David Brooks is an alien

I usually don’t spend too much time trying to figure David Brooks out. My quick and dirty read on Brooks is that he’s reflexively and unthinkingly moderate, or rather just to the right of center. Like social studies teachers of yore, Brooks thinks there’s something particularly magical about compromise, incrementalism, tradition, bipartisanship, and the happy medium. Don’t get me wrong, those things are all great in their own way, but some things just don’t lend themselves to such an analysis. Yet Brooks insists on jamming every little policy or political issue he comes across into that one analytical mold, like a three-year-old doing a jigsaw puzzle. I personally prefer a little more flexibility in my analytical toolbox.

That said, I’m not completely anti-Brooks. The man has written some nice columns, and it’s good to have a voice of reason talking to right-of-center folks. But today’s column really makes me wonder if Brooks isn’t actually human, but an alien trying to understand our political system and failing miserably.

Here’s Brooks’ opening sentences:

Going in, I was as cynical as everybody else about the Blair House health care forum. I was planning to watch for a half-hour and then write about something else.

But the event was more meaningful than that. Most of the credit goes to President Obama. The man really knows how to lead a discussion. He stuck to specifics and tried to rein in people who were flying off into generalities. He picked out the core point in any comment. He tried to keep things going in a coherent direction.

Moreover, he seemed to be trying to get a result.

The result, he goes on to argue, is a possible compromise between Democratic and Republican health care policies.

Because of an odd confluence of events (overabundance of leisure, and a rural residence with little to do beyond trudging in the woods and going for a run – which I had already done that day), I ended up watching 5 of the 7 hours of the health care summit yesterday. Now, I’m no expert on American government or political science, and neither is Brooks. But what I saw at the health care summit was a President putting on a show for a very small number of Democratic legislators, primarily in the House, in order to give them cover and convince them to pass the Senate bill and then patch it via reconciliation in the Senate. That fact that Brooks thinks the summit was actually aimed at forging a bipartisan compromise shows his complete lack of understanding of the American political system. Just look at the five key structural incentives at work in the current health care process:

  • Actual negotiations on something this important and contentious, touching core constituencies in each party, cannot be conducted in public. As Matt Yglesias astutely pointed out a couple weeks ago, imagine if you were to negotiate with your significant other about whose parents house to go to for the holidays this year. Maybe you could reach an accommodation by seriously discussing your real preferences and likes and dislikes on the subject — if you could talk in private. But what if the negotiations were televised on CSPAN and piped right into your in-laws’ homes? Privacy is an essential component when negotiating about a compromise that would inevitably throw a major constituency of each party under the bus.
  • Democrats have little incentive to further compromise the Senate bill (as amended by the President’s proposals for a reconciliation patch). First, it’s already a large, substantive compromise to conservative ideas. Of course, Democrats have won zero Republican support despite these very painful compromises from the liberal ideal. They’re getting tired of unilaterally compromising. Second, and most important, all the political incentives for the party as a whole point towards passing the bill as is, and leadership is working overtime to make sure the individual members understand that.
  • Republicans have zero incentive to compromise. As many observers like Ezra Klein have argued, in the US system of government and particularly in the Senate, “the minority has both the incentive and the power to make the majority fail” and “the minority has learned that they profit in the next election when the majority is judged a failure.” That pretty much sums up the incentives facing any minority party in the modern political climate, and last time I checked, Republicans were in the minority.
  • Health policy works best when comprehensive, and could be disastrous if done piecemeal. For more on this, do some reading on the ‘insurance death spiral’. Cost control, mandates, exchanges, subsidies, insurance reforms … these things all go together as essential pieces. Remove on, and it doesn’t work.

An educated, dispassionate observer of American politics should look at the summit and see it in light of these structural incentives. And we all know that Brooks is smart and dispassionate. But he watched the summit and saw a grand, substantive effort at bipartisan compromise. That makes Brooks either a wild-eyed, hopelessly-naive optimist, or an alien. I’m voting for the latter.


