Economics

The Simpletons

David Brooks, Thomas L. Friedman, and the banal authoritarianism of do-something punditry

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That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, Current Affairs, 380 pages, $28

Consider for a moment the paradoxical pain of being a best-selling political pundit so successful that American presidents don't just seek but heed your advice. You have lobbied in your columns for the commander in chief to deploy your signature catch phrases, and he has. You have, in times of both crisis and sloth, advocated robust federal action in the name of national "greatness," and the people in power have mostly followed suit. You have been flattered by invitations to the White House and pecked at by lesser partisans, yet you've maintained your critical distance in the patriotic spirit of post-ideological problem solving. All this influence and success, and somehow the country still sucks.

"Are we going to roll up our sleeves or limp on?" an exasperated Thomas L. Friedman asked the nation in a September 20 New York Times column. Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, influential Iraq war supporter, champion of "green jobs" industrial policy, and backer of President Barack Obama's public education initiatives, is threatening to secede from a status quo he helped create. 

"Given those stark choices," he wrote, "one would hope that our politicians would rise to the challenge by putting forth fair and credible recovery proposals that match the scale of our debt problem and contain the three elements that any serious plan must have: spending cuts, increases in revenues and investments in the sources of our strength. But that, alas, is not what we're getting, which is why there remains an opening for an independent Third Party candidate in the 2012 campaign."

These are glum times not just for the 23 million working-age Americans without steady jobs but for hyper-employed commentators who have built comparative fortunes whispering into and occasionally bending the world's most powerful ears. "I'm a sap," a morose-sounding New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed the day before Friedman's outburst. "I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around." But now that the president had unveiled a dead-on-arrival, soak-the-rich jobs package in a televised address designed more to please his progressive base than to actually solve problems, even David Brooks—who in March 2010 deemed Obama "the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington"—was forced to admit the unbearable: "This wasn't a speech to get something done." But noble dreams die hard. "I still believe," Brooks insisted, "that the president's soul would like to do something about the country's structural problems."

Do something. Is there a two-word phrase in politics more loaded with disguised ideological content? Embedded within is both an urgent call for powerful government action and an up-front declaration that the policy details don't matter. The bigger the crisis, the more the urgency, the sparser the detail. On September 30, 2008, in a classic of the do-something genre, Brooks argued that the Troubled Asset Relief Program should be rammed through Congress over public objections because the federal government needed "to give people a sense that somebody was in charge, that something was going to be done." Did that "something" involve buying up toxic assets? Introducing or relaxing certain banking regulations? Taking over or winding down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Not important. "What we need in this situation," Brooks declared, "is authority."

American discourse is saddled with a large and influential do-something school of political punditry, a cadre of pragmatists from Meet the Press to your local editorial board who are forever seeking to solve the country's problems by transcending ideology, demanding collective citizen sacrifice, and—always—empowering authority. In their new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman and Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum lament that people "in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past," due to a "corrosive cynicism" preventing "the collective action that is required." America, David Brooks wrote in March 2010, "is suffering a devastating crisis of authority," resulting in a "corrosive cynicism about public action." The similarities are not accidental.

Brooks and Friedman may be the most prominent practitioners, but the do-something school is evident just about anywhere the political class is talking shop. Here is former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum at CNN.com on September 26, lamenting that the "old rules" of bipartisan cooperation "have broken down," unlike those bygone days when "the imperatives of the Cold War inspired a spirit of deference to the president." There is centrist Matt Miller at Washingtonpost.com the day before, writing an imaginary speech (a favored tactic of the do-something set) for an imaginary independent presidential candidate (ditto) who rejects "the Democrats' timid half-measures and the Republicans' mindless anti-government creed" in favor of "a bold agenda equal to the scale of our challenges." That agenda is virtually indistinguishable from the Brooks/Friedman playbook: higher energy taxes, more money for infrastructure and schools, and national service for the young, all while somehow cutting government spending over the long term.

There are some obvious rejoinders to this fictitious excrescence of the "radical center" (Friedman's preferred term). As The Washington Post's Greg Sargent pointed out in response to Miller, "many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground that allegedly can only be staked out by a third party. That party is known as the 'Democratic Party.'?" By dreaming up a third way to deliver ideas and rhetoric already associated with Barack Obama, the centrists are making the implicit admission that the president is ineffectual in the face of GOP intransigence.

But there is an even less charitable explanation. Because do-something punditry inevitably appeals to whoever holds power—what president doesn't want to rise above partisanship to get things done, particularly if the solution amounts to a blank check to government?—pragmatic centrism has been implemented to a much greater extent than any of the "rigid" ideologies it abhors, whether they be trade unionism, social conservatism, or across-the-board libertarianism. Put another way, we live in a David Brooks/Thomas L. Friedman world, but now that the results have come in they are trying to wash their hands of the whole experiment.

