Decoding David Brooks

April 27, 2012   ·   2 Comments

Source: NYTX


By Marie Burns

Today New York Times columnist David Brooks calls fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman illiterate and useless. If Brooks writes his own headlines, he is not subtle about it, either. His column today is titled “Is Our Adults Learning?” And the big dummy who is not learning? And not teaching. And not doing anything useful. Ever. That would be Paul Krugman.

No, Brooks does not specifically mention Krugman. As Alex Pareene of Salon wrote recently, “The newspaper of record has a (supposedly unwritten) rule barring opinion columnists from criticizing one another by name. It would be unseemly. So you will never see columnist Paul Krugman specifically criticize something written by columnist David Brooks.” (Pareene’s second premise is not entirely true. Krugman has criticized Brooks by name in his blog several times.)

Brooks begins attacking Krugman in his lede paragraph in a way that is fairly hilarious:

In 2009, we had a big debate about whether to pass a stimulus package. Many esteemed and/or Nobel Prize-winning economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Larry Summers and Christina Romer argued that it would help lift the economy out of recession. Many other esteemed and/or Nobel Prize-winning economists like Robert Barro, Edward Prescott and James Buchanan argued that positive effects would be small and the package wouldn’t be worth the long-term cost.

Question: What other esteemed and/or Nobel Prize-winning economist … argued that the stimulus would help lift the economy out of recession? Answer: It’s the other guy writing on today’s New York Times op-ed page: Paul Krugman. No, Krugman didn’t just slip Brooks’ mind. Stiglitz, who both won the Nobel in economics and argued for the stimulus, is stuck as a stand-in for Krugman. Brooks wants you to think of Krugman. He just cannot say his name, a la Pareene’s rule, so he’s doing the next best thing: he’s serving up Prof. Stiglitz.

Let’s take a brief look at the anti-stimulus economists Brooks cites. Robert Barro is a Harvard economics professor and a fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institution at Stanford. He completely dismisses (as long as it’s convenient) the basics of Keynesian economics, which he contrasts unfavorably with “regular economics.” Barro would be a “regular economist.” He called the stimulus law “the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s.” Edward Prescott, a Nobel laureate, blames the current recession on “Obama shock”: that is, workers quit working because they knew Obama would just raise their taxes. James Buchanan, also a Nobel laureate, is a fellow at the conservative/libertarian Cato Institute and teaches at the Right Wing School of Economics at George Mason University. He is essentially opposed to government. Period. He believes it “stands in the way of public choice.”

Brooks writes, “We went ahead and spent the roughly $800 billion. What have we learned?

For certain, nothing.” Brooks’ rationale for his assertion that we have “learned nothing” is that “nobody’s mind has been changed” by the economic recovery that followed the stimulus. Gee, a guy who blames President Obama for a recession that began before he took office has not changed his mind? What a surprise. Brooks’ economists were ideologues before the stimulus and they are ideologues today. They explain away results that don’t fit their theories; they do not learn from empirical evidence.

Dean Baker writes today that Brooks’ motive is to “muddy the waters” to suggest that “there is … grounds for questioning the argument for stimulus.” That is true. But it’s more than that. Brooks really can’t abide the fact that his side is three shades of stupid and Krugman, Stiglitz, et al., were right all along. Before we get to librul rectitude, though, let’s look at Brooks’ “solution” to a problem that is frankly insoluble (getting crazy people to think rationally). Here Brooks turns to Jim Manzi, a businessman who founded Applied Predictive Technologies, a statistical business analysis software company. Manzi writes for the right-wing National Review and is a fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute.

Brooks, by the way, does not tell his readers about Manzi’s side jobs, nor does he mention the affiliations of his anti-stimulus geniuses. Subterfuge is Brooks’ style. But then subterfuge is a perfect methodology for a column criticizing a Person Who Shall Not Be Named.

According to Brooks,

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn…. Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomized trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on…. Manzi wants to infuse government with a culture of experimentation.

