Tag Archives: David Brooks

Memories of a (still-living) professor

I don’t make a habit of reading David Brooks anymore, so I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t run across yesterday’s piece until just now. It begins, “Tragedy has twice visited the Woodiwiss family,” a sentence that immediately piqued my curiosity. Years ago, I had a professor with the same peculiar last name. The next sentence, about the death of a woman named Anna after she’d been thrown from a horse, confirmed that Brooks was writing about the same family whose father had once taught my Political Philosophy class.

His name was Ashley. It was the fall of my sophomore year, and I was a typically heady student impassioned by the notion of political contrarianism generally and reactionary liberalism specifically. The school was Wheaton College, a devoutly evangelical institution perpetually toeing the border between extreme-right social ideology and academic mainstream respectability. (It succeeded brilliantly in the former arena and marginally less so in the latter.)

I was conflicted, born into a conservative family cursed (blessed, really) to settle in the Boston suburbs. Despite my considerable social isolation as a child, enough of that famed Northeastern elitist progressivism rubbed off on me to be viscerally repulsed by the ménage à trois of religion, academia, and Republican politics that permeated Wheaton’s classrooms and chapel halls.

Ashley Woodiwiss was a godsend, an embodiment of absurd contradictions. He had seven children, but was nevertheless a high-church Episcopalian in the decidedly low-church bastion of American Midwestern Christendom. He always opened his class with a reading from his pocket-sized Episcopalian prayer book, repeatedly joking that he had no idea how to pray without it. Even this self-deprecation transformed itself, to my impressionable ears, into a subtle mockery of his evangelical peers: their casual descriptions of alleged interactions with God as the laughable contrast to his distinctly Victorian bedside manner with the Almighty.

I loved him for other reasons as well. On the first day of the semester, he inquired as to whether any freshmen were present. Upon hearing nothing, he continued, “Good. Now I can cuss and tell anti-Bush jokes.”

That fall, the Democrats finally retook the House from the GOP, ending their twelve-year reign atop the chamber. This utterly delighted Woodiwiss. Beforehand, while jokingly previewing his upcoming behavior at the polling station, he told us he planned to ask an election official where exactly the “no-electioneering” line ended, step as close to it as possible, yell “Throw the bums out!” and then stride purposefully inside to cast a vote to do just that to the Republicans.

During another class session, he mused, “Jimmy Carter had Habitat for Humanity after he left office, Bill Clinton is a huge policy wonk now, so what’s Bush going to do? Speak to large churches?”

He assigned Shakespeare readings. Once, while attempting to show the class a production of one of the Bard’s plays on VHS (these were the old days, after all), he inadvertently switched the TV to a Manchester United game, whereupon he declared himself “morally torn” and proceeded to watch for several more minutes.

I remember, finally, a game he used to play on Mondays. “I want to hear three stories from this weekend where you remembered you go to Wheaton,” he’d say. A student would call out, “I went to a twenty-first birthday party and no one was drunk.” Someone else might add, “The highlight of my weekend was finding hash browns in the cafeteria on Sunday morning.” “Fantastic!” he’d respond, practically giggling.

It was, indeed, moments like these that endeared him to me most. Reading back through emails I wrote to my family at the time, I’m a little taken aback to find my barely-exaggerated descriptions of him as, alternatively, “St. Ashley Woodiwiss” and a “demigod.” Hovering beneath the surface of my academic man-crush was my giddiness at feeling like an insider: I felt at the time as if I were the only student who truly understood his acerbic wit and, more importantly, was intellectually sophisticated enough to endorse his progressive politics and share his sarcastic dismissal of evangelicalism.

This was probably not perfectly accurate, of course. But reality felt sufficiently similar such that my enjoyment of his class owed at least as much to my fellow students’ imagined bewilderment at his antics as it was to the substance of the jokes themselves.

Years later, I ran into another former student of his, now knee-deep into the (smoldering ruins of the) conservative intellectual sphere. He kindly forwarded me some favorite Woodiwiss quotes he’d once compiled and sent to the professor. Reading them now, I’m almost shocked at their mundaneness:

  • “I was sitting there swilling beer and watching football games all day long New Year’s Day.”
  • “I don’t see how you can be a Republican and be a Christian.”
  • On Exxon: “Hell no, they are terrorists, they are destroyers, they are raping the environment.”
  • “Every Protestant church starts off with a split.”