5 Responses to “David Brooks is an alien”

  1. 1 David Meskill February 27, 2010 at 1:25 am

    Hey Joe,

    Great, thoughtful commentary. Here are some brief observations of my own:
    – You may be right about Brooks always aiming to appear moderate. Sometimes I think his praise of Obama, among other things, is intended to suggest his own fair-mindedness. And in this case, as you point out, he may have missed what was really going on. However, I do have to point out that this column (and I don’t pretend to have read every one of his) contains more doubt than many earlier ones about Obama’s intentions. Namely, he suggests that O. is either a post-partisan in a partisan town, or a partisan fist in a post-partisan velvet glove.
    – Compared to the other Times’ writers, isn’t Brooks refreshingly unpredictable (I know this is not by itself necessarily a recommendation, but at least it keeps us interested….)? Krugman, for all his smarts, can really come across as a reflexive ideologue. (I found his column on the meeting not just hyper-partisan, but strangely inconsistent: Lamar Alexander tells a “whopper” that, two sentences later, is downgraded to a “fib” and in fact might not be so off the mark after all.)
    – On some of your substantive points, why is it in Democrats’ interest to pass health care reform as the bills now stand? Is passing some bill, any bill – even if a majority of the country disapproves of it – better than backing off? I agree neither option is pretty for them. But I don’t see the electoral logic of passing very unpopular laws.
    – I’m growing increasingly skeptical of this “incrementalism doesn’t work in this case, it’s all or nothing.” I see the connection between mandates and cost control – that is, it makes sense if one accepts the current system of basically socialized costs (for good reasons not to accept the current system, I recommend David Goldhill’s piece in the September Atlantic Monthly (do you know it?)). But aren’t there other piecemeal elements that would help – such as putting employer-provided and individually purchased policies on the same tax basis, either both taxed or both exempt? This is something the Dems just postponed to 2018, i.e. de facto gutted. Or what about fee-for-service vs. fee-for-outcome? Or malpractice reform? The “incrementalism doesn’t work” argument also reminds me too much of Rahm Emanuel’s famous quip about no crisis should go unused. I found Sean Wilentz’ piece yesterday in the Daily Beast interesting on Obama’s overreach – as a green politician himself and surrounded by acolytes or hacks, Obama has missed the opportunity to forge compromises, instead swinging for the fences, and so far missing.
    – I thought you said advertising blog pieces on FB was “lame” or something to that effect(just joking!)
    – when you refer to social studies teachers, do you mean the junior high kind or the Shepard St. kind?

    • 2 JSC5 February 27, 2010 at 5:01 am

      Hey David, thanks for commenting. And don’t worry, the dig at social studies was directed at your typical civics teacher in secondary school. I don’t know about you, but after graduating I’ve just started telling people I studied PPE. As for pushing blog posts on FB, a friend of mine convinced me to continue. His argument was that FB is used for so much nonsense (farming and mob games) that it might be refreshing to use it to spread some thoughts.

      You’ll also get no disagreement from me about the terrible predictability of NYT columnists. And it’s true that Brooks’ columns are usually at least interesting, and sometimes unexpected — all points in his favor. And I agree that Krugman really does read like a liberal ideologue these days. But the cruder person in me wants to say that at least Krugman seems to have a deep commitment to some substantive ideas (hence his ideology). As far as I can tell, Brooks’ major commitment is to the idea that the correct answer always falls slightly to the right of whatever the political spectrum currently is. It’s not a substantive ideology, but it’s an ideology nonetheless, and he definitely reads as an ideologue in that respect.

      On to the substantive points:

      – Lamar Alexander’s “whopper” is pernicious because it is aimed at frightening people that their premiums will go up under the current plan. It’s dangerous because his (false) statement sounds like another statement that is actually true. For any given plan, CBO scores premiums as falling a lot on the individual market and a little on the employer market. But with the subsidies and lower premium costs, most people could afford better coverage so they trade up. In car terms, it’s like the prices of cars fall across the board, but the price people pay on their car goes up because their income is such that they trade up from a Geo Metro to a Beemer. But that’s not at all what Alexander said. It smacks of either ignorance or demagoguery, and far be it from me to accuse Lamar Alexander of being ignorant. So I’m sympathetic to Krugman on that point.