But Brooks and Manzi are wrong. Governments constantly test policies. Academics and other researchers test government policies, too. Pundits – unlike Brooks, I guess – constantly refer to the states as “laboratories of democracy.” That is, states pass laws that federal legislators and other policy makers look to as models for federal programs. Maybe Brooks has forgotten all about how RomneyCare became ObamaCare. RomneyCare would be Brooks’ “controlled experiment.” Something else Brooks would not want to mention just now. It is difficult to write a column when you have to keep hiding humungous facts that conflict with your argument. The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services conduct controlled tests regularly. Some of them are pretty big tests: “Medicare is wasting more than $8 billion on an experimental program that rewards providers of mediocre health care and is unlikely to produce useful results, federal investigators say in a new report,” wrote Robert Pear this week in the New York Times. It is difficult to write a column when you have to keep hiding humungous facts that conflict with your argument. Oh, I’m repeating myself. And I don’t know what Brooks thinks all those think tanks are doing when they come up with brilliant studies like the one by the Heritage Foundation that found that the nation’s poor were practically living in luxury. True these are after-the-fact studies, but they can drive policy. Case in point: just last week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor argued that the federal government should tax the poor in order to lower taxes on the rich. I’ll bet Cantor read that Heritage report. Or saw it reported out on Fox “News.”

Dean Baker, by the way, got a kick out of Brooks’ holding up pharmaceutical companies as prime examples of the efficacy of testing: “If Brooks ever read the paper he writes for,” Baker writes, “he would know that the pharmaceutical industry routinely misrepresents the results of its studies to exaggerate the effectiveness of its drugs and conceal evidence of harmful side effects.” You might say Big Pharma behaves a little like Brooks’ Nobel Prize-winning economists. They fudge results to come up with the answers they want.

So, back to what we have learned about the stimulus. Was it really “nothing,” as Brooks writes? Did the stimulus work? Was Paul Krugman right to advocate for the stimulus law? (Krugman, by the way, pushed for a much larger stimulus than the $814 billion that eventually passed into law, as did Christina Romer and Joe Stiglitz.) Well, yes it did, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, for one. And as USA Today reported in 2010, “Goldman Sachs, IHS Global Insight, JPMorgan Chase and Macroeconomic Advisers … say the stimulus boosted gross domestic product by 2.1% to 2.7%.” In addition, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s and a McCain backer, and Alan Blinder, former Fed vice chair, produced a detailed assessment:

Their conclusion: The fiscal stimulus created 2.7 million jobs and added $460 billion to gross domestic product. Unemployment would be 11% today if the stimulus hadn’t been passed and 16.5% if neither the fiscal stimulus nor the banks’ rescue had been enacted, according to Zandi and Blinder. ‘It’s pretty hard to deny that it had a measurable impact,’ Zandi said.

It is difficult to write a column when you have to keep hiding humungous facts that conflict with your argument.

Oddly enough, He Who Shall Not Be Named responded to Brooks this morning. In a post titled, “It’s All So Confusing” – a tribute to Brooks – Krugman cites Dean Baker’s remarks, then goes on to elaborate on why Brooks’ economists are in denial:

 It’s actually a trivial though telling point that this [anti-stimulus, anti-Keynesian] narrative requires fudging or outright lying about the point that prominent Keynesians warned in advance that the Obama stimulus was inadequate…. By any of the usual standards of evidence and debate, this has been a very one-sided victory for Keynesian ideas. If you want to understand why so many people refuse to see it that way, you have to turn to a political explanation.

Paul Krugman seems literate, doesn’t he? But words can be deceiving. Ask Brooks.

Marie Burns blogs at


Readers Comments (2)

  1. catsruleme says:

    Right on, as usual.

  2. maineprep says:

    Marie, it’s nice to see Dr. K getting a little love in the NYTX. Anyone who’s paid attention knows that he (and Frank Rich) kept hope alive during the darkest days of Bush/Cheney. By all means, let’s not give him good reviews on the basis of past performances, but what’s with the NYTX promoting the RT interview with Steve Keen that looks like a cross between a student film and an infomercial?



Reload Image

Mitt Romney in Manchester, NH