In the New York Times today, David Brooks writes* that “The members of the Obama administration have many fine talents” — if you say so, David — “but making adept historical analogies may not be among them.” As Brooks writes, the Obama administration — and its left-leaning sycophants in Congress and the MSM saw Obama as the second coming of FDR. (And truth be told, many were pretty happy that he had a Depression of his own as his backdrop.) And note that the analogies started long before the economy tanked in the fall of 2008.
“Members of the administration have now dropped the New Deal parallels,” Brooks adds. “But they have started making analogies between this era and the progressive era around the turn of the 20th century:”
The United States spends far more on education than any other nation, with paltry results. It spends far more on health care, again, with paltry results. It spends so much on poverty programs that if we just took that money and handed poor people checks, we would virtually eliminate poverty overnight.
No we wouldn’t — because unless the economy is in a complete Weimar/Zimbabwe-style meltdown, individual wealth and poverty are as much, if not more so, based on a series of attitudes as economic conditions. And Brooks knows this — his best-selling Bobos in Paradise from a decade ago reflects liberal elites of the 1990s marrying traditional bourgeois means of obtaining and preserving wealth with a bohemian attitude towards social mores.
Speaking of which:
Third, the moral culture of the nation is very different. The progressive era still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions. Back then, there was a moral horror at the thought of debt. No matter how bad the economic problems became, progressive-era politicians did not impose huge debt burdens on their children.
Other than the Ponzi-like scheme of FDR’s Social Security, that is. And the progressives of the time were eager to reshape an American culture that they saw as being hamstrung with “rectitude and restrictions” — they simply hadn’t have the requisite time to finish the job. Nor were all the pieces of the puzzle yet in place. So it was still an era in which…
…there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn’t always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm. Today, that norm has dissolved. Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock. This sentences the U.S. to another generation of widening inequality and slower human capital development.
One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.
Actually, one hundred years ago, we had Teddy Roosevelt championing a form of what would later be called corporatism, having given up his early trust-busting efforts, since a few giant corporations would be much easy to yoke to the state than heard hundreds of thousands of smaller businesses.
But Brooks is right when he says “Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.” It is — and Brooks championed a man for the White House whose worldview embodies both of those characteristics. Actually, given his angry screed over Democratic Hillary supporters in Pennsylvania in 2008 who he saw as bitter gun-toting bible clinging rednecks, his grandmother as a “typical white person” and whatever other attitudes he learned at the feet of Reverend Wright, Obama may personally have libertarian moral values, but his view towards others is far more punitive than the average laissez-faire libertarian. Which makes Brooks’ hero worship of Obama — apparently based entirely on a dazzling first impression — all the more suspect.
In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.
The progressive era is not a model; it is a foil. It provides a contrast and shows us what we really need to do.
No, the nation had its midlife crisis in the fall of 2008, and rather than coming to grips with reality, it did what the proverbial middle-aged man has been shown doing on TV sitcoms since the 1970s. It collectively went out and bought the equivalent of the Corvette; sleek and handsome, expensive and high maintenance, yet ultimately just another union-built assembly line product of Government Motors — and decided reality, growing up and doing “what we really need to do” could wait a few more years.
The bill has come due on such thinking. And yes, the progressive era shows what we really need to do — it provides a warning to almost always do the very opposite of those elites of a century ago did when they espoused corporatism, eugenics and socialism.
I assume though, that Brooks doesn’t expect any of his fellow elites at the New York Times to internalize those lessons.
* Yes, those are perhaps the second nine most scariest words in the English language, almost as frightening as the original nine scariest words in the English language.