The Limits of Simplicity

Simply making fun of Thomas L. Friedman's writing style is not enough to expose the pervasive temptation of pragmatic punditry. But it is important. "The difference between Friedman and an ordinary bad writer," journalist Matt Taibbi wrote in a justly celebrated 2005 New York Press slam of Friedman's bestseller The World Is Flat, "is that an ordinary bad writer will, say, call some businessman a shark and have him say some tired, uninspired piece of dialogue: Friedman will have him spout it. And that's guaranteed, every single time. He never misses." In a Wall Street Journal review of That Used to Be Us, Andrew Ferguson describes "being pelted with clumps of words that Thomas L. Friedman, alone among native English speakers, could have devised."

What do such clumps look like? Try to make sense of this paragraph from a December 2010 column: "More than ever, America today reminds me of a working couple where the husband has just lost his job, they have two kids in junior high school, a mortgage and they're maxed out on their credit cards. On top of it all, they recently agreed to take in their troubled cousin, Kabul, who just can't get his act together and keeps bouncing from relative to relative. Meanwhile, their Indian nanny, who traded room and board for baby-sitting, just got accepted to M.I.T. on a full scholarship and will be leaving them in a few months. What to do?" What indeed?

But Friedman didn't earn his success by tapping into a mass market for mixed metaphors. Like David Brooks and the best from the do-something school, Friedman is an extremely gifted simplifier, boiling down complex phenomena into one-liners that you can't quite get out of your head. Surely you've heard that "no two countries that both have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against each other," a clever 1996 insight that isn't exactly true but close enough for government work. Friedman's 1989 book of Middle East reporting, From Beirut to Jerusalem, remains the classic text for making shorthand sense out of geopolitics' most hopelessly complicated problem. When Andrew Ferguson writes that "Friedman can turn a phrase into cliché faster than any Madison Avenue jingle writer," it's not just an insult.

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."

This was no one-off. On Meet the Press in May 2010, moments after complaining how the Internet can enable "a digital lynch mob" of people who disagree with you, Friedman fantasized about playing dictator: "What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions." That Used To Be Us, perhaps due to Mandelbaum's more sober presence, takes pains to insist that "our problem is not China, and our solution is not China," but the book's very title comes from (fittingly enough) a Barack Obama quote fretting about China's superior rail systems and supercomputers.

Not only does China offer a tempting (if illusory) vision of enlightened scientists routing around that messy democracy stuff; it also provides what Al Qaeda can no longer quite muster: a palpably dangerous competitor with which to scare complacent Americans into collective action. That's not an exaggeration. "When the West won the Cold War, America lost the rival that had kept us sharp, outwardly focused, and serious about nation-building at home," Friedman and Mandelbaum lament. "As the Cold War ended," David Frum writes at CNN.com, "the party struggle intensified." No wonder Matt Miller's imaginary presidential candidate is on the case: "We can no longer allow China's brazen currency manipulation—nor its routine theft of American intellectual property—to tilt the playing field unfairly against American jobs."

Although younger than the authors under discussion, I am old enough to remember domestic politics during the Cold War, and I'm here to tell you that there was no political consensus. Americans were deeply, bitterly divided, particularly over how and even whether to prosecute the Cold War. Richard Nixon was made vice president due to his Cold War hawkery; John F. Kennedy then tried to out–Cold War him in 1960. There were hugely divisive and deadly wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Cold War affected nearly every presidential election from 1952 to 1988. Nostalgia for pre-1989 political comity is nostalgia for a country that never existed. And we saw under George W. Bush the many pitfalls of whipping up political consensus by demonizing a common enemy. 

Perhaps strangest of all, Barack Obama is already on board this particular anti-China bandwagon and has been since long before taking the oath of office. He has even taken to using Friedman's signature (and characteristically incoherent) line of "nation-building at home" in his stump speeches, although it did take Friedman 35 references across 15 columns to persuade White House speechwriters. What does a guy have to do to win the affection of pundits whose advice he has taken?

My Way, or the Third Way

This fall Thomas L. Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum, and Matt Miller were all talking about Teddy Roosevelt's third-party "Bull Moose" run for president in 1912. (In fact, they were all paraphrasing the same Richard Hofstadter quote about how the role of third parties is to sting like a bee, then die.) This must have sounded like old hat to David Brooks, who during the 2000 presidential primary season was holding up T.R. and his relentless, independent-minded government activism as the model for John McCain (a suggestion that McCain, one of the most prominent do-something politicians in America, readily embraced). After losing to the more "humble" George W. Bush, Brooks and McCain were both licking their wounds in 2001, openly pondering Bull Moose–style defections from the GOP, when the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon, giving America an urgent new task.