      – On the logic of passing an unpopular bill: Polls on the overall bill (house, senate, or just ‘obamacare’) are largely negative, but polling on the contents of the bill show that the major components are popular. It looks like a year of misinformation (death panels, raising the deficit, government takeover) has taken its toll, as has a year in which the top story most days has been about the political process: what the policy dispute of the day is, who disagrees, gridlock, etc. People don’t like watching the process, and a contentious process makes the overall bill look worse (otherwise, why would it be contentious?) regardless of the actual policy provisions. The calculation on passing the bill now is that nearly all Democrats have already voted for it, so they might as well vote for it again and: 1. re-energize the base for the midterms, 2. end the perception of complete impotence and incompetence of the party, 3. try to eke out some upside once the process story moves off the front page and analysis shifts to the actual contents of the new law, and 4. let people experience the real benefits of the law and experience the absence of their worst fears. There’s basically nothing but upside after passage. Having already voted for the package once, everyone’s vulnerable to attack for voting for the ‘unpopular’ bill. Literally nothing changes on the downside if you vote for it twice. Those attack ads will be the same either way.

      – postponing implementation of elements of the bill to later years isn’t exactly gutting them. It takes a lot of effort to change the status quo (witness the difficulty of passing any sort of legislation in the past year). Once written into law, things pretty much stay written into law. Republicans have argued that Congress routinely ignores cuts it has promised to make, but that’s not really true. It’s undoubtedly true on the issue of Medicare Sustainable Growth Rate cuts (for more on that, read and follow links from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/can_congress_cut_medicare_cost.html), but Congress actually follows through on the majority of proposed cuts in Medicare and Medicaid otherwise (for more on that, follow links from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/11/can_congress_control_costs.html). I guess my take on that is that the only way to cut the deficit is to pass bills that cut the deficit. That turns out to be hard, so current Congresses push back revenue raisers to future years, but have a decent track record of being followed once passed. At least that’s something. But the Republican solution to this problem seems to be to vote for nothing that will ever raise revenues, but criticize attempts at raising revenues for being unlikely to actually happen.

      – On incrementalism: Sure, there are very small bills we could consider that would do some good things (tort reform, bundling), but that’s really not a fix. It doesn’t end the long-term cost crisis, or increase coverage. I really don’t consider that health care reform. And then what’s the next step? Once you do the small-bore stuff, the next increment in incrementalism is to do everything else (mandate, insurance reforms [pre-existing conditions, recision, etc], subsidies, exchanges) all at once. It seems to me that to be an incrementalist, you have to believe you can accomplish the final goal (coverage and cost control) with successive increments. But you just can’t do that with health care. At some point (either now or later), it’s all or nothing. My other thought on incrementalism is that just as Republicans have zero incentives to cooperate on the current bill, they’ll have zero incentive to cooperate on any stripped down bill.

      – on Obama, overreach, and compromise: To believe that Obama overreached, you’d need to conclude that HCR has failed. It hasn’t yet, and if it passes then everyone’s going to start singing a different tune. Fixing big, important problems is always going to be very difficult, particularly in an inherently-incrementalist and conservative political system. My read is that it’s remarkable that HCR has gotten as far as it has. Secondly, to believe that Obama overreached, you’d need to believe that there is some other compromise that Obama could have forged. In legislative terms, that’s Wyden-Bennet, which is actually more sweeping than the current bills AND also has many prominent Republican co-sponsors. But you don’t see those co-sponsors doing anything to advocate for that bill, or being willing to negotiate on anything in the current package. There are no compromises Obama could have gone for that would have gotten Republicans on board. It’s just not in their interests. So that leaves Democrats negotiating with Democrats, and the results are the two bills we’ve passed in the chambers and are actually pretty close to enacting (whether they actually get enacted or not). Was there anything Obama could have offered to compromise better with his own party? Not apparently. The main differences within the Democratic caucus are about politics, not policy. And finally, I’d argue that to believe that Obama overreached you’d have to believe that he was capable of NOT attempting comprehensive HCR. But there’s simply no way a Democrat wins a Democratic presidential primary and later the White House without making firm commitments to act on HC when in office. It’s more central to Democratic politics than just about any other issue. If it’s overreach at all, it’s not Obama’s overreach. It’s the result of structural factors within the Democratic caucus.

      Anyway, thanks again for reading, and for commenting! I hope you don’t get snowed in too bad tonight …


  2. 3 lckelley March 2, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Nice post, Joe. No substantial comments as I’m a little behind on the debate, but enjoyed reading this.

  1. 1 David Brooks: *still* an alien « Joint Stock Company Trackback on March 9, 2010 at 9:07 pm
  2. 2 Aliens: outsourced « Joint Stock Company Trackback on March 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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