Broken Century, Broken Reasoning

This Century Is Broken

by David Brooks

with responses by Jeff McFadden

I believe this to be fair use of an article published in the New York Times on Feb 21st, 2017

I have been reading David Brooks for years. He has a remarkable ability to see and point out the dots without ever connecting them. In this essay he has pointed out several important and real dots. I will provide the connections for you. His original text in black, my responses / annotations in blue.

Most of us came of age in the last half of the 20th century and had our perceptions of “normal” formed in that era. It was, all things considered, an unusually happy period. No world wars, no Great Depressions, fewer civil wars, fewer plagues.

He means, of course, “Most of us my age and race.” Which I am, more or less. A little older I think, but in there.

He is aware, in some vague way, that the rest of you exist, but it’s not a big deal in his world.

It’s looking like we’re not going to get to enjoy one of those times again. The 21st century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order.


At the bottom of all this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. As Nicholas Eberstadt points out in his powerful essay “Our Miserable 21st Century,” in the current issue of Commentary, between 1948 and 2000 the U.S. economy grew at a per-capita rate of about 2.3 percent a year.


But then around 2000, something shifted. Actually it started in 1980. We elected Ronald Reagan and began living according the the policies he – and David – advocate. Up where David lives they didn’t notice it for 20 years, but you could see it on the streets before spring of 1981. In the year 2000 the American system elected George W. Bush in response to his campaign promise to prevent the threat of a balanced budget via huge tax cuts on the rich. After he implemented these cuts even David Brooks could tell that the economy was in serious trouble.  In this century, per-capita growth has been less than 1 percent a year on average, and even since 2009 it’s been only 1.1 percent a year. If the U.S. had been able to maintain postwar 20th-century growth rates into this century, U.S. per-capita G.D.P. would be over 20 percent higher than it is today.

He is reporting empirical facts. It’s been rocky since the Republicans took over. He’s right. If you take the Democratic administrations out of the averages it gets even worse. Most of the growth since 1980 – and essentially all the retained growth this century – came under Democratic Party presidents. Much of that is rooted in two short intervals of Democratic Congresses and President.

There is no denying, though, that Republican tax cuts knocked the feet out from under the economy and it’s never come back. David provides clear evidence.

Slow growth strains everything else — meaning less opportunity, less optimism and more of the sort of zero-sum, grab-what-you-can thinking that Donald Trump specializes in. The slowdown has devastated American workers. Between 1985 and 2000, the total hours of paid work in America increased by 35 percent. Almost all that growth came during the Bill Clinton administration. Over the next 15 years, they increased by only 4 percent. …

Here David continues to list specific outcomes of Republican policies, from shrinking government employment, from hiring freezes and project downsizing. Those halcyon years David sees in the rear view mirror were the years when the nation built the Eisenhower Interstate System, creating jobs in every state in the Union. They were the years of reasonable taxes on the rich, which in turn funded tens of thousands of “pork barrel” projects which created jobs for the people on the bottom of the economic ladder. The sainted Ronald Reagan told the American people that “Government is the problem,” began a long process of cutting taxes on the rich, cutting spending, firing the bottom tier, cutting wages, busting unions, then going back and running through the cycle again.

David Brooks knows that consumer spending drives the economy. He knows that all those people his party and his policies have put out of work were spending money which kept the wheels spinning. He sees all the dots. In different essays on different days he points out different dots. He refuses to connect them. It is the strangest part of reading his work.

David continues with more evidence proving how his party has destroyed the United States economy for the benefit of a tiny few: For every one American man aged 25 to 55 looking for work, there are three who have dropped out of the labor force. If Americans were working at the same rates they were when this century started, over 10 million more people would have jobs. As Eberstadt puts it, “The plain fact is that 21st-century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work.”

Um… yeah… David’s party has controlled the House of Representatives for all but 2 years of the century so far. All revenue bills must arise in the House. For all the Bush presidency and 6 years of Obama’s 8, David’s Republican party has absolutely controlled government revenues and spending. David’s party controls an ever increasing number of states. The economy of Kansas is the shining example of unfettered Republican policies. They can’t even keep the schools open.

The Republican Party has absolutely created the economy David is writing about. He forgets his predictions of low taxes and high growth. They got exactly what they demanded. David Brooks doesn’t like how it works.

That means there’s an army of Americans semi-attached to their communities, who struggle to contribute, to realize their capacities and find their dignity. A fifty-year-old American was just entering the work force when Ronald Reagan promised that cutting taxes on “job creators” would create jobs and the wealth would “trickle down.” It never happened. An older working American today has never – never in his or her life – seen much opportunity. Clinging to the scraps they have is the best they can hope for. That or a disability check.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics time-use studies, these labor force dropouts spend on average 2,000 hours a year watching some screen. That’s about the number of hours that usually go to a full-time job.

