Saturday, December 31, 2011

David Brooks on American Politics

David Brooks has an interesting perspective on American politics and public policy. A New York Times Op-Ed columnist, his viewpoint can be described as moderately conservative (a vanishing breed in contemporary American politics). His commentary is informed by a humanities and social sciences perspective that is rare among political analysts today. I earlier blogged about his criticism of the current American meritocracy. I want to talk today about two of his recent columns that provide an interesting perspective on what’s wrong with our political thinking. While he doesn’t provide specific solutions, he talks about some failings among both parties, along with how we need to change our thinking about what we want government to do. As we enter the election year 2012, in which Americans will choose between the same tired and failed alternatives, it’s important to think about our political problems in a different way, as Brooks does.

His first article entitled The Two Moons, is named after Samuel Lubell’s concept of a “political solar system.” Lubell, writing in the 1950’s, proposed the idea that at any moment there’s a Sun Party (the majority party) and a Moon Party (the minority party). The Sun Party drives the agenda, and the Moon Party (which shines by reflecting the Sun’s rays) opposes the Sun Party. During the New Deal, the Democrats were the Sun Party. During the Reagan Revolution, the Republicans were. Between 1996 and 2004, the two parties were tied. This was a transition time, in which from historical experience a Sun Party usually emerges. But no Sun Party emerged. No party was able to take the lead; they both are now Moon Parties. Both Republicans and Democrats have record low approval ratings. “Neither party has been able to rally the country behind its vision of government.”

Having two simultaneous minority parties leads to strange outcomes. Both parties embrace minority mentalities. Democrats feel oppressed by big business and big finance, while Republicans feel oppressed by big government and the big liberal establishment (the media, academics, judges, artists, Hollywood, etc.). Neither side wants to compromise, feeling that the outside world, and especially members of the opposing party, are hostile. They instinctively protect their special interests (labor unions, the poor, the old, and minorities for Democrats; the rich, big business, big finance, and evangelicals for Republicans), and refuse to engage or try to convert outsiders. Neither party engages in serious internal debates, and moderates are no longer welcome.

The Two Moon era is volatile. Voters reject one party, then two years later reject the other party. That happened in the 2008 and 2010 elections, which had a historically large shift from Democrat to Republican. Usually, minority parties suffer a string of election defeats, promoting modernization and revision. The Republicans’ defeats in 2006 and 2008 did help promote internal change via the Tea Party. But rather than owning up to the failures of their neoconservative ideology, and moving more to the center, Tea Party Republicans pushed the party to an extreme libertarian agenda. The Republicans’ 2010 victory encouraged them to act like a Sun Party, trying to force their Tea Party agenda, but were stymied by the fact that they were not a true majority party, and that Democrats controlled the Senate and Presidency. The Democrats’ defeat in 2010, along with subsequent Republican intransigence, is making the Democrats become more extreme. Even if they win big in 2012, however, they do not have the broad-based support to become a Sun Party.

How will the Two Moon era become resolved? Brooks suggests either a third party or a crisis. A third party faces enormous obstacles in the American political context, as discussed in this article. A third-party presidential run has always lost, but sometimes (e.g. Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, or Ross Perot in 1992) can spoil an election. Even in the unlikely event that a third-party candidate can win the election, he’ll have to govern with a Congress in which almost all members are Republicans or Democrats. For a third party to make fundamental changes in government, it needs to control both the executive and legislative branch, which the American political system makes virtually impossible.

This leaves a crisis as a way to break the Two Moon deadlock. It’s possible that a financial panic and/or war will force some major political change. Exactly how the events will unfold and what the responses will be are impossible to determine, but the American political system will have to undergo a radical (and painful) transformation for the Two Moon deadlock to become resolved.

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Brooks’ second article is entitled Midlife Crisis Economics. Brooks criticizes the Obama’s administration’s historical accuracy. When the administration first came to power in 2009, it compared the current situation to the 1930’s, and promoted a second New Deal. Obamacare was a product of this thinking, a successor of ambitious social legislation like Social Security. The problem is that the public’s perception of government has radically changed since the New Deal. “Today, Americans are more likely to fear government than be reassured by it.”

