Tuesday, May 20, 2014

If it's Tuesday, this must be a revolution

Image via ComicVine.
So, remember all that heart-rending stuff about how if we want to understand human problems we have to go beyond data, research, and even journalism to experience the Other through affection, empathy, and selfless love? Well, that's just so last week.

This week Brooks has a favor to do for some influential people, the editor-in-chief of The Economist and its Schumpeter Columnist (that's a real title!), John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, with a new book that needs publicizing from the various organs of the vast rightwing conspiracy, so now all his selfless love has to be channeled out to [jump]
them, and partisan and loveless journalism in its most abject sense—the retailing of carefully selected anecdote to lead readers to a conclusion that you couldn't even state in an empirically testable form—is back.

You can think of Micklethwait-Wooldridge as something like a Thomas L. Friedman without even the modest attachment to moral or civic principle evinced by that mustached sage, just the principle that taxation is for little people. Their shtik is to fuel the continuous revolution of Schumpeterism (better known as Right-Deviationist Maoism) with delirious accounts of some phenomenon or other from the political economy world that is going to change every aspect of human life until it doesn't pan out and another book is due, in the generally justified hope that nobody will remember the failure of the previous one:
Shorter John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, Penguin, 2014:
Singapore and China have discovered the conservative way to save democracy: If you want government to shrink, you'll just have to make it more authoritarian!
And from the blurb, the reason why we should take them seriously:
The authors enjoy extraordinary access to influential figures and forces the world over, and the book is a global tour of the innovators in how power is to be wielded.
Brooks seems uncharacteristically to have looked at more of the book than the introductory chapter (available to me in the Kindle preview), though skipping the Hobbes, Mill, Webb, and Friedman sections on the presumable grounds that as a University of Chicago graduate he knows everything worth knowing about these authors already. I refuse to check out his factoids this time because I just can't bring myself to care, except for this little bit of catastrophic Orientalism:
In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life. The safety net is smaller and less forgiving. In Singapore, 90 percent of what you get out of the key pension is what you put in. Work is rewarded. People are expected to look after their own.

These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse.
I'd just like the record to show that in China there is no safety net at all and the technocratic elites are entirely subservient to senile and corrupt party tools, whereas Singapore handles health security quite a bit better than we do simply by rigorously controlling what physicians, hospitals, and drug companies can charge, a compulsory savings program, and generous direct government means-tested subsidies; and has quite recently reformed its pension plan to annuitize it, making it more like the US Social Security, and a good thing, too, because that "what you get out is what you put in" system was certainly doomed. And that the Singapore government is actually not corrupt at all in any conventional sense, and that all government is local there (it's one city on an island of 274 square miles, half of which is unpopulated and used by the army for training). It pains me because I have been really annoyed by the Singapore government ever since I spent the 1980s there, but, democracy part aside, it's run a lot less like China than an urban Swiss canton and not at all what Brooks imagines it is.
The answer is to use Lee Kuan Yew means to achieve Jeffersonian ends — to become less democratic at the national level in order to become more democratic at the local level.
And again Lee Kuan Yew established committees of People's Action Party cadres in every workplace and apartment block. I don't see how you do Jeffersonian that way. And didn't you just say top-down systems make local government worse?
The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist.
Because elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions are better at coming up with populist reform ideas than they are at anything— well, anything except coming to a consensus on a plan and getting it through Congress, I mean. I mean they're really pretty terrible at everything except what Dickens referred to as the Whole Science of Government (you have to click this).
So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.
If by "diversity" you mean spontaneous resegregation and by "consumers" you mean hospital conglomerates and Big Pharma. So you meant that kind of populist proposal. This new revolution is just the same revolution you've been calling for for the last 30 years, and when exactly did old Ronald Reagan turn Chinese? Honestly, I think the selfless love thing was working better for you.

From Driftglass, December 2013: David Brooks offering a ritual "Social Security" sacrifice at the Temple of St. Reagan. 
A lovely note from Jonathan Chait on the project of recruiting the great and the good to browbeat the small and nasty—that's us—into compliance with his populist plans (back in the day, the populist plans were the ones we heedless peasants liked in the first place and that had to be browbeaten out of us), which I come to through a truly epic post by Driftglass showing how the more or less open Fascism proclaimed by Brooks until he had to stop denying its debacle is exactly the same as the philosophy he's expounding today in his post-debacle unctuously ingratiating tone. Also a hilarious Shorter from Scott Lemieux. And Krugman practically channeling me!
I’d also add that this is a very strange time to be arguing for more elite commissions, and Simpson-Bowles is a remarkably bad role model for, well, anything.

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