Five months later in The Weekly Standard, Brooks envisioned a "huge opportunity" to "create a governing Republican majority" under Bush, echoing "precisely the aggressive foreign policy and patriotic national service themes that John McCain struck in the 2000 primary season," including "rogue-state rollback," "nation-building," and "a summons to national service." President Bush, Brooks gushed, had finally "broken the libertarian grip on the GOP." On the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention, Brooks performed an end-zone dance celebrating "the death of small-government conservatism," arguing that Republicans now "must embrace" a Teddy Roosevelt–style "progressive conservatism" if they want "to become the majority party for the next few decades." With two major Brooks-supported wars under its belt, along with a new prescription drug benefit, an important new federal education initiative, and an overall increase in government spending of more than 60 percent, you'd think that the co-author of "National Greatness Conservatism" would have expressed satisfaction with his handiwork.

Think again. "There are two major parties on the ballot," Brooks wrote in August 2006, "but there are three major parties in America. There is the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the McCain-Lieberman Party." Like Friedman's "radical centrists," Frum's "No Labels" movement, Miller's presidential independent, and other 2011 works of political fiction, Brooks' McCain-Lieberman Party advocated both raising taxes and cutting benefits, maintaining America's energetic foreign policy leadership in the world (especially in the Middle East), "invest[ing] in human capital so people can compete," and above all returning to a kind of political "civility" and seriousness worthy of a great country. It's the dream that will not die. 

 "Write it down: Americans Elect," Friedman enthused in July, talking about another premature third-party movement. "What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life—remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in. Watch out." 

Back in reality, the only plausible independent presidential scenario in the 2012 race looks roughly like this: The Republicans nominate someone their own base distrusts and dislikes (call him "Mitt Romney"). The Tea Party and grassroots right grumbles about not having a choice. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) finishes a respectable third or even second place during the primary season, but along the way the GOP establishment trashes him and the sprawling, independent-bent political movement that has sprung up around him. Having no re-election to run for anymore, Paul decides to go rogue and run as an independent.

If the establishment centrists were at all serious about third party or independent runs, they would greet such a development with enthusiasm. But Paul is an ideologue, you see. He wants to apply his rigid libertarian philosophy to significantly scale back the federal government, instead of using flexible post-ideological pragmatism to give government more power. 

On September 26, David Brooks pinned the blame for what he is now calling America's "Lost Decade" on "the ideologues who dominate the political conversation" in the United States. "Orthodoxies," he warned in his column, "take a constricted, mechanistic view of the situation. If we're stuck with these two mentalities, we will be forever presented with proposals that are incommensurate with the problem at hand." 

Fortunately for Brooks—and unfortunately for us—there is a distinct third way. Though vague on details, it involves increased taxes (especially on energy), short-term spending boosts, long-term entitlement cuts, and roughly the same foreign policy commitments as today. It calls for renewed citizen engagement, a return to political civility, and a rejection of coarse cynicism. Better teachers, trained workers, and cleaner air. Although advocated by pundits from all over the traditional political spectrum, the program is remarkably uniform when it comes to giving the government more power. Just don't call it ideological.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author (along with Nick Gillespie) of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (Public Affairs).

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121 responses to “The Simpletons

  1. The “do-something” crowd is more upset that Obama’s union-guided, regulation-heavy, revenue-craving policies are making big government look bad than they are about the devastating effect those policies are having on the economy. If only they could run Hillary in 2012…

    1. That is what they want. I don’t think all of the Hillary kills every Republican polls out there are an accident. It is going to be interesting to see if Obama steps aside. Part of me thinks his ego is too big to even consider it. But I also think maybe his ego is so big that he will think the country is ungovernable and unworthy of him and take his marbles and go home. Not sure which it will be.

      1. ALL presidents have big egos john.

        1. True. This one seems to have a bigger one. But regardless, I could see him going either way when the wise men come to ask for his head.

          1. Not only a bigger one, but far less reason to hold it than others. Bush the lesser was a man of accomplishments compared to Barry.

            1. I get the sense George W in his private life is a pretty normal person completely at ease with living the quiet life on his farm throwing out the first pitch at the odd Rangers game. I can’t see Obama or Queen Michelle being happy like that. He is going to have a long miserable ex-Presidency.

              1. He’ll always have the Peace Prize to keep him warm.

              2. He will have 30-40 years of stern moralizing in favor of every big government scheme to come down the pike.

              3. Obama might be reasonably content once he settles down with Vera Baker. I knwo I would.

                1. Vera Baker? Are you saying he is straight?

              4. A very long miserable ex-Presidency. Especially since he’ll hear how everyone thought he stunk.

        2. But, but, but BOOOOOOOOOOSSSSHHHH!!!!!!!!

      2. Part of me thinks his ego is too big to even consider it.

        I tend to agree with this, but goddam he looks miserable in the job.

