Friday, April 24, 2009

The Bamboozling of David Brooks

In his most recent column, David Brooks writes of the remarkably conservative nature of President Obama’s recent pronouncements on the economy. Rather than sounding like and “economic liberal” – concerned above all with the equalization of wealth – President Obama “sounded like a cultural conservative.”

“America once had a responsible economic culture, Obama argued. People used to save their pennies to buy their dream houses. Banks used to lend by ‘traditional standards.’ Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to stick to their ‘traditional mandate.’ Companies like AIG used to limit themselves to the ‘traditional insurance business.’

“But these traditions broke down, Obama continued. They were swamped by irresponsibility. Businesspeople chased ‘short-term profits’ over long-term investments. Smart people spent more time manipulating numbers and symbols rather than actually making things. Americans consumed too much and saved too little. America became corrupted by ‘excessive debt,’ ‘reckless speculation’ and ‘fleeting profits.’”

Brooks continues that “if Republicans aren’t nervous, they should be. Obama is arguing for his activist agenda not on the basis of class-consciousness, which is alien to America, but as a defense of middle-class morality, which is central to it. Obama is positioning the Democrats as the party of order, responsibility and small-town values. If he pulls this mantle away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics.”

Tut tut, David. We are now coming out of a period when the central message of the Republican Party – which was regnant in the Presidency during twenty of the past twenty-nine years – was a that of “individual responsibility,” “family values,” and the valorization of the traditional virtues over forms of liberal irresponsibility. Over that same time period what we have decisively witnessed is the overall decline of all of these desiderata. Whether in the economy, the role of the family, adherence to traditional religious belief, or the health of “small towns,” we have witnessed a steady and breathtakingly rapid decline of every measure of “traditional” ways of life. Relying on the virtues purportedly generated by the “Free Market” rather than “Big Government,” Republicans were willing to accommodate themselves to the myriad ways that the expansion of the particular market system they generally supported actively undermined the very virtues to which they were simultaneously paying lip service. Now we are being told that it is in fact Big Government that can supply the necessary underpinnings for shoring up “traditional values.” Really? Given this woeful disconnect between the rhetoric of a regnant Party and the actual facts on the ground in the world, why should we credit for a moment the extolling of “traditional values” in one speech, now by a Democrat? Yes, Brooks is right that Republicans have reason to be fearful, inasmuch as his “traditionalist” rhetoric represents a serious political threat. But, should conservatives be heartened? At the very least we might be curious whether there seems to be evidence of “money” where the President’s mouth is. And, by this test, I see as little evidence of an actual commitment to the realization of a traditional culture that actually supports traditional values of the sort commended by President Obama as I have in the past thirty years dominated by “conservatives.”

In his Georgetown speech, President Obama argued that the new rock-solid foundation of the economy would be built on five pillars: increased regulation of the financial industry; increased investment in education emphasizing science and technology; policies that will encourage alternative “renewable” energy; a plan that will move toward universal health care; and savings in the budget to bring down the national debt. Where in this list do we see firm and striking evidence of a turn to “traditional values” and greater “responsibility?” In every case – certainly in the particulars – what we are actually being offered is further expansion of the existing order, an order that fosters the opposite of the kind of culture that cultivates and reinforces “order, responsibility and small-town values.” For starters, where is the recommendation here that will encourage the preservation of small towns? Where are the commendations of policies that will reverse the tendencies toward abstraction, generational neglect, short-term thinking and the meritocratic race for material markers of success that have been so instrumental in fostering a culture of disorder, irresponsibility and values of itinerancy and placelessness?

To take just a few examples, increased regulation of the financial industry will not in itself promote more “responsibility.” Many have observed that even before the crisis that the financial industry was one of the most regulated industries in the country: in part what was lacking was the political desire or will to enforce the regulation in the midst of what appeared to be a financial boom, but more fundamentally it is the very structure of the current financial and broader economic system that encourages the very opposite of responsibility. The abstraction of the financial markets – the separation of “producers” from “consumers” and the geographical separation between production and consumption – induces a profound ignorance about the actual effects of our activities as “consumers” or “investors,” and is the very precondition for the most profound form of ignorance and irresponsibility. Where in the President’s policy proposals do we see efforts to reconnect products with the localities from which they are derived – for instance, an effort to encourage banks to retain mortgages based within their localities and for which they will be responsible for the lives of those loans? That’s the kind of policy that encourages “small-town values” of thrift and responsibility – precisely because those activities are lodged in a place – and it is just this kind of activity that the President is in no way whatsoever interested in promoting, that would in fact go against his deepest inclinations to promote separation and placelessness.

