David Brooks is in Love with a Straw Man

So, life continues to be rough, although ever so slightly smoother than a week ago. Someday I hope to be able to visit South Africa in time to eat the strawberries. That day will not be soon. Unless one of my loyal readers is able to hire me for the all expenses paid position of world traveling seasonal produce taster. Which would be a pretty good gig, I imagine. However, here, in this world, I get the opportunity to offer my thoughts on one of David Brooks’ latest columns

A sensible version of…

David Brooks wants to vote for a political outsider. But not the actual political outsiders that are running, No, they are far too populist, far too crass, far too willing to try and get actual Republican voters to send them money and eventually vote for them. David Brooks has fashioned a Mary Sue political outsider that has all of the opinions and policy preferences of David Brooks, and he’s eager to throw his vote for this being of pure David Brooksian wish fulfillment. So let us play in the ivory tower of David Brooks’ fondest imaginings and track mud all over the carpets.

As a Broderesque windbag from way back, David Brooks has a naive faith in the power of bipartisanship, that would be understandable in a bright ten year old, but is utterly inexcusable in someone who has watched politics in action in the US for more than one election cycle. As he imagines candidate Totally not David Brooks would say:

But I’ve been paying close attention and it seems to me that of all the problems that face the nation, two stand out. The first is that we have a polarized, dysfunctional, semi-corrupt political culture that prevents us from getting anything done. To reverse that gridlock we’ve got to find some policy area where there’s a basis for bipartisan action.

The second big problem is that things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution.

Well, there’s his first problem. He thinks that the two big problems in the US are 1)bipartisanship and 2)tough times for the poorest half of Americans. The big trouble is, no one agrees with him. Republicans variously think the biggest threat to America, is in no particular order: the perfidy of Democrats, secular humanism, socialism, immigration, ISIS and or Muslim terrorism, Obamacare, Social Security and Medicare, etc ad nauseum. Democrats tend to think the biggest problems are in no particular order: the terrible state of education, the terrible state of infrastructure, income inequality, the corruption of Republicans, racism & sexism, maintenance and expansion of the social safety net including the expansion of Medicare, Social Security & Obamacare. David Brooks imagines there is a broad overlap of issues upon which legislators of good will can agree. The biggest mistake of this approach is that he imagines there exists a majority in congress of legislators of good will. Legislators of good will can’t get the time of day from much of the American electorate. There is much less agreement on the issues facing America than he imagines. Hell, even the conservative half of the lower 50% of incomes in America probably think they are a lottery ticket or one oppressive government regulation away from getting rich.

He goes on to say that getting families out of “bad neighborhoods” and into good ones will improve their incomes. You know what? he says a lot of superficially sensible horseshit. He found a study that says taking people out of bad neighborhoods and putting them in more affluent neighborhoods eventually makes them more prosperous. Which he thinks is some kind of answer to poverty. And it might be if poverty in America was a guy named Doug and his wife and two or three kids. But the poorest half of Americans number over 150 million people, and people live where they do for reasons sometimes they’d be delighted to move to a place with more economic opportunity, sometimes they will cling to their homes with a tenacity that borders on suicidal. What do you suppose David Brooks has to say to convince people to move whose families have been living in the same house for more than a century? What could he offer to induce people to move away from their beloved relatives? People aren’t as mobile as some giant bank’s hedge fund’s investment portfolio. There are non-trivial barriers to moving, and its rare that households can pick up and go on a whim (or on the advice of David Brooks which amounts to even less than a whim). Mr Brooks imagines that there is bipartisan consensus on improving the lot of the poorest Americans when an entire party gets reelected in landslides promising to cut services to that exact same demographic. Has he ever lived in a suburb? Has he ever heard the term ‘block busting’? how does he imagine the wealthy suburbanites will react to the arrival of the very same people their parents and their grandparents fled the cities to avoid?

