David Brooks to American voters: Drop dead!


Rhetorician, heal thyself: David Brooks was looking for someone to blame for a rather weak budget agreement and for more failures to come.

He settled on a familiar safe target. And yes, we have that date right:
BROOKS (1/1/13): Whom should we blame for this? Again, we should not blame Obama and Boehner. In their different ways, they and a number of other people in the Congress are trying to find a politically palatable way to deal with these hard issues. They got what conditions allowed.

Ultimately, we should blame the American voters. The average Medicare couple pays $109,000 into the program and gets $343,000 in benefits out, according to the Urban Institute. This is $234,000 in free money. Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren. They have decided they like borrowing up to $1 trillion a year for tax credits, disability payments, defense contracts and the rest. They have found that the original Keynesian rationale for these deficits provides a perfect cover for permanent deficit-living. They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.
The voters have done it again!

Is Brook right to blame the American voters? We would say he is not.

Some reasons:

Very few voters have ever seen that analysis of Medicare spending and “free money.” If a voter sees that analysis today, he or she will have no idea where to go to fact-check Brooks or to see his logic analyzed.

Would you know where to send such a voter? We would have no idea!

In short, the voter goes to work each day. He also lives within a political/journalistic culture in which the most important political topics almost never get analyzed or discussed.

Brooks’ own paper has never attempted to spell out the various budget issues involved in our ongoing pseudo-discussions—and most likely, it never will. The typical reader of the Times has never seen that analysis of Medicare costs. He or she would have no idea if Brooks’ numbers and logic are right.

No, we aren’t going to blame the press corps for our current predicament. But the New York Times relentlessly clowns, after which it blames the voters for our vast cluelessness.

As a general matter, Brooks isn’t this dumb. But the press corps never discusses the press corps. It’s a firm tenet of Hard Pundit Law:

Except in certain innocuous ways, the press corps can never be said to be wrong. If Obama and Boehner aren’t to blame, who else are we going to finger?

Offering several examples: Did the New York Times ever explain the full lunacy of the Romney tax proposal?

Actually no, it never did—nor did it ever discuss his proposal for the estate tax. But we did get front-page reports about his hair, about his wife’s dressage horse and about the political views of his neighbors in La Jolla. One columnist wouldn’t stop making up shit about his mistreated pet dog.

Has the Times ever done a series of front-page reports about the current state of taxation? About the ways high earners are currently taxed, as compared to the ways they've been taxed in the past? About what future budgets would look like if we returned to all the Clinton tax rates?

Has the Times ever done those reports, or dozens more? Only a fool would ask.

This is the way our elite culture works. It doesn’t begin with “the voters.”


  1. "As a general matter, Brooks isn’t this dumb. "

    I'm not sure how to take this. If you mean he's often dumb, but usually not quite as dumb as this, then fine.

    But if you mean he's usually not stupid or dishonest, maybe you're reading a different columnist. You quite rightly bash Rachel Maddow, but I can't see how you could bash her and not Brooks, unless as a conservative you grade him on a curve.

  2. I blame the media for failing to explain federal financial affairs. As Bob points out, they waste a lot of attention on piffle. Also, when they do report on government finances, their report is usually based on the words of some politician, rather than the best expert available. E.g., Meet the Press and other news shows could feature interviews with the Chief Actuary of Social Security, but they don't.

    I blame the President for failing to explain to the public the nature and magnitude of the federal fiscal problem. He's the leader of all Americans. I think he properly set the stage for Congressional action and negotiations.

    IMHO the lack of Presidential leadership is partly responsible for the inadequate Fiscal Cliff agreement passed by the Senate this morning. That bill will do almost nothing to cut the deficit. Its tax increases are relatively minor, and its spending cuts are virtually non-existant.

    Contrast our President's style of leadership with Winston Churchill and FDR. At the beginning of WW2, these great leaders went out of their way to emphasize the sacrifices that were needed. They didn't ignore the problem or sugar-coat it. Nor did they use the crisis to focus on blaming the other party. Instead they encouraged all their citizens to cooperate in dealing with their challange.

    1. It's all "smoke and mirrors" and "dog and pony show" to keep voters uninformed while the incompetent and corrupt continue to rip us off.