It’s difficult to fully appreciate, over seven years later, what it was about this brand of humor that so captured me as a rapt 19-year-old. There is, moreover, an inescapable irony in the fact that I received this exhaustive list of Woodiwiss’ anecdotes from a very conservative classmate, an implicit rebuke of my longtime “insider” illusion. Indeed, given the benefit of hindsight, the quote that stands out most to me now is this one: “This is the Wheaton version of a liberal,” he said once. “At Chapel Hill I’m a fascist.”

He isn’t wrong. There was little truly radical about Ashley Woodiwiss. Stripped of any context, his ironic musings were red meat to malleable students craving brain food. But despite their appearance in his Political Philosophy class, these quotes were neither political nor philosophical in essence.

In David Brooks’ piece, which discusses the death of one of Ashley’s daughters and a serious injury to another, Woodiwiss speaks of lessons learned. “Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.”

It’s not a direct quote, but I’ll take it. It sounds like something my old Political Philosophy professor might have said. Right before trying to convince everyone that George W. Bush was the worst American president of all time.

A Big Data divide at the Times

David Brooks says Big Data matters, but perhaps not as much as people think:

Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

Paul Krugman takes a look and says, “Waittt a minute here:”

It would be lovely to live in a world in which the failure of interest rates to soar as predicted would lead Brian Riedl of Heritage and Niall Ferguson to concede that their anti-stimulus critiques of 2009 were based on a completely wrong model; in which the economic downturns that have followed austerity policies almost everywhere they have been applied would lead Alberto Alesina to concede that his work on expansionary austerity was probably flawed, and lead George Osborne to proclaim publicly that he led Britain down the wrong path. But such things very rarely happen, and the fact that they don’t happen has nothing to do with the limitations of data…

So yes, it has been disappointing to see so many people sticking to their positions on fiscal policy despite overwhelming evidence that those positions are wrong. But the fault lies not in our data, but in ourselves.

It’s a good point from Krugman, who’s also been quite busy dealing with other knuckleheads.

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David Brooks wakes up, smells the coffee

From yesterday’s column:

On the surface, Republicans are already doing a good job of beginning to change their party. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana gave a speech to the Republican National Committee calling on Republicans to stop being the stupid party, to stop insulting the intelligence of the American people.

Representative Paul Ryan gave a fine speech to the National Review Institute calling for prudence instead of spasmodic protest. The new senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, gave a speech to the same gathering saying the Republicans should be focusing on the least fortunate 47 percent of Americans.

But, so far, there have been more calls for change than actual evidence of change. In his speech, for example, Jindal spanked his party for its stale clichés but then repeated the same Republican themes that have earned his party its 33 percent approval ratings: Government bad. Entrepreneurs good.

In this reinvention process, Republicans seem to have spent no time talking to people who didn’t already vote for them.

One wonders where this suddenly reasonable columnist has been since last November 6th.

The problem with David Brooks

His column in today’s New York Times, “The Party of Work,” makes a lot of good points before crashing and burning in the conclusion (excerpted here at length):

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.

Let’s just look at one segment, Asian-Americans. Many of these people are leading the lives Republicans celebrate. They are, disproportionately, entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented. Yet, on Tuesday, Asian-Americans rejected the Republican Party by 3 to 1. They don’t relate to the Republican equation that more government = less work.

Over all, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the six post-cold-war elections because large parts of the country have moved on. The basic Republican framing no longer resonates.

Some Republicans argue that they can win over these rising groups with a better immigration policy. That’s necessary but insufficient. The real problem is economic values.

If I were given a few minutes with the Republican billionaires, I’d say: spend less money on marketing and more on product development. Spend less on “super PACs” and more on research. Find people who can shift the debate away from the abstract frameworks — like Big Government vs. Small Government. Find people who can go out with notebooks and study specific, grounded everyday problems: what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?

Don’t get hung up on whether the federal government is 20 percent or 22 percent of G.D.P. Let Democrats be the party of security, defending the 20th-century welfare state. Be the party that celebrates work and inflames enterprise. Use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives.

Emphasis mine. This is classic Brooks-ian thinking: decrying the failure of the Republican Party to measure up to its potential, admirably encouraging them to reform, and meanwhile forgetting that his prescription for success is exactly what the Democratic Party has been doing for years — and the precise reason they won again this year.

I bolded that last portion because it sets up such a clearly ridiculous straw man: the Democrats as the unimaginative defenders of the “20th-century welfare state,” while the Republican Party “celebrates work and inflames enterprise.” How can he attempt such a tried-and-failed GOP talking point immediately after acknowledging that “the basic Republican framing no longer resonates” for so many Americans? When Brooks says to “use any tool, public or private, to help people transform their lives,” he’s taking a page straight out of the Democratic playbook. This makes his characterization of the Dems as the “party of security” (whatever that means, exactly) all the more ridiculous.

