Monday, February 15, 2016

Brooks v. Krugman

I usually try to steer away from Presidential politics, and especially from commentators' habit of analyzing character. But last week's New York Times had two particularly interesting columns that invite breaking the rule: "I Miss Barack Obama" by David Brooks and "How America Was Lost" by Paul Krugman.

As we contemplate a Clinton, Sanders, Trump, or Cruz presidency, we may well continue the pattern that each president's main accomplishment is to burnish nostalgia for his (so far) predecessor. Brooks is feeling that.

And he's right. Say what you will about policy, the Obama Administration has, as Brooks points out,  been staffed by people of basic personal integrity and remarkably scandal-free. (In the conventional sense of "scandal." I'm sure some commenters will contend that the bailouts, Lois Lerner, the EPA, and Dodd-Frank and Obamacare are "scandals," but that's not what we're talking about here.) On economic issues, his main advisers have been thoughtful, credentialed, mainstream Democrats. Obama's speeches on many topics have, as David says, been full of "basic humanity," even if one disagrees with his solutions.

Brooks finishes,
No, Obama has not been temperamentally perfect. Too often he’s been disdainful, aloof, resentful and insular. 
Brooks leaves out many faults, including a tendency to hector and demonize opponents and a desire for quick spin successes.  Demonizing opponents is simply ineffective in getting them to see things your way, and has made polarization much worse. Too much short term spin control causes long term damage -- think of the Syrian line in the sand, or the Benghazi cover story.

But recognize what David is doing: Bending over backwards to be nice. Trying to build a  bridge. Finding common ground. Listening. Appreciating an opponent's good intentions and motivations, which lets us move on to craft solutions. Overlooking faults. We'll need a lot of that, and it requires letting festering wounds heal. Because
...there is a tone of ugliness creeping across the world, as democracies retreat, as tribalism mounts, as suspiciousness and authoritarianism take center stage.
Krugman's column is an interesting contrast. It offers a great display of just how our politics got so bad.  It starts well:
How did we get into this mess?
At one level the answer is the ever-widening partisan divide. Polarization has measurably increased in every aspect of American politics, from congressional voting to public opinion, with an especially dramatic rise in “negative partisanship” — distrust of and disdain for the other side.
That would be a terrible thing, wouldn't it. It would be terrible if, for example, people said "distrustful and disdainful" things like
only one of our two major political parties has gone off the deep end.
Polarization and triablism mount when one passes on conspiracy theories and plain untruths. Such as
Democrats don’t routinely deny the legitimacy of presidents from the other party; Republicans did it to both Bill Clinton and Mr. Obama.
"Democrats" have never gone unhinged about who "stole an election," repeating endlessly that President Bush was not legitimate?  It's such a whopper, I don't understand how Krugman thinks his readers (and editors) wouldn't notice it.  Especially given how much coverage Bush v. Gore is getting in the wake of Justice Scalia's death. I can only hope it's a delicious tongue-in-cheek self-parody.

And only a lunatic fringe of Republicans seriously challenged President Obama's legitimacy. Attempting to tar a whole, varied group with a lunatic fringe is a classic demonization tactic.

Or the column's premise:
Republicans have more or less unanimously declared that President Obama has no right even to nominate a replacement for Mr. Scalia
That is also simply factually incorrect. "Republicans" -- not notice tarring  half the population with the subject of the sentence, rather than the potentially correct "some Republican senators" -- are more or less unanimously enamored of one thing, the Constitution. Every statement of every Republican Senator I have read recognizes that the President has every right to nominate a replacement. And they have the right to vote on it. Or not. And all of this is so clearly pre-negotiation posturing it's silly to take seriously anyway.

Krugman's column strikes me therefore as a great example of the polarization process. Right now, the obvious thing for both sides to do is to reach out to find a consensus peacemaker nominee, someone who will preserve the most important parts of what each side wants. Perhaps they could agree to someone who will keep the social advances like gay marriage, abortion rights, and immigration rights, but have a sharper eye to economic freedom and limited government. Such a nominee would be a great capstone for President Obama's term, rather than a bitter fight with a blocked senate. And all sides might be a bit afraid of President Trump/Cruz or Sanders/Clinton making the next nomination at the beginning of a term.