  3. Free money? It's simply compounded interest on mandatory invested money over 30 years - how is that "free"? The interest is somewhere around 6.5% per annum - historically well below prime rate until the 2008 meltdown - kind of a modest return when you tell people they have to save.

    Tell Brooks he can just f*** off. He's certainly not that dumb - he's a paid shill.


    1. As the retirement-investment advisers' mantra goes, "Compound interest. Compound interest. Compound interest." But for people like Brooks, that mantra is only relevant to private investment, apparently -- an area where some of his plutocrat friends get to take a cut off the top (those "fees"). Reminds me of private insurance v. Medicaid.

      More generally, Brooks is no different from most journalists or pundits in the major news sources (Krugman and a few others excepted). His understanding of economics is almost non-existent, and where he does have some knowledge, he mistakenly uses individual/household financial thinking, and business financial thinking, as models for federal government revenue/deficit/debt thinking.

      It doesn't help when politicians who should know better, like Obama himself, compare household finances to the federal government's. That only encourages a lazy press corps and pundit class to persist in their own ignorance.

    2. Yes, you know it's bullshit when they talk that crap about sitting down at the kitchen table to work out the family budget. These perfumed harlots - yes you, Tom Brokaw - really take the cake.

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  5. I am tired of being insulted with the phrase "fiscal cliff". It is not a cliff; it is part of an over thirty year effort to con American voters into surrendering more to the wealthy and powerful.

    President Reagan conned Americans into the idea that it was their patriotic duty to surrender wage stability and increases, so that it now requires two people to bring in the same income that one head of household once was able to do.

    A government study concluded that children did not need to be raised by two parents as long as a system of relatives and day care existed. Presumably, lowering parents' wages that cause them to be latch key parents does no harm to the nuclear family in general and children in particular.

    Are we witnesses to the empirical evidence of late teens to early twenties children who were emotionally neglected?

  6. As much as I loathe to defend David Brooks, we can certainly jump on him for failing to cite sources for his data, but how do we ignore the overwhelming evidence that the middle class want no cuts in benefits as well as no tax increases?

    I guess we can point to political demagoguery or a lack of political courage, but I see that as the easy path to take. No politician I think can convince a voter living from paycheck to paycheck that they should necessarily sacrifice their current income for hypothetical future benefits.

  7. I'd suggest that Anonymous 3:52 PM read Desidero's observation. As a 70-year-old taxpayer, I paid at high rates for my entire working life until Geo. W. Bush gave me a tax-rate gift. I also paid into the SS fund at the higher rates agreed to by Reagan and Tip O'Neill. I feel like the deficit hawks are now running the Big Con to scare the American people into believing that their children/grandchildren are being threatened by selfish 'takers'. Not so. Economic growth will solve our fiscal problem, just as it solved our problem with record deficits after WWII.

  8. So, the Senate-passed cliff bill, endorsed by President Obama, is estimated to cost $4.0 trillion over the next 10 years relative to current law.

    Gee, how did that happen?

    I thought President Obama was committed to addressing in a balanced way the long-term fiscal imbalances.


  9. I can't go to a bar these days without overhearing someone bring up Keynesian rationales.

    1. Rationales, or reasons?

      Look how well austerity is working in Ireland.

    2. Look how well austerity is working in Ireland.

      Yes, when a country gets too deeply in debt, austerity doesn't work very well. That's a reason not to get too deeply in debt.

      For a country with a high national debt, interest on the debt gobbles up a large share of the tax revenue. Cuts in government spending and increases in taxes have a depressing effect on the economy, so government revenue isn't as large as hoped for, even with the austerity. But, at that point, the country has no other options. If a country is on the Euro and is too deeply in debt, they don't have enough money to use stimulus. And, they can't borrow enough to stimulus, because other countries won't lend them enough to do so or will charge ruinous interest rates.

      By continuing to run a over a trillion dollar deficit, the US government is approaching a time when we will be forced to use austerity, and it won't work very well.

    3. The Republic of Ireland ran surpluses up until 2007. It only went into deficit when it's tax revenue dried up in the crash.


    4. I can't tell for sure, but Dave in Cal seems possibly to be eliding deficit and debt. They're not the same thing, though eliding them is one of the ways the right, and foolish journalists, debase our civic discussion. With interest rates being what they are right now in the US, the debt created by fresh deficits is pretty free of interest problems -- so, now is a great time for the government to borrow for programs that will stimulate the economy both short term (e.g., increased consumer spending) and long term (e.g., investment in infrastructure).

