David Brooks, describing Paul Krugman!


One phrase gives the Brookster away: In this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks writes as interesting if limited column about two kinds of policy writers.

One type of writer is “engaged;” the other type is “detached.” As he started, Brooks offered a description of writers he calls “engaged:”
BROOKS (4/30/13): Engaged or Detached?

Let’s say you are a young person beginning to write about politics and policy. You probably have some idea of what you believe, but have you thought about how you believe it? That is to say, have you thought about where you will sit on the continuum that stretches from writers who are engaged to those who are detached?

Writers who are at the classic engaged position believe that social change is usually initiated by political parties. To have the most influence, the engaged writer wants to channel his efforts through a party.

The engaged writer closely and intimately aligns with a team. In his writing, he provides arguments for the party faithful and builds community by reminding everyone of the errors and villainy of the opposing side. For the engaged writer, the writing is often not about persuasion. (Realistically, how many times does a piece of writing persuade someone to switch sides?) It’s often about mobilization. It’s about energizing the people who already agree with you.
Later, Brooks describes the mind-set of the “detached” writer, the type of writer who doesn’t “closely align with a team.”

This is simplistic but interesting. It was only in the column’s fourth paragraph that we realized that David Brooks was describing himself and Paul Krugman.

As he continues, Brooks is still describing the “engaged” writer. One small phrase provided our clue—Brooks is describing Paul Krugman:
BROOKS (continuing directly): The engaged writer often criticizes his own party, but from a zone of trust inside it, and he is usually advising the party to return to its core creed. The engaged writer is willing to be repetitive because that’s how you make yourself an unavoidable pole in the debate. The goal is to have immediate political influence, to provide party leaders with advice, strategy and policy recommendations.
“The engaged writer is willing to be repetitive!” At that point, we realized who Brooks was describing.

Krugman is very repetitive. He writed the same column again and again, the one about the lunacy of austerity policies at a time such as this. Sometimes we find the repetition annoying, but we think we know why he does it.

Years ago, when the topic was still highly current, people used to complain about the way we would repeat ourselves concerning the press corps’ treatment of Candidate Gore. In our view, we had a pretty good answer to these repetitive complaints:

Why did we keep saying the same (highly accurate) things? Because we couldn’t get anyone else to say them! The same situation obtains today when we mention the large score gains achieved by black kids on the NAEP.

Why do we keep citing those test scores? Because it’s virtually impossible to get anyone else to do so!

We often think of this problem when we see Krugman repeat himself. Even from a very high platform like Krugman’s, it is virtually impossible to get modern journalists to repeat an accurate statement or engage a valid analysis.

Career players cling to the safety of their existing stations. They are unwilling to say a single word until sixteen higher-ranking people have already said it.

They won’t repeat an accurate fact; they won’t address a valid argument. What is most true about modern journalists?

Endlessly, they work from the safety of tired old scripts. You can’t get them to state an accurate fact! It simply can’t be done.

Krugman writes the same column again and again. We think we know why he does that.

As we rarely ask, WWKS: Kierkegaard wrote a whole book called Repetition! Frankly, we don’t recommend it.


  1. I like this post, but would make one change. Krugman isn't repeating facts about austerity; he's repeating opinions and beliefs. His point isn't just the fact that austerity isn't working well in certain countries, but his belief that austerity won't work well in broad, general sets of circumstances.

    Krugman is an outstanding economist, so his opinion is highly valuable, but it's not a provable fact. IMHO people tend to get very attached to their beliefs. They tend to keep repeating their beliefs, because they can't prove them the way they can prove facts.

    E.g., we don't see column after column pointing out that the earth has warmed 2 degrees since 1800, because that's a fact. We do see numerous columns and speeches warning that the earth will warm catastrophically in the future, because that's an opinion. It cannot be absolutely proved.

