Posts Tagged ‘David Brooks’

How the Supreme Court Nomination Process Rewards the Type of People Who Defer to Presidential Authority

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

David Brooks did a great job today of describing the type of individual our current Supreme Court confirmation process tends to reward (to paraphrase):

A person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess, and who therefore we are forced to construct arguments based on speculation because they have been too careful to let their actual positions leak out.

Brooks locates this type of individual — as is his wont (see for eg. bobos) — in a general sociological group:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

Brooks sees this as a flaw in his evaluation of Elena Kagan:

Kagan has apparently wanted to be a judge or justice since adolescence (she posed in judicial robes for her high school yearbook). There was a brief period, in her early 20s, when she expressed opinions on legal and political matters. But that seems to have ended pretty quickly…

But I was struck by the similarity of David Brooks’s evaluation of Elena Kagan now and Dahlia Lithwick’s evaluation of John Roberts when he was nominated:

I knew guys like [John Roberts] in college and at law school; we all knew guys like him. These were the guys who were certain, by age 19, that they couldn’t smoke pot, or date trampy girls, or throw up off the top of the school clock tower because it would impair their confirmation chances. They would have done all these things, but for the possibility of being carved out of the history books for it…

My sense that Roberts has been preparing for next month’s confirmation hearings his whole life was shored up by a glance at the new memos released by the Library of Congress yesterday. As early as 1985, Roberts was fretting about how federal government records disclosed to Congress before confirmation hearings could tank a nomination.

Roberts was widely seen to have been very “careful” and “cautious” throughout his life — intellectually and otherwise. Yet David Brooks had a different reaction to Roberts nomination:

Roberts nomination, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Less important than this minor bit of hypocrisy (which Bill Scher for the Huffington Post mines for all it’s worth) – or perhaps partisan blindness — on the part of David Brooks (and haven’t we all been there?) — is the substance of his critique. Brooks never quite connects the dots — but seems on the verge of making a profound point.

There seems to be a connection between the personality type of Kagan and Roberts — the type of cautious, establishment-minded personality rewarded by our current nomination process — and the tendency of this type of person to defer to the highest authority figure in the American psyche, the President of the United States. In Roberts and Alito, we have 2 of Brooks’s Organization Kids who also happen to be 2 of the most pro-presidentialist Supreme Court justices in history. Though Kagan’s views on this aren’t clear — as she has made some comments indicating an expansive view of executive power only in the context of discussing the views of others — we do know that she felt the Bush administration went too far, unlike Roberts and Alito.

Though I would have preferred a justice more wary of executive power, for me personally, this concern is not enough to give me reason to oppose Kagan’s nomination and appointment. I do want to know more about Kagan’s views on this — to see whether and to what degree she conforms to Glenn Greenwald’s fears (which are, as it should go without saying regarding Greenwald, hyperbolic). Lawrence Lessig has pushed back convincingly against Greenwald on this issue — and of course, Greenwald responded by going ad hominem.

Both Greenwald’s and Brook’s critique ignores the structural element to this pick as neither addresses the degree to which our current confirmation process tends to reward cautious people whose public views are somewhat ambiguous but who are close enough to those in the executive branch that the President nominating them trusts them. The type of person who would meet these criteria would not tend to be the strongest supporters of the Court as a check on executive power. Even aside from the generational category of “Organization Kids,” this would tend to place people deferential to presidential authority into the Supreme Court.

—–

Also interesting: Ezra Klein posits a better analogue than John Roberts to understand the Kagan pick is Barack Obama himself:

When Obama announced Kagan’s nomination, he praised “her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints; her habit, to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens, ‘of understanding before disagreeing’; her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus-builder.” This sentence echoes countless assessments of Obama himself.

Obama is cool. He makes a show of processing the other side’s viewpoint. He’s more interested in the fruits of consensus than the clarification of conflict. In fact, just as Kagan is praised for giving conservative scholars a hearing at Harvard’s Law School, Obama was praised for giving conservative scholars a hearing on the Harvard Law Review. “The things that frustrate people about Obama will frustrate people about Kagan,” says one prominent Democrat who’s worked with both of them.

