Friday, April 06, 2012

David Brooks in Full-Scale Hack Mode

One thing you should never forget about David Brooks is that he's a partisan. He provides advice to political parties and candidates that comes in one of two flavors: Advice to the Republicans that he believes will help the Republicans, and advice to Democrats that he believes will help... the Republicans. I suspect that one of the reasons he is viewed as more moderate or centrist is that he sometimes criticizes his own party, but if you examine the criticisms you will find a treacly mix of Beltway conventional wisdom and Brooks' own conceptions of the things his party must change to strengthen its position at the polls. Brooks is consistently sloppy with his logic and sloppy to dishonest with his facts and, when push comes to shove, is happy to transcribe the latest party memo into column form.

Case in point, David Brooks on the budget differences between the Paul Ryan plan and the Obama Administration. Brooks writes,
It was no accident that Ryan fared so well. His budget, with its deep cuts and revolutionary reforms, might have frightened many House Republicans. But Ryan got critical help from House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, who turned over his conference room in the Capitol for a series of lectures to the entire Republican caucus on the looming debt crisis and Ryan's answer in his budget. (Some members returned to hear the lecture a second time.) When the budget committee approved the Ryan document, all 22 Republicans voted for it....

While that was a blow to Obama, he would still have the commanding position in a debate with Ryan. He's president and commander in chief. Ryan is a House committee chairman. There's a difference. Obama has the biggest megaphone and gets the most attention. The media, while critical of Obama's budget, are largely on his side ideologically. Press attacks on Ryan are inevitable. Indeed, they've begun. Obama can change the subject and drag the media off with him.
Oh, sorry, that was actually Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. Barnes lets us in on something Brooks himself keeps secret,
Ryan personally lobbied conservative talkers, including Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, columnists such as David Brooks of the New York Times, think tanks, reporters, policy experts, and anyone else Ryan could get to sit down with him.
When you look at what Brooks actually says and writes, the biggest difference from Barnes' earlier argument is the byline because... they're both stumping for Ryan. Here's Brooks:
BROOKS: (Laughing) You know, what's actually interesting is how Paul Ryan has become, sort of from being the edge of the Republican Party to being the center. Though, what was interesting is how much he got attacked from the right for this budget because at no time over the next 10 years does it actually balance the budget. It increases spending by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years and increases spending about 3 percent a year.

So there's a lot of spending in there. There's a lot of government in there. But at least he has gone farther than anybody else. And it doesn't tell how he's going to pay for everything, but he's gone farther than anybody else to getting us to avoid a fiscal catastrophe. And so, for that - it's not my perfect budget - but for that I think he deserves a lot of credit. And it's an enormous political risk for the Republican Party for which I think they're to be saluted.
When confronted with a few of the realities of the Ryan plan, "a Republican budget that continues $5.4 trillion in the Bush tax cuts and then, on top of that, adds $4.6 trillion in tax cuts by cutting the top rate", and the plan's lack of specifics, Brooks huffs,
Well, you know, first of all, it doesn't eviscerate government. As I mentioned, it goes up 3 percent a year. It's only 13 percent over the next 10 years, less than what Obama is proposing. But it is a serious budget. It is a budget that gets us in the direction of not having a fiscal catastrophe. If the Democrats can come up with a budget, their own budget, which gets us in the direction of avoiding a fiscal catastrophe, then we can compare two plans.

But so far, we have one plan.
So... we can compare the Ryan "plan" to the Obama "proposal" to compare how much growth Ryan and Obama are respectively projecting for government spending over the next decade, but when it comes down to policy details the Obama "proposal" isn't a "plan" and thus cannot be compared to Ryan's "plan". Talk about your semantic games. But the games do Brooks the favor of avoiding having to address the Ryan plan's unworkability - it's a fantasy created for people like Brooks who prattle about "avoiding a fiscal catastrophe" but who don't have an appreciable interest in or understanding of how an economy works.1

A more honest columnist might address the facts, attempting a direct comparison of the Ryan and Obama budgets, noting where they exhibit common ground, noting the areas in which they differ. Consider, for example, Ezra Klein,
You would never know from the rhetoric in President Obama's budget speech that there are broad swaths of government policy on which he and Paul Ryan mostly agree. But if you look at their budgets, there's actually a surprising amount of convergence: Neither man's budget makes any changes to Social Security. Both budgets are content to find their savings elsewhere. Another: Both men have proposed capping Medicare's rate of growth at GDP+.5% (that is to say, Medicare's budget could grow by however fast the economy grew, plus half a percentage point. So if the economy grew by 3%, Medicare's budget could increase by 3.5%). They would hold Medicare to that growth rate in different ways, but, over the past year, they have actually converged on how much spending is appropriate in Medicare.

