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New York Times columnist David Brooks’ analyis of the mood of the electorate

Thursday, May 20, 2010
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HH: Pleased to welcome now to the Hugh Hewitt Show David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, author of many wonderful books. David, how are you? Welcome.

DB: Good to be here. Good to be with you.

HH: I was intrigued by your column last week, where you’re talking about the limits of policy. In fact, that’s the May 4th column, so it wasn’t last week. It’s now two weeks ago. And at the end of it, you say something which I want to probe a little bit, which is that we should calm down about politics. Do you think yesterday’s elections represent a calming down or a juicing up of the debate this year?

DB: I would guess there’s a lot of juice in the system right now. You know, I spend my life analyzing politics and politics, so I don’t totally want to disagree with it. But let’s fact it, in terms of how we actually live, what happens in our families is just way more important. I mean, the thing that set me off there was that you had a demographic of Asian-Americans living in New Jersey, live 26 years longer on average than Native Americans living in South Dakota. Now there is no public policy short of war that creates that kind of difference in how we live and how long we live. So that what happens in culture and sociology and religion is just way more important than what happens in politics.

HH: That was remarkable, especially opening up with the Swedes who are here and the Swedes who stayed in Sweden, and the fact is that their life expectancy simply doesn’t have a statistically significant difference is an eye-opener. But then when you get to the Asian-American statistics, you may want to review them for people. They’re just stunning how much longer they live.

DB: Yeah, Asian-Americans live like 80-odd years, and Indians in South Dakota live like 50. And you know, if you look at the different ethnic groups, there was no overlap. Even the worse off Asian-American groups do better than the best off African-American groups, or even the best off white groups. So there’s just differences in culture that are really important.

HH: Quoting, “Asian-Americans have a life expectancy of 87 years compared with 79 years for whites, and 73 years for African-Americans. But now, we get to the nub. What is it in public policy that would affect those? And we’re going to take it as a given that it’s a good thing to live longer. That’s a pro-life position. But what is it in public policy that most dramatically impacts those gaps, David Brooks, just off the top of your head?

DB: Well, I mean, the biggest impact on those gaps is relationships. If you’ve got a lot of friends and a good family structure, you’re going to live a lot longer than people without those things. So the question is what policies affect that. And some policies that create good communities and good values, stable families, that’s going to help you live longer and have a better life, more happiness altogether. So I would say tax policies, even, that affect whether you’re going to stay together, that’s going to reward marriage, but even then, that’s on the margin. People who stay together do so because they have good values, and that’s taught by parents, by teachers, by ministers, et cetera.

HH: Don’t you expect most lefties would say it’s the health care system, and the inaccessibility, and that the incomes of Asian-Americans generally are higher, and thus, with greater access to basic preventative care, African-Americans and especially reservation Native Americans don’t, and that therefore, you’re seeing a lack of inputs leading to a lack of years lived?

DB: Yeah, I think, you know, there’s some impact there, but again, I don’t think public policy’s the key. And in that column, I mention Sweden. Fifty years ago, Swedes on average lived 2.7 years longer than Americans. So the Swedes built a big welfare state, big, national health care service. We didn’t. We went a different direction. And what was the result after fifty years? Swedes lived 2.7 years longer than the average American. No difference at all.

HH: All right. Well, I want people to take that away, but I also want to go back down to the last paragraph, about the turmoil we have in American politics. If it’s not really, if Americans are rational, and they would rationally understand that politics really doesn’t impact them, Richard Dawkins would say, our selfish genes would realize that, why are they so invested in it this year, David Brooks?

DB: Well, I don’t think too many things are rational in life. I think people have a sense, here’s the good part about what’s happened. A lot of people, and it’s all about values, a lot of people went to high school that played by the rules, worked hard, went to college, worked hard, got a job, worked hard, bought a house they could afford, worked hard. A lot of other people didn’t do that, and now what’s happening is that the government is taking away some of the people who played by the rules and worked hard, and giving it to some people who didn’t. And so people are rightly offended by that. But nonetheless, I do think we should regard politics as a prosaic, normal thing. And if we’re, to me, the big, moral issue in front of the country is the debt, the fiscal crisis. And to me, the only way we’re going to get out of it practically is by means testing entitlements, which is meaning taking away some subsidies for the middle class, and raising taxes a bit. And if we’re going to have sort of religious positions on taxes or spending, then we’re never going to solve the problem, and we’ll all be worse off.