He spouts more advice:

This will mean doing some things Republicans like. We’ve got to devolve a lot of power from Washington back to local communities. These neighborhoods can’t thrive if they are not responsible for themselves. Then we’ve got to expand charter schools. The best charter schools radiate diverse but strong cultures of achievement. Locally administered social entrepreneurship funds could help churches and other groups expand their influence.

Where the hell does he get this? How does he go from wanting to improve neighborhoods to imagining that charter schools are the answer? And as an atheist, I gotta object to his “empowering churches” crap, churches already get far too many giveaways from the government, and in any kind of benevolent utopia such as David seems to want to construct, they’d be paying income and property tax just like everyone else. If churches want to do things commonly described as charity like feeding the hungry and healing the sick, that’s fine they can get a tax deduction for that, just like everyone else.

I could fisk the whole thing, but I find the thought more than a little depressing. His whole dream could be popped by watching 10 minutes of C-span when they show congress in session, but he can’t be bothered. He’s like professor Harold Hill in the ‘Music Man’ only instead of bewailing the morals of a pool playing public and trying to sell musical instruments, he’s bewailing the fact that society doesn’t mirror the land of frictionless sphere-people of uniform density that live in his head and trying to sell us straw men.
So, play to your strengths David Brooks, go in with a computer game publisher and write sim-suburb where the only way to win is to build the most heteronormative, theocratic, charter-school-attending, gated community, little Galt’s gulch that you can. In the meantime, could you stop telling us how to win the game in your head?


Comments: 17


Democrats tend to think the biggest problems are in no particular order: the terrible state of education, the terrible state of infrastructure, income inequality, the corruption of Republicans, racism & sexism, maintenance and expansion of the social safety net including the expansion of Medicare, Social Security & Obamacare.

There is also the financialization of the economy.

Almost zero Republicans and some Democrats opposed.


* list is not intended to be exhaustive, your mileage may vary, contents may have settled during shipment, may contain nuts.

But yes, the financialization of the economy is revolting. I particularly object to student loan debt being packaged up and securitized just like mortgage debt was prior to the 2008 crash. In one sense they are ‘safer’ investments as student loans cannot be discharged by bankruptcy, but they are a lot more dangerous to the prosperity of college graduates (or worse, college dropouts) who graduate with a quarter million dollars of debt.


For additional Brooksian idiocy, d r i f t g l a s s fisks today’s DFB column, and some extra stuff.

Big Bad Bald Bastard

There’s really a huge market for this ‘third way’ bullshit, but I don’t know anybody outside the media bubble who buys it.


In the past, we’ve seen candidates who match Cruz’s profile (socially conservative alternatives to the establishment choice) fail — think Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.


i’m just going to leave here…


dammit! *this* here…


@Helmut – packaging debt in itself wasn’t the problem in the 2008 crash. The issue was banks being able to offload the loans from their books.

In the old days, a bank made loans and wanted you to pay them back. So the terms of the loan weren’t so crazy that you could never pay it; the bank’s business model depended on a high percentage of loans getting paid. Offering variable rate loans to people with no income or little would have been suicide.

But now they could sell the loans to someone else. Banks have always been able to do this, of course — but it used to be restricted to big loans like a $500 million deal or something. (Bond buyers do this all day long, except the controls are much more strict in some ways and there’s a lot more transparency — though the US remains the only major economy I know of that has no central bond exchange).

Problem was, when they sold the loans to someone else two things disappeared from the balance sheet of the bank. One was the loan (good!) the other was the income from that loan (bad!)

What to do? Banks had to become origination businesses instead. They made money by writing out more and more loans, because the income from the loans they issued wasn’t coming in.

Note that the safety of the investment wasn’t the issue here. It was that banks now had an incentive to load the economy with debt, since at an individual level the only people left who would take out money were those least able to do it. After all, banks weren’t getting the payments anymore. They made money on fees. So all of a sudden it isn’t the relative risk of the loan that matters — it’s how many you issue.