    5. mch, having spent 40+ years working in finance, I'm well aware of the difference between deficit and debt.

      I partially agree with your comment. Interest rates being charged on US debt are indeed amazing low. This would be a great time for the governement to borrow, except that all this debt will be still be with us when interest rates rise. And, they will rise. Look at how fast they rose for other countries in financial difficulty.

      Do the math. We're currently paying something like $400 billion per year of interest on the national debt. At current pace, the national debt will be over $20 trillion by the end of Obama's 2nd term. Suppose the world's lender by then decide that the US isn't such a great credit risk. Suppose that interst on the national debt rises to 6%. That would put annual interest on the national debt at $1.2 trillion. That's around 40% of the federal government's annual income. Interest alone would crowd out other federal spending. Or, the government would print money to pay their bills, a course guaranteed to produce bad inflation.

      High spending today may goose the current economy a bit, but we're playing with fire.

    6. No one argues about whether too much national debt would be a long-term problem (though they will argue about how much is too much, and about how much to fear debilitating interest rate increases on debt incurred in the future, the effect of bond markets, and various things that I confess to understanding very little). The real argument is over whether the national debt is our most pressing problem at this time, a time of continuing recession (if not technically so), unemployment, and absurd disparities in wealth, and if, in fact (as I believe), the surest way to reduce debt in the long-term is to increase spending (in the right places and right ways -- we needn't be talking wasteful "goosing" -- not that a little engine-revving doesn't help get the engine really going) and to increase revenues (for paying off the debt, for one thing, and through taxation that won't put a drag on the larger economy -- e.g.., higher income taxes on the rich and well-to-do, much of whose excess wealth is spent or invested in ways that do little for the US economy). Fears of inflation, btw, have proved groundless in the last few years, despite all the fear-mongering about it. (In fact, we could probably use a little more inflation.) As for Ireland (and Spain, and others, including even Italy): the problem with comparing the Euro to the US dollar is that Massachusetts, where I live, is always willing to extend monetary support to, say, Alabama (just as Alabamans contribute to American life in ways that I benefit from in MA), whereas Germany is not willing to support even those EEU states that had surpluses or little debt before the great recession (that is, were playing by Germany's rules). The whole EEU system is screwed up.

      What makes me deeply suspicious of this emphasis on deficit and debt and inflation: why now? Why not when Bush was president and busy squandering the Clinton surpluses on tax cuts, unfunded Medicare drug plans, and unnecessary war? Deficits, debt, and inflation only become the highest priority when Democrats have more power, and suddenly the poor and the elderly have to "sacrifice" to make sure these priorities are addressed.

  10. Why now? First of all, many conservatives were critical of Bush's increases in federal spending and his deficits. These critics have been consistent, regardless of party in power.

    The biggest key is the magnitude of the deficit. From 2000 - 2008, the deficit averaged $100 - $200 billion as I recall. One can arguably blame 2009 on Bush. But, regardless of where the blame goes, the deficit during the last 4 years has averaged something like $1100 - $1200 billion.

    I agree that the real argument is over whether the national debt is our most pressing problem at this time. One can argue that national debt isn't a problem at this time, because the dollar remains fairly strong. The trouble with this reasoning IMHO is that when the world loses faith in the dollar, it will be too late to go back in time and support it.

    Here's the scenario I fear. When the dollar falls, foreign money will leave the US stock market and stocks will plummet. Inflation will wipe out people's savings. New businesses will be less willing to start up, because of uncertainty in the dollar, so there will be a recession or depression that will dwarf today's economic problems.

    I hope I'm wrong, but I think this scenario is a very real risk, although it may be years away.

    The third key for conservatives is that we don't see growth in government as good for the economy. Our logic is simple. Government is supported by business. Bigger government is a bigger drain on business, so it's ultimately bad for the economy. Especially with a worldwide economy, big government makes US companies less competitive against foreign rivals.

    Actual results bear out this reasoning. Today in the US red states generally have stronger economies than blue states. In countries like Germany, Korea, and China that were divided, the portion with the smaller government had better economic results than the portion with the bigger government.