That's a change from past years. Ryan's 2010 Roadmap included major reforms to Social Security, including private accounts. His previous budget featured much more dramatic reforms to Medicare, including a much lower growth rate. But Ryan has backed off of his cuts to seniors. It is, after all, an election year.

Today, the difference in the two party's visions is really in their plans for everything else: Ryan's budget increases defense spending, cuts taxes on the rich, and pays for all that -- and for his deficit reduction -- with deep cuts to programs for the poor and to the basic services the federal government carries out. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that 62 percent of Ryan's cuts are to programs for the poor. (Graph.)

Obama's budget, meanwhile, features large tax increases on the rich, some cuts to the defense budget, some cuts to government services, and relatively few cuts to programs for the poor. Consequently, his budget has somewhat less deficit reduction than Ryan does over the next 10 years.
Klein offers a thorough, substantive examination of how Ryan believes his plan compares to the President's, concluding,
The two parties have clear and contrasting fiscal visions: Ryan offers more deficit reduction, large tax cuts, and higher defense spending, and he pays for it through large cuts to programs for the poor and other government services. Obama offers somewhat less deficit reduction, somewhat lower defense spending, significantly higher taxes on the rich, and much less in cuts to programs for the poor and basic government services.

Ryan thinks his budget is better than Obama’s, and Obama thinks his budget is better than Ryan’s. But in terms of where the two budgets spend and cut, and who they tax, there’s no real disagreement here.
In short, contrary to Brooks' claim, there are two budgets you can compare, and although neither side would be prompt to admit it there's a lot of common ground between the two proposals. Why? Because there are only so many sources of tax revenue, and there are only so many areas of spending that can be subjected to significant cuts. But understanding economics? Comparing proposals? Examining the truth of what each side is saying? Not Brooks' style.
Obama cast himself as the fiscal moderate who embraced the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles approach. (Perhaps we were all asleep during the Simpson-Bowles-Obama consciousness tour.) Then he unleashed every 1980s liberal cliché in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists.
When it comes to the facts, Brooks frequently does appear to be asleep. Let's remind ourselves of the history,
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform was a bipartisan panel created in February 2010 to find ways to reduce the mounting federal debt. On Dec. 3, 2010, a plan put forward by the panel’s two chairmen, Erskine Bowles and Alan K. Simpson, won the support of 11 of its 18 members. That fell short of the supermajority of 14 needed to send a proposal to Congress for a vote....

In the months that followed, President Obama, who had created the commission, several times spoke approvingly of the Simpson-Bowles plan’s general approach of combining spending cuts and tax increases. But Mr. Obama never embraced the specifics of the plan. And it had been rejected by the House Republicans who were on the panel, including Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the head of the House budget committee.

Nevertheless, "Simpson-Bowles" became a shorthand phrase used by political observers pushing for a "grand bargain" that would reduce the government’s projected long-term deficits.
Sometimes I wonder if he has heard of the paper, but Brooks might consider picking up an occasional copy of the New York Times so that he can keep up with the basic facts. Heck, he might have even caught this column, about how a certain President named Obama was negotiating with a certain Republican named John Boehner to broker a budgetary "grand bargain" - that is to say, a Simpson-Bowles-type resolution to the parties' budget differences.
Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner, the House speaker, have been quietly working on another. They suddenly seem close to a deal.

There’s a lot you don’t know about these two Grand Bargains. But they probably have the elements that have been part of just about every recent bipartisan debt proposal: some sort of tax reform that lowers overall rates while raising revenue by closing loopholes; cuts in the level of entitlement spending without much fundamental reform; a freeze on domestic discretionary spending. Mostly, there will be vagueness. The specifics of what exactly will be cut and who will be taxed will not be filled in.
The author of that column was... oh my. David Brooks? I guess he wrote it in his sleep.