    Similarly, Jehovah's Witnesses push their opinions about God by means of polite visits. We even see a few radical Muslims pushing their opinion about God by means of bombs. They're not aroused by the facts, but by their unprovable beliefs.

    1. By now literally no one thinks you of all people are qualified to distinguish between facts and opinions, David.

      So when you laughably say Krugman doesn't give us facts about austerity, well, we laugh. At you.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Too funny. Krugman repeats the same facts again and again, using graphs and figures from the Fed etc to bolster his arguments and demonstrate how austerity isn't working. That might seem like Opinion to you, David, but it isn't to the world at large. You apparently think it isn't possible to extrapolate from the data about global climate change because that becomes "opinion" based on fanciful wishing, not a statistical likelihood. On the other hand, all you have to do is babble and it becomes fact.

    4. Right, Carol Ann, most of what I write are opinions -- mine or someone I link to.

      It's not possible to derive facts about the climate of the future by means of statistical likelihood. It's true that once one assumes a certain model, the output might be expressed as a statistical likelihood, but the choice of model itself is generally the greatest source of uncertainty. Model uncertainty cannot be derived statistically. It's a judgment. Even if past results agree with a model, it's a judgment that the model will accurately predict the future.

      E.g., Russian scientists recently opined that global cooling is coming. Their model is based on solar output. Many other scientists say temperatures will rise, using models based on CO2 and other things on earth. One cannot put a statistical likelihood estimate to tell us which model is more accurate, or if either one is accurate. One may believe the warming model and disbelieve the cooling model, or vice versa. Either way, such beliefs are not facts.

    5. David, your belief that Krugman says austerity won't work in "broad, general circumstances" is simply false. This is what a lot of people who actually don't read him say. Keynes didn't say that either. What they say is that when an economy is in recession and monetary policy cannot work to encourage investment because real interest rates have hit zero, austerity cannot possibly work; when the the biggest customer by far in a market cuts back on spending (the U.S. government is a bigger customer than the top 20 Fortune 500 corporations combined!), the result will be further losses of jobs because aggregate demand, already depressed in the private sector, will decline. When the economy is strong and unemployment is low, "austerity" should be applied to lower the deficit and the debt-to-GDP ratio -- only it won't feel like austerity because employment is high and wages are growing. Think the late-90s: that was "austerity" in action when there were budget surpluses despite unemployment dipping below 4%.

      This is really closer to fact than belief. There are few if any working economists in the investment community -- i.e., the ones whose jobs actually depend on being correct and not the ideologues who are influencing you -- who don't agree with that.

      If you want to say that real unemployment of 15% or more is worse than a high deficit and debt-to-GDP ratio, OK, that's a belief. Are you going to disagree with that?

    6. David, please. "Russian scientists" said no such thing. One Russian scientist, Yuri Nagovitsyn, has posed a theory a few weeks ago while taking great pains to say himself that his theory was his alone and not the position of either the observatory he works for or the Russian Academy of Sciences.

      Nagovitsyn further states that predicting long term trends of solar activity is an incredibly imprecise science, and that the cooling effects of continued downward solar activity will likely be ameliorated by the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

      Further, as far as not having "statistical estimates" that would tell us whether global warming or global cooling "models" are accurate, sorry Charlie.

      "Solar activity" peaked in 1957 and has been on a steady downward trendline since. In other words, the decrease that Nagovitsyn is predicting for 2030 may already have begun.

      And while solar activity has decreased over nearly 50 years, global temperatures (air, water and surface) are continuing to increase at a rate that used to take centuries to reach.

      And this data has been around for quite some time. You see, scientists aren't stupid. They didn't wake up one day and say, "Let's really piss off Republicans in the United States and say that global warming is real, will have catastophic effects on global climate, and is caused by humans burning fossil fuels that throw greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a rate the globe has never seen."

      They actually did account for all possible variables before reaching a stunning consensus that has everything to do with science and nothing to do with U.S. politics.

  2. Why don't you recommend Repetition?