David Brooks’ New Revised American “History”

December 27, 2011   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX

Big Government

By Marie Burns:

If it’s Tuesday, it must be time for David Brooks to tell us that government doesn’t work and Americans are immoral. In his column in today’s New York Times, Brooks argues that the U.S. used to be successful – back when we “still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions” – but now the country is in economic crisis because we have “bad habits” and “libertarian moral values,” are “self-indulgent,” and men don’t marry the mothers of their children.

To bolster his hypothesis, Brooks turns to his unique version of history, one that is at odds with the Obama administration’s evolving views. Brooks complains that top Obama staff initially looked to the New Deal in seeking solutions to the economic crisis of 2008-2009. Brooks says the Obama team was wrong because the situations then and now are not analogous. “In the 1930s,” Brooks writes, “people genuinely looked to government to ease their fears and restore their confidence. Today, Americans are more likely to fear government than be reassured by it.” Brooks’ argument would be stronger if he had facts to back up his assertion. Without providing any reference, he cites a recent Gallup survey (the poll results are here) that he says shows 64 percent of Americans say “big government is the biggest threat to the country.” It turns out the “big government” many Americans “fear” is a government co-opted by Congressional Republicans. Brooks doesn’t tell us this, but the proof is in a detail of the poll itself:

Democrats Lead Increase in Concern about Big Government. Almost half of Democrats now say big government is the biggest threat to the nation, more than say so about big business, and far more than were concerned about big government in March 2009. The 32% of Democrats concerned about big government at that time — shortly after President Obama took office — was down significantly from a reading in 2006, when George W. Bush was president.

That is, Democrats were significantly less “fearful of big government” when both the President and Congress were led by Democrats than when Republicans ran Washington. It isn’t “big government” these Democrats fear; it’s Republican-controlled government, no matter what the size. A similar shift can be found in Republican numbers: Republicans had less fear of big government when their party controlled the White House and Congress in December 2006 (Democrats had just won majorities in both houses of Congress, but the new Democratic Congress had not yet been seated).

So that’s Brooks’ “proof” that Depression-era Americans “trusted government,” but today’s Americans don’t. You might have noticed that Brooks, after citing a contemporary poll that doesn’t show what he says it shows, also does not cite any comparison polls from the 1930s. That’s because there weren’t any. According to a 2001 New York Times “Arts and Ideas” article, “public opinion surveys began testing trust in government in the 1950′s.” But that does not mean it is impossible to make educated assumptions about American attitudes toward government in pre-polling days. C. W. Brands, an actual historian who reviewed actual historical documents (rather than basing his conclusion on Brooksian-style mind-farts) wrote “that except in periods of war … Americans have always had high degrees of distrust of government…. ‘As I studied the question,’ [Brands said], ‘I came to feel that distrust of government was the basic default position for the United States.’” So Brooks is just making up “history.” He presents his miguided opinion as fact. He does that quite often.

After inventing a contrast between today and the 1930s, Brooks goes on to chide the Obama administration for trying to compare the progressive movement of a hundred years ago with President Obama’s new progressive message. Brooks says the country is no longer “a vibrant jobs machine” as it was in the 1910s. That’s true, although if Michele Bachmann had her way, we could jump back a hundred years right now. She wants to eliminate the minimum wage law, so we can go back to working conditions which Brooks correctly describes as “volatile and cruel.” Brooks notes the contrast between the small government of a hundred years ago and today’s large government which lacks “institutional effectiveness.” Here Brooks begins a short litany of what’s wrong with the federal government. Because he can’t make a credible argument that life was better in 1910 than it is today, Brooks abruptly shifts from falsely contrasting then and now (as he did with the 1930s and the present) to comparing the U.S. with other countries. He hopes you won’t notice he’s shifted from apples to oranges. In comparing U.S. efforts to those of other countries, Brooks says that the U.S. system has produced “paltry results.”

He begins with education. This is odd: the federal government plays only a marginal role in public education. Brooks is correct that our state and local governments – which are the entities most responsible for public education – have fallen behind other nations in providing young people with quality educations. But when you compare American education today with U.S. educational achievement a hundred years ago, the difference is staggering: in 1910, only about 9 percent of young people were graduated from high school; by the 1990s about 80 percent of Americans got through high school. In 1910, about two percent of Americans earned bachelors degrees; in 1990, nearly 30 percent received four-year degrees. A “paltry” difference? Hardly.

Brooks complains that the U.S. “spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results.” Here he means “compared to other nations.” But let’s compare life expectancies in 1910 and today. American white males born in 1910 were expected to live to age 50; American white males born in 2004 have life expectancies of 80 years. The figures for non-white American males is even more dramatic: those born in 1910 were expected to live only 34 years; those born in 2004 have a life expectancy of 70 years – more than twice the lifespan. Probably a majority of the increase in life expectancy is the result of medical and pharmaceutical advances. Yet especially when you look at the figures for non-white males, you cannot help but suspect that access to health care is a significant contributing factor.