[Image by the Harvard Law Review licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must-Reads of the Week: American Power, Inequality, 1 Billion Heartbeats, Hacking Life, Anthora Cups, Structural Deficit, Financial Doomsedays and Crises, China, the Tea Party’s Views on Immigration, and Lady Gaga

Friday, April 30th, 2010

There were a lot of good articles and posts I came across this week — so brace yourself…

1. The American Power Act. David Brooks makes the case for progressive reform — specifically the American Power Act regarding climate change:

When you read that history, you’re reminded that large efforts are generally plagued by stupidity, error and corruption. But by the sheer act of stumbling forward, it’s possible, sometimes, to achieve important things…The energy revolution is a material project that arouses moral fervor — exactly the sort of enterprise at which Americans excel.

Matt Yglesias had earlier this week critiqued Brooks (among others) for taking the exact opposite stance of the one he was adopting here:

Oftentimes in the Obama Era the difference between “reasonable” conservatives (David Brooks and Greg Mankiw often leading the charge) and reasonable liberals has been that reasonable liberals look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and support it while “reasonable” conservatives look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and oppose it, while claiming to support alternative flawed proposals that they don’t actually lift a finger to organize support for within their own ideological faction.

2. Inequality, social mobility, and the American Dream. The Economist had a good piece that can serve as a starting point for a post I’ll be writing soon on inequality, social mobility, and the American dream:

The evidence is that America does offer opportunity; but not nearly as much as its citizens believe.

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful.

3. The Science of Life. Jonah Lehrer for Seed magazine has a brilliant piece on how cities are like living organisms. As a side matter, he notes this beautifully poignant data point:

[A]n animal’s lifespan can be roughly calculated by raising its mass to the 1/4 power. Heartbeats scale in the opposite direction, so that bigger animals have a slower pulse. The end result is that every living creature gets about a billion heartbeats worth of life. Small animals just consume their lives faster.

4. Fine-tuning life. Gary Wolf for the New York Times Magazine explains how the accessibility of computers is creating data about every aspect of our lives — and of the efforts of some people to begin to catalog and find insights in their own data. Surprisingly, Lifehacker was never mentioned.

5. The Anthora Cup. Margalit Fox of the New York Times writes the obituary for Leslie Buck, the designer of the Anthora cup:

It was for decades the most enduring piece of ephemera in New York City and is still among the most recognizable. Trim, blue and white, it fits neatly in the hand, sized so its contents can be downed in a New York minute. It is as vivid an emblem of the city as the Statue of Liberty, beloved of property masters who need to evoke Gotham at a glance in films and on television.

6. Unified Theory of the Financial Crisis. Ezra Klein synthesizes various narratives into a unified theory of the financial crisis.

7. The Structural Deficit. Donald B. Marron provides a coherent and reality-based conservative look at America’s structural deficit. Absolutely a Must-Read.

8. The Financial Doomsday Machine. Martin Wolf dedicated his column in the Financial Times last week to describe the “financial doomsday machine“:

[T]he financial sector has become bigger and riskier. The UK case is dramatic, with banking assets jumping from 50 per cent of GDP to more than 550 per cent over the past four decades…The combination of state insurance (which protects creditors) with limited liability (which protects shareholders) creates a financial doomsday machine. What happens is best thought of as “rational carelessness”. Its most dangerous effect comes via the extremes of the credit cycle.

9. Realism on China. Stephen Walt explains his take on China’s strategic ambitions — and its inevitable rivalry with the United States and other regional powers.

10. The Tea Party & Immigration. Radley Balko explains his take on the widespread support among the Tea Party for the massive government power grab that is Arizona’s new immigration law:

It also makes a mockery of the media narrative that these are gathering of anti-government extremists. Seems like in may parts of the country they’re as pro-government as the current administration, just pro-their kind of government.