But no, Krugman prefers to assume the fight will be lost and to fulminate in ex-ante demonization:
 The G.O.P.’s new Supreme Court blockade is, fundamentally, in a direct line of descent from the days when Republicans used to call Mr. Clinton “your president.” 
And the Bork nomination, and the Clarence Thomas hearings... well, those never happened.

So Krugman's is a great column in the end. Read it closely and it shows very effectively just what is wrong with our political system: Demonization -- there is good and there is evil, and everything that's wrong comes from the evil side; Mendacity (a good Krugman word) -- passing on known falsehoods; Tribalization -- everything bad comes from "Republicans," a uniform army of orcs.

Brooks ends
Obama radiates an ethos of integrity, humanity, good manners and elegance that I’m beginning to miss, and that I suspect we will all miss a bit, regardless of who replaces him.
Well, at least who replaces him of the current front-runners. Let us hope the electorate wakes up soon to value these characteristics, together with basic competence, in their candidates and in their opinion writers.


  1. An interesting analysis, thanks a lot.

    Could you give a couple of examples of how Obama has "demonized" opponents? (e.g. is it the "guns and religion" gaffe from the 2008 campaign?).

    From Europe, it's a bit puzzling why Obama is so disliked by Republicans (was it this bad under Clinton, or, vice-versa under Bush 41 or Reagan?). I suppose any percieved slights would explain it, but the media narrative (which may be wrong) suggests that it is due to a visceral dislike of some of his policies, notably the ACA.

    1. He did refer to his predecessor as "unpatriotic" when he was campaigning. He's also made comparisons to terrorists and hostage takers to describe his political opponents, inviting Paul Ryan to a speech and then attacking him from the podium, etc.

      It should go without saying that the Republicans hands aren't clean here, either. And unfortunately I don't see any signs that the discourse in this country is going to improve any time soon.

    2. @blenheim you ask "was it this bad under Clinton"

      In some ways it was worse. Some Republican supporters, with the complicity of some Republican judges, spent most of the Clinton years trying to destroy Clinton through the court system. On policy, the biggest mistake Clinton made was listening to free market economists and supporting de-regulating banking. Apart from that, he was a pretty good president.

      There is a substantial element of the Republican Party which simply does not accept the constitutional legitimacy of a Democrat President.

    3. Absalon, have you ever not let your extreme liberalism color your commentary? I didn't think so.

    4. "Absalon, have you ever not let your extreme liberalism color your commentary?"

      Donk - I self identify as moderate center right with a tendency towards the technocratic. If you think I am an extreme liberal it could be a result of:
      1) "selection bias" because I only respond to posts I disagree with strongly enough to make the effort (over on Brad Delong's blog I make fun of his belief in the magical powers of inflation); or
      2) you are the one with extreme views.

      With respect to the current topic, I fully believe the reports that the Republican Party in late 2008 and early 2009 made a decision to oppose (as a dog in the manger strategy) whatever President Obama put forward, regardless of what he put forward. And, as someone who has dabbled in politics, I find that strategy utterly abhorrent. I think that the Republicans have created a lot of problems by their adoption of the "Hastert" rule. If that makes me an extreme liberal, so be it.

    5. I think I can point out a couple of examples of Obama blatantly baiting and demeaning his opposition, but bear in mind that the entire point of this blog post is that sometimes it's more important to let things go than to be right. With that in mind...

      ... (20 minutes later) actually, I can't find examples to link. It's surprisingly difficult to wade to find reliable transcripts. Here is what I was looking for: Obama's use of "You're on the wrong side of history" to dismiss validity of opposition, he participated in some race-baiting with the Ferguson riots, and even with the death of Scalia, his administration's acknowledgement of his passing somewhat pointedly avoided saying Scalia had any positive influence.

      Of these examples, I'm not saying Obama was wrong, they are merely examples where his demeanor was polarizing, and I feel intentionally so.

      In general, though, it's not Obama so much as his supporters. I find a lot to criticize about the administration (war in Syria, war in Iraq3.0, war in Libya, Guantanamo, drone warfare, bank bailouts, lobbyists for his cabinet, dragnet surveillance, lack of transparency), but - 8 years in - any criticism of Obama is met with claims of racism. I don't have any valid complaints, I'm just a racist. That's not Obama's doing, but it sure as heck polarizes me.

