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Jan 23, 2013


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Again, David Brooks draws a false polarity, thus forcing the reader into pro-market and pro-government, either/or thinking. Since his Michigan commencement speech back in 2008, Obama has done everything to move us beyond these camps to questions of transparency and efficiency in delivery of services. I haven’t found any evidence that Obama is against decentralization, as a general principle. Trying to force the administration’s hand into that camp just seems irresponsible and overly simplistic. Brooks takes a really big leap in claiming that Obama’s speech is evidence of a full policy pivot to a more polarized agenda. He doesn’t draw on any policy evidence, just the absence of lauding the genius of decentralization.

Also I’m not sure why Brooks is eager to claim that we have *no* party that is comfortable with civil society, understands the role of government and markets in the community, or that neither party have new ideas. Politics is how we govern ourselves (as Obama said, again in the Michigan commencement, which you really should watch)- that is how we make civil society what we want it to be. Both parties engage in this. Moreover the field of Public Economics and Welfare Economics is dedicated to understanding the economic role and impact of government and I’m pretty sure Republicans and Democrats have ample analysts that spend their nights and days thinking about this. Neither groups agree, sure, but I’m not sure how Brooks’ hyperbole helps interested parties in actually determining solutions for communities. As far as new ideas go, ACA was pretty new. It drew on Oregon, Massachusetts, and a bunch of other state’s plans… NJ’s too methinks… but it wasn’t a copy. It was “new” in every sense of the word- as new as things get in government. It was also a “first” for the U.S. and it certainly blended analysis of the former issues he raises. So Brooks’ point here is unclear; is it just not the “new” that he wants? What is new and innovative to him anyway?

My point is that Brooks comes off as a third-way curmudgeon, simply because Obama didn’t celebrate decentralization in his inaugural address. I’m not sure that argument carries water. Since he has no evidence to back up his claims, I just see this as a feeble attempt to stop Obama’s post-address momentum. What else could it be?

Michael W. Kruse

Brooks is writing an op ed, not a thesis, so of course he can’t build a detailed case for his characterization of Obama. He made reference to Obama’s case for collective action. I suspect his take, like mine, is from an accretion of observation not a definitive statement.

“Politics is how we govern ourselves (as Obama said, again in the Michigan commencement, which you really should watch)- that is how we make civil society what we want it to be.”

Politics is how we govern those aspects of our lives that are truly the domain of government. Therein is the rub. Which things are in that domain? Progressives tend to see government as the hub of a wheel with other institutions of society radiating out from the center. Virtually all aspects of life are extensions of government’s agenda.

I subscribe to something akin to subsidiarity. At the center of concentric circles are the individual and the family. That circle is surrounded by extended family, neighbors, and friends. The next circle includes voluntary organizations like church, neighborhood associations, business, local schools, and such. Beyond that are city and regional government, as well as other intermediate-sized institutions. Eventually we reach the outer rim with federal government (some might include international organizations beyond that.) Each ring will have roles which only institutions in those rings can play but they exist in a subsidiary … i.e., supportive … role to the rings closer to the center.

No, Obama is not a totalitarian. Neither are most progressives. Presently, too much of conservatism is an effort to create a market society, not just a market economy. My perception is that, conversely, progressives want to subsume all institutions of society into political society, not just a political government.

“My point is that Brooks comes off as a third-way curmudgeon, ..” Then you will have the same opinion of me, because I maintain he is spot on. ;-)

“What else could it be?”

Just because you don’t see doesn’t make it disingenuous. ;-)


Based on the experience of being interviewed by him, in the marvellous book Thinking the Twentieth Century Tony Judt describes David Brooks as an ignorant air head.
Quite so!
And of course Tony's book Ill Fares The Land is superb too.

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