Coincidentally, I made that exact point about the Tea Party back in September 2009 entitled: These Protests Aren’t Against Big Government, But About Liberals Running the Government.

Andrew Sullivan piles on:

Worse, on the fiscal front, they’re total frauds. They have yet to propose any serious cuts in entitlements and want far more money poured into the military-imperial complex. In rallies, the largely white members in their fifties and older seem determined to get every penny of social security and Medicare. They are a kind of boomer revolt – but on the other side of that civil conflict, and no longer a silent majority. In fact, they’re now the minority that won’t shut up.

More and more, this feels to me like an essentially cultural revolt against what America is becoming: a multi-racial, multi-faith, gay-inclusive, women-friendly, majority-minority country.

11. Sovereign Debt Crisis. Felix Salmon and Paul Krugman are both very pessimistic about how Greece will get out of this crisis — and what it means for the global economy.

12. Lady Gaga’s Ambition. Brendan Sullivan for Esquire chronicles the life and ambitions of Lady Gaga:

“There is a musical government, who decides what we all get to hear and listen to. And I want to be one of those people.” The girl who said that didn’t yet have the number-one hits (although she had already written most of them).

She was not yet the creative director of the Haus of Gaga, which is what she calls the machine of more than a hundred creative people who work for her. She didn’t make that statement in an interview or from the stage. She made it in 2007, when she was a go-go dancer sewing her own outfits and I was her DJ. She wrote it in one of my notebooks…

Lady Gaga is a student of fame, and the fame she studies most is her own — being famous seems to both amuse and fascinate her.

[1st image by me; 2nd image by LarindaME licensed under Creative Commons.]

Thumbnail Sketches of Democrats and Republicans

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

David Brooks, yesterday, in the New York Times:

For the past 90 years or so, the Republican Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism. For a similar period, the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security. Over the past century, they have built a welfare system, brick by brick, to guard against the injuries of fate.

As usual, Brooks’s column was thoughtful. But I had a bit of a problem with his summary of each party, even acknowledging he means each party at its best.

It’s always hard to come up with a thumbnail sketch of each party – because there are always things which contradict what you say. Each party can be said to contain multitudes, even though a casual glance almost always reveals just enough to confirm whatever stereotypes you might have.

To my mind though, the real difference between the Republican Party and Democratic Party, even only on domestic matters and with each party taken at it’s best, is not fairness versus freedom and economic dynamism versus economic (or family) security. The difference between the parties is not primarily determined by what positive things they seek to provide: I wouldn’t say that Republicans value fairness less or freedom more for example. Rather, the difference can best be summed up by either looking at what each party views as a more legitimate way of achieving social ends or by looking at what each party sees as the bigger threat to citizens.

There are going to be counterexamples and such to this summary, but I think it reveals deeper truths than Brooks’s.

Legitimacy: Republicans attack the idea that government can legitimately be used as a tool to achieve broadly agreed upon ends. They look to private institutions to guide the course of society – the invisible hand even; this means private capital markets, private corporations, and religious organizations. Democrats accept these institutions, but they see the government as legitimate tool as well.

Threats to Citizens. In area of domestic policy, Republicans see the biggest threat to citizens as the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security. In the area of domestic policy, Democrats see the biggest threat to citizens coming from corporations, unchecked by the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security.

Alternatively, the version of Republicanism becoming more dominant today sees the biggest threat to citizens as coming from an ideology called liberalism – which brainwashes citizens through the media and seeks power anywhere it can – churches, corporations, the media, the government. This view sees politics as a cultural battle.

I’ve tried to make these non-judgmental and descriptive – and I think it is evident which approach makes more sense. Neither political party seems to me to have a very different view of what they want America to look like: They both support personal freedom and fairness, economic dynamism and family security. America has established a complex system of tradeoffs between these values – and few in either party seek to overturn that. They seek slight modifications this way or that – it’s just a matter of rather small degrees of difference. The bigger difference is in how each party sees the path forward – what is sees as the legitimate ends to achieve the necessary changes, and how it diagnoses the problems that need to be changed.