    1. Red states have stronger economies than blue states? Can you be a bit more precise and give some evidence for this?

    2. See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/opinion/03douthat.html?_r=0

    3. Actually, states with high property tax are fairing relatively well, where states with low property taxes are struggling. The reason for this is obvious: low taxes on land fuel speculation. Low property tax states like California tended to have larger bubbles, and thus bigger crashes. The big difference between Texas and California is that Texas didn't stupidly institute Proposition 13 in 1978.

    4. Government is supported by business.

      Wrong. Government is supported by the citizens. If the citizens have no money to spend, businesses have no income to tax.

      See http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/03/opinion/03douthat.html?_r=0

      Citing Douthat? Wronger.

    5. Inflation will wipe out people's savings.

      What savings? We already have a very low savings rate, and a lot of peoples' savings were already wiped out in the recession.

      The only people with significant "savings" to lose are the wealthy.

    6. The only people with significant "savings" to lose are the wealthy.

      True by definition. It's a tautology.

  11. Who pays for a shortfall in medicare benefits for seniors? Their children and grand children pay, either now or in reduced inheritance. Difference is that medicare delivers the benefit for less administrative cost than a wraparound policy would.

    1. Who pays for a shortfall in medicare benefits for seniors? Their children and grand children pay, either now or in reduced inheritance.

      And those without children and grandchildren just pay with their lives. But who cares about them anyway.

  12. Even forgetting the compound interest thing, let's change the terms a little: defense contractors get hundreds of billions every year, and they don't even pay annual premiums or have out of pocket expenses! This is free money galore! When will we put an end to this outrage?

    But, you say, the national defense is essential -- but health care isn't?

  13. But, you say, the national defense is essential -- but health care isn't?

    Actually it's the Constitution which makes this statement. However, it may be that liberals no longer support Constitutional rights. A recent New York Times op-ed proposes "Let’s Give Up on the Constitution"

    1. First of all, that wasn't an NYT "editorial" -- it was an opinion piece, same way NYT publishes Ross Douthat, David Brooks and (formerly) William Kristol and William Safire. Believe it or not, everything which appears in NYT isn't "liberal". Indeed, most of it isn't.

      Second, the Constitutional mandate for defense is quite narrow -- defense of the national borders. This hardly authorizes military bases all over the world, and expenditures which exceed the total military expenditure of virtually everyone else in the world combined. Self-described libertarians are constantly making this point; it's not a "liberal" interpretation of the Constitution.

      And there are, of course, other spending items dear to "conservatives" -- oil tax breaks, for instance -- which have no basis in the Constitution, but about to which the formulas applied to "entitlements" (unfunded mandates!) are never applied.

      I mean, jeez, how are we going to fund negative taxes for oil companies or GE in 2028? These are unfunded liabilities! So, on order to preserve tax breaks oil companies and GE, they'll have to go on an austerity diet! Right now!

      How well do you think that would go over with Republicans?

    2. Actually the first sentence of the Preamble to the Constitution says one of the purposes for which the Constitution was ordained is: "to...provide for the common defence." The word "borders" doesn't appear in the document.

      It's true that the arfticle I cited was an op-ed (as I said), rather than an editorial. However, it was written by a liberal.

      I don't know of any evidence that conservatives in general or Republicans in general support special tax breaks for oil companies or for General Electric. Do you have any evidence of this, anon?

    3. Really, David in Cal? So the Constitution authorizes whatever the military industrial complex says is for the "common defense?" And this is another area, like the second amendment, which we don't subject to the "original intent" favored by conservatives? How very convenient, to pick and choose in this way....

      Here's the oil tax break:

      "Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic bill to repeal about $24 billion in U.S. tax breaks for the nation's biggest oil companies, three days ..."

      www.bloomberg.com/.../senate-fails-to-advance-bill-repealing-oil-tax...Mar 29, 2012 –

      And since many Republican support repealing the corporate tax altogether, there's hardly been a push to get companies like GE paying rates commensurate with the official one. Nor has there been any Republican attempt to get GE off the negative tax welfare rolls. Dems are also remiss, but I thought yours was the party of virtue and self-reliance -- at least, when it comes to working people?

      Amazing, we're still having these debates. Then again, you're not believable - a self-described actuary wily enough to quote nominal dollars, and to ignore compound interest, when those choices forward his preferred narrative, surely knows the facts.

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