Saturday, May 2, 2009

Culture War Over Capitalism?

As far as I can tell Arthur Brooks deserves his reputation as one of the foremost thinkers among self-identified "conservatives." (Who Really Cares? and Gross National Happiness: Both serious and provocative books.) So I was more than a bit surprised to see Brooks' name at the top this depressing amalgamation of political platitudes, appearing on the opinion page of Thursday's Wall Street Journal. Take this gem of insight:
Despite President Barack Obama's early personal popularity, we can see the beginnings of [a culture war over capitalism" in the "tea parties" that have sprung up around the country. In these grass-roots protests, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans have joined together to make public their opposition to government deficits, unaccountable bureaucratic power, and a sense that the government is too willing to prop up those who engaged in corporate malfeasance and mortgage fraud.

To the detriment of serious debate, Dr. Brooks is (1) dressing up a pathetic marketing ploy as a "grass-roots" movement, and, (2) suggesting that "government deficits" and "unaccountable bureaucratic power" are somehow an invention of Barak Obama's, put into practice in the first 100 days of his Presidency.

Now, if Dr. Brooks wasn't one of the few people in this country in a position to arrest this our imminent decline into a one-party system, I really wouldn't mind seeing such stale ahistorical nonsense pop up in the WSJ op-ed page. After all, *t happens. But, in fact, Dr. Brooks is a person from whom we might otherwise have expected new thinking in place of hollow partisan blather.

"Unaccountable bureaucratic power"? I fully expect that Dr. Brooks is aware that it was Richard Nixon who in 1971 instituted economy-wide price controls for the U. S. of A.--price controls that, incidentally, were the real cause of the long-gas lines that accompanied the 1973 oil embargo, a hardship that most Americans still blame on malevolent foreigners. (See here for why that's a problem.)

"Government deficits"? I fully expect that Dr. Brooks is aware that under Ronald Reagan, in 1983 to be precise, federal spending was a greater share of GDP than in other other year since World War II. And as for George W. Bush...

Wait, do we really have to do this? Honestly, patronizing the general public--readers of the Wall Street Journal no less!--as if us little folks can't remember events from six months ago, is appalling. It plays right into the hands of the short of overheated partisan rhetoric from the other side of the aisle that has been popping up since the Specter defection, for example in today's NYT.

Yes, Dr. Brooks, we do remember that the bulk of the auto industry bailout was initiated under President George W. Bush. Ditto actions to "prop up those who engaged in corporate malfeasance and mortgage fraud." We read the newspaper (well, a few of us), we think, and we remember... In the unforgettable words of George W. Bush and The Who, "we don't get fooled again."

The challenges facing this country are not partisan. They are not even really political. But they are real and they are urgent. As my essay in the current issue of The American Interest, co-authored with Zoltan Acs, makes clear, I am in absolute agreement with Dr. Brooks on one point: the nation's political discourse benefits greatly from the advancement of "tangible, enterprise-oriented policy alternatives." I also agree that "intellectual organizations like [the American Enterprise Institute, of which Dr. Brooks in President] have a constructive role" to play in policy debates. But, if Thursday's WSJ editorial is any indication, the direction in which Dr. Brooks is heading the AEI isn't constructive. It's not even intellectual. It's just pitiful.

Bottom line: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more. In fact, I'm so mad I might just... organize a tea party.


  1. I agree that the Chrysler case is more about fighting over leftover scraps. And it's not obvious that Fiat is any better equipped to manage Chrysler than the UAW or the government, but isn't this fundamentally a case about the rule of law? As Greg Mankiw writes: "Is he [the President] trying to reorganize insolvent firms while, as much as possible, preserving the rights of stakeholders as established under existing contracts? Or is he trying to achieve a "fair" outcome as he judges it, regardless of preexisting rules and agreements? I fear it may be the latter, in which case politics may start to trump the rule of law."

    Even if this isn't about fairness, if the bankruptcy code (specifically section 363) is used to rewrite existing contracts, won't this make potential investors skittish about buying bonds in a distressed company in the future?

  2. Well now that would have been an interesting thing to hear more about from Arthur Brooks. Rule of law, yea or nea? I'm signing up for "yea"!

    My hunch (I confess I need to brush up a bit on my knowledge of bankrupcy law... have to work on my Hungarian too) is that this ends up being a not so-cut-and-dried case of "impose rule of law" or not. But I am open to further edification. Furthermore, would we all have been better off if George W. had set bankruptcy for G.M. and Chrysler into motion months ago? Probably so. But that did not happen.

    What really worries me about the Brooks column is it actually undermines the ability of others to make non-comedic arguments in favor entrepreneurship and philanthropy as core drivers of past and future development in the United States.