The Obama Administration then switched historical analogies from the New Deal to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. Obama’s “Roosevelt Speech” in Kansas). There are some similarities between today and a century ago. “Then, as now, we are seeing great concentrations of wealth, especially at the top.” But the differences outweigh the similarities. The economy was much different back then, a vibrant jobs machine at the height of the industrial era. The information age we live in today is not a jobs machine. The industrial decline and elimination of jobs due to outsourcing/offshoring/automation was taking place well before the current recession. Factories that used to employ 1000 workers can now produce more products while employing fewer than 100 workers.

Inequality, while due partially to government policy, has a structural economic component that would be difficult to reverse (short of communism). Inequality is growing in all developed countries, including ones (e.g. Sweden and Germany) that have much more generous welfare states.

Brooks succinctly summarizes the essential differences between today and a century ago: “In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.” A century ago there were few or no government agencies, institutions, or regulations to protect workers, the sick, the disabled, the old, children, minorities, etc. Today, we have more than enough government; the challenge is to make government more effective. We need to reform existing programs to make them deliver more services at less cost.

Brooks also talks about the moral differences between today and the progressive era. The beginning of the twentieth century was still a time of Victorian culture, with its strict moral code. Individuals and the government taking on debt that they had no hope of repaying would have been considered sinful. Illegitimacy and divorce were culturally prohibited and very rare.

These moral differences have major practical consequences. It’s obvious today what harm the contemporary embracing of public and private debt has caused our economy. Subprime and other risky mortgages led directly to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. Deficit financing that the American federal government has been doing routinely for decades has led to a buildup of unsustainable debt, and is preventing the government from responding in an appropriate way to the magnitude of the current crisis. The fact that 40% of American children are born out of wedlock leads to a number of social and mental health problems that were unknown a century ago. These problems, including crime, juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, dangerous neighborhoods, failed schools, etc., forces the government to intervene in family life and child upbringing, and spend billions of dollars that it otherwise would not have had to spend.

My favorite quote from this article is the following: “One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.” It’s important to understand that the last (and only) time that libertarian economics was ever practiced, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America, Britain, and (to a lesser extent) in other Western European countries, was a time of strict conservative Victorian morality. There is no historical example of a combination of libertarian economics and libertarian morality. There is no contemporary example of libertarian economics. Contemporary countries with strong, rapidly growing, export-oriented economies, e.g. China, are anything but libertarian.

Ron Paul’s fans need to understand that they are advocating an experimental system, something never before tried. They also need to understand that the rise of American government deficit spending, regulation, waste, inefficiency, and all the other things they complain about occurred during a time of increasing libertarian morality. It was the 1960’s embrace of individual social liberty, of personal and sexual freedom from authority, of licentiousness, that represented a cultural revolution, something unique in history. The trend for increasing individual social freedom and autonomy has only increased since the 1960’s. During that period, government deficit spending, regulation, litigation, interference with the economy, waste, fraud, and incompetence has also increased. The two are clearly correlated; it’s impossible to prove whether libertarian morality caused the explosion of government spending and regulation.

Note that Brooks said that we have “oligarchic economics” in America today, not “socialist economics.” The distinction is important. It implies that libertarian ideas did in fact influence not only social and cultural life, but also the economy. Instead of moving toward the libertarian ideal of limited government, however, we moved toward a corrupt, oligarchic form of government, one in which the rich and powerful use a bloated government to become more rich and powerful. The most egregious example is explosion in growth of the financial sector, which occurred after libertarian-inspired deregulation. The investment banks won the freedom to gamble on risky mortgage-based securities, a gamble that led to the 2008 crisis. Unlike in a truly free market, they felt secure enough to make these gambles knowing that the government would bail them out.

As usual, Brooks has no specific solutions to the problems he talks about. “The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.” I’d agree with that, but how is it going to happen? How can we reform an oligarchic government while maintaining libertarian moral values? How can people from different socioeconomic status, intelligence, race, age, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, political beliefs, religious beliefs, etc. come together and agree on anything, when libertarian morality tells them to pursue their own self interest no matter the social cost? Will they be willing to make sacrifices for the common good, whether it take the form of accepting fewer government benefits, more taxation, or a combination of the two? I doubt it. My view is that the “productive midlife crisis” our country needs must include a serious re-evaluation of the permissive morality that has been dominant since the 1960’s.