With student loans the problem is that you can start the same cycle. In this case it might be refinancing deals or it might offer loans to people who will never be able to pay them, and back-load the terms of the loan. (The initial payments look great — until you hit the variable rate or something like).

It might also actually drive a further rise in tuition, just as the housing bubble was driven by a rise in the number of loans. That’s the real danger here, IMO. If it’s too easy to get loans (and the tuition money) then there’s no incentive for colleges to keep those costs under control.

And the long term effects of high student indebtedness will resonate for decades. People will start families later, buy houses later, heck, they’ll buy all kinds of shit later than they would and buy less. That’s a recipe for a slowdown in any capitalist economy.


“The best charter schools radiate diverse but strong cultures of achievement.”
Of course they do David. That’s why they’re the BEST. You can cherry-pick the best for anything and make it look wildly successful. The relevant fact here is that the AVERAGE charter school costs more and delivers less than a public school.


Anyone who thinks local government is some magical cure has never sat on a condo board.


Brooks: “The second big problem is that things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution.”

Or as Mitt Romney called them, the 47%.


But the biggest problem with student loans isn’t that their debt is sold as securities. There’s no problem there…

…It’s that A) They’re in debt and B) There’s no real expectation that they’ll ever pay it off and C) But darnit, we’re gonna make them pay like they put it on credit cards, but also not let them skate on it, even twenty years later.


I am so sick of the ‘charter school’ horseshit.

When it comes to the ‘achievement gap’, it’s the same argument as ‘public vs. private’, with the same damn rebuttal – public schools must serve all, whereas private and charter schools gleefully banish any student that may lower a test score. And even then, in Minnesota, they still can’t carry their own weight. (That study, by the way, from the Star Tribune, the filthiest right wing bubble wrap in the state except for the Pioneer Press and all the rest of them – fuck Glen Taylor with many pointy things.)

Michele Rhee needs to be in jailed until she can be swept up and put in the dustbin.


There are a lot of things wrong with student loans, but one of the worst is the concept of putting an entry fee on life. Want to enter the job market? Sorry! You first need to rack up thousands and thousands and thousands in debt. I know how fond conservatives are of sports analogies for life situations – would you participate in a game in which you started with a hundred in negative points, especially when you knew there’d be others who wouldn’t have them, and that the difference between you and them would be something as random as an accident of birth?

(Yes, I know: “people don’t HAVE to go to college.” They could join the military and be cannon fodder in the next big adventure, or they could flip burgers their whole life at some non-unionized job that’ll never let them make enough to retire – yay! And yes, I know that there are still non-white-collar, non-college-degree jobs where you can get still a decent salary and retire – but there are still far less of them than there were forty years ago, and their numbers keep growing smaller, which means the original point stands).

The other big problem being, of course, that they’re not dischargeable in bankruptcy, which would be an obscenity for any kind of debt.

I’ve been wishing for years that somebody in the Bernie Sanders mold would take a stand for blanket forgiveness on student loans. 1) like turning health care into a for-profit business, it’s immoral that it was ever allowed to happen in the first place, 2) bluntly, if we can afford to piss away the amount of money we do on boondoggles like the Iraq War or the F-35, we can damn well afford this, 3) it’d be a hell of a shot in the arm to the economy if people in their twenties and thirties were suddenly allowed to spend all the money that’s been vanishing down the black hole of debt repayment on the things that young to middle aged adults would usually spend it on.


Anyone who thinks local government is some magical cure has never sat on a condo board.

I’ve always found it darkly funny that the go-to reference for government inefficiency is the DMV. Almost invariably by the same people who think devolving all power to state and local governments would make everything more efficient.


“things are going badly for those in the lower half of the income distribution.”

For which problem there are two completely polarized solutions:

Tthe Democrats propose universal access to college, universal access to health care and a higher minimum wage.

The Republicans propose keeping education and health care hard to acquire, lowering the minimum wage, and cutting rich people’s taxes.


It’s perfectly obvious, isn’t it, that David Brooks has an obligation to win the presidency and realize his vision.


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