      Both sides do this. McConnell's refusal to consider justices is a particularly egregious example, too. I feel like this polarization started to really snowball around 2004-2006. I'm 30, so I wasn't really politically involved during the Clinton years, but it seemed the Other Side was not the source of all evils and people would hold their own side up to higher standards.

    6. Absalon, if you self identify as "moderate center right," then you are either severely deluding yourself, or those to whom you self identify. I say this not antagonistically, but rather to suggest you reevaluate where you actually stand philosophically and politically.

    7. Donk

      I'm a middle aged, self employed, corporate lawyer who has been active in politics, in a modest way, for forty years. I think I have a pretty clear understanding of where I fit on the political spectrum. But thank-you for your concern.

  2. Like Iran vs ISIS, can't both brooks and Krugman lose?

  3. "Every statement of every Republican Senator I have read recognizes that the President has every right to nominate a replacement. And they have the right to vote on it. "

    This is not a complete summary of the argument. Here's the Mitch McConnell quote that got this started: “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," McConnell said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President."

    This is an outrageous argument. Obama was elected by the American people less than 4 years ago. The Republicans should consider his nominee on his or her merits, instead of issuing a blanket statement of rejection.

    1. Not so fast. You do realize that the number of Justices on the Supreme Court is set by Congress and this number has been changed numerous times throughout U. S. History?

      And so Mr. McConnell would be within his power to introduce legislation to reduce the number of Justices from 9 to 8.

      Also, you may not be aware of this:

      "President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to expand the Court in 1937. His proposal envisioned appointment of one additional justice for each incumbent justice who reached the age of 70 years 6 months and refused retirement, up to a maximum bench of 15 justices. The proposal was ostensibly to ease the burden of the docket on elderly judges, but the actual purpose was widely understood as an effort to pack the Court with justices who would support Roosevelt's New Deal. The plan, usually called the Court-packing Plan, failed in Congress."

      If FDR can attempt to pack the Supreme Court, then Mr. McConnell can certainly attempt to unpack it.

  4. Whether or not one side is poisoning the well to a greater extent, we ought to focus on the bigger picture: Each side has credible experts committed to reasonable political philosophies making its case intellectually, and each side has partisans and ideologues gaming the system at every turn and arguing its case in bad faith. Social scientific progress, which is prerequisite to progress in policy making, is hastened when participants in these debates follow the lead of the former, engaging the best arguments the other sides have to offer, and distancing themselves from the latter. Obsessing about which side(s) bear the most blame for polarization takes our eye off the ball. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and whether they're your lunatics or my lunatics, they need to be stopped, and cooler heads must prevail if we're to avoid increasing dysfunction and stagnation.

    1. Are you the same Ram who posted a comment about complex social systems and unintended consequences on Scott Sumner's blog a few weeks ago? If so, I'd very much like to make contact with you online. Not sure how that can be done without sharing too much personal info. If you'd be willing, maybe we can work something out. Thanks.

  5. "And only a lunatic fringe of Republicans seriously challenged President Obama's legitimacy."

    This is pretty demonstrably false. The current Republican frontrunner has spent a lot of his time and resources trying to prove that Obama was born in Kenya.

    1. Most polling shows at least 1/3 of identified republicans asserting that Obama is not a citizen. A CBS/Times phone survey found 45% of registered republicans believed in the birther story. Certainly, you could note polling issues, but there is basically no evidence that "only a lunatic fringe of Republicans seriously challenged President Obama's legitimacy."

  6. Krugman's writing makes him very popular within his tribe, which is happy to accept him as a tribal chief. He has over a million Twitter followers, which is unusual for an economist. David Brooks aspires to the consensus peacemaker type of role that you propose, but the natural constituency for such people is relatively small and weak.

    Yes, it would be wonderful for someone to succeed in the consensus-building role, but you are asking for a very difficult form of collective action. Polarization is a runaway process because the forces powering it are so strong. At the micro level, the incentives point us more toward joining a tribe and demonstrating belonging and loyalty by making unfair or even fanatical statements about the other side. Incentives matter.

    1. Obama spent several years trying to find some grand accommodation with the Republicans. It was a waste of time. All the Republicans wanted to discuss was the terms of Obama's surrender of the Presidency.

    2. Saying the words "grand bargain" now and then is much less impressive than doing the work to build a real alliance. With such clever rhetoric, he can shift blame for the stalemate to the opposition. But it won't give him a legacy comparable to true statesmen like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

    3. "true statesmen like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln."

