May 29, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Today in his New York Times column, David Brooks takes what he calls “a tour through history” to assess the federal government’s role in American economic life. According to Brooks, the U.S.’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, defined the federal government’s role as “sharply limited.” In “History According to Brooks,” we learn that Hamilton
and the people who followed in his path – the Whigs, the early Republicans and the early progressives – focused on long-term structural development, not on providing jobs right now. They had their sights on the horizon, building the infrastructure, education and research facilities required for future greatness. This nationalism also led generations of leaders to assume that there is a rough harmony of interests between capital and labor. People in this tradition reject efforts to divide the country between haves and have-nots. Finally, this nationalism meant that policy emphasized dynamism, and opportunity more than security, equality and comfort.
Why, I think there are lessons to be learned here, don’t you? Lesson 1: all you millions of jobless people: quit looking to the federal government for handouts. The government should be looking to “future greatness,” not worrying about you hapless ne’er-do-wells. Buck up! Think of the grandkids. Lesson 2: that “harmony between capital and labor”? – Capitalists are your friends, people. Can’t we all just get along? Stop this Occupy nonsense now. Be thankful to fatcats. They are the salvation of the nation, and the federal government’s reason for being. And Lesson 3: “haves and have-nots”? Shut up, you unpatriotic ninnies. That class warfare you lot are waging is un-American. If you must prattle on with your anti-federalist notions, we shall talk about such things only in “quiet rooms.” So get over yourselves. Forget your own “security, equality and comfort.” That is so selfish.
Now comes Brooks’ best trick. Watch Brooks slather a coat of rose-colored paint on about 150 years of American history: “Through the 19th century, the federal government consumed about 4 percent of the national gross domestic product in peacetime. Even through the New Deal, it consumed less than 10 percent. Meanwhile, America prospered.” (Emphasis added.)
Brooks cheerfully forgets that slavery was a part of of our economic system so essential that half the country chose to secede to preserve it. Over and above the profound immorality of slavery, it makes a lousy economic system. The same goes for a system that, after Reconstruction, institutionalized racial discrimination. Ditto for an economic system that treated nearly half of the population (married women) as chattel and refused to allow more than half of the population (all women, along with certain ethnic minorities) to fully participate in economic affairs. An economic matrix that limits full participation to a privileged few minimizes its potential for economic growth. Brooks effectively asserts that when the titans of industry prospered, “America prospered.” My ass.
Brooks also sweeps under his prosperity theology prayer rug the federal legal system wherein “the [Supreme Court] Justices became accomplices in the excesses of the Gilded Age. In a series of cases … the Court thwarted attempts by state and local governments to restrain commercial and corporate interests.” This conservative judicial philosophy led to what judicial historians call “the Lochner era, ” after the 1905 case in which “The Court basically asserted that most attempts to regulate the private marketplace, or to protect workers, were unconstitutional.” That, dear friends, is what Brooks calls “economic nationalism.” (Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker, May 2012) So thanks to you, Alexander Hamilton, and to all your philosophical descendents. “America prospered,” my ass.
As efficiently as Brooks’ so-called economic nationalism aided and abetted the privileged few, it could have worked a lot better even for them. As economist Francois Furstenberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last July,
Much like our time, the Gilded Age was an era of economic booms and busts. None was greater than the financial crisis that began in September 1873…. For 65 straight months, the U.S. economy shrank – the longest such stretch in U.S. history…. With laissez-faire ideas dominant and the political system in stasis, economic decline persisted…. The vast disparities between rich and poor, the spectacular concentration of wealth amassed by the richest Americans in the previous two generations, and the inability of government policies to mitigate the crisis brought the nation to the edge of class warfare and social disintegration.
“America proposed,” my ass.
Brooks does acknowledge that the progressive era, the New Deal and the Great Society righted a few wrongs, but he turns right around and claims these efforts quickly became “corrosive” and “excessive”:
In each case, a good impulse was taken to excess. A government that was energetic and limited was turned into one that is omnidirectional and fiscally unsustainable. A government that was trusted and oriented around long-term visions is now distrusted because it tries to pander to the voters’ every momentary desire. A government that devoted its resources toward future innovation and development now devotes its resources to health care for the middle-class elderly…. If the U.S. doesn’t modernize its governing institutions, the nation will stagnate. The ghost of Hamilton will be displeased.
What Brooks little economic history ignores/hides/refutes is that liberal efforts to control capitalistic greed led to the country’s only sustained period of prosperity, which began in the 1950s and started to wane in the late 1970s and early 1980s as conservatives rejiggered the laws to privilege the “haves.” That society, which Paul Krugman describes as a “paradise lost…, was a society without extremes of wealth or poverty, a society of broadly shared prosperity, partly because strong unions, a high minimum wage, and a progressive tax system helped limit inequality.” Let’s be clear: this era of the nation’s greatest prosperity was the direct result of changes in federal law – changes that favored the many over the few and that regulated banks, corporations and monetary flow. A Congress usually controlled by Democrats, with a Republican minority and Republican presidents willing to work with them, and a relatively liberal “activist Supreme Court” which upheld those laws, were the engines of the prosperity train. In his “tour through history,” David Brooks completely ignores this golden era of prosperity – a prosperity only made possible because of federal law. Had conservatives not been able to quickly undermine the positive effects of civil rights legislation, that broad prosperity would have expanded to include huge new populations: women and ethnic minorities. Instead, women and minorities now share – albeit more equally – in a much smaller piece of a less-than-optimal American pie.
I cannot recall that I have ever read – outside some of the hilarious off-the-cuff pronouncements of Michele Bachman and Sarah Palin – a more flagrant misunderstanding of this nation’s history. To the extent that it is entirely wrong, that it is upside-down and backwards, Brooks’ column today is a singular work of historical malpractice. A “tour through history”? No. But a “tour de farce”? Yes. As such, Brooks has written a column that is totally awesome.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com