Saturday, April 10, 2021

Brooks Whigging Out Again


John F. Kennedy campaigning door to door in West Virginia, 1960, Life cover, via Reddit.

Shorter David Brooks, "The Heart and Soul of the Biden Project", New York Times, 9 April 2021:

So Biden is a Whig. Fight me.

That is, not, thank heavens, a Democrat:

Some people say this is like the New Deal. I’d say this is an updated, monster-size version of “the American System,” the 19th-century education and infrastructure investments inspired by Alexander Hamilton, championed by Henry Clay and then advanced by the early Republicans, like Abraham Lincoln. That was an unabashedly nationalist project, made by a youthful country, using an energetic government to secure two great goals: economic dynamism and national unity.

Because nobody could say the New Deal had anything to do with economic dynamism or national unity. The New Deal didn't build any infrastructure, other than the rural electrifcation, the Bay Bridge and the Triborough Bridge, the Chickamauga Dam and the Grand Coulee Dam and the Pensacola Dam and the Hoover Dam, the Overseas Highway from Key West to the Florida mainland, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Bankhead Tunnel (in Mobile) and the Detroit Sewage Disposal and dozens of airport projects, or education programs other than the numerous schools, teachers, and classes provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, the National Youth Administration, including many programs devoted to the training of the African American community.

I have a longstanding soft spot for Whiggery of the Clay-Lincoln type myself, and so, I may add, did Mr. Small-Government Rural-Yeomanry Jefferson when he made it to the White House, and began working with his Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin on gigantic and expensive projects to expand the size of the country and fill it with roads and canals (though the Erie Canal was built by New York State) for the transportation of the goods the new country was supposed to start producing all over the place. I'm sure one of the things David Brooks likes about the Whiggery of the early 19th century would be that it was really kind of nonpartisan in appearance, developed through the "Era of Good Feelings" during the Monroe and Quincy Adams administrations—how he must love the concept of an American "Era of Good Feelings" (which was actually Monroe's ruthless and ultimately successful effort to extirpate the Federalist Party root and branch, a time of efficiency in political savagery such as we have seldom experienced).

The more important reasons for thinking of the Biden program as resembling the New Deal are structural: the origin of the political will to get this done in catastrophe, the total collapse of the economy following the 1929 crash then and the Covid-19 pandemic now, and a corresponding political collapse, perhaps, in which the forces opposed to progress lose their ability to prevent action, for a long enough time, to allow some progress to be made.

I know that sounds crazy, but look what has been accomplished already! Trumpy is suddenly as absent from political life as Herbert Hoover was in 1933 in his Palo Alto redoubt, planning to win the intellectual war. 

It’s kind of interesting to me that the Democrats, the party of the metro educated class, are promoting policies that would send hundreds of billions of dollars to, well, Trump voters.

Oh David, David. The "metro educated class" doesn't have a party. Maybe the government-educated class, which is no doubt relatively urban, while the privately educated class (Ivy and Holy Roller) isn't. Perhaps what Democrats have in common, white and non-white, white-collar and blue, is a good state-funded education that doesn't confer a whole lot of status. But the party has long stood for taking care of all the poor, even in West Virginia, if it can be done, not just in the hope of getting their votes, but because it's public policy we're talking about, not policy for individuals. Poverty in West Virginia diminishes us in New York, just as poverty in the Bronx makes Manhattan less.

Is it a risk? Yes, a big one. If your historical memory goes back only to 2009, then you think there’s no risk to going big on spending and debt. But history is filled with the carcasses of nations and empires that declined in part because they took on too much debt: imperial Spain, France in the 18th century, China in the 19th.

The Biden plan would have us pouring money into some of our least efficient sectors. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently, American infrastructure projects often cost several times more than European projects. Adding just two miles of new track and three stations to the New York subway system ended up costing $4.5 billion.

Again, it's not the debt, it's what you do with it. It's whether it's good debt or bad, investment or gambling. If it's committed to projects that reduce inequality and promote growth, we will grow our way out of it, as after World War II. If it's committed like a Republican tax cut to beefing up the holdings of the very rich, we won't. (And I'm so glad to see how much of the plan is to raise funds by raising taxes on those who can afford it best, just as inflationary pressures will in fact start to rise and cutting down a bit on borrowing will be a good idea.)

Zakaria goes on to say, on the terrible costs of American infrastructure projects,

the costs were so high because Americans were unwilling or unable to look around the world and try to learn from other countries. American exceptionalism has led to an exceptional, uniquely bad system for building infrastructure.

By contrast, the New Deal was surprisingly well-run. The WPA employed 3 million people at its peak, more than any private company. In today’s workforce that would be about 10 million people. The entire enterprise was skillfully managed by Harry Hopkins, a social worker-turned-bureaucrat who was one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest aides. The vast Tennessee Valley Authority — spanning seven states and eventually comprising about 30 hydroelectric dams — was devotedly led by David Lilienthal, a crusading lawyer. Most of the funds appropriated for the New Deal were administered scrupulously by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, another confidant of FDR. Each of these men developed a reputation for honesty, efficiency and reliability, which in turn made people believe that government could do big things and do them well.

So that's another thing we can learn from the New Deal (and put into operation with the terrific people hired by the Biden administration so far). Ending American exceptionalism is also a good project for us to be working on, and one of the things that gets easier without a lot of parochial-minded Republican America-Firsters getting in the way. In turn, as Zakaria suggests here, there will be political benefits for those on the better side.

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