A sign of just how far the American right has drifted

David Brooks, the eminent New York Times columnist and leading conservative intellectual, dreams up a hypothetical Mitt Romney debate monologue:

The second wicked problem the next president will face is sluggish growth. I assume you know that everything President Obama and I have been saying on this subject has been total garbage. Presidents and governors don’t “create jobs.” We don’t have the ability to “grow the economy.” There’s no magic lever.

Instead, an administration makes a thousand small decisions, each of which subtly adds to or detracts from a positive growth environment. The Obama administration, which is either hostile to or aloof from business, has made a thousand tax, regulatory and spending decisions that are biased away from growth and biased toward other priorities. American competitiveness has fallen in each of the past four years, according to the World Economic Forum. Medical device makers, for example, are being chased overseas. The economy in 2012 is worse than the economy in 2011. That’s inexcusable.

If you’re wondering why that second-to-last sentence sounds wrong, it’s because it is. I suppose this was just Brooks’ attempt to channel Romney’s campaign, which will not be “dictated by fact-checkers.” Forgive me for thinking the Times still was.

David Brooks discovers inequality, recoils in horror

English: David Brooks

From yesterday’s New York Times column:

Equal opportunity, once core to the nation’s identity, is now a tertiary concern. If America really wants to change that, if the country wants to take advantage of all its human capital rather than just the most privileged two-thirds of it, then people are going to have to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions.

So far, so good…right? Granted, Brooks is a little like the guy who shows up drunk to a party at 4 AM just as everyone’s sobering up enough to drive home. But at least he made it there, right?

Well, not exactly:

Liberals are going to have to be willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childrearing and be morally tough about it. Conservatives are going to have to be willing to accept tax increases or benefit cuts so that more can be spent on the earned-income tax credit and other programs that benefit the working class.

Political candidates will have to spend less time trying to exploit class divisions and more time trying to remedy them — less time calling their opponents out of touch elitists, and more time coming up with agendas that comprehensively address the problem. It’s politically tough to do that, but the alternative is national suicide.

And there we go again with the false equivalencies. What does marriage have to do with inequality? Brooks prefers to look at cultural explanations, because cultural-religious rifts are his specialty. (“There are two types of people in America: let’s call them Big-Government Jack and Libertarian Jill,” would be a fairly representative rhetorical style of his.) But even though one huge reason for the current trend towards banana republic-ism is staring us right in the face — tax policy — Brooks prefers to look at something — marriage norms — that might influence something that might influence something that might influence something that might influence inequality. Ever heard of Occam’s Razor, boy?

What makes it so infuriating is that Brooks has a pulpit at the Times, and he consistently uses it to chide Obama for being too enthralled with the idea of government, too ambitious with his proposals, too far left for the nation. But then one day Brooks wakes up to discover inequality, and…yup, turns out marriage norms are the problem.

Time to wake up and start agitating for the policies Obama’s been proposing: sensible, reasonable (by any historical standard) tax proposals that attempt to reverse income inequality and restore some semblance of a little thing we call upward mobility. Call a spade a spade, David Brooks, or risk becoming another Tom Friedman. And the world doesn’t need another Tom Friedman.

The New York Times: socioeconomically tone-deaf as ever

From today’s “Opinionator” with Gail Collins and David Brooks:

David:  I once conducted an interview with a businessman in a small town and I pulled up in my Audi A6, which was a very nice car but not super luxury.

Sir David Brooks is wrong about the “not super luxury” part. The 2012 Audi A6 is, in fact, currently ranked #2 by U.S. News & World Report in the “Luxury Large Cars” category and retails, on average, between $41,245 and $49,346. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household — not individual — income (averaged over the period 2006-2010) was $51,914. So an Audi A6 costs somewhere between 79% and 95% of the average American household’s pre-tax income.

Look, I am not one of those people who decry rich people for being rich. Hell, I don’t have a problem with rich presidents, politicians, or candidates. In some cases it may even reduce corruption by limiting the political sway of outside contributions. But New York Times writers really need to stop playing the “seriously, we’re not rich” game that has been increasingly played by the American upper class (including, too often, by writers for the Times). It’s absolutely fine to be wealthy. It’s not fine to pretend to be a member of a more modest social class.