Hell, or, A Conversation with Brooks and Collins


This is your brain on drugs.I have a new vision of Hell, which is sitting around the “conversation pit” getting stoned with New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. Apparently, the two get together and talk about issues for the newspaper’s Opinionator blog every Wednesday. To borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Nominee and current Solicitor General Elena Kagan, I wish they wouldn’t.

This week, the Dullard Duo took on one of the vital economic questions of the times: Deficit reduction or job creation?

Gail Collins: David, I was very interested in your column attacking the idea of a second stimulus. In fact, I was so interested that I almost put down my copy of this week’s New York Magazine, which has a big profile of you and your “charming, levelheaded optimism.” I agree totally with that assessment, although I part company with the author when it comes to your suits, which are certainly not shapeless.

The article also says that because of your book deadlines, you are only getting four hours of sleep a night. So I feel terrible asking you to converse about anything, let alone the economy.

David Brooks: My suits are absolutely shapeless. They are sartorial cumulus clouds. Given my body, shapeless is the best option, believe me. Other than that, I thought the profiler was admirably gentle and forgiving.

I’d like to say things could only get better from there, but … yeah. I’d also like to say it would be enlightening to hear an actual recording of this conversation in order to pick up some of the nuance, but, again … er … yeah.

Am I high enough yet?Aside from the obvious point, that Brooks and Collins ought not quit their day jobs for show business (insert NYT art critic joke here), or the equally obvious point that drugs can do serious harm to your brain, one wonders if either of them actually read the paper for which they write. But don’t spend too much time on that question; one risks taking them seriously in such a consideration.

The resulting transcript, such as it is, boggles the mind. To the one, there is no way to take it seriously. To the other, the art of satire has become dangerous of late, and if Brooks learned anything in his years as an art critic, it might be that subtlety is a particularly risky strategy. But without the audio, without the nuance that comes with hearing the actors’ voices, the script reads like canned ham left over from the vaudville days.

Gail Collins: In your column, you asked how we can know whether the economists who say there needs to be another stimulus are right when so many other smart people, including all those Europeans, say we need to start reducing debt instead of spending.

Beats me. But in situations like this — two options, unknowable outcome, etc. — I figure you go for the one that will do the least damage if it turns out to be the wrong choice.

If the stimulus really isn’t necessary but we spend the money anyway, we’ll have added a fractional percentage to the deficit. The long-term challenge of budget-balancing won’t be any more daunting than it already is. On the other hand, if a stimulus is necessary and we don’t do it, we could plunge the economy into another recession. Or depression. And make deficit reduction 10 times harder.

David Brooks: Gail, that’s very good logic.

But the lesson of financial crises is that they lead to huge spending run-ups and very often inflation, defaults and general discord. Everybody is citing Kenneth Rogoff these days, who co-authored that history of 800 years of financial crisis. I notice his rule of thumb when it comes to stimulus is “Less is More.”

Besides, I’m hung up on my lack of faith in the idea that stimulus actually works. My impression is that before the crash most economists thought monetary policy was the way to counter economic cycles and that fiscal stimulus tends to be mistimed or ineffective. This was the conclusion I took from a long history of stimulus attempts by Christina Romer, now the Obama economic adviser.

Now, suddenly faith in stimulus is back, not because of new evidence but simply because monetary policy alone hasn’t produced job growth. This, of course, still doesn’t mean than stimulus works in the short term.

No, really, I’m not making this up. I promise. It’s not even Economic Humor for Dummies. Indeed, with a Nobel laureate economist on staff, one would think Brooks and Collins might find a few answers in the pages of their own newspaper. It’s not as if Paul Krugman went and, you know, called out Brooks the day before this seemingly scripted piece of anemic stoner humor:

A quick note on David Brooks’s column today. I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says,

    The Demand Siders don’t have a good explanation for the past two years

Funny, I thought we had a perfectly good explanation: severe downturn in demand from the financial crisis, and a stimulus which we warned from the beginning wasn’t nearly big enough. And as I’ve been trying to point out, events have strongly confirmed a demand-side view of the world.

And warned he has. From the outset, one of the questions many people had, but seemed rare in political circles, was whether or not the money thrown at the American economic crisis was enough. In November of last year, Krugman explained why that question was still valid:

The good news is that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a k a the Obama stimulus plan, is working just about the way textbook macroeconomics said it would. But that’s also the bad news — because the same textbook analysis says that the stimulus was far too small given the scale of our economic problems. Unless something changes drastically, we’re looking at many years of high unemployment.

And the really bad news is that “centrists” in Congress aren’t able or willing to draw the obvious conclusion, which is that we need a lot more federal spending on job creation.

About that good news: not that long ago the U.S. economy was in free fall. Without the recovery act, the free fall would probably have continued, as unemployed workers slashed their spending, cash-strapped state and local governments engaged in mass layoffs, and more.

And last month, he warned:

We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.

And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.

In 2008 and 2009, it seemed as if we might have learned from history. Unlike their predecessors, who raised interest rates in the face of financial crisis, the current leaders of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank slashed rates and moved to support credit markets. Unlike governments of the past, which tried to balance budgets in the face of a plunging economy, today’s governments allowed deficits to rise. And better policies helped the world avoid complete collapse: the recession brought on by the financial crisis arguably ended last summer.