So Brooks' first argument, that Obama has never embraced a Simpson-Bowles-type approach to the budget deficit, is pure nonsense, refuted by his own words. What about this "social Darwinist" stuff? Unbelievable:
Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.
Actually, social Darwinism is the sort of thinking you get from people like Charles Murray and David Brooks, when they argue that society functions more or less as a meritocracy and people are filtered into various social strata based upon their behaviors and aptitude. Brooks, for example, argues that a five-year-old's ability to resist grabbing a marshmallow as a high probability indicator of the child's future achievement, and adheres to the notion that we basically fall into a social and intellectual hierarchy by the end of high school. In Brooks' own words,
Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success.
No hints of "social Darwinism" there....

How does Brooks define "social Darwinism" when the President uses the term?
Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.
Brooks' logic, as such, appears to be that back in the 1940's some critics of eugenics used the term to criticize the racial policies of the Nazis and of European facists, and therefore any use of that term is tantamount to calling somebody a Nazi or a fascist. Brooks apparently also slept through the various attempts of right-wing commentators, including one of Brooks' colleagues, to associate eugenics with modern political liberalism / progressivism. President Obama was merely pointing out the fact that a lot of Republican budgetary policy is predicated upon the notion that the rich are more deserving than everybody else, a point Brooks does not actually attempt to refute. While the President did use a term that was intended to get listener's attention, and does implicate a historic association between social Darwinism and racially discriminatory policies, the President's use was far from outside the realm of ordinary political discourse. Argue that both sides can do better, and I'm with you. Argue that an allusion to social Darwinism is tantamount to calling somebody a fascist or eugenicist and you're displaying the conduct you're pretending to condemn.

Brooks whines,
Obama exaggerated these normal-sized differences into a Manichaean chasm. Under Ryan, Obama charged, 10 million college students would get their financial aid cut by $1,000, Alzheimer’s research would be slashed, 200,000 children would lose their chance to enter Head Start.

Where did Obama get these specifics? He imagined them. He imposed some assumptions that are nowhere to be found in the Ryan budget. He compared Ryan’s reduced spending increases with proposed growth, not current levels.
Back to Ezra Klein, first on Pell Grants,
Ryan attacks the president’s record, but he doesn’t debate the president’s numbers. Here’s what Ryan said about Pell grants in his initial budget release:
The administration’s budget pushes Pell Grant spending toward unsustainable rates, contributing to tuition inflation and inhibiting upward mobility and access to better opportunities.
There’s more programmatic detail on page 86 and 87 of this document. The bottom line is that the two sides agree: Ryan thinks Obama is spending too much on Pell grants, and Obama thinks Ryan is spending too little. This is, again, a debate over description, not about numbers.
Brooks also, in effect, lies about the President's argument. The President did not say, "Ryan's plan specifies the following cuts...", he instead pointed out that the cuts had to come from somewhere and that if you considered those areas in which Ryan was ruling out cuts or increasing spending, the implications were quite obvious:
Now, you can anticipate Republicans may say, well, we’ll avoid some of these cuts -- since they don’t specify exactly the cuts that they would make. But they can only avoid some of these cuts if they cut even deeper in other areas. This is math. If they want to make smaller cuts to medical research that means they’ve got to cut even deeper in funding for things like teaching and law enforcement. The converse is true as well. If they want to protect early childhood education, it will mean further reducing things like financial aid for young people trying to afford college.
Brooks admits up front that Obama's argument is essentially true,
It should be said at the outset that the Ryan budget has some disturbing weaknesses, which Democrats are right to identify. The Ryan budget would cut too deeply into discretionary spending. This could lead to self-destructive cuts in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility. Moreover, the Ryan tax ideas are too regressive. They make tax cuts for the rich explicit while they hide any painful loophole closings that might hurt Republican donors.
That is, Brooks knows that the Ryan budget is an exercise in mendacity that deliberately obscures or omits mention of the benefits cuts it intends for the poor and middle class. Brooks attempts to balance the mendacity by implying that the Ryan plan is also hiding from the wealthy the closing of tax loopholes that they would prefer remain open, but... the cuts are an explicit part of the plan, even if not specified, while the loophole closings remain theoretical. Brooks can accuse the President of being unfair in addressing the reality of Ryan's budget cuts, and where the money must come from, but the President is correct - we're talking simple math. Brooks instructs us that the Ryan plan can be anticipated to cut "programs that boost social mobility" and "scientific research", but his head explodes when the President describes the very programs he admits would have to be cut?