        Really, though, we’re focussing on the wrong Obama’s ego. Its Queen Michelle who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the palace. And that’s why he won’t step down.

        1. but goddam he looks miserable in the job.
          —————————-
          of course, he does. Obama just wanted to BE president, not to actually have to do the work that came with it. Look at him now – full campaigner in chief mode where he can piss and moan how that dastardly Boehner is thwarting every morally righteous idea Obama puts forth.

        2. Remember at the end of the first “Alien” movie, when Sigourney Weaver comes face to face with the menacing, hissing, stainless-steel fangs-baring alien?

          That’s what Moochelle will look like to America on Election Night 2012.

          Count on it. Seething hate and bared metal incisors.

      3. You think Obama is going to step aside and allow Hillary to rescue Obamacare and the rest of his crippled and crippling agenda? No way will he accept such humiliation and nor should he. His own self respect will compel him to fight for a second term on whatever merits he can persuade the American people of. If he loses, he will at least have been defeated honourably. Making way for Hillary would be an admission that he was elected on a fraudulent prospectus when he won the 2008 nomination over her.

  2. Won’t have time to read the article until after work, but the title itself makes me happy.

  3. That one picture captures how low the US has sunk and how much trouble it is in. To think that these are people who the US public listens to is depressing.

    1. these are people who the US public listens to

      Aren’t these two writing for “dead-tree media” that nobody reads and appearing on “old media” that nobody watches?

  4. …”David Frum at CNN.com on September 26, lamenting that the “old rules” of bipartisan cooperation “have broken down,” unlike those bygone days when “the imperatives of the Cold War inspired a spirit of deference to the president.”
    _

    the passing of the greatest gen has weakened this country. BOTH D’s & R’s nurtured a shared vision based on common sacrifice…which is anathema to libtoidz gamboling in a randian world

    1. David Frum, believing his own bullshit, conveniently forgets how the left consistently referred to Reagan as an amiable dunce, a cowboy, a warmonger, and a host of other names for NOT taking their recommendations for making nice with the Soviets. When he walked on Gorby, you could hear heads exploding. Now, though, it’s all packaged as being deferential. Right.

  5. I think what really killed us was World War II. The Boomers grew up in the shadow of World War II. World War II was a great government endeavor. And yeah it was great that we won and all. But we are not a great country because we won the war. We won the war because we are a great country. What makes us a great country is our economy and productive and creative capability. And none of that has anything to do with government. In the war, government harnessed America’s greatness and used it to kill fascism. But it didn’t create America’s greatness. America created that.

    Friedman and Brooks and such don’t get that.

    1. I remember reading an analysis of the airwar in Europe during WWII. It didn’t matter if the Germans had superior equipment and training, the US could make airplanes 10 times faster than the Germans could shoot them down.

      Same story with boats; with tanks; etc.

      1. Yep. Plus by the end of the war, it wasn’t just swarming them with numbers either.

        In 1941 the Brewster Buffalo got slaughtered by the Zeros. In 1944 the US Navy had the Grumman Hellcat, and the Japanese had….the Zero.

        1. The Buffalo was legacy hardware by 1941 anyway. P40 Tomahawks and F4F Wildcats were already the standard, although also not quite a match for the Zero. The British Spitfire was possibly the best Allied fighter plane until the Mustang came along.

      2. Yep, most historians accept this. One of the better treatments is O’Neill, “A Democracy at War.”

        1. Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture is fascinating look at why Western values make the societies that adhere to them the deadliest enemies you can have.

          1. Thank You.

    2. Brilliant!

  6. “The Simpletons” is giving these idiots too much credit. Everything they say is almost instantly discredited, and then that’s immediately ignored and they go on to the next idiocy.

    1. They know their audience. You don’t get a cushy job at a big newspaper by telling people the harsh reality. You get one by telling people what they want to hear. And what they want to hear is how all of our problems are solvable and there are no choices involving the lesser of two evils if we just all pull together and pitch in and do our part to the collective effort.

      If you think about it, that is really what every Brooks for Friedman column says.

      1. Nah, you get a cushy job by being good at the shittier jobs. Friedman did good reporting in the 1980s and 1990s. Now he can just do whatever he wants – mostly sniffing his own farts – and he does.

    2. Give their theories more time!

      1. +100

        My undying allegiance to the Urkobold TM

  7. Simply making fun of Thomas L. Friedman’s writing style is not enough to expose the pervasive temptation of pragmatic punditry. But it is important.

    Thanks for the belly laugh.

  8. “Simply making fun of Thomas L. Friedman’s writing style is not enough to expose the pervasive temptation of pragmatic punditry.”

    Surely it ought to be the pervasive pull of pragmatic punditry?

