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Posts tagged David Brooks

There’s no “I” in “Health Care Reform”

To-day, in the online edition of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, you’ll find the following column — in which I find myself in the unusual position of saying that David Brooks did say one true thing in his New York Times column:

The Health Care Debate Has Been “Meaningful”? It Just Ain’t So!

There’s no I in health care reform

Credit where credit is due: David Brooks does say one true thing in his New York Times column The Values Question (Nov. 24) on government health care reform: The system after reform will look as it does today, only bigger and more expensive.

Brooks is certainly right that no health care reform proposal with any chance in mainstream partisan politics promises any fundamental change to the status quo. What we have had is a system where pervasive government regulation, subsidy, and mandated captive markets corral workers into an industry driven by sky-high costs, managed by bureaucratic pencil-pushing and corporate economizing (often at the expense of innocent people’s health or lives), and owned by a handful of uncompetitive, well-entrenched incumbent corporations. No mainstream reform proposal will change anything about that. The proposals mainly concerned themselves with introducing new government subsidies and new captive-market mandates to force yet more workers and money into the broken system.

But Brooks takes all this as a sign that the health care debate is about fundamental values. I think it’s a sign that conventional political debate is a superficial squabble over meaningless details. The real debate is about grammar.

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman Online (2009-12-22): The Health Care Debate Has Been Meaningful? It Just Ain’t So!

For more on why (although, if you’ve been here a while, you might be abe to guess), you can read the whole thing at the Freeman‘s website. The column will also be appearing in print in the March 2010 magazine.

See also:

Wednesday Lazy Linking

Don’t forget.

  • The world is awesome.

  • People are awesome. You don’t need plans, or politics, or power. Put them up against people, and people will win every time. People came up with that video. Also, other people came up with this.

  • Technological civilization is awesome. (In case you’re wondering, it’s awesome because it’s made of people.)

  • Books are awesome. Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times (2009-05-29): Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader

  • To-day is awesome. It’s an anniversary. My love and I were married three years ago today. If the normal online rounds are held up for a while, well, that’s why.

Solidarity.

  • In memory of George Tiller. feministe (2009-05-31): In honor of Dr. Tiller (if you would like to donate in memory and in honor of Dr. Tiller’s work). Among others, the National Network of Abortion Funds has established a George Tiller Memorial Abortion Fund.

  • IQSN, L.A. I.M.C. (2009-05-27): Solidarity with Queer Bulgaria on 27 June 2009. A day of international actions in solidarity with the LGBTQ Pride march in Sofia, Bulgaria. Last year’s march was attacked by neo-Nazi groups who decided to Keep Our Children Safe with a campaign of roving basher gangs and by slinging molotov cocktails and small explosives at the marchers. International Queer Solidarity Network calls for a European mobilization, with support from the United States, that will stand in solidarity with Queer Bulgaria for this year’s march.

News.

Comment.

Historicize.

Communications.

Friday Lazy Linking

  • Winter Soldier: Just Another Tuesday. From Ryan Endicott, formerly a United States government Marine stationed in Iraq.

    Via Clay Claibourne, L.A. I.M.C. (2009-05-13): Winter Soldier Southwest on YouTube #1

  • The regulatory State versus freed markets and the human future: A quote from Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, via B.K. Marcus at Mises Economics Blog:

    To expect the government to prevent such fraud from ever occurring would be like wanting it to provide cushions for all the children who might fall. To assume it to be possible to prevent successfully, by regulation, all possible malpractices of this kind, is to sacrifice to a chimerical perfection the whole progress of industry; it is to restrict the imagination of artificers to the narrow limits of the familiar; it is to forbid them all new experiments; it is to renounce even the hope of competing with the foreigners in the making of the new products which they invent daily, since, as they do not conform to our regulations, our workmen cannot imitate these articles without first having obtained permission from the government, that is to say, often after the foreign factories, having profited by the first eagerness of the consumer for this novelty, have already replaced it with something else. … Thus, with obvious injustice, commerce, and consequently the nation, are charged with a heavy burden to save a few idle people the trouble of instructing themselves or of making enquiries to avoid being cheated. To suppose all consumers to be dupes, and all merchants and manufacturers to be cheats, has the effect of authorizing them to be so, and of degrading all the working members of the community.

    –Turgot, Éloge de Gournay (1759), translated by P.D. Groenewegen

Outrage

Think.

