The Plank

An Excessively Long Analysis Of David Brooks' Column


David Brooks's column has actually been good over the last year or so. But this is mainly because he's confined himself to the kind of topic he does well. Anytime he tries to write about policy -- especially domestic policy -- with any degree of specificity, disaster ensues. Today's effort is an especially dismal example.

Brooks today tries to break down the political spectrum into four categories. He's a Hamiltonian. Here's the paragraph where he explains why Hamiltonians disagree with mainstream liberals:

We Hamiltonians disagree with the third group, the mainstream liberals, because their programs haven't worked out. Retraining programs for displaced workers have flopped. Tax code changes to reduce outsourcing are symbolic. Federal jobs programs aren't effective. Moreover, the high taxes you need to pay for these programs sap the economy. There's now a pile of evidence showing that higher taxes mean reduced working hours. In the face of Chinese and Indian competition, we don't need Americans working less.

Woah. This is sort of an amazing specimen -- an experiment by Brooks to see how much wrongness he could pack into a single paragraph. Just for fun, let's run through it. First, he describes the mainstream liberal agenda as consisting of three things: retraining programs, tax code changes to reduce outsourcing, and federal jobs programs. (Number 1 and number 3 are actually the same thing.) This is the heart of the liberal domestic agenda? In what universe? The mainstream liberal agenda in the world I inhabit revolves around restoring equity to the tax code, reforming health care, and improving education.

Brooks writes, "Tax code changes to reduce outsourcing are symbolic." Well, sure. That's why it isn't an important part of the liberal agenda. You know what is symbolic? Advocating a new governing ideology whose sole specific policy prescription is building more monuments.

Next, Brooks claims that "the high taxes you need to pay for these programs sap the economy." Huh? Federal job training programs cost a few billion dollars a year. You don't need high taxes to pay for that. And eliminating a tax break for companies that outsource saves the government money, albeit a small amount.

In any case, all the mainstream liberal programs on taxes simply involve rescinding the Bush tax cuts and returning them to the levels we had in the 1990s. Did the rich start working fewer hours after Bill Clinton raised their taxes?

Let me ask this another way. In 1993, mainstream liberals raised taxes on the rich, and conservatives insisted this would destroy the economy. Now, think about what happened to the economy durng the rest of Bill Clinton's presidency, and ask yourself who's "programs haven't worked out."

In any case, Brooks has actually endorsed higher taxes -- granted, in a semi-elliptical way. In another of his columns trying to slice up the political spectrum in a way favorable to his own positions, Brooks wrote last year in glowing terms about "the McCain-Lieberman party." On key passage: "On fiscal policy, the McCain-Lieberman Party sees a Republican Party that will not raise taxes and a Democratic Party that will not cut benefits, and understands that to avoid bankruptcy the country must do both." So this horrible agenda of higher taxes that would sap the economy seems to be something that Brooks favors.

I realize that space constraints kept Brooks from going into much detail. I'm a columnist myself, and I rely on this defense myself. It would be a good defense for Brooks, if the details he did provide weren't so laughably wrong.

--Jonathan Chait

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