    1. Such alliteration is too fancy for libertarianism.

      1. That sounds like the utterings of a nattering viceroy of defeatism.

        1. That’s what “nabob” means?

          1. I think literally, or something like that, but not in the sense Safire used it, or that it is typically used. I couldn’t think of a good synonym for nabob, damnit!

            1. Close: I think viceroys were the British officials, nabobs were the native Indian leaders backing the British.

              1. Nabobs were India company men, soldiers of fortune, low ranking government administrators or otherwise oddball adventurers who made a fortune doing Assorted Things (trading, mercenary-ing) in India and expected it to improve their social status at home more than they could ever rise without that wealth. It was/is a pejorative term.
                Viceroy is a government office that had formal legal recognition. They were the highest British official and the representative of the King/Queen in India.

  9. “Simply making fun of Thomas L. Friedman’s writing style is not enough to expose the pervasive temptation of pragmatic punditry.”

    Surely it ought to be the pervasive pull of pragmatic punditry?

  10. Sunday mornings…when the only sound that can be heard is that of yahoos blowing smoke up their own asses. yahoo…a person in love with the sound of their own voice regardless of content, logic, common sense or anything of any value

  11. Threadjack: Climategate 2

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/201…..more-51549

  12. All this influence and success, and somehow the country still sucks.

    Sometimes, correlation really does indicate causation.

  13. collective

    Eek! Kill it, daddy!

    1. [::scooping it up, cradling it protectively to his chest::]

      HANDS OFF OF MY CHILD!!!

  14. But, of course, Matt Welch’s punditry is *different* and *special* and free from facile ideology, unlike that corporatist tool Friedman.

    1. the difference is that the elected class keeps trying what the Friedmans suggest – largely because it confirms what they want to do anyway – and IT KEEPS FAILING. No one has actually tried Welch’s approach, though it stands to reason that proposing the opposite of known failure might yield a better result.

      But, congratulations anyway on weaving ‘facile’ and ‘corporatist’ into a single sentence. The faculty lounge will be happy.

    2. CCFK – I’m with you. I love war and meddling in other countries’ business, and meddling in people’s private lives, sending people to jail for getting high, and I’m really against all these for’iners takin our jobs. We need to spend lots of money on “national greatness” just like China and democracy just gets in the way.

      The difference is as Wareagle points out that no one really implements classicly liberal (i.e. libertarian) policies. They just pretend to, or others pretend to see that they have been tried and failed. Lack of details and not looking at all sides of an issue are typical by both major parties and of all these idiot pundits.

    3. I don’t recall Welch making any claim that his writing or views are free of ideology.

      BURN STRAWMAN, BURN!

  15. It would be nice if any of the “do-something” brigade would actually once ask the question where the huge debt problems came from.

    1. It came from the time when the libertarian super illuminati had the Republicans in their thrall. They forced the poor government committees and departments to disband, and shoved lower taxes down an unwilling public’s throat! Also, deregulation.

      1. I remember when we got rid of six or seven major federal departments and agencies too.

        And we got rid of the fed and cut defense spending by 2/3. Libertarians have so much power in this country. Kochtopus!!

        1. And thank a libertarian for making your Thanksgiving airline travel a pleasant, efficient, non-invasive experience.

      2. What??

        Name the years when the FY Fed budget revenue went down and there was a deficit. Also, name the years when the FY Fed budget revenue went UP and the Feds had a deficit. I think the latter out number the former by 25 to 1.

    2. where the huge debt problems came from.

      Taxes are too low. Duh.

  16. ask the question where the huge debt problems came from.

    It’s because you’re not paying your fair share, you skinflint.

  17. why is someone who is so consistently wrong held in any esteem by anyone?

    1. Because he tells them what they want to hear.

      1. or reaffirms what they’re already thinking. Someone earlier wondered how the ‘deadwood’ and ‘old’ media had any sway. It’s because its members and much of DC share the echo chamber; it’s the rest of us who turn to alternative sources of information.

    2. That lack of details helps.

      1. Heh–the “lack of details” is critical, my friend.

  18. All America really needs is some good old fashion can do spit shine liberalism to solve her problems!

  19. Matt, let me take you one step further:

    The “Do Something” crowd only considers something Done if they can visualize the orchestrator in a top-down manner. The fact that most problems find emergent solutions from the bottom-up is too messy for them to comprehend, and it rarely leads to the solution for which a pundit can take credit.

    The sin at play is Malignant Narcissism.

  20. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) finishes a respectable third or even second place during the primary season, but along the way the GOP establishment trashes him and the sprawling, independent-bent political movement that has sprung up around him.

    Who is this ‘Ron Paul’ and why have I never heard about him on the news?

    1. He is just some nut from Texas. Pay no attention.

    2. Who is this ‘Ron Paul’ and why have I never heard about him on the news?

      The MSM keep him hidden away in the same box they use for us.