Any alternate sketches of this difference – along the same lines – attempting to be non-judgmental and descriptive – are welcome in comments of elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, I would say the Tea Party and much of the energy on the left comes from those rejecting each of these frameworks – and who see both corporations and government as the problem. I’m not sure what countervailing force they propose though.

Check out an older post of mine for my view of the basic principles of liberalism.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Must-Reads of the Week: China’s distortionary exchange rate policy, Mario Savio, David Brooks, Ezra Klein, & Dana Priest’s The Mission

Friday, March 19th, 2010

Apologies for the very, very light posting. There are quite a number of personal issues I’ve been dealing with – aside from the uprooted tree in my yard and miscellaneous damage.

But let me still give you some must-reads for the week.

1. China’s distortionary exchange rate policy. On Sunday, Keith Bradsher in the New York Times gave a good primer on how China is using currency manipulation and the global trade organizations to gain economic advantages as part of a global strategy to increase China’s power. China has also been using the global financial crisis to further their economic aims:

China is starting to describe its currency interventions as stimulus. But unlike extra government spending in the United States and other countries, currency intervention does not expand global demand, but shifts it from other countries to China.

Paul Krugman followed this up with a column urging action regarding China:

Today, China is adding more than $30 billion a month to its $2.4 trillion hoard of reserves. The International Monetary Fund expects China to have a 2010 current surplus of more than $450 billion — 10 times the 2003 figure. This is the most distortionary exchange rate policy any major nation has ever followed.

And it’s a policy that seriously damages the rest of the world. Most of the world’s large economies are stuck in a liquidity trap — deeply depressed, but unable to generate a recovery by cutting interest rates because the relevant rates are already near zero. China, by engineering an unwarranted trade surplus, is in effect imposing an anti-stimulus on these economies, which they can’t offset. [My emphases.]

My first attempt to make sense of this issue here.

2. Mario Savio. Scott Saul of The Nation follows up with an excellent profile of Mario Savio who at one point seemed poised to lead the 1960s radical New Left, but who then dropped out of public view:

Savio was a revolutionary and civil libertarian, logician and poet, scientific observer and self-aware partisan–and in his heyday a virtuosic extemporizer who seemed not so much to perform all these identities as to incarnate them. He was, in short, an icon of possibility for his generation of student activists; and so it’s a great historical riddle, tinged with pathos, why he was, in Berkeley in 1964, the lightning rod of his time and, almost immediately afterward, a man who couldn’t conduct the energy he’d summoned.

3. David Brooks on Obama. David Brooks wrote an excellent column last Friday arguing that both the right and left have Obama wrong, as they accuse excessive fealty to an extreme left wing ideology and of being a weak, passive, unprincipled traitor respectively. Brooks describes Obama as I have always understood and described him – and in fact, as he has described himself:

Obama is as he always has been, a center-left pragmatic reformer. Every time he tries to articulate a grand philosophy — from his book ”The Audacity of Hope” to his joint-session health care speech last September — he always describes a moderately activist government restrained by a sense of trade-offs.

4. Ezra Klein. Ezra Klein best summarized the CBO score released yesterday and how it gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill cuts deficits by $130 billion in the first 10 years, and up to $1.2 trillion in the second 10 years. The excise tax is now indexed to inflation, rather than inflation plus one percentage point, and the subsidies grow more slowly over time. So one of the strongest cost controls just got stronger, and the automatic spending growth slowed. And then there are all the other cost controls in the bill: The Medicare Commission, which makes entitlement reform much more possible. The programs to begin paying doctors and hospitals for care rather than volume. The competitive insurance market.

