases, those people certainly should have known better, and being the subject of foreclosure was their fault just as much as it was that of the banks who repackaged loans that would otherwise never qualify under the rules of common sense. The American Dream doesn't cover the taxpayers buying you a house that you knew you couldn't afford.

  • Goldilocks on September 18, 2011 10:25 PM:

    What we experience is our karma. That is an inescapable, if inconvenient truth. Our past actions determine our present experience. Our present actions determine our future experience. Simple cause and effect operating within and between lives.

    People suffering hardship now may well have caused hardship to others in the past. If we had met them then we would have condemned them the same way we condemn "creditors, shareholders, and managers of major banks" now for the problems they cause and the apparent immunity they enjoy. Conversely, people who seem to be in good shape now probably brought some benefit to others in the past.

    Nothing happens without a cause and no action is without consequence. It stands to reason that what every individual experiences at any moment has its causes in that individual's actions in the past. However, there are so many actions and so many consequences interacting and the past is such a long time that it is virtually impossible to identify the exact causes of every situation and experience. The best we can hope for are some general principles expressed in formula such as "we reap what we sow", "you know a tree by its fruit", etc. Basically, good actions bring good results and bad actions bring bad results.

    The problem is that the time between the action and its result may be so long that we fail to make or even imagine the connection. Even though it is altogether extremely complex the underlying mechanism is simple and obvious. No one denies cause and effect.

    Living in a society that acts collectively through government to support its members and share its successes is part of our good karma.

  • Michael on September 19, 2011 11:23 AM:

    @mudwall jackson on September 18, 2011 4:50 PM:

    bullshit. regulations are neither inherently good nor bad. it's how they're written and how they're enforced that matters. the idea that they are absolute and cannot be changed is as silly as the right wing freaks who argue that any regulation is a hinderance to the economy and must be eliminated.

    Don't misunderstand. You and I may acknowledge that streamlining some regulations may make them more efficient, productive, etc. I believe what Brooks is actually saying, like his rightwing framing of "reducing the tax burden," is that ALL regulations ARE "a hinderance to the economy and must be eliminated." He may say it in that reasonable-sounding Bobo-speak, but many of the regulations he's so moderately talking about "streamlining" are the same financial regulations meant to prevent the 2008 meltdown. That's what I was referring to, not all regulations in general.

  • LaFollette Progressive on September 19, 2011 11:56 AM:

    "Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t."

    I'd say that this statement is entirely true, if it were in the context of explaining the failure of "cut taxes, deregulate, and smash unions" to provide the broad-based economic growth promised by politicians from the center and right for the past 30 years.

    Since it's in the service of yet another conservative shell game where the capital class commits sins and expects cuts to the social safety net to pay for them, not so much.

  • thypegerry on December 17, 2011 7:27 PM:

  • cowlmyles on January 20, 2012 1:27 AM:

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