While contending that the Ryan plan allows for modest growth of the government over time, Brooks either has no understanding of the significance of the Ryan plan's projections or is choosing to be dishonest about the implications. The three big areas in which the government can make cuts are Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security and the military. We know that Ryan supports significant increases in military spending. If you don't want to cut spending, you have to increase revenues. We know that Ryan favors massive tax cuts, primarily for the benefit of the wealthy. Meanwhile, tje cost of Medicare and Social Security are projected to grow at a rate significantly in excess of inflation. If you crunch Ryan's numbers, in order to maintain the size of government he proposes, you must slash government spending, including making massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In a best case scenario for the Ryan plan, either those cuts are implemented or the deficit goes through the roof.

Courtesy of Barnes we already know that Brooks and Ryan are in communication, with Ryan actively and successfully enlisting Brooks to promote his ideas, so how hard would it be for Brooks to call Ryan and ask him, "The President says you would have to make massive cuts to college financial aid, Alzheimer's research and Head Start for your numbers to work, and it does appear that you would have to make massive cuts to scientific research and programs that boost social mobility - so tell me, how are you going to protect Alzheimer's research, college financial aid and Head Start from your budget cuts, and if you don't cut those programs exactly what will you be cutting?" The fact that he didn't do exactly that is quite telling. He's not interested in those facts.

One of the most bizarre episodes of the past year was when Politifact branded the truthful statement, that Paul Ryan's plan to privatize and voucherize Medicare would end the program as we know it, as the "lie of the year". Even Brooks cannot be so obtuse to have slumbered through the controversy over Politfact's gaffe - when even the National Review publishes arguments that the Politifact claim is absurd, you should be able to figure out that it has problems.
The Ryan plan is a deep, serious reform — it ends some of the program’s major features, and if traditional-Medicare supporters see those features as the core of the program, it’s fair for them to say it ends the program. And regarding point three, as Matthew Yglesias points out, only the elderly are eligible for Medicare, so it makes sense to use the elderly in ads, even if today’s elderly aren’t the ones affected.
In addressing Ryan's Medicare proposals, Brooks does exactly what you would expect of him - he ignores the facts, omits mention of the controversy, and substitutes a fallacious appeal to Politifact's (purported) authority for any actual discussion of the facts and realities of Ryan's plan.

Brooks next argues that the Medicare reforms Ryan presently proposes are softer and cuddlier than the ones he has proposed in the past - but expresses that at its core Ryan's plan remains intent on voucherizing and privatizing Medicare. You can see why Brooks prefers an appeal to authority to addressing the facts, because on the issue of "ending Medicare as we know it", they remain on the President's side. Brooks specific defenses of Ryan's revised plan reveal at best an astonishing display of credulousness and at worst the mendacity his political analysis so often betrays:
He made a series of specific accusations that have been easily swatted away by the Ryan defenders: That the Ryan plan would allow the insurance companies to cherry-pick the healthiest seniors (in fact, there are specific passages in the plan forbidding that); the Ryan plan would mean lower benefits for seniors (in fact, the plan would guarantee seniors the equivalent of current benefits while giving them other options).
Brooks starts by misrepresenting what the President said,
The way these private insurance companies save money is by designing and marketing plans to attract the youngest and healthiest seniors -- cherry-picking -- leaving the older and sicker seniors in traditional Medicare, where they have access to a wide range of doctors and guaranteed care.
Brooks implies that the President means that insurance companies would be able to prohibit certain seniors from choosing their plans, but that was not the President's contention. How does Brooks propose that the Ryan plan would "forbid" the type of plan design and marketing that the President describes? Do I hear... crickets? If it is as easy to refute the President's argument as Brooks claims, why does he find it necessary to misrepresent the argument?

In terms of Brooks' conceit that the Ryan plan would not result in the loss of benefits, the President in fact argued,
Instead of being enrolled in Medicare when they turn 65, seniors who retire a decade from now would get a voucher that equals the cost of the second cheapest health care plan in their area. If Medicare is more expensive than that private plan, they’ll have to pay more if they want to enroll in traditional Medicare. If health care costs rise faster than the amount of the voucher -- as, by the way, they’ve been doing for decades -- that’s too bad. Seniors bear the risk. If the voucher isn’t enough to buy a private plan with the specific doctors and care that you need, that's too bad.
In other words, if we pretend money is not an issue every senior could buy into Medicare, but the Ryan plan deliberately caps the subsidy for premiums, both in terms of inflation and in terms of relative cost, such that in relatively short order the premium will be well below the projected cost of Medicare. Seniors who cannot afford the extra cost will lose benefits. And as the President noted, healthier seniors will opt for lower cost plans, sickly seniors who can afford it will find a way to buy into Medicare, and the net result will be that Medicare-level benefits will be less and less affordable. Once again, Brooks misrepresents the statement and issues. And once again, Brooks offers no actual rebuttal.

