Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Collective turn of the screw

Shorter David Brooks:
Great speech, Mr. President! I mean, considering you're not me.
Yes, that's the Yale Professor of Humility showing his stuff by patronizing the President of the United States on his second inaugural address, which could have been out of the park if only he'd followed Brooks's advice and not taken that collective turn.
Jimmy Durante's Original New Orleans Jazz Band, 1917. From Red Hot Jazz.
Obama argued that America has to change its approach if it wants to continue its progress. Modern problems like globalization, technological change, widening inequality and wage stagnation compel us to take new collective measures if we’re to pursue the old goals of equality and opportunity. 
There has been too much “me” — too much individualism and narcissism, too much retreating into the private sphere. There hasn’t been enough “us,” not enough communal action for the common good. 
My stars! Is Brooks going to be arguing against Obama that what we need is more narcissism? Apparently yes:
I am not a liberal like Obama, so I was struck by what he left out in his tour through American history. I, too, would celebrate Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, but I’d also mention Wall Street, State Street, Menlo Park and Silicon Valley.
You'd also get crucified in our liberal media for using the pronoun "I" too often, you know. It's all that collectivism in the air. By State Street do you mean the one in Chicago where they do things that they don't do on Broadway? Would you really say that "the most self-evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—guided our forebears through" State Street, and Menlo Park?

Well, no, that's exactly it: he wouldn't. He'd say that sometimes that most self-evident of truths doesn't make a good guide, and what's needed is some of what J. Pierpont Morgan and Thomas A. Edison and William Henry Gates III were having, by which he'd presumably mean low taxes, and what the federal government needs to do is to get into the storm cellar and wait it out.
I’d emphasize that America has prospered because we have a decentralizing genius.... I would have been more respectful of this decentralizing genius than Obama was, more nervous about dismissing it for the sake of collective action, more concerned that centralization will lead to stultification, as it has in every other historic instance.
Except when it didn't, as in (just sticking to Brooks's own picture) the U.S. during most of the 20th century, when some of that centralizing was what the doctor ordered:
I also think Obama misunderstands this moment. The Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society laws were enacted when America was still a young and growing nation. They were enacted in a nation that was vibrant, raw, underinstitutionalized and needed taming.
The eight-hour day, the child labor laws, the income tax, the Sherman anti-trust law—once your country's fully cooked, they no longer have a function; peel them off and discard them, like muffin cups.
The task of reinvigorating a mature nation is fundamentally different than the task of civilizing a young and boisterous one. It does require some collective action: investing in human capital. But, in other areas, it also involves stripping away — streamlining the special interest sinecures that have built up over the years and liberating private daring.
A gig typing 1600 words a week for the Times is not a special interest sinecure, by the way. (I guess it's not of any special interest.) What a special interest sinecure typically consists of is getting a monthly check for being old and frail, for eating when you are former human capital as if they could still squeeze some profit out of you, using up money that could have been spent enabling narcissistic individualists to add some value to society by firing inefficient workers.

Reinvigorating a mature nation means using government to give people the tools to compete, but then opening up a wide field so they do so raucously and creatively. It means spending more here but deregulating more there. It means facing the fact that we do have to choose between the current benefits to seniors and investments in our future, and that to pretend we don’t face that choice, as Obama did, is effectively to sacrifice the future to the past.
If Obama would only stick it to those goddamned olds, what a well-made inaugural address it would have been!

And oh, does Brooks know what he's doing with the repetition of the word "collective" throughout this column? You bet your Tailgunner Joe he does.
Note: I am mostly concerned with Brooks's writing styles and strategies and the insights they give into his sad mind and strange powers. For his many direct falsehoods and errors of fact you should always remember to check other sources as well; including, for this column, Driftglass and Dean Baker.

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