At Last, We Get Some Fight out of David Brooks

David Brooks is a nice guy, and that is a nice thing to be. What frustrates me about him is the fact that his nice guy nature seems to compel him to refrain from arguing forcefully for his position when it comes to political/policy debates. I don’t imagine that the New York Times actually wants its conservative columnist to be a compelling debater for the starboard side of the political divide, but unless Brooks’s job at the Paper of Record requires him to be a milquetoast fellow, I don’t see why he should assume the role. One can be a nice guy while also being an able and formidable advocate, and while Brooks has mastered being a nice guy, formidable advocacy is not something that comes easily to him.

It’s not that Brooks isn’t smart—he is. It’s not that he doesn’t know the arguments—he does. It’s not that he’s not well-informed in general—he clearly is. But he perpetually seems to be in search of some kind of Grand Compromise even while his debating opponents are busy kicking him in the teeth. Try listening to NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday afternoons, when Brooks appears alongside E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. To his credit, Dionne is a very good debater who also gives the impression of being a nice guy (I am sure he is a gentleman—I’ve certainly heard nothing about Dionne being a terror to puppies and/or kittens, or anything like that), but being a nice guy doesn’t keep Dionne from making his case. Anytime he is able to advance liberal arguments and Democratic talking points (but I repeat myself), he does so, and he does so very competently. Brooks, meanwhile, acts as though he expects the debates to be The Grand Moment Of Both Sides Coming Together And Singing In Harmony, and fails to push conservative arguments with the same passion that Dionne displays in putting forth liberal arguments. At the end of the segment, Dionne regularly pwns Brooks, who usually tries to laugh the whole thing off—frustrating anyone and everyone (like me) who hopes that Brooks will do a number on Dionne just one time.

So, these are my complaints about David Brooks’s argument style. I am sure that I shall have occasion to repeat them sometime, but credit where it is due—in his latest column, Brooks shows that he’s eaten his spinach:

There is a statue outside the Federal Trade Commission of a powerful, rambunctious horse being reined in by an extremely muscular man. This used to be a metaphor for liberalism. The horse was capitalism. The man was government, which was needed sometimes to restrain capitalism’s excesses.

Today, liberalism seems to have changed. Today, many progressives seem to believe that government is the horse, the source of growth, job creation and prosperity. Capitalism is just a feeding trough that government can use to fuel its expansion.

For an example of this new worldview, look at the budget produced by the Congressional Progressive Caucus last week. These Democrats try to boost economic growth with a gigantic $2.1 trillion increase in government spending — including a $450 billion public works initiative, a similar-size infrastructure program and $179 billion so states, too, can hire more government workers.

Now, of course, liberals have always believed in Keynesian countercyclical deficit spending. But that was borrowing to brake against a downturn when certain conditions prevail: when the economy is shrinking; when debt levels are low; when there are plenty of shovel-ready projects waiting to be enacted; when there is a large and growing gap between the economy’s current output and what it is capable of producing.

Today, House progressives are calling for a huge increase in government taxing and spending when none of those conditions apply. Today, progressives are calling on government to be the growth engine in all circumstances. In this phase of the recovery, just as the economy is finally beginning to take off, these Democrats want to take an astounding $4.2 trillion out of the private sector and put it into government where they believe it can be used more efficiently.

How do the House Democrats want to get this money? The top tax rate would shoot up to 49 percent. There’d be new taxes on investment, inheritance, corporate income, financial transactions, banking activity and on and on.

Now, of course, there have been times, like, say, the Eisenhower administration, when top tax rates were very high. But the total tax burden was lower since so few people paid the top rate and there were so many ways to avoid it. Government was smaller.

Today, especially after the recent tax increases, the total tax burden is already at historic highs. If you combine federal, state, sales and other taxes, rich people in places like California and New York are seeing the government take 60 cents or more out of their last dollar earned.

Read the whole thing, and kudos to Brooks for punching back on this issue. Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that modern day Keynesians think that temporary government spending on public works is just the thing that the doctor ordered when it comes to revving up a sluggish economy, but public spending on tax cuts is somehow a bad thing? And isn’t it equally interesting that modern day Keynesians think that if we scale back public works spending, there will be terrible economic consequences, but if we engage in nuclear class warfare via the tax code, nothing bad will happen to the economy?

Making Reaganism Relevant

I have written before that instead of asking whether some aspiring political leader is “the next Ronald Reagan,” conservatives, small-government libertarians, and Republicans in general should demand an original leader who is well-equipped to take on current challenges. Ramesh Ponnuru argues—quite properly—that in addition, Reagan’s entire philosophy of government has to be updated to address present day issues:

When Reagan cut rates for everyone, the top tax rate was 70 percent and the income tax was the biggest tax most people paid. Now neither of those things is true: For most of the last decade the top rate has been 35 percent, and the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people. Yet Republicans have treated the income tax as the same impediment to economic growth and middle-class millstone that it was in Reagan’s day. House Republicans have repeatedly voted to bring the top rate down still further, to 25 percent.

A Republican Party attentive to today’s problems rather than yesterday’s would work to lighten the burden of the payroll tax, not just the income tax. An expanded child tax credit that offset the burden of both taxes would be the kind of broad-based middle-class tax relief that Reagan delivered. Republicans should make room for this idea in their budgets, even if it means giving up on the idea of a 25 percent top tax rate.

When Reagan took office, he could have confidence in John F. Kennedy’s conviction that a rising tide would lift all boats. In more recent years, though, economic growth hasn’t always raised wages for most people. The rising cost of health insurance has eaten up raises. Controlling the cost of health care has to be a bigger part of the Republican agenda now that it’s a bigger portion of the economy. An important first step would be to change the existing tax break for health insurance so that people would be able to pocket the savings if they chose cheaper plans.

Conservative views of monetary policy are also stuck in the late 1970s. From 1979 to 1981, inflation hit double digits three years in a row. Tighter money was the answer. To judge from the rhetoric of most Republican politicians, you would think we were again suffering from galloping inflation. The average annual inflation rate over the last five years has been just 2 percent. You would have to go back a long time to find the last period of similarly low inflation. Today nominal spending — the total amount of dollars circulating in the economy both for consumption and investment — has fallen well below its path before the financial crisis and the recession. That’s the reverse of the pattern of the late 1970s.

I would add that it should still be possible to have a flatter, lower overall tax system, with the top rate close to 25%, but like Ponnuru, I am surprised that more Republicans haven’t gotten on the bandwagon to lower the payroll tax. I have argued for them to do so in the past. It would be a great way for Republicans to start to win back middle class voters, and it would be very good policy to boot.