This was a hard bill to write. Pairing the largest coverage increase since the Great Society with the most aggressive cost-control effort isn’t easy. And since the cost controls are complicated, while the coverage increase is straightforward, many people don’t believe that the Democrats have done it. But to a degree unmatched in recent legislative history, they have.

Klein then succinctly explained what was missing from the Republican approach to the deficit that this health care bill – to its great credit – attempted to address:

Our long-term deficit is not a function of our current spending, which is manageable. It is a function of our expected spending growth, particularly in health care. With the system growing at 8 percent a year and GDP growing at 2 percent or 3 percent a year, there’s a real long-term problem there. But you can’t cut, or even tax, your way out of it. If you cut 5 percent from the system in one year, that cut disappears by the next year.

5. The Mission. I’m currently reading this 2003 book by Dana Priest who writes for the Washington Post on the military’s mission and how it evolved after the Cold War through the 1990s and into the War on Terror. Absolutely excellent. I highly recommend it.

[Image by me, this morning.]

The Difference Between Obama’s Health Care Reform and the Republican’s Health Care Reform

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

David Brooks, struggling to find some coherent ideological distinctions in the messy struggle over health care:

[A]s Yuval Levin has pointed out in National Review, the Democrats believe the answer is to create a highly regulated insurance system with inefficiencies eliminated through rational rules. The Republicans believe that the answer is to create a genuine market with clear price signals, empowered consumers and an evolving process.

If only it were so clear. It’s worth pointing out again how similar the current Obama-backed bill is to the Dole-Chafee bill proposed to counter Bill Clinton in 1993 (as I have before.) Both that 1994 Republican bill and this one seek to create a genuine market with clear price signals – as, it seems, does the main Republican proposals today. The difference between the Dole-Chafee bill and Obama’s bill on the one hand, and the current Republican efforts today isn’t that one sees government bureaucracy as the answer and the other sees the market as the answer. The difference is that one holds that the government can and should provide clear rules to prevent corporations from abusing their position and their customers, and the other assumes that the market will sort it all out eventually. It’s the difference between an open but regulated market and an unregulated one. It’s the difference between as much reform as the insurance industry can abide by and insurance executives’ wet dreams of glorious profits without red tape making them actually provide something of value to their customers.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

The Limits of China’s Economic Model

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Daniel Gross in Slate sees Google’s decision to stop acquiescing to the Chinese government as a portent of troubles for the nation – as a sign of a problem that will undermine China’s global economic position going forward, pointing out that the political decision to censor and even alter history as it was, has consequences:

Yes, Shanghai feels a lot like New York. But don’t presume that just because Americans and Chinese share a consuming culture that they also share a political one. As I stood in Tiananmen Square on a chilly November day, I turned to my guide. “That was really something, what happened here 20 years ago,” I said. “Yes,” he responded in his near-fluent English. “Those terrorists really killed a lot of soldiers.”

Gross sees the strength of China’s model:

For the last 30 years, China has been testing a new, inverted model: breakneck economic development while retaining strict limits on personal liberty. The Communist Party has wrenched the nation into the 21st century. The hardware is certainly impressive—the maglev trains, shiny new airports, and modern skyscrapers.

But he believes that manufacturing can only go so far – agreeing to some degree with David Brooks who describes the economic innovations of the future as being the result of a “protocol economy.” Gross explains:

And that’s the rub. Any type of political system can produce excellent hardware. The Soviet Union, which ruled Russia when Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born there in 1973, managed to produce nuclear weapons and satellites. Likewise, China has built truly impressive hardware: some 67 bridges now spanning the Yangtze River, a superfast supercomputer assembled entirely from parts made in China, high-speed trains. But in the 21st century, a country needs great software in order to thrive. It has to have a culture that facilitates the flow of information, not just goods.

The Future of the Tea Party (cont.)

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Markos Moulitsas sees echoes of the rise of the progressive netroots in the Tea Party’s money bomb for Scott Brown (H/t Sullivan) – though he also sees its demand for ideological purity as different from the approach taken by Daily Kos and much of the rest of the progressive netroots. He seems to share with David Brooks the sense that the Tea Party Movement is here to stay.

