Tag: david brooks

Whip Illegitimacy Now (WIN)!

You just know a David Brooks column featuring the refrain, “my dream Obama would…” is going to be exasperating. And it is: especially when he suggests that his “dream Obama” could and should:

… talk obsessively about family structure and social repair. Every week we get another statistic showing how social and income inequality is dividing the nation. …. while childhood obesity is falling among kids whose parents graduated from college, it is still rising among kids whose parents have a high school degree or less.

Because of his upbringing, President Obama is uniquely qualified to talk about family structures. Traditional values are an investment in the young, and he could do what he can to restitch the social fabric.

It’ll be tough to “restitch the social fabric” when you need at least one hand free to bend the arc of history, but no doubt President Obama believes he’s up to the task. Still, why does David Brooks think it would help to have the president “talk obsessively about family structure and social repair”?

Barack Obama has been talking obsessively about capital-‘h’ Hope for nearly a decade, and during his administration, as with his predecessor’s, many more Americans think the country’s on the “wrong track” than think it’s moving in the “right direction.” (.pdf).

The evidence that the presidential “bully pulpit” reliably sways the public’s policy preferences is weak enough, as Ezra Klein documents here. What evidence is there that presidential jawboning about family structures changes anyone’s behavior? Birth rates for unmarried women went down in the era of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, resuming their upward trend under family values president George W. Bush. Do people really make their choices about marriage and family under the influence of presidential rhetoric or with an eye toward the example he sets?

The campaign Brooks envisions would be about as effective as Gerald Ford’s little Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons. Maybe it’s time for a little less magical thinking about our presidents. 

David Brooks, Charles Murray, and Market Education

In a recent column, David Brooks considers Charles Murray’s thesis that “America is coming apart,” and concludes that:

The country… needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires… building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

The first recommendation is reasonable. The second suggests Brooks is not very familiar with the history of education.

For the past century and a half, the biggest single intervention by the government in American lives has been our state school systems. Prior to the mid 1800s, all education in this country was local. The majority of children attended private schools, and those who attended the local “common” or “public” schools usually paid tuition. Even “common” schooling was only free for the truly destitute. Partly as a result of this direct financial responsibility, parents had ultimate control over what and by whom their children were taught.

From the 1830s to the 1850s, Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann and his colleague in the House, James Carter, imagined and ultimately laid the foundation of the state school system we know today. They did so for a variety of reasons, one being their belief that the common man and woman could not be trusted to educate their own children. Their solution was to take educational power and responsibility out of parents’ hands and place it under the control of state-trained, state-appointed experts.

Shockingly, taking responsibilities away from people does not make them more responsible. Responsibility is like a muscle: use it, or lose it. The kinds of  “organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly” are those that actually impose responsibilities upon them. When parents must not only choose but pay for their children’s education, they expect rather more from the system than when they are assigned “free” schooling by the state. And school efficiency rises as a result.

Some parents could not afford to pay for a good education for their children even without the heavy tax burden imposed by the present bloated state school monopolies. For those parents, we could easily provide financial assistance to cover most or (as necessary) all the cost of schooling. This is already being done on a small but growing scale in 8 states, thanks to k-12 education tax credit programs.

If Brooks wants “an organization and structure” that induces people to behave responsibly, he need look no further than the free enterprise system. “Using government” to achieve that end has been tried for 150 years, and the results are not impressive.

Just a Cog in the National Project

Brad Thompson’s excellent new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, adroitly dissects this pernicious political philosophy.  He has received some criticism for attempting to demonstrate that Leo Strauss, the philosophical godfather of so many neocons, had a certain sympathy with fascism.  Indeed, while stating that he is not saying neoconservatives have fascist designs, Thompson does suggest that their philosophy could pave the way to a kind of “soft fascism.”  Far be it from me to pass judgment on such academic debate, but it is interesting to consider the following from the noted neocon columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, writing in that paper on March 10:

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise.  Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation.  I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.

Everything Old Is New Again

With America in trouble, I’ve been pleased to see some fresh, innovative thinking emanating from Washington.  What can brighten the country’s future?