Finally, Brooks writes something extraordinary: the U.S. “spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight.” This could be the biggest lie Brooks has ever told. (And he has told some whoppers.) In 2010, about 46.2 million Americans were considered to be living in poverty. This figure does not include the “near-poor”: another 51 million Americans who are only a paycheck or minor financial setback away from poverty. As the New York Times reported in November of this year, “All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

Many needy Americans already get direct government handouts – unemployment insurance payouts, earned income credit checks, disability payments. Others receive goods like children’s meals and health insurance (SCHIP). Some receive services – Medicare, Medicaid, maternal health care, etc. Still others get some form of credit like food stamps (SNAP). Yes, there are administrative and delivery costs associated with these payments and benefits, and the federal government bears some (but not all) of these costs. The ultra-conservative Cato Institute, for instance, says that administrative costs for food subsidy programs exceed 10 percent. But there would be administrative costs to “handing poor people checks” as Brooks proposes, too. Somebody has to identify the recipients; somebody has to cut the checks; somebody has to “hand them to poor people.” So let’s say the administrative and delivery costs of Brooks’ “handout plan” was only half the current administrative costs. A 5 percent savings in overall costs of poverty programs would do very little to reduce the poverty rate. Yet Brooks makes the ludicrous claim this big savings “would virtually eliminate poverty overnight.” In 2010, 35 percent of the federal budget – or about $1,228 billion – went to social-safety net programs and Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP programs. Assuming a 5 percent savings in administrative costs under Brooks’ “hand ‘em the cash” plan (and I’m making that up; there might be no savings), a 100 million people would divide $61.4 billion. That would mean each impoverished American would garner an additional payment of $614 dollars. While $614 would surely be of help to any needy American, it would in no way “eliminate poverty.” If you earned $10,000 last year, $10,614 does not lift you out of poverty. Brooks’ claim is just not true. He made it up.

So, after Brooks has made one misstatement of fact after another, let’s look again at his prescription for “fixing” what he never even actually establishes as a problem. Brooks writes, “The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state.” That is, Brooks wants biological fathers to marry the mothers of their children (“old disciplines”), and he wants to eliminate poverty programs (“decaying structures”) to reform “the welfare state.”

Brooks doesn’t bother to try to establish that shotgun weddings are a good resolution for unwanted pregnancies. He just calls it “a strong social norm” of the 1910s which has now “dissolved.” In fact, legal arrangements that ensure parental rights and responsibilities are a better alternative than marriage for many accidental parents and their unplanned offspring.

We have established that Brooks’ facetious plan to “eliminate decaying structures” is nonsense. (There is always room, of course, for improved efficiencies, and every presidential administration rightly attempts to eliminate waste and duplication.) But what about “reforming the welfare state,” as Brooks advocates?

This would be more feasible if we had a welfare state. We don’t. When Brooks complained about the “paltry results” of our healthcare expenditures, he meant that other countries have much more efficient healthcare delivery systems that we do. He’s right. Today there are 35 countries where life expectancy is longer than in the U.S. And, you know, when you look at those 35 countries, you’ll see that pretty much all of them operate more as “welfare states” than does the U.S. Brooks’ idea of “reform” is to eliminate much of the social safety net. Yet what is really needed to answer Brooks’ objections to U.S. policy failure is more “welfare,” not less. In fact, as Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University, argued in 2001 that the reason Americans were dissatisfied with the federal government was “that the American government simply did not perform as well as other large welfare states. ‘I think there is a real problem in terms of the government not delivering what people want,’ in terms of providing good health care and education and alleviating poverty and crime, Mr. Bok said.”

That is, Brooks presents a problem – Americans are dissatisfied with the federal government – then offers a “solution” that is exactly the opposite of what is needed. The federal government has not failed because it is too big. It has failed because it does not protect Americans to the same degree that more progressive governments do.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (2)

  1. alphonsegaston says:

    You caused me to go back and actually read the column–I spaced out after the FDR stuff, gave up after the obligatory moral strictures.

    He is impossible. I regard his floundering as establishment Republican panic. How else to explain his favorable portrait of the first “progressive” era.

  2. Thebigkate says:

    Poor David Brookstone! Have you no empathy, Marie? The guy is desperate. His projections are not panning out, and now he has you and Paul Krugman dissing him. Yikes!

    Truly–I wonder if he has the mojo to read what you write? I doubt it. He is too busy raking in the cash and looking sweet and disarming on The PBS News Hour. It is beyond me how Jim Lehrer could stay so besotted with him for all these years, unless–as my former neighbor in D.C. says: “David Brooks is a nice guy, a good father and an excellent neighbor.” Too bad his brain has atrophied–my aside.

    Keep on keeping on, Marie. Just because he is a “nice guy” does not mean that David Brooks is not wrong, wrong, wrong!!! And a sanctimonious pedant.



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