I’m still not certain. This group seems so similar to the flare-up of similar sentiments from 1992 to 1994 – which was quashed finally by Bill Clinton’s fiscally responsible governance. The Obama administration – if the economy doesn’t enter into a double-dip recession – will try to steer a similar path.

My bet is that the Tea Party will only gain momentum – and have any relevance beyond 2010 if the economy doesn’t rebound.

The Future of the Tea Party

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

As soon as I write about all the great columns David Brooks has been producing recently, he goes ahead and writes this one.

Now, it isn’t bad – and it is certainly interesting. But in predicting the rise of the tea party conservative movement, Brooks is extrapolating too much from a short term trend. Brooks himself should be able to see this, as he writes:

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.

Which is why I would be wary of extrapolating some broad tea party movement sweeping through Congress a year hence – and even more of listing the tea party movement in the litany of defining influential groups of the decade beginning with the hippies defining the 60s, the feminists the 70s, and the Christian conservatives the 80s. (Especially given how similar the Contract with America/Ross Perot crowd was to the tea party – and how that simply fizzled in the 90s.) The tea party crowd may define the coming era – but I would be extremely wary about prognosticating that given our rapidly shifting political environment. I would even be wary of presuming they will help the Republicans win many seats back in the 2010 midterms.

But this observation does strike me as potentially prescient – and I’d like to see Brooks explore the idea more fully:

The Obama administration is premised on the conviction that pragmatic federal leaders with professional expertise should have the power to implement programs to solve the country’s problems. Many Americans do not have faith in that sort of centralized expertise or in the political class generally.

I’ve argued in the past – rather vaguely and putting the matter in starker terms – that this is a potential problem. But to the extent the approach favored by the Obama administration is “tinkering,” as I believe the current evidence seems to show, I think they avoid the worst of this policy trap. The tinkering approach manages to both be technocratic and epistemologically modest – at its best capturing the best aspects of a conservative reticence and a liberal desire to innovate. What it isn’t is especially democratic – which I still believe is problematic.

The tinkering approach also creates a political problem as it does not yet have a compelling story associated with it – as FDR’s New Deal did, as JFK’s New Frontier did, as LBJ’s Great Society, as Reagan’s focus on cutting back government to release individual initiative – to renew Morning in America did, as Clinton’s triangulation did, as the Contract With America did, as Bush’s War on Terror and Ownership Society and Compassionate Conservatism all did, as Obama’s campaign for Change We Can Believe In did, as the tea party’s hyperbolic screams of protest against Nazi-Communist policies has already, as the left’s chants of “Sellout!” have already. Without this compelling story, this mythic goal, the tinkering approach has been portrayed as centralizing, big government, 1980s-style liberalism – or the embrace of Bush-era policies and the selling of Washington to special interests. The tea party has been able to get traction largely because the Obama administration hasn’t found a compelling story to explain its tinkering approach. If the administration is able to find this story, anchoring it in some series of news events, it could entirely shift the momentum and defang the tea party just as Clinton was able to do with his triangulation in the 90s.

Side note: Brooks is able to describe the tea party’s position in a far more compelling way than I have heard any supporter of the movement (of which Brooks is not.) But I think he gives the movement too much credit:

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

If the movement evolves in this direction, it would be able to gain more traction – but at the moment all I see are howls of rage.

[Image by Rberteig licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Obvious Truths Neglected in Responses to the Christmas Bomber

Monday, January 4th, 2010

As I mentioned today, David Brooks has been writing some damn good columns in recent weeks – and in his most recent, he reiterated a point I had made earlier. As I wrote:

Few seem willing to admit the obvious truth: No centralized power can keep us safe. No intelligence system will be perfect. No watch list will be all-inclusive. No screening procedures are foolproof. We can make it harder for a terrorist to succeed, but in order to win, we need to prevent every attack; while they only need to slip through the cracks once. And there will always be cracks. Even in a totalitarian regime, there are cracks. Part of the price we pay for a free society is vulnerability.

