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Think Again: The Underlying Nonsense in David Brooks’s Lament

SOURCE: Flickr/Miller Center

New York Times columnist David Brooks, above, thinks austerity measures in the debt limit deal under discussion would be good for economic growth.

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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’s 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?

If we look at the economic news of the day Brooks’s column appeared, for instance—July 5—we learn from Think Progress’s Pat Garofalo that "[a]ccording to a study conducted by the research firm Equilar, median CEO pay last year was $10.8 million, a 23 percent gain from 2009.” Moreover, “[e]ven though the economic recovery has been weak, companies are poised to report strong earnings for the second quarter—exposing a dichotomy between corporate performance and the overall health of the economy.”

From Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook, we discover, via Christina Romer, that "Wealthier households typically pay for more of a tax increase out of savings, and so they reduce their spending less than ordinary households. This implies that tax increases on wealthy households probably have less effect on the economy than those on the poor or the middle class. All of this argues against any form of fiscal austerity just now.”

And yet Brooks, like not only all conservatives but much if not all of the punditocracy, believes that such austerity is not only virtuous but good for growth.

Americans would be forgiven for concluding that such pundits are not fit to pontificate at a time when economic growth is weak, unemployment high, taxes low, and inequality is exploding.

And they would be right.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

For more from the same column, click here