      Washington and Lincoln resolved partisan divides through revolution and civil war. Not sure they are the best models of what you are hoping for.

    4. Nelson Mandela managed a very significant transition in a peaceful manner. But you are setting the bar very high! I was sticking to American presidents.

    5. Obama spent several years on a grand bargain? Were those years before or after he jammed the ACA down their throats with backdoor maneuvers such as the end around on Scott Brown's election to the Senate? Both sides are guilty of these tactics.

  7. John,

    "At one level the answer is the ever-widening partisan divide. Polarization has measurably increased in every aspect of American politics, from congressional voting to public opinion, with an especially dramatic rise in negative partisanship — distrust of and disdain for the other side."

    A dramatic rise compared to what?

    "As a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans."

    1. Political acrimony is hardly new and Krugman is a pussy cat compared to those who have gone before him.

      I like the quote from Mark Twain: "There is no distinctly American criminal class - except Congress."

      H.L Mencken said: “Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.”

    2. Absalon,

      “Congress consists of one-third, more or less, scoundrels; two-thirds, more or less, idiots; and three-thirds, more or less, poltroons.”

      Couldn't agree more.

    3. Where I differ from Krugman is that it really doesn't matter which political party those scoundrels, idiots, and poltroons represent.

  8. Is this the first Brooks column you've read?

    And do you recall which party's highest elected leader started plans to oppose unanimously every initiative of the President from the other party before the President was even sworn in?

  9. Krugman consistently shows no self-awareness.

    This includes economics too and his famous "market monetarist test" failure.

    It's amazing to watch.

  10. "the Obama Administration has, as Brooks points out, been staffed by people of basic personal integrity"

    Like Eric Holder, the bankers' friend.

    1. Actually, I would look to Holder's behavior with civil forfeiture, apathy towards IRS targeting, persecution of NSA whistleblowers, and forcing marijuana businesses into cash and shadow financing, as evidence of incompetence. The DOJ actually tried to be aggressive with financiers in the 2008 Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin case. A jury acquitted the guys, who definitely screwed their investors, which would have forced a rational attorney general to consider the cost/benefit of criminal prosecution.

    2. William Black, S&L Crisis: 30,000 criminal referrals, 1,000 "major" convictions, 90% conviction rate.

      Eric Holder, GFC: Um . . .

      Holder is anything but incompetent. He's an extremely smart lawyer who didn't want to bite the hands that feed his law firm.

      And how about the HSBC money laundering scandal? No convictions. Didn't even try.

  11. Paul Krugman is right. The Republicans stated that they would not consider Obama's Supreme Court nominee, no mater who he/she is. This is substantively equivalent to saying the President has no right to nominate a Justice. Imagine a college professor telling a student that she may take the final exam, but no matter how well she does, she will flunk the exam. This is substantively equivalent to saying that she cannot take the exam. The right to nominate a Justice must be practical and effective as opposed to theoretical and illusory.

    1. Paul Krugman never bothers to read the Constitution.

      "Article III authorizes and sanctions the establishment of (only) one Supreme Court, but does not set the number of justices that must be appointed to it; though Article I, Section 3, Clause 6 refers to a Chief Justice (who shall preside over the impeachment trial of a President). The number of justices has been fixed by statute. At present there are nine justices - one chief justice and eight associate justices - on the Supreme Court."

      The current quantity of 9 Justices was established by an act of Congress.

      It is completely within the authority of the Congress to add / reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices as it sees fit.

  12. Ideally, it would be great if both parties could come together and pass legislation that takes the social freedoms from the left and the economic freedoms from the right. But, look at the candidates leading in the polls... it's the exact opposite. At this point another four years of republican congress, democratic president (or vice versa) seems like the best option to do no harm. Maybe we can delay nominating a justice for four another four years too, roll with an 8-person judiciary and really just grind the gears to a halt.

  13. I agree with your comments, but it's not like either column is anything new for either author. Brooks has admired Obama on essentially stylistic grounds since well before his presidency: the column he wrote about how he so admired the perfect crease of Obama's pants (!) has made the rounds many times and has become a synecdoche of Brooks' otherworldliness.

    Krugman, ever since getting his perch at the New York Times, has consistently engaged in special pleading that he barely even bothers to disguise.

