David Brooks has caused me all kinds of trouble. When I introduce him to people—my students at PSU, usually—who don’t know him, I say he is a conservative columnist for the New York Times. When my students choose David Brooks as the focus of their paper on columnists, they often call him “a moderate.” Some maintain he is a liberal. Why is that?
I’ve had the same conversation with some pretty savvy political friends. I try to point out how really really conservative Brooks is (not Tea Party conservative), they say they don’t understand my argument and if I persist, which I have sometimes done, they think I am making it up. It is those two kinds of experience I have in mind when I complain about how much trouble he has been for me.
I have a column in mind. Let’s take a look at it and I will allow myself to dawdle in my analysis in the hope that that will make it more persuasive. The column I have in mind is his January 3, 2011 piece, “The Achievement Test.” I’ll be quoting a good deal of it in this post, but you can read it all here.
Here is the first paragraph.
“Unless something big and unexpected happens, 2011 will be consumed by a debate over the size of government. Republicans will launch a critique of big government as part of their effort to cut spending. Democrats will surge to the barricades to defend federal programs.”
You have to admit that sounds either nonpartisan or bipartisan. Brooks often begins with “A plague on both your houses.” That establishes that he doesn’t have an axe to grind (he does, of course; he’s a political columnist) and that his argument should be listened to in a spirit of openness, rather than of suspicion. I am describing here what I see to be the function of this paragraph. I do not mean to imply that Brooks does not believe what he is saying.
Here’s the second paragraph.
“This debate will be contentious, but I hope it’s not rude to mention that it will be largely beside the point. National destinies are not shaped by what percentage of G.D.P. federal spending consumes. They are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens. The crucial issue is not whether the federal government takes up 19 percent or 23 percent of national income. The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?”
The most fundamental tool in my arsenal as a policy analyst and as a political science professor is what I call “the problem.” I define this as a tool because the greatest value of saying what a problem really is, is that you get to say what the best solution to that problem is—and, of course, you get to ignore the problems others are putting forward. I teach my students to note—and if it is something I am reading aloud in class, to raise their hands—the moment someone says, “…but the problem really is.” Given my notion of “problem,” that means that the writer would rather construct this problem than any of the others he could have constructed.
When Brooks opines that the debate between Ds and Rs, as he has recounted it, will be largely beside the point, it means that he knows what “the point” is and he is about to tell us. If I were sitting in my own class, I would raise my hand at that point.
Brooks has two versions of this, note. Here is the first: “National destinies …are shaped by the character and behavior of citizens.” So you guys who are wasting your time and ours arguing about what the “percentage of GDP the federal government consumes,” give it up. We want to talk about the character and behavior of citizens. Presumably, “character” is an enduring construct and “behavior” is determined by it. I’m guessing, but that’s how I use those terms myself.
The second version is subtly different: The crucial question is: How does government influence how people live?” Notice here that it is the effects of government that are at the center of the question and that “character and behavior” have been squeezed into “how people live.” So “national destinies,” which were the effect of citizen character in the first formulation, are the cause of citizen character in the second. It isn’t perfect, but it’s close and the directions are right.
We skip now to paragraph four:
“The size of government doesn’t tell you what you need to know; the social and moral content of government action does. The budgeteers and the technicians may not like it, but it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most.”
I’d rephrase his first point like this: It is the social and moral content of government action that you need to know. What was in the first formulation, the effect of government action on producing virtuous citizens, is now a property of the actions themselves—it is the social and moral content of those actions that we need to know about. Now, in the second formulation, we come back to the effects of government policies: “…it’s the values inculcated by policies that matter most.”
Notice that by now, “the good stuff” has been: a) the effect of citizen behavior, b) the effect of government actions, and c) a criterion of the actions themselves, apart from the effects they cause. Hard to follow isn’t it. Just keep your eye on the pea; don’t mind my moving the shells around.
Don’t worry, though. The master criterion is coming up. Here it is:
“The best way to measure government is not by volume, but by what you might call the Achievement Test. Does a given policy arouse energy, foster skills, spur social mobility and help people transform their lives?”
Let’s spend just a little time on the choice of “achievement” is the criterion we ought to be looking at. I often find it useful to arrange outcomes so that they look like a spectrum of values with the left side of the spectrum varying from -1, a very bad outcome to 0, a middlish outcome and the right side varying from 0 to +1, a very good outcome. Some people live their whole lives varying between -1 and 0: the kids weren’t hungry today, I wasn’t harassed at work today, I got enough tips to average out to the federal minimum wage today. Others live their lives mostly between 0 and +1: sales were good, but not quite what we projected, the value of our rental properties continues to appreciate, it’s a real satisfaction that junior was accepted at our alma mater.
Just what “achievement” means is clearer in the next paragraph where Brooks contrasts “the welfare policies of the 1960s” with “the welfare reforms of the 1990s.” We could start by looking at “policies” v. “reforms.” Which of those is “good?” The Great Society was, if I recall correctly, the only time in modern American history when the proportion of Americans living in poverty actually went down. The “reforms” of the 1990’s reflect President Clinton’s attempt to blunt the welfare issue before the 1996 election campaign. This is the era of “the era of big government is over.” It involved an act the left called “the most shameful act of the Clinton presidency,” and that label was used by people who knew all about Ms. Lewinsky.
It transmuted Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and shoved the bulk of the decision making from the central government to the states. Those are the “reform.” And they “worked,” according to Brooks, because they were in line with “American values, linking effort to reward.” But, of course, they “worked” only if their goal was to get poor people off of welfare. If the goal was to reduce the number of poor people, they were, according to the last figures I saw, a resounding failure.
So what to do? I like Brooks’ idea that it is a step in the right direction to move the R agenda away from hating big government and the D agenda away from loving it. Brooks knows there cannot be agreement, but he wants to move from stalemate to horse-trading. I like that.
And what would that look like? The Republicans would make sure they favor “people have the incentives to take risks and the freedom to adjust to foreign competition: a flatter, simpler tax code with lower corporate rates, a smaller debt burden, predictable regulations, affordable entitlements.” That sounds very much like the right edge of the National Chamber of Commerce website. The Democrats would favor “making sure everybody has the tools to compete: early childhood education, infrastructure programs to create jobs, immigration policies that recruit talent, incentives for energy innovation.” Except for the early childhood education, that also sounds very much like the right edge of the National Chamber of Commerce website. You might just want to pop over there and take a peek.
You get to these two “new” agendas, Brooks says, by “putting the Achievement Test back at the center of politics.” Achievement has to do, we see, with “work for welfare” programs to improve the character of the poor and with “incentives to take risks and adjust to foreign competition” for the business elites. The -1 to 0 end of the scale is filled with people who need better character. The 0 to +1 end of the scale is filled with people who need to be taxed and regulated less.
How Brooks continues to evoke judgments that he is a moderate truly escapes me. Maybe the old “a plague on both your houses” gambit is a lot better than I thought. And I thought its principal use would be as a nasty remark a President would launch at a recalcitrant Congress.
 I’ve taken some liberties with word order. Check to see that I haven’t distorted the meaning.