David Brooks has a lot of artist and moral philosopher friends who are
liberals. Given their professions' focus on human nature, he is surprised, then, that "American liberalism should
adopt an economic philosophy that excludes psychology, emotion and morality." If that sounds like a pretty jarring opening to you, you're not
alone. Here's the rundown of what Brooks was arguing and how a few
left-leaners are taking it amiss.
- Liberal Economics Assumes an Economy Like a Machine There are all these "highly specific projections" in the liberal economic approach, writes Brooks. For example: "If the government borrows $1 and then spends it, it will produce $1.50 worth of economic activity." It's all assumed to be quite scientific. Yet conservatives, "who are usually stereotyped as narrow-eyed business-school types," are actually the ones arguing for the place of emotion in economic reckoning. They argue that massive government debt will increase anxiety and have a negative effect. Liberals call that "gaseous blathering from those who lack quantitative rigor," likewise countering the worries about deficit morality with talk of economics being a "rational activity." But recently, he thinks, the liberals have been proven wrong--not least in their "scientific" models of the effect stimulus money might have.
- Translation: This Means You, Paul Krugman Tom Maguire at JustOneMinute (not one of the miffed liberals) is quick to note that as Brooks "comes out swinging against liberal technocrats," he doesn't actually mention his stimulus-supporting colleague Krugman by name--"but he could have!"
- This Argument Is Inconsistent Looking to numbers and evidence is "a strength, not a weakness," counters The Washington Post's Ezra Klein--and Brooks, in using numbers to prove liberals are wrong for feeling so, undermines his own argument. He "attacks the practice of attaching numbers and using historical models to make arguments, but by the end of his op-ed, he's back to citing economic estimates that favor his position, so it's hard to believe he's really so skeptical of empirical rigor."
- And Maybe a Little Fatuous to Begin With? "Obviously," adds James Downie at the left-leaning New Republic, "what leaps off the page most throughout the column is the wild generalizing about liberals, but Brooks is not the first, nor will he be the last columnist to resort to clumsy stereotypes." But the problem, says Downie, is that Brooks has his facts wrong: the stimulus models he derides, for example, rely on those numbers called "multipliers" (measuring the effect of one dollar spent on the economy), which liberals and conservatives alike regard as being "quite inexact." Another point, separate from the matter of the liberal stereotypes:
[Brooks] misses the reason liberals take the [conservative] uncertainty complaint with a grain of salt: conservatives have been using it for everything, from the size of government, to taxes, to the deficit, to Obama's health care plan. Is "uncertainty" a problem in the current economic recovery? Yes, and liberals believe that government spending will help the economy, more than it will "increase uncertainty" while the private sector is still reluctant to spend money.