Sunday, August 5, 2012

What's eating Arthur Brooks? Thoughts on The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's Future

Why I read this book:

The majority of my sources of news and opinions are major newspapers and publications such The New York Times or The Atlantic magazine. These newspapers and magazines are often accused of being liberal and biased. Given these accusations, and the popularity of Tea Party-style hardliners in our politics, I wanted to understand the intellectual basis of this populist conservatism. You do not have to be a Republican to understand that "Get your government hands off my Medicare" is not the underlying philosophy behind the rigid strain of Republican opposition to President Obama. 

I saw Arthur Brooks on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

He wore a nice suit with a salmon shirt and spoke eloquently about free enterprise, opinion polls, his book, and other sexy topics. "Perfect", I thought. This is just the man and the book that I was looking for: "I will read this book. I will understand. No one will accuse me of liberal bias; for I am just and even."

Now, understand that this is only a transcription of my thoughts onto paper. No coherent sentences formulated in my brain at the time that I was watching that interview. Rather, some fuzzy synapses fired some neurological seed that later sprouted into these thoughts. Looking at me sprawled out on the couch in the shape that a lifeless body assumes after a fall from ten stories high, you could not discern any sign of life other than the plate of beets, resting on my chest, rising and falling slowly in rhythm with my feeble breathing. A typical Wednesday night, really; not too different from yours, I imagine.

Beets are highly nutritious.

Russians eat a lot of beets. Russians are good at weightlifting. Do you want to lift heavy weights with ease? You know what you have to do.

My rating for this book:

1. I still have nightmares about this book
2. I would give this book to a 5-year old after promising him an Ipad
3. I am somewhat cold and a little hungry, but I do not regret my decision to read this book
4. Enlightenment
5. Transcendence

Thoughts, Reflections, and Take-aways:

The premise of the book is that the new culture war revolves around economic issues rather than social ones; specifically, the war centers on the role of government in the economy. Now, you have to remember that Arthur Brooks wrote this book in April of 2010. The U.S government had recently spent an unprecedented amount of money on bailouts for AIG, the banking industry, and the auto-industry; placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship; there was even talk of nationalizing the banks! It was pretty intense. On top of all that, Obama sailed into office making no secret of his vision for a lively, assertive government; and, if you recall, we were not yet 100% certain that he was not actually a Somali pirate. The timing was perfect for a conservative vision that outlined the opposing view.

Overall, however, the book was disappointing. Brooks leaves an impression of someone with deep convictions trying to construct a poorly-run experiment to objectively prove his beliefs.

The objective of Brooks' study is to make the moral case for free enterprise. In other words, he wants to change the perception that conservatives are cold-hearted materialists who hate feelings and laughter ("why laugh when I can be doing something that earns compound interest?")

"But I love free enterprise!", you are thinking: "It is one of my top three favorite things, directly behind the bald eagle and Anne Hathaway".

Well, apparently, not everyone shares your views. Using the results and surveys, Brooks determines that 30% of the country actually hates capitalism and wants us to become Belgium. Who are these awful people, you ask? The 30% coalition is a consortium of the usual suspects: college professors. Pasty urbanites. Residents of Portland, Oregon and Burlington, Vermont. Everyone who likes indie rock.

Even the 30% coalition loves Anne Hathaway.

Sarcasm aside, I understand what Brooks wants to accomplish. The majority of people's political preferences are directly related to their opinion on the hot-button issues: when you think of assistance to the poor, do you think of someone in great need who is grateful for the help and is trying to improve their life, or do you see institutionally lazy parasitic leeches? When you think of raising taxes on the rich, do you see it as a predatory practice by a hostile entity, or do you think of it as a fair move? Brooks wants to give you the ammunition necessary to change that core judgement that people make from the gut.

The problem with Brooks' narrative is that his premise is wrong, and his arguments are sloppy and unconvincing. At best, his definition of the "30% coalition" is grossly over-simplistic and a recipe for long-term electoral disaster. At worst, that definition is a bit dehumanizing and sinister. 

I think we can safely presume that Americans, as a people,  love free enterprise. We know that Adam Smith got it right: the market is one of the greatest economic and political advances of human civilization. We love the market, and it loves us back (sort of). But as Brooks engaged in his "defense" of the free market, I could not help but to feel disenchanted. I was hoping for for a technical dissection of data that demonstrated that government is growing too big or too powerful: How has the size of government changed under Obama as measured by the number of federal workers or the size and scope of regulations? How does the amount that we pay in taxes compare to other historical periods? What is the long-term outlook and plan for the entitlement programs and defense spending? Such framing of the discussion would not only have helped build a better argument, but it would also properly bound the continuous conversation about the role of government. Instead, I received a childish lecture (private property is good; man should keep the fruit of his labor; innovation is good; wealth redistribution is bad) and over-stretched rhetoric. 
Pink shirt, blue tie - daring, yet sensible. Great choice.

At the end of the day, the battle of ideas plays out directly at the ballot box. The GOP has been facing an identity crisis in the aftermath of the 2008 election. The shifting demographics, the lasting effects of the economic crisis, and the fiscal math facing our country require a new approach from both parties, and especially the GOP. Caught between uncompromising Tea Party populism and the stale party establishment, the GOP finds itself on the defensive and behind the times. In this year's Presidential election, the Republican party's greatest accomplishment has been to put out a nominee whose biggest strength is that he is not one of the other fringe candidates. The GOP will have much more exciting faces in the 2016 election. I hope they realize that the factors that play into electoral success, like the problems facing the country, are much more complex and much less black and white than Arthur Brooks makes them out to be.         

1 comment:

  1. I'd like a picture of Anne Hathaway eating beets next time. Also, it is more appropriate for the dog to be pooping, rather than Arthur Brooks.