HH: Do you think that Paul Ryan’s roadmap is a logical, rational approach to the problems we’re in?

DB: I do think it’s that. I also think it’s, and I have tremendous respect for Paul Ryan, but I guess I would say I don’t think it’s politically going to happen. I don’t think you can get…I think Ryan is incredibly smart and a brave man, but I don’t think even the Republican Party, you’d get a lot of Republicans signing onto that. So my deal is that if we’re going to solve the problem, we’re probably going to have to do it in a reasonably bipartisan way. We’re going to all have to jump off the bridge together. And since not everybody in the country thinks like me, we’re probably going to have to make some compromise.

HH: Well, I do believe that the roadmap is acceptable to many Democrats who cannot now say so, because it would imply things like means testing of Social Security at least for higher incomes. It would imply a couple of other things. And you’ve got this model of Cameron-Clegg in another column you wrote recently. I don’t see that happening in the United States, but if they’re serious about deficit reduction, will the left hang around, David Brooks?

DB: In this country?

HH: Yes.

DB: Not unless they get some tax increases. I mean, it’s just a matter of basic economics. Somewhere, we have to close a 6% gap. We’re spending, you know, taxes right now are somewhere like 18% of GDP, spending 25%. So we’ve got to close that gap. Now we could close it by entirely shutting down the Pentagon, though I wouldn’t like that. We could close it by totally getting rid of Medicare. I don’t think the American people are going to go for that. So it’s going to be a little here and a little there. But somehow, we’ve got to close that 6% gap. And Paul Ryan does it, more or less. But I’m not sure, and maybe if I were an announced dictator, Paul Ryan might be the way to go. But I doubt we’re going to get there that way.

HH: But if you recall, in the early years of the Reagan administration, you’re younger than I am, so you don’t remember it, or you weren’t there, you weren’t living it, that Dick Darman sold this deal once before, David Brooks. He sold the two dollars of deficit cuts for every dollar of tax hikes. And the deficit cuts never came, and so Lucy & the football is the backdrop to everyone of these grand bargain conversations. And I asked you whether or not you believed Democrats would ever cut spending to underscore that problem that if there’s a credibility gap, Republicans have repeatedly raised taxes, and they’ve also cut taxes in the past. But they’ve repeatedly raised taxes, but the state never spends less money, ever.

DB: Yeah, well, you know, I only look that young. I actually was around then. But you know what worked, though? And I agree with you about that, what sort of worked was the Pay-Go rules in the Clinton administration, that by the way, they Republican Congress put in there, or helped put in there. And those rules, which were not totally hard rules, but were reasonably binding rules, that if you wanted to increase spending, you had to pay for it with cuts to something else. We did, that actually helped balance the budget. And so it is possible to impose some sort of rules that will do that. But I agree with you that if you only promise to cut spending, then the tax hikes are there, but the spending never actually gets cut.

HH: And it went from $160 billion in 2007 under W., last of his full budgets before the crisis, to $1.4 trillion minimum, $1.6 trillion maximum this year. I actually don’t think you can raise taxes high enough to close that. There has to be a repeal of the spending in many respects.

DB: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I mean right now, we’re running like 11% of GDP in deficits year to year. There’s no way we can do that. I mean, that has to come down. So you know, and we’re already up close to 50% for some people. And once you get above 50% total tax rates, then you’re getting total perversions in the system, where people are doing weird things to avoid paying taxes. And even people in the Obama administration understand that. So I’m totally with you that we can’t solve the problem on tax increases alone. I just think looking at it politically, there’s got to be a little of this, and a little of that.

HH: Well, I was all set up to this. Rand Paul won last night, a candidate who two years ago would not have been acceptable as an alternative for 90% of the country, won going away in the Republican primary. Arlen Specter might have lost anyway because of who he is and how long he’s been there. But Blanche Lincoln being assailed by the left, I don’t see, I see this as a knock down, drag-out referendum in November, David. And I wonder if you do, that this is, this is where American really confronts its spending addiction, and realizes if they don’t elect deficit cutters, genuine, hard-core smaller government people, they never get another chance. Do you agree?