Or, take the commendation of a policy encouraging investments in renewable energies. The background assumption in this proposal is to “incentivize” the market to come up with energy solutions that will allow us to continue to live and act in precisely the way we have been living. Encouraging the expansion of our highly mobile and disassociated lives is at its heart the very source of the evisceration of small towns that are the source of “small town values.” Moreover, Obama encourages the creation of “home-grown” alternatives, which has meant for him the promotion of further increases in corn-based ethanol (after all, he was a Senator from Illinois…). This form of energy production is demonstrably inefficient and destructive of the farmland on which it is practiced. What is above all missing in the various proposals relating to energy is even the passing suggestion that we should consider policies that encourage us to change our behavior – living closer to the places where we work and shop, driving less, being more invested in our particular places and communities. Effectively Obama is suggesting – just as much as George Bush the First – that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”

Or, consider his argument on behalf of investments in education in science and technology. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Obama framed this discussion as an appeal for Americans to begin “making things” again – to become makers rather than manipulators of numbers. However, what this proposal effectively commends is the actual relief from an emphasis on “making things.” It is another form of manipulation – in this case, the manipulation of nature – that is aimed at liberating us in many of its forms from responsibility to the consequences of our actions. Science is actually a replacement for responsibility: rather than being called upon to change our activities where they prove destructive, we aspire to the creation of technologies that will relieve the worst effects of our damaging actions. Obama’s endorsement of an abortion regime is one major indicator of this fact: our ability to clinically end a child’s life is the desirable means by which we escape responsibility for our sexual behavior. If Obama were serious about “responsibility” in this domain, he would encourage ways and patterns of life that encourage courtship and marriage. At the very least, he might roll out a serious program in which the resources of the Federal government would be devoted to making it possible for every mother who carried an unwanted baby to give that child up for adoption, cost free. But that would be to ask people to act responsibly. Similarly, in many other instances - whether global warming, oil depletion, the consequences of industrial farming, a bad financial system (one go on almost indefinitely) – the solution lies always in devising some mechanism (technological or regulatory) that will manage the effects our irresponsibility, not call on us to change our actions in ways that encourage responsibility. There is remarkable consistency in the willful desire to avoid considering the meaning and consequences of our actions, and of calling for the fostering (or even outright new creation) of those culturally sound conditions that foster traditional values.

Where is there a commendation for "investments" in education that promote responsibility and stewardship? That encourage students to return to their places of origin and give back to their home communities? That discourage careerism based on the prospects of outsized financial rewards, and the willingness to cut moral corners that was so evident among our best and brightest who were working for the discredited and bankrupt Wall Street firms? Laws and regulations won't foster these sorts of "values": at best, in a morally bankrupt environment, all they will do is foster extensive efforts to get around regulation.

In looking more closely at the disconnect between words and actions, there is essentially NO difference between the Republican presidencies of the past thirty years and Obama’s administration of “change.” Indeed, there is no fundamental difference in the masterful effort to obfuscate the expansion of a society of disconnection and abstraction with the rhetoric of “traditional values.” There IS a cynical effort to marshal political support by means of widespread sympathy with, even longing for, a society that generates and reinforces those political values, even as proposed policies are designed at every turn to undermine the conditions that might actually foster the sorts of values that are being rhetorically valorized. “Conservatives” are rightly frustrated and stymied because President Obama has indeed stolen from their own playbook. However, Obama stole not only a page, but the entire book, including the manual that lays out not only the tactic, but the endgame. Thus, even as Obama won the nomination in part because he spoke the anxieties of the ordinary working classes by suggesting that he would seek renegotiation of existing Free Trade agreements – even that he would reassess the entire Free Trade regime – more recently he has signaled his desire to continue business as usual, further increasing the separation of production from consumption and further eviscerating the stability of small towns that embody the values that he purportedly cherishes. No different from Reagan or Bush I or Clinton or Bush II before him: say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