But future historians will tell us that this wasn’t the end of the third depression, just as the business upturn that began in 1933 wasn’t the end of the Great Depression. After all, unemployment — especially long-term unemployment — remains at levels that would have been considered catastrophic not long ago, and shows no sign of coming down rapidly. And both the United States and Europe are well on their way toward Japan-style deflationary traps.

In the face of this grim picture, you might have expected policy makers to realize that they haven’t yet done enough to promote recovery. But no: over the last few months there has been a stunning resurgence of hard-money and balanced-budget orthodoxy.

And only a week before that:

But if we need to raise taxes and cut spending eventually, shouldn’t we start now? No, we shouldn’t.

Right now, we have a severely depressed economy — and that depressed economy is inflicting long-run damage. Every year that goes by with extremely high unemployment increases the chance that many of the long-term unemployed will never come back to the work force, and become a permanent underclass. Every year that there are five times as many people seeking work as there are job openings means that hundreds of thousands of Americans graduating from school are denied the chance to get started on their working lives. And with each passing month we drift closer to a Japanese-style deflationary trap.

Penny-pinching at a time like this isn’t just cruel; it endangers the nation’s future. And it doesn’t even do much to reduce our future debt burden, because stinting on spending now threatens the economic recovery, and with it the hope for rising revenues.

So now is not the time for fiscal austerity. How will we know when that time has come? The answer is that the budget deficit should become a priority when, and only when, the Federal Reserve has regained some traction over the economy, so that it can offset the negative effects of tax increases and spending cuts by reducing interest rates.

It’s not like Krugman hasn’t been consistent in his outlook. It’s not like he’s let the issue slip to the back burner. If Brooks and Collins pay any attention to what their Times colleagues are doing, it would be very hard to miss Krugman’s point.

But miss they have. Collins probably got closest when she argued—

I’d like some examples of countries that went into a recession, responded by trying to cut the budget, and were rewarded with a booming economy. The more likely model seems to be Ireland, which was in the economic doldrums, started whacking away at spending, and is now in — whatever comes after doldrums. Subdoldrums. The gopher hole below the basement.

—but it seems a rather naîve approach to the issue when she could probably just call Krugman. He’d give her whatever examples she wanted, and even explain how they worked.

What, guys, are you high?But this isn’t the sort of naîveté that gets one a regular spot on the opinion pages of The New York Times. To conclude that Brooks and Collins are simply morons—based, at least, on this single example—seems erroneous, and even irresponsible. Thus, the explanation must necessarily lie elsewhere.

Hence, the whole thing is some sort of obscure joke. The two are having a chuckle between themselves, and posting it online in lieu of anything better or more useful to do. And this, frankly, is the kind of mistake stoners make when they think they’re being funny but wonder why nobody else is laughing. Trust me, please, if for no other reason than I’ve been there.

Which, of course, raises certain questions about responsibility. With no disclaimers of satire, the reader’s general hints of what is up consist largely of the opening of the dialogue, about Brooks’ suits and the New York Magazine profile, and the generally patronizing tone of the discussion. And, yes, in twenty-first century America, that counts as subtle.

The danger, then, lies in being taken seriously. It is sometimes amazing to watch how people take comedians seriously at exactly the wrong times. I’ve seen deliberate imitations of the Seinfeld-Newman rivalry break into violence. Internet discussion boards are rife with would-be Carlins who took the late comedian as some sort of prophet of the new gospel. And, you know, let’s face it, even Carlin missed sometimes, like his rant about PTSD. This is something of an illustrative example in another dimension, as well. To wit, one might say, “Right, George. So you’re going to say a rape survivor suffers ‘shellshock‘.” And another might be perfectly justified in saying, “Let it go, he’s a friggin’ comedian.”

John Darkow, Columbia Daily Tribune, July 2, 2010Additionally, most people—friggin’ comedians included—just aren’t as funny as they think they are. Bad jokes aren’t nearly as embarrassing as bad karaoke, at least for most people. But when you’re a widely-syndicated columnist writing for a paper of record and expect to be taken seriously, yes, sometimes you ought to be embarrassed by your bad jokes. Really. I mean, if the column opened or closed with a parenthetic note from the editor reading, “They were really, really high; that’s all”, that would probably be less embarrassing for Brooks and Collins than actually being taken seriously.

This atrocious dialogue is on par with the youth pastor who tries to convince the kids how cool he is so that they will listen to him. It’s like wearing a “Jesus Didn’t Tap” t-shirt to show everyone how tough Christ has made you, or going to a Stryper show to convince everyone you’re a metalhead. I’d rather listen to Rhys Chatham’s “Guitar Trio” played on three cats’ asses, over and over again, on an eternal loop.

In the end, it’s a question without meaning: Should I take this seriously? It doesn’t matter, as I would hope this embarrassing diatribe makes clear. But the dialogue does offer me one new perspective: I have a new vision of Hell. Pardon me, please, if I don’t thank them, but it’s my own damn fault for clicking the link in the first place.

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