Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brooks, again

I really don't want to turn this blog into a series of "Bash David Brooks" posts, but he is quite influential (it would appear that Charlie Rose has added Brooks to his list of "people who must be mentioned," joining Tom Friedman and Warren Buffett). He is also smart enough to be reckoned with, especially by those of us who disagree with more often than not.

However, as I've written before, Brooks has a tendency to, first, be almost preciously clever (at the expense of consistency), and second, make sweeping generalizations that are misleading, if not downright wrong. Two recent columns demonstrate both of these, particularly the second.

On Monday, in a column titled The Behavior Revolution, Brooks attempts to demonstrate why such luminaries as Alan Greenspan were so wrong about the financial crisis:
Roughly speaking, there are four steps to every decision. First, you perceive a situation. Then you think of possible courses of action. Then you calculate which course is in your best interest. Then you take the action.

Over the past few centuries, public policy analysts have assumed that step three is the most important. Economic models and entire social science disciplines are premised on the assumption that people are mostly engaged in rationally calculating and maximizing their self-interest.

But during this financial crisis, that way of thinking has failed spectacularly. As Alan Greenspan noted in his Congressional testimony last week, he was “shocked” that markets did not work as anticipated. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.”
Brooks then goes on to state that we will be changing our view of decision-making, that we will now begin to focus on step one instead of step three. He cites the work of Tversky and Kahneman, and the writing of Nassim Taleb (best known for "The Black Swan.")

This, of course, is classic straw man work from Brooks. It is true that far too many social science models have assumed away his steps one and two, and focused on step three.

But no reputable thinker would do that, and Brooks proves that by citing the decades during which "economists and psychologists have been exploring our perceptual biases." Well, which is it? Are all the models based on uncritically accepting step one, or is the cutting-edge research exploring exceptions to that?

And let's apply some common sense to this. Anyone who thinks about belief in any serious way understands that everyone brings biases and prejudgments to any decision, that they frame all questions in terms of their extant world views. One of the greatest concerns about Greenspan is his Randian philosophy and how it has informed his decision-making; it is only a set of extremely simple people who allowed themselves to believe that Greenspan was freeing himself from his core principles.

One of the great dissatisfactions that many of us have with economic models is the massive amount of the real world they assume away. One of the reasons that free-trade orthodoxy is suspect is that it extrapolates a two-entity, two-good model into an unmodelable world of 200 countries (plus transnational corporations), thousands and thousands of goods, and ignores the smaller components (like individual constituencies within those countries). Similarly, I don't think that people really believe Brooks' view of decision-making.

And then there's Brooks from Sunday, where he identifies "at least three major political tendencies":
The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.

But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.
I was tipped to this by a Matt Yglesias post, who dismantles it pretty successfully (and his commenters take great issue with Brooks' broad statement about Alexander Hamilton, "who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed"). Yglesias demonstrates that equality is strongly correlated with mobility, pointing out that rampant inequality (like that in our United States) makes mobility far more difficult.

What Matt doesn't spend time on is the incredible statement that liberalism is about "maximizing" equality. Perhaps Brooks is hedging his bets by putting the word "orthodox" in, but, even so, this is sheer nitwittery. I have had huge disagreements with American liberalism over the years (if we can't optimize both, I lean toward freedom), but I would not make such a claim. (Actually, his simplistic take on conservatism is overstated, as well.)

This is, yet again, straw mannery. The peculiar thing about these two strands of American belief is that their goal is, in essence, the same: they want to maximize the "pursuit of happiness." They (not so) simply differ about how to get there.

The point, of course, has nothing to do with Brooks' novel theory. He sets up the false conflict between his second and third schools, argues that this is the central issue in defining the Republican party, then argues, ineptly, how this applies to the McCain campaign:

McCain shares the progressive conservative instinct. He has shown his sympathy with the striving immigrant and his disgust with the colluding corporatist. He has an untiring reform impulse and a devotion to national service and American exceptionalism.

His campaign seemed the perfect vehicle to explain how this old approach applied to a new century with new problems — a century with widening inequality, declining human capital, a fraying social contract, rising entitlement debt, corporate authoritarian regimes abroad and soft corporatist collusion at home.

In modernizing this old tradition, some of us hoped McCain would take sides in the debate now dividing the G.O.P.
Talk about projection. If this campaign has demonstrated one thing, it is that McCain is profoundly un-philosophic. Brooks does concede this, admitting that the campaign's tactical decisions got in the way of the necessary redefinition of the Republican message. This incoherent mess finally concludes with the remarkable paragraph:
McCain would be an outstanding president. In government, he has almost always had an instinct for the right cause. He has become an experienced legislative craftsman. He is stalwart against the country’s foes and cooperative with its friends. But he never escaped the straitjacket of a party that is ailing and a conservatism that is behind the times. And that’s what makes the final weeks of this campaign so unspeakably sad.
Apparently, the second, third, and fourth sentences are meant to justify the first, but we have seen the essential falsity of those premises. And that takes a lot of edge off the idea that we should see John McCain as the innocent victim of larger trends (if that's what Brooks is arguing).

What we have is another example of a pundit ignoring the past two years of campaigning, substituting the heroic vision of McCain that they already had, and trying to understand how this great man could lose. What Brooks should be doing, as in his own column that I discussed in the first half of the post, is questioning his own perception of who John McCain really is - there's the answer as to how he could be where he is today, and that's far less sad.

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