    3. Just this morning, my friend was complaining about what crummy choices the GOP candidates were. I told him he should vote for Ron Paul. My friend dismissed him as, “too much of an extremist.” I guess wanting to leave people alone (and to be left alone) is extremist?

      1. just for fun, ask your friend what specifically makes him paint Paul as an extremist. After he stops sputtering in uhs, ums, ahs, and other non-words, I wonder if he will be able to form a coherent thought.

        1. Yeah, it would’ve been fun to put the screws to him. We saw Bob Mould in concert last night, and we were both pretty hung over. Just a conversation that could have gone real bad, real quickly.

  21. “We have been bleeding the patient for days, but he still hasn’t recovered. Tomorrow, we’ll try leeches.”

  22. In my dream world, pundits would be paid based on a portfolio constructed based on their recommendations and claims about the world.

  23. Speaking of useless punditry, the driver of the shuttle I take into work has the Democracy Now radio show playing during the drive. It’s only a 10 minute ride, but my ears are bleeding from all the hyperbole and appeals to emotion by the time we get to my office.

    Maybe the driver who listens to WASH-FM is on vacation. I’d rather hear 20 hours of adult contemporary than 1 minute of Democracy Now radio.

    1. Why do you hate democracy Kristen?

    2. Why don’t you complain to the owner of the shuttle service instead of whining in a chat room?

      1. Nobody likes you. Eat shit until you vomit your fool soul.

      2. Complain to the Pentagon? Alrighty then. We’ll see how that goes.

        (also, I think driving a shuttle back & forth in DC traffic all day is a thankless task, and the poor bastard should listen to whatever the fuck he wants no matter how much it makesmy ears bleed).

        1. But 8 hours a day of Democracy Now would rot your brain.

  24. i’ve read some of his stuff before… i hated it. but i read it. pure shit. dude’s got a face only a mother could love

  25. Not one to condone technocracy, but what makes the likes of Friedman and every other pundit some sort of expert on policy? They have a journo degree. That MIGHT make them an expert on writing, but not much for anything else.

    1. “That MIGHT make them an expert on writing”

      Anyone’s who’s read a Friedman column can dispute this suggestion.

  26. I think the “do something” attitude is supported by the system we live under. Most politicians run under a platform of change. They promise that they are going to change or fix some problem. Obama’s “Hope and Change” was just a more blatant attempt to pander to what voters want. Once politicians get into office they become worse because they have to prove to their constituents that they did something. When was the last time a politician ran for reelection on the platform that “for the last 4 years I did not fuck anything up” or “that I did nothing”. Politicians feel a constant urge to justify their jobs by doing something to “help” Americans, especially the ones that vote for them.

    This is why there are (supposed to be) rules on what an elected official can do. The Founding Fathers knew what human nature would push politician to do and wrote the Constitution to put restrictions on them. Unfortunately, politicians are clever little rodents and have found ways around the limits built into the Constitution.

    1. ^^ BAM. Nailed it right there.

  27. But Paul is an ideologue, you see. He wants to apply his rigid libertarian philosophy to significantly scale back the federal government, instead of using flexible post-ideological pragmatism to give government more power.

    This captures it for me. Why are people like Friedman and Brooks so eager to say that they *don’t* have principles.

    1. “Why are people like Friedman and Brooks so eager to say that they *don’t* have principles.”

      Because for 100 years now Dewey’s philosophy has dominated the educational system that produced those type of people.

      To be “pragmatic,” on this view, is to be wiser (and more moral) because it is to eschew (according to the philosophy) “dogmatism” and to adopt a “scientific” attitude of “trial and error.”

      (Yes, a classic false alternative if ever there was one.)

      Pragmatism is the fundamental cause of nearly all major social (and therefore, economic) problems today because it corrupts not just specific positions but the very method by which people arrive at them. It is the epistemology that created Progressivism.

  28. If the establishment centrists were at all serious about third party or independent runs, they would greet [a Ron Paul third party run] with enthusiasm.

    Oh, they would greet it with enthusiasm. These “establishment centrists” are, as Welch notes, are generally Democrats. Those who aren’t – like Brooks – are Republican Obamatards. They’d love a Ron Paul run because it would guarantee Obama’s reelection.

  29. “What we need in this situation,” Brooks declared, “is authority.”

    The liberal mind-set, in perfect miniature.

    1. Why do I picture David Brooks sounding strangely like Eric Cartman with that line.

  30. Is it just my browser, or is this article absolutely loaded with Spam? All these hyperlinks for “Vibrant” ads…

  31. There is a third party choice, same one as there ever was.
    Big”R” little”evolution.”
    The story mom used to tell about the “R” word in the 1960s was that “Americans will never overthrow the government until they get hit in the pocketbook.”
    Of course that is a “do something” solution …

  32. Regarding the “corrosive cynicism” that is undermining authority, I would like to quote Joan Didion: “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”

    My feelings, exactly.