Left-Libertarianism

  • On dialectical jujitsu: Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-05-19): How to annoy a conservative

  • Ownership failures, not market failures Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling (2009-05-01): Markets, the poor & the left. Dillow makes two really important distinctions: one of them the familiar left-libertarian distinction between freed markets, on the one hand, and actually-existing corporate capitalism, on the other; the other a less familiar, but very important, distinction between market processes and patterns of ownership. Quote: In many ways, what look like ways in which markets fail the poor are in fact merely ways in which a lack of assets fail the poor. Exactly; and the many cases where there are not really market failures, but rather ownership failures, have everything to do with feudal, mercantile, neoliberal, and other politically-driven seizures and reallocations of poor people’s land, livelihoods, and possessions — and nothing to do with genuine market exchange.

Counter-Economics

Movement

Communications

How to be social while staying civilized

The latest issue of The Freeman (January/February 2009) — is now available online at their new and glossy revamped website. I mention this partly for its own sake, but partly also because, one of the things that you will find in that new issue, at the new website, is this:

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

By Charles Johnson • January 2009

Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days. That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can’t agree on what’s worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it’s not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it’s worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider The Social Animal by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry Goldwater’s argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being. . . . Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Brooks says that Goldwater’s ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals—the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. Brooks protests that a tide of research in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater’s old-fashioned individualist notions aren’t supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

. . .

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater’s legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he’s right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to fully modernize, I don’t care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater’s reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks’s case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors….

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman (Jan/Feb 2009): Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

Read the whole thing.

The title of this post, for what it’s worth, was the original title of the column, and will make some more sense once you’ve read the article (the current title is based on the fact that it appeared in the regular It Just Ain’t So! department).

As always, I’d like to thank Sheldon Richman for the (very flattering) invitation, and for his very helpful editorial work. I’m especially happy to get the chance to put a distinctly Tuckerite understanding of individualism, complete with a cheer for wildcat unionism, and a reference to William Gillis’s freed markets, into an official publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.

See also:

Alexander Hamilton and the birth of American state capitalism

The most recent issue of the Boston Review has an interesting article from William Hogeland on Alexander Hamilton and his recently-acquired fan club among the court intellectuals of the Beltway Consensus — with Hamilton’s recent biographers and neo-conservativecreepy spendthrift fascist David Brooks at the fore. The article is almost entirely right-on; here’s one of the most important parts, on the political economy that was brought forth in the early Constitutional period, through the ministrations of the newly empowered central government:

David Brooks, for his part, embraces the thrust of Hamilton’s finance plan, writing that Congress’s decision to fund the federal debt at Hamilton’s urging formed the basis of the fluid capital markets that are today the engine of world capitalism. The quick-and-dirty textbook version is that Hamilton gave the country sound credit. What that means is rarely made explicit: the first treasury secretary found ways to support, at all costs, the federal bondholders whom he and Morris had been frustrated in supporting in the 1780s. In 1791 Hamilton finally got the U.S. Congress to commit to paying reliable interest on its debt instruments, halting both their face-value depreciation and the free-for-all speculation in them, making them articles of rational trade in high-finance marketplaces. (Following British models, Hamilton also used proceeds of the U.S. Post Office to create a sinking fund; such funds were dedicated to paying down each issuance of a public debt, making bonds reliable.) Hamilton’s idea, bold and creative, was to let the government get its hands on easy money by letting bondholders and traders grow American fortunes lending that money.

Brooks also associates Hamilton’s authorship of modern capitalism with what historians call assumption: Hamilton persuaded Congress to assume the states’ war debts in the federal one, thus swelling the federal obligation to massive proportions. But that idea wasn’t original with Hamilton, and by overlooking its history Brooks and other Hamiltonians obscure its purposes. Robert Morris too had wanted the Confederation Congress to assume state debts, placing all public debt in federal hands and making it so big that federal taxes would have to be levied to pay interest on it. That dream came true when the U.S. Congress, having agreed to assume state debts, ran up a deficit, as Hamilton was happy to report in December of 1790.

A new tax, Hamilton told Congress, was the only way to solvency. He proposed not only expanding duties on imports (the old, embattled impost had finally been passed in the first session) but far more significantly, he urged Congress to impose the first federal tax on an American product. Just as Morris had hoped, assumption of state debts had become the wedge for opening the purses of the people, enforcing domestic federal taxation to support federal bondholders. In fact, passing a federal domestic tax (on distilled liquor, a fact that has helped obscure its real purpose) was so important that in the first funding proposal he submitted to Congress Hamilton appended a fully drafted bill. It was characteristically Hamiltonian (and reminiscent of health-care-reform-era Hillary Clinton), replete with distilling and tax-policy minutiae and overwhelmingly, even patronizingly, thorough, with every loophole closed, every question pre-answered, every problem sure to be caused by Congress’s financial ineptitude solved. The bill was controversial, and Hamilton’s patience must have been tried when Congress, seeming to bumble, passed funding and assumption yet ignored the whiskey tax—the brilliant law that would pay for them. But he was becoming a politico. In reporting the deficit, he calmly referred Congress back to the tax law he’d already written for them almost a year earlier. They were politicos too. They passed it—now that they had to—almost unmodified.

