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David Brooks vs. Progressives: Genteel Ignorance as Economic Warfare

Alas, Brooks' uninformed pronouncements have a music that moves Washington insiders.

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There are jungle birds that can imitate human speech perfectly. Ever hear one sing a sad song? They can do it so beautifully that human listeners are moved to tears. The bird, on the other hand, has no idea what it's singing about.

David Brooks is like that bird.  He may not understand economics or public policy, but his uninformed pronouncements have a music that moves Washington insiders. His misguided opinions are rendered in a prose voice that bespeaks mastery of a subject matter with which he is clearly unfamiliar.  These uncomprehending arias may have comic-opera overtones, but they build a consensus for tragedy.

Brooks' latest column, "The Progressive Shift," which wages war on the Congressional Progressive Caucus' "Back to Work" budget -- and on mainstream economic thinking -- is a good example of the art.

Brooks begins by waxing poetic over a statue outside the Department of Labor which depicts a "powerful, rambunctious horse being reined in by an extremely muscular man." Brooks tells us this was meant to be "a metaphor for liberalism."

"The horse was capitalism," Brooks writes. "The man was government, which was needed sometimes to restrain capitalism's excesses."

But lamentably, says Brooks, "liberalism seems to have changed. Today, many progressives seem to believe that government is the horse, the source of growth, job creation and prosperity."  Then, perhaps riding his metaphor a little too far, Brooks adds that today's liberals think "Capitalism is just a feeding trough that government can use to fuel its expansion."

Talk about beating a dead horse.

The CPC budget provides short-term stimulus spending to jump-start the economy. It also cuts the deficit more effectively than any Republican alternative (a fact which Brooks fails to mention) and it does so with real-world numbers, not Ryan hocus-pocus. The bottom line: Seven million jobs, followed by deficit reduction of $4.4 trillion.

If it seems bizarre, extreme, and unreasonable to characterize that as an attempt to massively expand government spending, that's because it is.  Strip away the prose and Brooks' column is an uninformed, Fox-fueled rant with no more merit than the ravings of your blowhard uncle when he drinks too much at a holiday dinner and starts fulminating about "those damned socialists."

But ya gotta hand it to him. Brooks makes opinionated ignorance sound erudite, well-documented, even genteel.

Perhaps the most destructive assertion in the Brooks column is the one you'll hear repeated often by liberal, or at least Democratic, pundits: that we don't need stimulus spending because the economy is growing. That's based on a misreading of topline economic figures at a time. Sure, they look good when the stock market is booming. But middle-class income has stagnated, poverty is increasing, and unemployment remains at staggeringly high levels.

In the stratospheric fiscal realms of Washington and lower Manhattan, things are looking up. But here at street level there's a recession going on.

Brooks echoes the zero-sum logic of economic amateurs who have failed to grasp the "fiscal multiplier" -- the well-documented fact that a dollar in government spending grows the public economy by more than a dollar, especially in recessionary times like these. But the uninformed Brooks writes that "these Democrats want to take an astounding $4.2 trillion out of the private sector (emphasis mine) and put it into government where they believe it can be used more efficiently."

Solid economic analysis from the Economic Policy Institute shows that, contra Brooks, the private sector would grow substantially under the CPC budget. That also helps the deficit. When the whole economy grows, the Federal debt is a smaller percentage of the GDP. Everybody wins -- except, of course, for people who don't want to pay taxes.  And since we've mentioned taxes, let's address that issue.