Brooks compared how the Greatest Generation – which greatly expanded government during the Great Depression and World War II – viewed government to how people presently seem to view government:

During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in their own institutions. It was not because these institutions always worked well. The Congress and the Federal Reserve exacerbated the Great Depression. The military made horrific mistakes during World War II, which led to American planes bombing American troops and American torpedoes sinking ships with American prisoners of war.

But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. History is not knowable or controllable. People should be grateful for whatever assistance that government can provide and had better do what they can to be responsible for their own fates.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved…

Brooks got a minor point wrong here – as he claims we “expect perfection from government.” My impression is that we demand perfection from the government and expect incompetence, which I would suggest has something to do with government clusterfuck that the 1970s represented along with the demonization of government bureaucracies by the Republican Party starting with Ronald Reagan coupled with the constant invocations of an all-powerful and competent government national security apparatus in mainstream thrillers and right-wing politics. Brooks continues:

At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.

For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.

Greenwald is able to overcome his ressentiment for once (“I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column…”) Greenwald continues to develop the idea:

The Constitution is grounded in the premise that there are other values and priorities more important than mere Safety.  Even though they knew that doing so would help murderers and other dangerous and vile criminals evade capture, the Framers banned the Government from searching homes without probable cause, prohibited compelled self-incrimination, double jeopardy and convictions based on hearsay, and outlawed cruel and unusual punishment.  That’s because certain values — privacy, due process, limiting the potential for abuse of government power — were more important than mere survival and safety.  A central calculation of the Constitution was that we insist upon privacy, liberty and restraints on government power even when doing so means we live with less safety and a heightened risk of danger and death.  And, of course, the Revolutionary War against the then-greatest empire on earth was waged by people who risked their lives and their fortunes in pursuit of liberty, precisely because there are other values that outweigh mere survival and safety.

I have yet to see any right winger continue to histronically attack Obama while acknowledging either of these two (essentially undisputed) points. Instead, they are forgotten or shunted aside as Obama is accused of all sorts of malfeasance and naïveté.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

David Brooks Is Writing a Damn Good Column These Days

Monday, January 4th, 2010

David Brooks has been writing these extraordinary columns recently – providing a remarkable sense of historical perspective in his commentary on contemporary events. First was his column on Obama’s Christian Realism, placing Obama firmly in the tradition of Cold War Liberalism, of Reinhold Niebhur, of George Kennan and George Marshall, of Scoop Jackson and Peter Beinart. Brooks explained a core difference that he saw between Obama and many other contemporary “secular” Democrats and liberals:

Obama’s speeches [at West Point and Stockholm] were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.

These speeches are grounded in an approach – according to Brooks – that acknowledges our own human frailty:

[A]s you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.

Then Brooks attempted to explain the long-term shift in America’s economy from manufacturing to “protocols.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries we made stuff: corn and steel and trucks. Now, we make protocols: sets of instructions. A software program is a protocol for organizing information. A new drug is a protocol for organizing chemicals. Wal-Mart produces protocols for moving and marketing consumer goods. Even when you are buying a car, you are mostly paying for the knowledge embedded in its design, not the metal and glass.

Brooks examines the implications of this shift moving forward. He doesn’t address the long-term consistency of America’s manufacturing output as a percentage of global output though – as we continue to produce large numbers of “things” while employing fewer workers to do so. He also doesn’t address the extent to which government policy, most specifically under Ronald Reagan, deliberately favored the financial sector over manufacturing. But, in only a few hundred words, he conveys quite a bit of this broad shift.

His next two columns were his annual Sidney Awards (Part I and Part II) for best long-form magazine reporting. Always interesting.

And then finally, in his latest he makes the same points I did regarding the infantile response of so many citizens and reporters to the latest attempted terrorist attack.

[Image not subject to copyright.]