The structure of that tax sharply qualifies assertions made by Brooks and others that Hamilton wanted government power to enhance opportunity, mobility, and democracy. The reasons Hamilton gave Congress for going beyond a foreign impost and imposing domestic taxation are telling, both for what he said and for what he left unsaid. In the same 1790 report Hamilton reminded Congress that merchants, naturally, paid import duties, and that since merchants had always been the class most committed to American nationhood, taxing them further would be onerous and disaffecting; hence the need for a new tax not on imports but on a domestic product. What he did not explicitly point out was that the merchant class was also the bondholding class: they’d long been nationalists because federal power—the very kind Hamilton was wielding now—had long seemed to be where their interest lay. Today we might expect investors to be content with steady, tax-free income (there was, of course, no income tax). For Hamilton, shoring up and concentrating bondholders’ wealth meant paying that income with funds drawn not from the small bondholding class but from a tax collected from the large class of people who would never own a bond. And he structured the tax around aspects of the distilling process itself, so that big-time distillers (industrialists, members of the bondholding class) would be charged a lower tax while small-time producers (people engaged in a wide variety of work as farmers and artisans, with whiskeymaking often their sole source of cash and credit) would be charged a substantially higher tax, in many cases a crushing one. It was no accident. The bill was modeled on a series of whiskey taxes passed by British governments. Driving small and occasional producers out of business served imperial economic aims of efficiency and consolidation. In the same year that Congress passed Hamilton’s whiskey tax, the Irish Parliament stopped merely dis-incentivizing small distilling, and made it illegal to operate a still of less than 500-gallon capacity.

Hamilton wanted to turn the country into an efficient global competitor. As he would argue before Congress in his famous 1791 Report on Manufactures (which was far less successful than his funding plan but just as eager to stun all comers with its depth of research on hemp, nails, hats—wool hats, fur hats, and also fur-and-wool hats—and so on), labor power should not be dissipated in small, generalist farms and one-man artisan shops but efficiently marshaled, stabilized, and deployed on commercial farms and in factory towns like the one he founded in Paterson, New Jersey. And of course he wanted to use federal power to achieve that national vision.

The effect of the whiskey tax was precisely to render American distilling efficient through consolidation bordering on cartelization: even as the tax threatened to ruin small producers, Hamilton busily restructured army buying practices to make it impossible for small distillers to sell to army commissaries. In western Pennsylvania, where small distillers had managed to gain an economic toehold, Hamilton went even further: he made the region’s richest, largest-scale distiller the federal tax collector. Paid both a federal salary and a commission on what he took from his less successful neighbors, and charged with enforcing the federal tax that directly benefited his business, this distiller/collector had close relatives—again, federally commissioned, correspondents of both Hamilton and Washington—in the commissary office of the local army post. Business was sewn up.

Brooks routinely characterizes Hamilton’s use of federal power as intended to spur competition and furnish opportunity. But the control of business near the Ohio headwaters by a government-connected family and its pals was a direct consequence of Hamilton’s policy, and it was anything but unintended. Government is really bad at rigging or softening competition, Brooks has written by way of praising Hamilton’s economic policies. Yet the rigging inherent in Hamilton’s tax aggravated ordinary people’s existing problems. Farmers and artisans who were losing their weak grip on economic well-being and falling into foreclosure, as federally connected commercial farmers, Eastern real-estate speculators, and entrepreneurs in brick, glass, iron, and other rising industries—the sort Hamilton always said he wanted to promote—bought up more and more of the best Western land. Descendants of the pioneers who had cleared the land found themselves working as day laborers in the factories of their creditors, which was anything but a bleak outcome by Hamilton’s reckoning.

Thus did the first federal domestic tax—linchpin to Hamilton’s finance plan, culmination of nationalists’ decade-long efforts to unite the country, first step in making the American economy a global competitor—operate regressively, comprehensively, and deliberately. Its avowed purpose of wealth concentration and industry consolidation was intended to restructure the country along the modern American lines now hymned by so many neo-Hamiltonians. Such extreme and systemic results can’t be what Jason Bordoff and others at the Hamilton Project mean to support by invoking Hamilton’s legacy. But it is what Morris meant by opening the people’s purses, and it’s what Congress made law, at Hamilton’s behest, in 1791.

