JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 19, 2011
David Brooks, in his column last week, bemoaned the failure of President Obama and Paul Ryan to meet over lunch and get to understand each other:
President Obama and Paul Ryan are two of the smartest, most admirable and most genial men in Washington. It is sad, although not strange, that in today’s Washington they have never had a serious private conversation. The president has never invited Ryan over even for lunch.
The assumption that a nice lunch would bride the gap between Obama's technocratic meliorism and Ryan's Randian determination to liberate hero-capitalists from social obligation can be bridged over some nice corned beef sums up everything I find endearing and frustrating about Brooks. Paul Krugman, in his column, was not so kind:
Last week, President Obama offered a spirited defense of his party’s values — in effect, of the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. Immediately thereafter, as always happens when Democrats take a stand, the civility police came out in force. The president, we were told, was being too partisan; he needs to treat his opponents with respect; he should have lunch with them, and work out a consensus.
That’s a bad idea. Equally important, it’s an undemocratic idea.
Today Brooks begins his column with what sounds an awful lot like a thinly-veiled shot at Krugman:
Very few people have the luxury of being freely obnoxious. Most people have to watch what they say for fear of offending their bosses and colleagues. Others resist saying anything that might make them unpopular.
But, in every society, there are a few rare souls who rise above subservience, insecurity and concern. Each morning they take their own abrasive urges out for parade. They are so impressed by their achievements, so often reminded of their own obvious rightness, that every stray thought and synaptic ripple comes bursting out of their mouth fortified by impregnable certitude. When they have achieved this status they have entered the realm of Upper Blowhardia.
The column is putatively about Donald Trump. But, for as accomplished a character student as Brooks, it doesn't describe Trump all that well. "Fear of offending bosses and colleagues" isn't really what Trump lacks -- he has no boss, and he offends the general public, not colleagues. It does, however, reflect what I strongly suspect is Brooks' view of Krugman.
I have no direct knowledge of this -- honest! -- but I strongly suspect these two guys don't like each other very much. My guess is that the hostility dates back to Brooks' 2002 Weekly Standard cover story attacking the crazy hippies who opposed the Iraq War. It didn't mention Krugman, but the cover sure seemed to:
I think Krugman is supposed to be the hippie on the right, clutching the Times, as hippies are wont to do. Krugman has made repeated allusions in his column and blog to the intellectual atmosphere leading up to the war, in which anti-war voices were marginalized and mocked. (I supported the war, but I basically agree with Krugman's view of the sociology of the debate itself.)
Things haven't gotten any nicer since. The main problem here is the mismatch. Krugman and Brooks are two Jewish-American baby boomers who grew up in New York, but their intellectual style could not differ more sharply. Krugman is an acclaimed economist who thinks in rigorously empirical terms. Brooks is a journalist who tends to view policy questions through hazy philosophical prisms. On top of that, there's ideology. Brooks views Krugman as making himself a hero to the liberal choir, while he (Brooks) fearlessly challenges both sides. Krugman sees Brooks as residing comfortably within the cozy embrace of the conventional wisdom, whereas he (Krugman) risks being cast as a partisan or a radical by arbiters of respectability like Brooks for following the logic through to its conclusions. Of course, pitting Brooks against a Nobel prize winning economist in a debate over public policy is about as fair as making Krugman debate me about the University of Michigan football team.
What makes the feud somewhat pathological is the Times' convention of keeping its columnists from openly debating each other. I suppose this is designed to advance the cause of civility. But the reality is that this just creates a lot of sniping, and the inability to quote and describe each others' arguments in any detail makes it impossible to treat them seriously.