    I first noticed this all the way back in 2007: Krugman had lamented and bewailed the Bush tax cuts on grounds of fiscal prudence since they were passed, but the moment the Democrats acquired their post-2006 majorities, he suddenly forgot that he'd been such a "fiscal hawk" and suddenly started banging the drum for...more spending. All that sober talk about how the Bush tax cuts were the source of all our fiscal woes? Airbrushed, retconned, forgotten. I have not taken Krugman seriously since then.

    Incidentally, Tyler Cowen and others have documented all this throughout: one of the things I truly admire about Cowen is his admirably irenic disposition when he is attacked by Krugman and others, at least in print: I've no idea how he responds behind closed doors.

    Finally, I'm inclined to see both Brooks and Krugman as symptomatic rather than causal. Brooks represents an extreme form of the pathology sometimes referred to as "Pauline Kael Syndrome".

    Krugman on the other hand epitomizes a thuggish polemical style of which perhaps the most striking example--due to its visual nature--is the "Herblock" cartoons that were a staple of the Washington Post editorial page when I was younger.

    Brooks: clueless intello. Krugman: hatchetman of the intellos.

  14. Having earned a degree from the University of Chicago, I cannot help but feel that David Brooks devalues it. Mr. Cochrane's blog is brought to me by the Hoover Daily Report, which also brought me It is "difficult" to get my head around the fact that the URL's for both can coexist in the same email.

    1. A better link to Victor David Hanson's National Review piece on (lack of) rule of law:

      My two cents on the abuse of law and regulation for political advantage

      I hate to break it to you, but most of the U of C is solid Bernie Sanders territory!

    2. The difference between our URL's is that yours is for the browser article and mine is for the print-ready version of the same.

      I did read your article on the abuse of law and regulation for political advantage, though I am not sure where I found it since I don't think I was following your blog at that time. It goes without saying that I enjoyed it.

      Your assertion that most of the U of C is solid Bernie Sanders territory is painful to read. I had almost recovered from Mr. Goolsbee's statement that "the middle class has been squeezed like never before." I had macro from Mr. Gould (John B.) and micro from Mr. Peltzman. I find it "difficult" to imagine any of their students' succumbing to the siren song of free anything or a tax on financial transactions. We are doomed.

      By the way, I purchased "Asset Pricing" and hope you offer another MOOC - just as soon as I get out from under the stuff that retired people have to cope with.

  15. Excellent essay! Thank you so much for writing it.

  16. John, you write:

    "And only a lunatic fringe of Republicans seriously challenged President Obama's legitimacy. Attempting to tar a whole, varied group with a lunatic fringe is a classic demonization tactic."

    So Trump is part of the "lunatic fringe" right?

    Also, here's the first poll I found after Googling:

    "What percentage of Republicans don't think Obama is a natural born US citizen?"

    So 28% of all Americans. I found that link here:

    And in the write up there they claim that 53% of all Republicans doubt Obama's citizenship.

    Say the difference between "doubts" and "seriously challenge" and general polling errors have made that figure twice as big as it should be.

    That's still a LARGE percentage of Republicans that qualify as "lunatic fringe" according to your own definition.

    Yes, I know I'm trying to estimate a "seriously challenge" result from a different poll, but I think you're underestimating the enormity of the "lunatic fringe" component out there.

    I'm an engineer, I live and work in a middle class area in coastal California with educated people in a middle class educated neighborhood.

    I'm personally shocked at the number of people I know personally who believe in conspiracy theories, including ones about where Obama was born. I never remember this level of conspiracy theory belief before. Sure, the JFK assassination was always a hot bed of conspiracy theories, but not much beyond that.

    What happened to this country?

    I think there probably is a very large "lunatic fringe" out there, and it's growing bigger all the time.

  17. Cochrane writes, "Krugman's column strikes me therefore as a great example of the polarization process." Cochrane is quite right here.

    Cochrane goes wrong, however, when he attempts to infer a lack of integrity and humanity in Krugman's highly systematizing cognitive style. As I've written before, in doing so, Cochrane betrays his own intolerance of human diversity.

  18. "Brooks leaves out many [obama] faults, including a tendency to hector and demonize opponents and a desire for quick spin successes."
    The "O" in G.O.P. might as well stand for 'Obstructionist'.

  19. The 2000 election results are certainly not firmly established according to many studies. And the one below completely ignores Ohio, where claims of conflict of interest in election officials was rampant.


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