In his June 8 column, Brooks pits his Hamiltonians against modern populists who want, he says, to fundamentally rewrite the rules and obstruct policies they see as benefiting only the rich. He would brand as populists the many former foot soldiers of the Revolution who rose up against the whiskey tax—the so-called whiskey rebels. To them, American independence now seemed to have been gained for the exclusive benefit of a military-industrial cartel run by and for the privileged and staffed by the well-connected. Western Pennsylvania populists wanted a fair shot at modern America too. They wanted access to cash and credit. They wanted to grow their businesses. They were not anti-tax. They were against taxes that straitjacket markets, restrict opportunity, reduce competition, punish small operators, cripple local economies, and offer government cronies bonanzas at the direct expense of other citizens. Most important, they were against what they called taxes that don’t operate in proportion to property.

At least that’s what they said they were against, in published resolutions, letters, and petitions. Brookhiser and Chernow caricature them as drunk hillbillies (Brookhiser) whom scholars study merely because they are colorful (Chernow). But the essential fact remains that, during the nation’s formative years, the explicit idea that an essential promise of republican democracy lies in fostering opportunities for economic advancement and upward mobility is found not in Hamilton’s funding plan, but in the resolutions of the ordinary people who became whiskey rebels.

So how have neo-Hamiltonians managed to remake Hamilton in their own image, diminishing his outrageous charisma and ruthless political intelligence in the process?

One way today’s Hamiltonians connect their hero’s economics to the American Dream is through the needle’s eye of his disadvantaged background and remarkable success. Hamilton came from nothing, Brooks wrote in his New York Times Magazine piece, and spent his political career trying to create a world in which as many people as possible could replicate his amazing success.” Or, as one of the PBS talking heads informs viewers, Hamilton believed that “if you worked hard, you should get ahead.

It’s more likely that Hamilton believed exceptional, bright boys like him should erupt like meteors across the night sky. Blending creative genius with an almost mad degree of thoroughness and tenacity, he strove to dominate everyone he encountered, a quality that brought enormous success but also marred his life and may have shortened it. The idea that Hamilton spent his career trying to create conditions for replicating such a rise seems fantastic. One searches his letters and public statements in vain for thoughtful reflection on ordinary families’ economic struggles or respect for their goals and hopes for their children’s betterment. He is unconcerned about using government power to encourage the rise of laborer’s descendants and would not have related upward mobility to democracy—a dirty word to Hamilton.

Brooks cites remarks from Report on Manufactures as evidence of Hamilton’s hope that people would advance socially by moving from agrarian scatteredness to industrial centralization. When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, Hamilton argued, each individual can find his proper element. He also defined as a goal of industrial policy to cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise. Where many founders were farmers and planters, Hamilton (like Franklin and Samuel Adams) was an urbanite, and he made an appealing case for the creative synergy to be found in cities. He certainly wanted people mobile enough to get off the farm, out of the artisan shop, and into the mill, and he had a forward-looking fondness, at once emotional and practical, of encouraging meritocracy over aristocracy in responsible government positions.

But it is a feat of intellectual acrobatics to ascribe to Hamilton, on the basis of these remarks, a broad policy of encouraging, much less sustaining, widespread upward social mobility through hard work among succeeding American generations. For Hamilton, the hard work/get ahead equation, which revivalists want to call a democratic legacy, applied only to the sort of people he deemed it wise to encourage. He had cogent national and financial reasons for carefully dismantling the few ways—which already involved manufacturing and selling—that people had of getting ahead. They involved consolidating land, money, opportunity, and power in the West, while obstructing both mobility and democracy. He was explicit about this.

Chernow, straining to detect Hamilton’s sympathy for the impossible difficulties faced by the debtor class, misreads a minor Federalist essay, number six. He suggests that Hamilton felt sorry for Daniel Shays, leader of a 1787 debtor uprising in Massachusetts, arguing that federal assumption of state debts was intended to relieve small-farming debtors. While it’s true that Hamilton objected to vacillations from leniency to aggressiveness in Massachusetts finance policy, his essay as a whole makes clear his disdain for the vaunting ambition and criminal tendencies of all such as Shays, on whom he lays personal blame for the anti-creditor movement sweeping the western part of the country, the real basis and wide scope of which Hamilton always impatiently declined to acknowledge.

To the extent that he thought about it at all, Hamilton wanted people to stop talking nonsense about their own economic aspirations and get ahead his way and his way alone, by becoming efficiently organized laborers and farm workers for the financiers and industrialists. If people wouldn’t do that, he’d make them.

— William Hogeland (2007), Inventing Alexander Hamilton, in Boston Review (November/December 2007)

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