Institutions should do what they are good at. And the expansion of NATO is one of the few true post-Cold-War foreign-policy success stories…

We could continue that process. The stakes are lower — 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains — yes, really — an encouragement to others on Europe’s borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine’s geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try.

With this sort of fresh, innovative thinking, maybe we can’t miss!

Brooks: Let the Bad Times Roll

I hope you missed David Brooks’ New York Times column recently extolling the virtues of excruciating pain.  The op-ed, entitled, “A Case for Mental Courage,” is Brooks at his depressing, neocon worst.  He starts out by describing in way too much detail the agony Fanny Burney, a early 19th century novelist, experienced when she had a mastectomy without anesthesia.  “I then felt the Knife rackling against the breastbone…” and so on.  Thanks for sharing, David, but, really, why?  Well, because it turns out that heroism is to be found “in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.”  Hmmm.  The underlying major problem that afflicts our nation, says Brooks, is that capitalism has undermined the idea that people are “inherently sinful.”  Our culture “places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness.”

It also turns out that America is too “geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character building regime.”  In the good old days, Brooks intones, “this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons.  It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches.  It meant conquering self-approval by staring straight at what was painful.”  Sign me up, David, you neocons look like a fun bunch.  How is it that Mencken defined a Puritan?  Someone who lives in constant fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time?

And therein lies the disconnect between most neoconservatives and America.  Thomas Jefferson (someone who always liked to have a good time, if you get my drift) put it right there in the Declaration:  We are going to be a nation that recognizes the unalienable right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  Mastectomies sans anesthesia would not seem to fall into the category of the pursuit of happiness.

We should celebrate the fact that the pursuit of happiness is primarily an individualistic pursuit – something that rubs against the grain of neoconservatism.  Some years back, Brooks wrote, “ultimately American purpose can find its voice only in Washington…individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.  And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.”  That philosophy, of course, was tried a couple of times in the 20th century and found a bit wanting.  Especially if you count the tens of millions of human beings who died because of it.  On the other hand, they did suffer.

Kagan Nomination: Around the Web

  • Confirmation hearings are a “vapid and hollow charade”, or at least that’s what Elena Kagan wrote fifteen years ago. National Review Online invited me to contribute to a symposium on how Republican senators can keep the coming hearings from becoming such a charade, with results that can be found here.
  • The First Amendment has been among Kagan’s leading scholarly interests, and yesterday in this space Ilya Shapiro raised interesting questions of whether she will make an strong guardian of free speech values. Eugene Volokh looks at her record and guesses that she might wind up adopting a middling position similar to that of Justice Ginsburg. As Radley Balko and Jacob Sullum have noted, the departing John Paul Stevens ran up at best a mixed record on First Amendment issues, so the overall impact on the Court is far from clear.
  • Kagan’s other main scholarly topic has been administrative and regulatory law, and Nate Oman at Concurring Opinions warns that everything in her career “suggests that she is intellectually geared to look at the regulatory process from the government’s point of view.” Oman took an advanced seminar she taught, and brings back this cautionary report:

    It was an interesting class, mainly focused on the competition between bureaucrats and political appointees. In our discussions businesses were always conceptualized as either passive objects of regulation or pernicious rent-seekers. Absent was a vision of private businesses as agents pursuing economic goals orthogonal to political considerations. We were certainly not invited to think about the regulatory process from the point of view of a private business for whom political and regulatory agendas represent a dead-weight cost.

  • I’m not the only one who finds Kagan’s exclusion of military recruiters at Harvard wrongheaded, even while agreeing with her in opposing the gay ban. Peter Beinart made that argument in a widely noted post at The Daily Beast last month and now has a followup. Former Harvard law dean Robert Clark is in the Wall Street Journal today (sub-only) with an argument that Kagan’s policy was a continuation of his own and represented the sense of the law faculty as a whole. Emily Bazelon points out that the recruitment bar was overwhelmingly popular at top law schools at the time, an argument that as Ramesh Ponnuru points out may raise more questions than it answers. And Ilya Somin cautions against assuming that the wrongheadedness reflects any specifically anti-military bias.
  • One of John Miller’s readers recalls John Hasnas’s wise words on “empathy” in judging. David Brooks at the Times runs with the “Revenge of the Grinds” theme. SCOTUSblog rounds up some other reactions (with thanks for the link). And Brad Smith, writing at Politico, advises us to be ready should Citizens United come up at the hearing.

