Paul Krugman’s response to David Brooks’ column today — which is itself a response (of sorts) to Krugman’s recent writing — is remarkably restrained, considering Brooks the Dumdum succeeds only in distorting Krugman’s arguments and appealing to that most juvenile of sources: Serious People. When people say “the center cannot hold,” what they should really say is, “David Brooks, ‘Centrist,’ has nothing to offer.”
It won’t surprise anyone that Brooks once again devoted the most valuable opinion-based real estate in the country to vagaries and platitudes. That’s just what he does — it comes from giving an opinion despite having no intellectual standing in said field. And since Brooks has no expertise in any field — and I mean that literally, not disparagingly or hyperbolically — he finds himself in the uncomfortable position of constantly opining on subjects which are simply beyond his grasp. Imagine someone at a cocktail party who hasn’t seen Citizen Kane, but instead of owning up to it embarrassingly spews forth, “You know, what continues to impress me about the film is its raw power and imagery. Though I don’t love it as much as some of the Italian films I’ve seen (Which ones? Oh, you know, the classics!) AFI was right to put it near the top of their 100 greatest films. Really, the imagery is phenomenal!”
That’s what I hear in my head every time I read David Brooks. It’s infuriating. And today’s column — which can best be described as an attempt to set a Keynesian strawman ablaze with a damp match — is no different. After describing that some pundits and policy-makers (which I’ll refer to as “Krugmans” for simplicity) believe the economy is still weak and would benefit greatly from increased stimulus spending, Brooks then simply dismisses that line of argument with a wave of his hand, without bothering to marshal any evidence at all that the Krugmans are wrong. Brooks writes:
These Demand Siders [who I’ve been calling Krugmans – JK] have very high I.Q.’s, but they seem to be strangers to doubt and modesty. They have total faith in their models. But all schools of economic thought have taken their lumps over the past few years. [emphasis added.]
GAH. It’s unforgivable that the New York Times editorial board allows this lazy, destructive, sophomoric over-generalization to pass as analysis. This blunt tool that Brooks is employing — everyone was wrong so let’s just move on — is responsible (at least in part) for the most disgraceful episodes of the past 10 years. Iraq — everyone thought Saddam had WMDs, let’s move on. Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention — everyone was behind opening GITMO, and even if we don’t all love it, we have it now and we can’t just close it down. The Housing Bubble — no one knew we were in a bubble (in fact, it is impossible to know when you’re in a bubble, says Greenspan!) and there was nothing that could’ve been done about it anyway.
The most consistent aspect of how our country operates now is to promote those pundits and policy-makers whose counsel has proven most incorrect in all aspects to the highest levels of power, and to dismiss those who saw the dangers and tried to raise the warning flag as shrill, unserious, and naive extremists. But in every instance in which Brooks and his Centrist-loving (read: Corporate-loving) cohorts claimed everybody was wrong, there have been those who stood up to the powers that be when it wasn’t popular to do so. Those on the left who opposed the Iraq war — especially on the grounds that we were staring down the business end of mushroom cloud — have been vindicated. Those — like Joseph Stiglitz and Brooksley Born — who warned the real estate bubble would pop, with disastrous consequences, have been vindicated. Those — like Krugman — who said the stimulus was too small have been vindicated, even if the likes of Brooks are to stubborn or dim to understand it. So, no, David Brooks, those who have “taken their lumps” over the past years have been the devotes Alan Greenspan and the School of Deregulation.
Brooks goes on to say, falsely, that, “the Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years.” Krugman responds — again, with admirable (coerced?) restraint — by writing, “I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says [that].” Krugman goes on to note:
Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.
The thing is, it’s clear that Brooks himself doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Again, I mean this quite literally. He doesn’t understand the subject about which he has chosen to write a column. Take for instance this sentence, which sounds like a real sentence, but upon inspection reveals itself as pure nonsense.
Consumers are recovering from a debt-fueled bubble and have a moral aversion to more debt.
The distinction that has to be made here is a clear one, but one a casual reader may not be aware of. See, the bubble was fuel by private debt, due to a lack of regulation that caused prices to inflate until the bubble popped. The “more debt” that Brooks (again, falsely) claims Americans are averse to is government debt, used to jump start the economy to avoid extended stagnation.
There are two ways to interpret this sentence. 1) Brooks is speaking for the uneducated American who thinks that governments should operate like families — ie, tight one’s belt when times are tough; or 2) Brooks believes this sentence himself, thus betraying a fundamental lack of understanding of macroeconomic principles. If we proceed with version (1), Brooks is simply incorrect about what it is Americans want. In fact, 60% of the country wants increased government spending until the economy recovers. Brooks loves to speak for Americans, but he hates to cite polls — that’s not unique to him, it’s a common sickness among celebrity pundits.
If we go with option (2), then that means that Brooks doesn’t understand how counter-cyclical spending works, which is really impossible. He must know the basics of Keynesian thought. So, then, he’s either being purposefully deceptive or just plain lazy. Either way, way to go, NY Times.
What really ticks Krugman off more than anything else, though, is Brooks unsurprising appeal to authority. Brooks writes:
Moreover, the Demand Siders write as if everybody who disagrees with them is immoral or a moron. But, in fact, many prize-festooned economists do not support another stimulus. Most European leaders and central bankers think it’s time to begin reducing debt, not increasing it — as do many economists at the international economic institutions. Are you sure your theorists are right and theirs are wrong?
To which Krugman brilliantly responds;
Yes, I am. It’s called looking at the evidence. I’ve looked hard at the arguments the Pain Caucus is making, the evidence that supposedly supports their case — and there’s no there there.
And you just have to wonder how it’s possible to have lived through the last ten years and still imagine that because a lot of Serious People believe something, you should believe it too.
You also have to wonder how it’s possible that anybody would ever read David Brooks and think to themselves, “this guy is good.” He is so bad.