The economic policy speech at Georgetown embodied exactly the same tactic as his earlier speech there (delivered without the Presidential prerogative of covering up the name of the Messiah) – to which he referred at the outset of his most recent speech. In that earlier speech – which I wrote about at the time, and in which I even had a minor role to play – Senator Obama began by criticizing then President Bush’s woeful failure to call for civic sacrifice after the attacks of 9/11. Instead, he pointed out, President Bush encouraged us to go shopping. Senator Obama spoke with rhetorical brilliance of the central need for a new civic ethic, one devoted the pursuit of the common good. And then – he gave us his proposals in the areas of energy reform. First, he said, there should be legislation to increase CAFE standards – that is, increase the minimum miles per gallon of automobiles. Second (and familiarly), he called for the increased production of ethanol. At the conclusion of the speech, I had the opportunity to pose a question to Senator Obama, in which I challenged him to articulate in what way his policies would result in any actual achievement of sacrifice and common good that he had so eloquently extolled in the first part of his speech. And, revealingly, Senator Obama at first hemmed and hawed, and finally answered that it wouldn’t be possible to ask people who were struggling so mightily with the high price of gas to change their behaviors – such as consider ways to live closer to work. The entire game was there in his answer – and smart folks like David Brooks should be in the forefront of demanding better answers than this sort. Yet, we can little expect those sorts of follow-up questions, since most of the President’s “conservative” critics essentially agree with the game. Thus they are shut out, even as they know he’s really one of them. Different crooner, same lyrics – the song remains the same.


The Eastvold Blog said...

Good for you, asking him a tough question! I may have voted for Obama, but I'm all for holding elected officials' feet to the fire once they're in office.

I agree with you about the kinds of changes our country needs - people living closer to work and driving less, banks taking responsibility for loans in the communities in which they're located, the revival of a sense of place and rootedness, etc. - but I wonder if you think any kind of government action can accomplish those goals. I'm not against "big government" per se, but it seems that government does some things better than others. It's easier for the government to regulate the financial industry, for example, than for it to get people to drive shorter distances each day. Sure, there are incentives that could nudge people in that direction, but I wonder if, in order to get the kind of results you (and I) would like, governments (federal, state, and local) would have to become much bigger and nosier than you're comfortable with.

Is it possible that Pres. Obama may be doing the best he can - promoting stricter regulation, trying to make our country more environmentally responsible (based on where we are now in terms of energy usage, not where we should be), and using the "bully pulpit" to tell people they need to make real sacrifices and not just engage in more "retail therapy"?

For instance, on the question of alternative energy sources: yes, we should be using less energy, not just cleaner energy. But the former will take a great deal of cultural (dare I say spiritual?) change, not just changes in policy and the economy. While that's happening, I think the only responsible thing to do is make sure the energy we are using now and will use in the near future harms the environment as little as possible - all the while reminding people that "going green" isn't enough, and that we have to cut down on consumption.

And of course there are some things government can do. I wish more of the stimulus money were being dedicated to constructing new mass transit options, particularly rail, rather than primarily fixing up highways we already have. That's probably my main complaint about how the governmental response to the crisis has proceeded thus far.


admin said...

"Where is there a commendation for "investments" in education that promote responsibility and stewardship? That encourage students to return to their places of origin and give back to their home communities?"

I have a good friend from Phoenix Arizona who went to medical school in Arizona. He currently is in ER residency in Syracuse, NY (an excellent program), because he could not get into the hyper-competitive Phoenix ER program that was crowded out by others from elite medical schools outside Arizona. The Phoenix ER program, which is run by the State of Arizona saw no problem with bringing in unrooted elites, and training them, though they may not hang around and go off to other cosmo shangri-la's. So instead my friend goes to up-state New York, so he can return to serve his home in Arizona, while some up-state New Yorker, can go to Arizona to serve another cosmo-locale. For all the claims of modern cosmo efficiency, it seems quite inefficient to me.

As to the comment that the last 30 years of Presidents has been quite indistinguishable, spot on. This is why I think Dough Kmeic's clingging to Obama makes sense from a Kmeic point-of-view. Obama is much more like Reagan than "conservatives" realise or care to admit.

Kevin J. Jones said...

The history department of my state's flagship university actively discourages those who have gone through its doctorate program from applying for tenure-track positions at the school.

This is surely a hindrance to the young locally-born or long-time residents who have the kind of consciousness of area history only a longtime local can acquire.

Mark said...

I think Peggy Noonan has also been bamboozled. But that is a digression. An expanding government takes away the power of the mediating structures of our society; those entities that stand between the individual and the state. I think of local communities, families, churches, civic and philanthropic organizations, businesses, etc. We are witnessing the biggest expansion of federal power. Being somewhat cynical, I see the Obama adminstration using the current financial debacle to exponentially increase the dependence of individuals on the federal government rather than the communities where they live, work and worship.