Obama, American Nationalism, and the Weird Anti-Materialism of the Foreign Policy Elite

Matt Yglesias puts down the bloody shirt long enough to make the modest-on-its-face claim that “actions, not words, will clarify Obama’s foreign policy.”  I don’t think that’s quite right.

obamaIn one sense, of course, it is.  For the bean counters among us, the outcomes are the real metric: whether the United States remains the sole superpower on the planet; whether a diplomatic resolution can be reached with Iran; whether Obama can (assuming he has has any intention to) get our military out of Iraq; whether his spun-like-cotton-candy Afghanistan policy can stabilize that sorry land – these are the things we’ll be looking at.

But the more important thing in the short term for Obama is probably to slake the nearly-unquenchable thirst of the David Brookses of the world – and probably the American people – to have their identities stroked.  To take the most recent example, Brooks, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and the Foreign Policy Elite of whom they are avatars were in desperate need of a cold shower and a trip to the nearest confessional after Obama indulged them by unsheathing the Mighty and Awesome Totem of American nationalism – before a crowd of peacey Norwegians no less.   To take another example, witness the veritable panic, the hysterical and fluttering response to the imaginary Obama “apology tour” that didn’t exist and had no affect on anything in any event.

Indeed the Foreign Policy Elite is so captivated by the rhetoric, imagery, and perhaps most importantly the identity surrounding U.S. foreign policy it hardly has time to think seriously about the material realities.  There are of course examples where analysts simply misrepresent material reality – witness this ridiculous characterization of Obama’s boost in defense spending as an “assault” on the defense budget – but in general the foreign policy commentariat seems more interested in how American power makes them feel than it is on the outcomes it produces.  And witness the frenzy over the Oslo speech, the “apology tour” claptrap, or the whining about Obama’s restraint from calling on the Iranian people to start a revolution.

Charles Krauthammer, in a recent essay, went so far in the anti-materialist direction to claim that “decline is a choice.”  “Decline – or continued ascendancy – is in our hands.”   Of course, it isn’t always a choice, says Krauthammer.  The British had it coming, for example, but the crucial factors in Krauthammer’s telling weren’t imperial overextension and the relative waning of its latent power but rather “the civilizational suicide that was the two world wars, and the consequent physical and psychological exhaustion.”  Thus, nations decline in large part because of sapped will – perhaps this would be the foreign policy equivalent of the “mental recession” we heard about a year ago.  If this is right, keeping a careful eye on will-sapping things is more than a parlor game.

But of course Krauthammer’s charge that Obama is willfully precipitating American decline cannot be substantiated by reference to material factors, so it’s perhaps no coincidence that he takes aim primarily at Obama’s “demolition of the moral foundations of American dominance.”  Krauthammer’s central piece of evidence is telling:

In Strasbourg, President Obama was asked about American exceptionalism. His answer? “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Interesting response. Because if everyone is exceptional, no one is.

Reading this, I was reminded of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s observation that

Ideally those responsible for international affairs ought to be able to understand and moderate the holy nationalism of their own country and to discern, even when disguised, the operations and limits of holy nationalism in rival countries as well as in third-party countries.

Unfortunately this may be too much to hope for.  There are serious cognitive difficulties involved.  Any nationalism inherently finds it hard to understand any other nationalism or even to want to understand it.  This is particularly true of holy nationalism.  Rejection of the other is part of the holiness.

All of this is enough to make you wonder then – if Obama wanted to, could he just keep the opinion columnists – and the American people – happy with a regular genuflection at the altar of American nationalism rather than by providing them with actual wars and actual crusading?  Would he if he could?