Fifty-seven percent of white males who have dropped out get by on some form of government disability check. About half of the men who have dropped out take pain medication on a daily basis. A survey in Ohio found that over one three-month period, 11 percent of Ohioans were prescribed opiates. One in eight American men now has a felony conviction on his record.

Yup. Republicans are Tough On Crime. They have their glorious War on Drugs. It’s easy to get locked up for drunk driving. At least the undeserving poor aren’t working on some taxpayer funded, government – subsidized high speed railway somewhere.

This is no way for our fellow citizens to live. The Eberstadt piece confirms one thought: The central task for many of us now is not to resist Donald Trump. He’ll seal his own fate. It’s to figure out how to replace him — how to respond to the slow growth and social disaffection that gave rise to him with some radically different policy mix.

The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. And it’s really hard to create a dynamic economy and society when the governing party views all change to be for the worse. Most of the dynamism in the world economy today is in the renewable energy sector or high speed rail; David’s party denies the need for either. In the past, American reformers could at least count on the fact that they were working with a dynamic society that was always generating the energy required to solve the nation’s woes. In the past the American government believed in science and spent money to solve problems. The United States Government under the Republican Party denies the existence of global warming and stands foursquare for the preservation of existing industries regardless of the relationship to today’s problems. But as Tyler Cowen demonstrates in his compelling new book, “The Complacent Class,” contemporary Americans have lost their mojo. American workers have learned that it’s dangerous out there. For every Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates there are a million guys sitting behind glass windows in convenience stores, so American young people know they’d better go to college, get an MBA, get a nice safe career in finance, and vote for Republicans so immigrants don’t take what little they have.

Cowen shows that in sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. For example, Americans used to move a lot to seize opportunities and transform their lives. But the rate of Americans who are migrating across state lines has plummeted by 51 percent from the levels of the 1950s and 1960s.

Americans used to be entrepreneurial, but there has been a decline in start-ups as a share of all business activity over the last generation. A handful of mega-corporations control almost all industries. The very small per-unit profit made possible by vast economies of scale make it virtually impossible to earn a livelihood doing anything on an individual human scale. As a result Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. The share of Americans under 30 who own a business has fallen 65 percent since the 1980s.

Americans tell themselves the old job-for-life model is over. But in fact Americans are switching jobs less than a generation ago, not more. The job reallocation rate — which measures employment turnover — is down by more than a quarter since 1990.

There are signs that America is less innovative. Accounting for population growth, Americans create 25 percent fewer major international patents than in 1999. However, virtually all Creationism and Christian Physics textbooks are American in origin. Self-identified Conservatives advocate for more, not less, replacement of hard science with Christian science denial in public schools. Every anti-science movement on earth finds its power and funding in America. There’s even less hunger to hit the open road. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licenses. Now only half of Americans get a license by age 18. 1983 median family income in the US was $19,647.00 and average new car price was about $6,116.00, or about 1/3 of income. 2014 median family income was $53,013.00, and a new Subaru almost $30,000.00. So a car has gone up from 1/3 an annual income to over half an annual income. Couple that with high college debt and low entry level earnings. Cars are simply unaffordable to many young people.

In different ways Eberstadt and Cowen are describing a country that is decelerating, detaching, losing hope, getting sadder. Economic slowdown, social disaffection and risk aversion reinforce one another.

It is almost as if our economy and country have become, for lack of a better term, very conservative. Fearing change, clinging to the past, and unwilling to put forward any of our wealth to solve our problems.

Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternate path? Given that “conservative” means “maintaining the status quo” it’s for sure not David Brooks’s party. Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is not the answer, what is?

Real Democrats are the answer. A functioning government. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lyndon B. Johnson (without his stupid war.) Borrow a leaf from Eisenhower (a Republican President working hand-in-hand with a Democratic Congress) and build the 21st Century Interstate High Speed Railway into every state and every major city.

Peel some cash off the top of the heap and inject it at the bottom. Money doesn’t trickle down, it floats up. Everybody knows that. Hire regular people to do jobs.

Every bad thing David Brooks sees in America is real. He is right about all of it.

The Republican Party has created it all. It appears that they got exactly what they wanted.  As long as they remain in power it is not going to get any better.

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4 thoughts on “Broken Century, Broken Reasoning”

    1. That is a separate topic. Technically as long as population increases the economy will also “grow” unless each person gets progressively poorer. Five people working will produce more than three people working. Five people will eat more than three people – unless they go hungry.
      Obviously, we live in a finite world of finite resources. Like I said, it’s another topic, and one which I don’t feel that I have thought through or clearly understand.

  1. My husband Bob says you have done a brilliant job of analyzing David Brook’s commentary and that you should send this to him!

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