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Simplicity is great for depicting basic problems. That Used To Be Us, one of a spate of America-in-decline tomes to come out in 2011, correctly identifies many of the country’s most glaring ills: the lousy economy, runaway deficits, widespread political irresponsibility, gratuitous regulatory burdens, a labyrinthine immigration system, grossly underfunded retirement and medical promises, a public education system treading water, and so on. Matt Miller’s imaginary presidential candidate is right to point out that “neither of our two major parties has a strategy for solving our biggest problems,” especially the baby boomer entitlement time bomb. David Brooks’ pop sociology is especially effective at breaking down complex political trends into binary choices.
But clarity going down is not the same as coherence getting back up. Many intractable problems get that way because they’re hard to solve, because there are powerful interests with a vested stake against reform, or because the policies in question are cemented in place by the perennial political impulse to do something. That Used To Be Us starts off with a contrast between a gleaming new convention center in Tianjin, China, that was built in 32 weeks and a lousy D.C. Metro subway stop in Bethesda, Maryland, where “the two short escalators had been under repair for nearly six months.” Modern China—which has taken the role that Japan played for American declinists two decades ago—is all about bullet trains; modern America is all about potholes. That may sound like an invitation to critique transit spending efficacy and public-sector work rules in the United States, but it’s not; the authors insist that the difference in results is chiefly a question of will.
“The American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation’s talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces,” Friedman and Mandelbaum write. But “America’s future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again.…What the country needs most is collective action on a large scale.”
We never do hear precisely how it was that the annual expenditure for D.C.’s infrastructure—let alone the nation’s—proved insufficient for meeting demand or preventing disrepair. In fact, we don’t hear anything about that annual expenditure at all. Nor do we hear much about how President Obama has already been throwing scores of billions of dollars at infrastructure, particularly of the transportation variety, since his inauguration. Instead of anything approaching specifics, Friedman and Mandelbaum simply declare that “to assure the nation’s economic future we will have to spend, more, not less, on some things: certainly infrastructure and research and development, and probably education as well.” Probably!
When details don’t matter, it’s easy to be dazzled by the politicians you’re trying to influence. Friedman and Brooks always have a nice word to say about the school-reform cred of both Education Secretary Arne Duncan (liberally quoted throughout That Used To Be Us) and his boss when it comes to making those tough post-ideological choices to improve our schools. “Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers’ unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party,” Brooks wrote in March 2010. “In a remarkable speech on March 1, he went straight at the guardians of the status quo by calling for the removal of failing teachers in failing schools.”
It’s always nice when presidents give good speeches, which may be one reason why the do-something school is always volunteering to write them. But at the time Brooks was publishing those words the president already had a relevant track record of governance, one that included dumping an unprecedented $100 billion into the education status quo via the stimulus package alone, thus ensuring the exact opposite of the line Brooks swallowed: keeping failed teachers in failing schools. Obama had signed into law the euthanasia of Washington, D.C.’s school voucher program, violating a centrist-pleasing campaign pledge to make decisions based on science (the science in this case showed that the program was working). The president’s ballyhooed Race to the Top initiative, which incentivizes states to embrace charter schools and more closely link teacher evaluation to student performance, amounted to less than 5 percent of the education stimulus money.
Education is the most important of the “five pillars of prosperity” that constitute what Friedman and Mandelbaum call “the American formula” (which in turn is beset with “four major challenges,” which stem from failing to ask “the two questions that are crucial for determining public policy,” which doubtlessly trigger arbitrary number sets of their own). Education is the reason they most frequently cite for the recent economic growth of China, Singapore, and South Korea, which would certainly be news to the high school dropouts powering the entrepreneurial revolution in places like Wenzhou (See “China’s Black Market City,” page 24). Why, education is so important that the co-authors volunteered to write an imaginary letter from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama saying: “Today…more than ever before, our national security depends on the quality of our education system. That is why I don’t want to be secretary of state, Mr. President. Instead, I want to be at the heart of national security policy. I want to be secretary of education.”
With all that emphasis on education, particularly from two authors who made their careers talking about foreign policy (Mandelbaum is a Johns Hopkins University Sovietologist), you’d think there’d be some concrete, hardheaded proposals for overhauling a K–12 education system in which real spending per pupil has increased threefold in four decades. Instead, we get do something. “We do not know the exact mix of policies that is needed for ‘more’ education, a subject on which there are many views,” they write. “We leave to the education experts the definition of what is sufficient in all these areas to produce more education for all. We do, though, think we know what is necessary to produce what the country needs. We believe that six things are necessary.…” Thereafter tumbles a list that includes such content-free gems as “students who come to school prepared to learn, not to text.”
From Banality to Authoritarianism
Do-something punditry means almost never considering the possible benefits of getting the government out of the way of a given issue, since that would be “ideological” and require walking away from the world’s largest problem-solving tool. Pragmatism also means never having to say you’re sorry about the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, the capture by industrialists of the regulators who were supposed to constrain them, or even the basic failure of government action to produce the promised results. By the time such flaws make front-page news, there is always a new crisis requiring urgent intervention. And if all else fails, you can blame it on the competence of the government that followed your advice.
Pragmatic problem solvers (including the vast majority of the nation’s newspaper editorial boards) were foursquare behind the invasion of Iraq. And if detail-free simplicity is inadequate to the current task of economic recovery, it was downright frightening in the service of banging the drums for a major war.
Friedman was among the most influential “liberal hawks” who gave non-Republican respectability to the idea that toppling Saddam Hussein was crucial to defeat Islamic terrorism in the wake of 9/11. On what would become a notorious Charlie Rose Show appearance in May 2003, he argued for the use of deadly force as a demonstration project to Islamists everywhere: “What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think…we care about our open society?…Well, Suck. On. This.’ That, Charlie, was what this war was all about.”
This kind of playground chest thumping was par for the course. David Frum, lately seen putting his shoulder on the wheel of a third-way political organization called No Labels, was at the time the war began attempting to purge the last intervention skeptics from the Republican Party. “They began by hating the neoconservatives,” Frum wrote in a National Review cover story titled “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in April 2003. “They came to hate their party and the president. They have finished by hating their country. War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen —and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
David Brooks at the time was withering in his contempt for those who lacked his interventionist conviction, writing in The Weekly Standard in March 2003 that “any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion—that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed—but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis. But those who actually have to lead and protect, and actually have to build one step on another, have to bring some questions to a close.”
In 2011 such do-something authoritarianism reappears in the national conversation whenever the subject moves to China. Friedman, for example, has expressed preference for China’s political system over America’s for years now. “There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today,” he wrote in September 2009. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.…Our one-party democracy is worse. The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing.”