Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Brooksian Centrism

David Brook's latest column is entitled The Future of the American Center.

Brooks makes a good point in noting the following:

the coming Congress may not look like the recent Congresses, when party-line voting was the rule. A vote on an infrastructure bill may look very different from a vote on health care or education or foreign policy. This may be a Congress with many caucuses — floating coalitions rather than just follow-the-leader obedience.

Meanwhile, as Christopher DeMuth wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, committee chairmen may reassert authority against the executive branch. Trump’s authoritarian style represents an assault on the traditional separation of powers. He may end up energizing all those constitutional forms and practices he stands against.

What’s about to happen in Washington may be a little like the end of the Cold War — bipolarity gives way to multipolarity. A system dominated by two party-line powers gives way to a system with a lot of different power centers. Instead of just R’s and D’s, there will be a Trump-dominated populist nationalism, a more libertarian Freedom Caucus, a Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren progressive caucus, a Chuck Schumer/Nancy Pelosi Democratic old guard.

I’ve been trying to figure out where we’re headed after this election, and I really don’t know.  Trump is unpredictable.

But then Brooks goes off the rails, in my opinion:

The most important caucus formation will be in the ideological center. There’s a lot of room between the alt-right and the alt-left, between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism…

suddenly there’s a flurry of activity between the extremes…  For example, Bill Kristol and Bill Galston have worked in the White Houses of different parties and had voted for the opposite presidential candidates in every election for four decades. But Donald Trump has reminded them how much they agree on the fundamentals.

The most active centrist organization, No Labels, began six years ago in opposition to polarized, cutthroat politics.

Much of the rest of Brooks column sings the praises of No Labels.  

Simon Maloy at Salon wrote what is, in my opinion, a cogent rebuttal -- More bogus “new centrism” from David Brooks.  Excerpts from Maloy’s critique:

“We stand together against an alternative right disdainful of the traditions of American conservatism and a vocal left that blends socialist economics with identity politics,” Galston and Kristol wrote, echoing Brooks’ alt-right/”alt-left” dichotomy.

This is completely blinkered, so let’s set a few things straight. The “alternative right” is not defined by its disdain for “the traditions of American conservatism.” It’s a racist, white-nationalist, pseudo-intellectual agglomeration of cranks and bigots who now have a direct line to the Oval Office. Only by denuding it of its core evils can one even begin to draw any sort of comparison between the “alternative right” and the “vocal left,” whose disqualifying sins apparently include pushing for universal health care and advocating on behalf of those marginalized by the political system...

No Labels and the rest of the centrist bleaters will instead celebrate the transparently false promises of a balanced budget that will surely attend all this ideological warfare... Toothless centrism appeals exclusively to “retired establishment types,” financiers and “think-tank johnnies” precisely because it is divorced from practical concerns: When you don’t have to worry about rising health insurance premiums or unaffordable mortgage payments, it’s easier to think of a balanced federal budget as the greatest good that government can aspire to.

I looked at the No Labels Four Goals, and sure enough two of them are about balancing the budget:

  1. Secure Social Security & Medicare for the next 75 years
    Social Security and Medicare are not sustainable on their current trajectories due to the retirement of the enormous Baby Boom generation, falling birth rates, and rising healthcare spending.
  2. Balance the federal budget by 2030
    If the money we spend as a nation consistently outpaces the money we bring in, the burden of our increasing debt — including the interest we pay on it — will crush us.  Unfortunately, that’s where we’re headed.

In summary, Brooks’ advocacy of centrism seems reasonable enough, and much of it is intelligent and constructive, but he makes two serious errors, in my opinion:
  1. False equivalency between Trumpian authoritarianism and Sanders socialism.
  2. Counterproductive obsession with national debt.  See Socrates interview with Pete Peterson.

As a final thought, the Democrats have been played (taken advantage of) by the Republicans on the issue of the national debt for the last 40 years.  There is no doubt that the Democrats have been more serious about the debt, and it has cost them politically.  Reagan, for example, gave lip service to the debt, but increased it with tax cuts and big military spending.  George W. Bush likewise cut taxes while invading and occupying Iraq.  Obama was more frugal.  Trump seems to be well aware of the advantages of the Reagan approach.

People like Brooks genuinely believe the national debt is just like private debt, as do most well educated people.  It’s analogous to the widespread acceptance of the validity of the patriarchy based upon Biblical teachings.  Probably in 100 years my descendants will be bemoaning the side effects which have arisen following the otherwise positive realization that we’ve been guided by economic mythology with little basis in fact.

1 comment:

Steve D said...

Thanks Dan, keep 'em coming.