Brooks finishes with a typically platitudinous display of Beltway "wisdom",
The first truth is that we will have to do these big things to avoid a fiscal calamity. The second truth is there is no one party solution; there has to be a merger of respectable ideas. The third truth is that gimmicky speeches obscure the president’s best character and make it seem as if he doesn’t understand the scope of the calamity looming in front of us.
The first truth is that ten year budget plans are nothing but an exercise in gimmickry - no present Congress can bind a future Congress, so the only budgets that count are one- to two-year plans. Even if we pretend that ten year budget projections are well-grounded in reality, and can be relied upon even if we have unexpected costs or crises (a financial industry collapse, a war, a financial bubble, a prolonged recession in Europe...), today's budgetary rectitude can result in tomorrow's budgetary recklessness. Brooks apparently slumbered through the manner in which the Clinton-era budget surplus was used to justify the Bush tax cuts - cuts that remain a huge contributing factor in our present budget deficit.

For all of Brooks' feigned umbrage at the President's having "exaggerated the differences between his budget and the Ryan budget," you can't help but wonder what planet he's from. Brooks thrives on exaggeration and lives by the false dichotomy. When Brooks examines political discourse, does he truly see one side as presenting a clinical, objective presentation of the other side's policy proposals? No heat, only light? Exaggeration is part of how the game of politics is played, and Brooks has to know that.

The second truth is that politics and policy are not the same thing. In a two party system, sometimes one political party or the other will have the better policies. Sometimes neither will have good policies. In either of those contexts, political compromise will result in the implementation of bad policy. If Brooks means to argue that with a Republican majority in the House and the continuation of the filibuster in the Senate, you must often sacrifice good policy in order to achieve political consensus necessary to get things done, true enough - that's politics. But that's anything but satisfying if you're interested in advancing the best policies. The compromises that are made to get the bare majority necessary to pass contentious legislation usually reflect the worst of Congress - greed, avarice, the sacrifice of good policy in the name of self-interest - and usually weaken the resulting legislation.

The third truth is that you can count on partisan political commentators to act as partisans, and Brooks' demagoguery in his own column is far worse than anything he accuses the President of having done. And that remains true even if you take Brooks' representations at face value rather that looking at what the President actually said.

David Brooks: Beltway wisdom at its finest....
1. Update: Via Dan Larison, here's Bruce Bartlett's take on Ryan's budget:
In short, looking only at the tax side of Ryan’s plan, he is anticipating enactment of an extraordinarily ambitious tax reform on top of the most ambitious budget cutting effort ever enacted. He would sharply cut outlays for every major program except Social Security and national defense. Every governmental function one can think of would be virtually abolished except for Medicare, Social Security and defense. A key reason for the severity of these cuts, of course, is that Ryan would cut taxes at the same time he is cutting spending. To achieve balance with lower than projected revenues requires even larger cuts in spending.

I do not believe any of this will ever happen or could ever happen. I think Ryan has an undeserved reputation for seriousness in budget matters. The word “fantasy” would better apply. As Prof. Calvin Johnson of the University of Texas law school told me, the tax side of Ryan’s plan “is floating in the clouds without any connection to earth or reality.” And of course accomplishing what he hopes to do on the spending side is even more fanciful.

In my opinion, the Ryan budget should be seen as nothing more than a PR document for Republicans so they can say they have a plan to balance the budget, cut taxes, and cure the common cold. It may serve that narrow purpose, although many Republicans are saying that it doesn’t go far enough in slashing spending. I wish I could buy some of the stuff these guys are drinking or smoking.

Anyone can make up numbers that balance the budget while slashing taxes at the same time if they have no concern whatsoever for the proper functioning of government, no concern for the hardship it would cause, and are in a position to order the CBO to accept those numbers at face value. Coming up with specific legislative changes that will actually implement such a vision, getting it enacted, and accepting the consequences is something else altogether.
Imagine what Brooks' response might have been had Obama been that blunt.

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