  33. I remember a column from a Daily Reckoning years ago which said something along the lines, “Most politicians would rather admit to porking a horse than have to admit to doing nothing.” Even if doing nothing would be vastly preferable to doing something bad and/or destructive. I think that illustrates the “Do Something” mentality quite vividly.

  34. Just to rain on the parade, today of all days, but… we have had a full thirty years of the so-called “Washington consensus”. Deregulation, privatization, trust in business over government have enjoyed intellectual ascendancy since the 1970s, for most of my lifetime, and have enjoyed mostly uncritical political acceptance since 1980. Restrain and cut government while liberating business: the right has adopted this as a mantra, while the mainstream left has temporized, trying to cut fewer of the government programs that actually work. And after over 25 years of this, the public discovered that a fair proportion of the people who urged us to trust them had actually created such a crisis we could not avoid bailing them out, at the cost of a trillion dollars.

    To write as though government action alone produced the current problems simply does not accord with the history of the past three decades. Obviously, governments have behaved unwisely, but much of that unwise behaviour has taken the form of ill-advised delegation of government powers to private interests without any oversight or clear responsibility.

    1. Where are the cuts in government, economic or regulatory? The financial sector is a government-private partnership, only allowed by government charter with significant, very detailed, regulation. When they “deregulated” they empowered the financial sector to increase its resources in order to achieve government targeted outcomes, i.e increased financial leverage to build home ownership among the lower income as a form of redistribution. When I first got into banking, in the early 80s, they were “community franchises” that allowed these “community leaders/owners” to significantly improve their economic position, directly through loans or indirectly by giving loans. Sound familiar?

      But these banks use private sector resources, deposits, loan and equity, to give the financial sector those resources, encouraged of course by government guarantees. Go back and read the Founders, or work in the industry as I have for 30 years to understand. Your position is very naive at best, and just plain ignorant at worse.

    2. Right and government intervention under the guise of “affordable housing” into the housing market through Fannie and Freddie had nothing to do with the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the fincial sector. You can call that deregulation, fine…let’s just simplify this for you…government intervention into the market places often has unintended consequences, consequences that often turn out bad because they distort the market place and cause people to make decisions based on arbitrary government behaviors rather than predictable market forces. In this cause, the underwriting of mortgages to people who should not have gotten them by the implicite backing of the Government…can you say bank bailouts?

  35. This really is great content. You have loaded this with helpful, informative content that any reader can realize. I enjoy reading articles that are so quite well-written.

  36. Outstanding–someone with critical thought capabilities. While I do not think anyone listens to Brooks other than his colleagues, it is nice to see someone “out” him as a windbag.

  37. This liberal viewpoint is similar to the religious predestination, where all we have to do is to believe more, as confirmed by our alms. In fact, its the risk of differing outcomes that will focus thought and energy.

  38. While there are people stupid enough to embrace this ‘do-somethingism’ many off us have rallied (that’s a big part of what the Tea Party is about) to the cause of limited government. Why? Because we’re smart enough to see the crossroad we are at. We either make the turn and restore liberty and prosperity for our posterity…or we continue down the path of self-destruction and we all start asking..’who is John Gault’.

  39. Quote: Michael Mandelbaum laments that people “in positions of authority everywhere have less influence than in the past,” due to a “corrosive cynicism” preventing “the collective action that is required.” America, David Brooks wrote in March 2010, “is suffering a devastating crisis of authority,” resulting in a “corrosive cynicism about public action.”

    The flippin’ problem is that the “WRONG” people are in positions of authority!!!

    Demand, for the sake of the Nation, that Obuckethead and Holder resign immediately!!!

  40. Gorgeous piece, Matt

  41. True confession: I was unconvinced about the U.S. going into Iraq based on the case Powell presented … until I read a Thomas Friedman column. He basically said, “We have to show them we will fight them, and on their soil.” He admitted Saddam was a bit of a strawman, that the real point of the war was to take it to them on their soil.

    So I bought it. Yeah, do like Jesus said, Be wise as serpents. Fight ’em with the rules they play by.

    Well, the war grew long, the press grew angry, and Friedman began running for the tall grass, blaming Bush for not fighting it the right way.

    And that’s when I saw this man for what he is. I have utter contempt for him. And I’m ashamed to admit he once influenced me. He still does … whatever he says, I take the opposite view.

    So in the end, it’s all good.

    1. You are so right about this. I remember well his reasoning for the war and it had little or nothing to do with WMD. It was intended to set loose a generation of revolt and he championed the idea in column after column. He turned on a dime when the going got rough.

      The “Arab Spring” may owe its founding to Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but the jury is still out on the result. Historically, most revolutions do not end well.

