Think Again: The Underlying Nonsense In David Brooks' Lament

07/07/2011 04:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2011
  • Eric Alterman Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

In a July 5 column called "The Mother of All No-Brainers," New York Times pundit David Brooks notes the recent changes in American politics due, he argues, to entry of a new class of extreme conservatives into the House of Representatives:

They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course.

All this is arguable, but what is not is the following:

They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.

The upshot: These recalcitrant right-wingers are being "offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred million dollars of revenue increases."

Brooks's column has inspired a great deal of crowing in the conservative blogosphere, according to Politico, in significant measure because Brooks went on to accuse these Tea Party types of being a "faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative" who "do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities," and "have no sense of moral decency... no economic theory worthy of the name," and "are not fit to govern."

Liberals, according to the same Politico article, did not like the column so much either, as many wondered where Brooks and his fellow allegedly sensible conservatives were the entire time these nonsensical platforms were in construction.

But what I find interesting are the apparently unchallenged assumptions that underlie it. For instance, he insists that the deal under discussion "would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing," and "would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth."

These statements are entirely unsupported and inconsistent with much economic history and theory -- particularly at a time when we do not seem to be able to reduce historic levels of unemployment and many respected economists with considerable policymaking would argue exactly the opposite here, here, and here.

But Brooks, who has no economic training, feels so confident in these assertions that they simply fly out of his computer without his feeling any need to justify them. And he appears to be right, at least politically, since none of the comments cited in Politico found this statement objectionable.

This is only one way in which conservatives have been able to push the debate further and further rightward despite their lack of any normative evidence to back up their claims. There are many (many) others.

Even more alarming -- at least to this reader -- was Brooks' statement that because liberals and centrists have come to conclusion that they are negotiating with "fanatics," they might as well give up, and had "better be fanatics, too."

Excuse me, but didn't Mr. Brooks just get done telling us that these same folks have been making concession after concession, giving in repeatedly to the threat of economic terrorism for the greater good of retaining the full faith and credit of the United States of America and preventing an entirely unnecessary "default" on its obligations? How can it possibly be called "fanatical" to give up when it finally becomes clear that the other side was never interested in making a deal in the first place?

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