  42. Marvelous article. Too bad the indicted make so much money spouting their drivel. They just won’t go away. Pity.

  43. Authority is just another word for power in their context and like rahm emanuel they suggest getting it by taking advantage of the crisis caused by government to place more power in government.To them bigger government is an unmitigated good and the crisis action is the means to that end.

  44. David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and the rest of the left have gotten what they wanted with Obama! Massive growth in government, massive spending, massive overreach by the government, and enough debt to sink the country, and its all simply failed. Not only failed, but made things worse. We don’t even have to look back to know what works. Ronald Reagan showed us the way. A true leader willing to restrain the government in areas except nation defense where it has its most legitimate roll so that American Business and the American people could be unleased to solve the nations problems. Reagan gave us a generation of strenth and prosperity, but Brooks and Friedman and the left held Reagan, and his success, in far too much contempt to follow his example. They all have to be decisively rejected. Obama, the NYT, the left wing pundits, and the extreme left who have inflicted so much damage to our nation! In Nov 2012 we must decisively reject them and their contempt for the American people, limit the role of Government and the massive wasted spending, and empower the American people and business as Reagan did! Only then can we begin to recover. Obama, Brooks, and Friedman are the path to continued decline and despair!

  45. David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and the rest of the left have gotten what they wanted with Obama! Massive growth in government, massive spending, massive overreach by the government, and enough debt to sink the country, and its all simply failed. Not only failed, but made things worse. We don’t even have to look back to know what works. Ronald Reagan showed us the way. A true leader willing to restrain the government in areas except nation defense where it has its most legitimate roll so that American Business and the American people could be unleased to solve the nations problems. Reagan gave us a generation of strenth and prosperity, but Brooks and Friedman and the left held Reagan, and his success, in far too much contempt to follow his example. They all have to be decisively rejected. Obama, the NYT, the left wing pundits, and the extreme left who have inflicted so much damage to our nation! In Nov 2012 we must decisively reject them and their contempt for the American people, limit the role of Government and the massive wasted spending, and empower the American people and business as Reagan did! Only then can we begin to recover. Obama, Brooks, and Friedman are the path to continued decline and despair!

  46. Excellent stuff, Matt.

  47. Simpletons, huh? I guess it DOES take one to know one. You’re green with envy!

  48. One more comment. The opposite of doing something is doing nothing, which pompous libertarians like you promote. But there is absolutely no evidence that doing nothing solves problems, and libertarians don’t offer any. Ideological certainty, after all, is more powerful than any evidence. But ideological certainty kills – look at Mao’s original China and the ex-USSR. If America ever starts believing in your charmingly vacuous voodoo, that will be the beginning of the end.

    1. you are a fool. try to keep up. implicit in “doing something” is that the something must be done on a grand scale by government coercion with no regard for secondary effects.
      you cannot fathom anything being done otherwise, and so think the opposite of “doing something” is no one doing anything. people do things all the time. just because it isn’t being done in a panicked rush by a huge government leviathan doesn’t mean it is of no consequence.

      1. you are a huckster and a liar because you say something must be done when you really mean “government must do something”.

        that is why libertarians have no respect for people who deliberately conflate things.

  49. Third parties have a lousy track record in American history. What has succeeded twice was new parties rising from the ashes of a failed party. Nature abhors a vacuum. The best prospect of that is a “Tea Party” rising from the ashes of the Republicans if they do not clearly and consistently demonstrate their commitment to downsize this bloated government and bring it back within its proper constitutional limits.

  50. We will be on the road to restoring this great nation to our posterity when the “do something” call becomes a call to budget cuts, down-sizing government, eliminating regulation and regulatory agencies, and making Congress right the rules instead of handing them off to bureaucrats.

    That is a “do something” I can support.

  51. I’ve always thought Friedman was intoxicated by his own rhetoric. He’s a very mediocre man, with limited talent, and a sycophantic Obama lickspittle to boot. There’s more wisdom in one Mencken paragraph than Friedman’s entire body of work.

  52. Third parties typically split the majority party’s base, resulting in the minority party winning the election.

  53. If Brooks and Friedman (and I’ll throw in Krugman) are so darn smart why don’t they save the New York Times, which is sinking into oblivion? Surely, that is a smaller problem than knowing how to save the world.

  54. Interesting how nearly all the posts here associate Brooks with the left, conveniently overlooking his years of cheerleading for the right for so many years as they drove us off the cliff.

  55. Eh bien, je suis un bon poste watcher vous pouvez dire et je ne donne pas une seule raison de critiquer ou de donner une bonne critique ? un poste. Je lis des blogs de 5 derni?res ann?es et ce blog est vraiment bon cet ?crivain a les capacit?s pour faire avancer les choses i aimerais voir nouveau poste par vous Merci
    ????? ???
    ???????

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