DB: I guess so. I mean, there’s clearly more than ever before in my lifetime, you know, I was on the Wall Street editorial page for nine years, and for most of those years, if you were talking about deficits, that was sort of the green eye shade stuff. That was painful, that it was never good politically. But now the debt is so out of control, and government spending has risen so fast, that suddenly, it’s politically popular to be for this kind of cut. And so I do think the American people have actually moved quite dramatically in this direction. Whether, when you get Rand Paul in office, I doubt there are going to be 60 Senate Republicans in the Senate. Then what do we do? I doubt there, you know, maybe there’ll be fifty, but more likely, there’ll be like 48. But then what do we do? And that would be my question.

HH: And it will be up to the House, if there’s a House transformation to force the showdown.

DB: Yes.

HH: Have you had a chance yet to read Jonathan Alter’s The Promise?

DB: I have not. Yeah, I’d like to read that.

HH: It’s a very, very fascinating book. I had Alter on yesterday, and I hope conservatives everywhere read it, because it’s a great window into the White House. But I also put it down with this conclusion which plays into last night. There’s developing, I think, in the country an insider/outsider divide that has a lot to do with elitism and status and arrogance, less to do, even, with ideology on deficits. And you’re sort of the sociologist turned pundit. Do you see that? I mean, do you feel that, that there is an elite and an inside crowd, and it extends to people like people who’ve been in the government thirty years, and get to take home hundred thousand dollar pensions, and people who know how to work the system. Do you feel that developing?

DB: I think that’s all politics is. You know, why do people become a Republican or a Democrat? It’s not because they study the agenda. They figure out who is like who, which party is filled with people like me, has values that I like. And then they figure out the economics and all the rest. But it’s basically about values. Tom Wolfe had another take on this, which he said all politics is about your high school opposite. When you’re in high school, you sort of, now maybe you’re a jock, and the arty people look down on you. Or maybe you’re arty and the jocks look down on you. So your entire political viewpoint for the whole of your life is based on how you organize society down in high school. And I think there’s actually a lot of truth to that. And so I think it’s all about social identity, and I think people are really good at understanding who’s looking down on them, and they really don’t like it. And so I remember when I would interview voters in 2000. I’d ask them about George Bush and Al Gore. And I’d say do you like Gore, and people would say well, you know, I agree with a lot of his policies, but he just wouldn’t fit in with me. But George Bush, he could come to this diner, or whatever, and he’d fit right in. So I’m going to go with that guy. He’s not looking down on me.

HH: One of the things that Alter writes, which is really fascinating, is that the President was in danger of jumping the shark as a cultural phenomenon, crossing an invisible line from hip to tiresome. Do you think that’s happened?

DB: He’s, you know, he’s hanging in there like at 48-50% of popularity. I thought they were vastly overexposing him for about three or four months. And my conversations with people in the White House suggest that they are aware of that, and they tried to scale him back a little. So he’s still, you know, omnipresent, but he was doing five Sunday shows in a day. And I don’t think they’re doing that quite as much. But I have to say, considering how angry people are in Washington, how angry people are about where this country is headed, and how angry they are at Congress, his personal approval ratings are, they’re not terrible. They’re sort of mediocre. And that’s sort of worrisome, I think should be, to Republicans.

HH: And how is your email trending? A) you’re the conservative within the New York Times, and so you probably get hit from both sides. But is it ramped up in terms of the anxiety and the anger level over five years ago?

DB: It was pretty hot five years ago.

HH: That’s what I…

DB: I got started during the Iraq war, and I would say that was the peak of hotness. But no question, the disgust with government, with the New York Times…but you know, most of my email, frankly, is from the left, is hatred from the left. So that’s most of where I get it. And I have to say that’s been about pretty steady, less so than when Bush was in office.

HH: Oh, I’m fascinated by that. What do they complain about the most, because some of them on the right have fun with you on a pretty regular basis, because they think you’ve been like, you know, pod people have captured you and you’ve become the New York Times conservative.

DB: Right.

HH: I don’t agree with that, but what does the left mostly complain about?

DB: I guess you know, Rush or people like that will occasionally have fun with me, but the idea that there’s a difference between me and you and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, that is invisible to most of my readers, it seems.

HH: And what do you think about that? Is that right for them not to notice that? Or is it a fair, aggregated assessment?

DB: I think there’s a difference. I’m more of a sort of, I think I’m more center-left. I’m more of an Alexander Hamilton type, and I think maybe you and others are more Thomas Jefferson. You can correct me if I’m wrong about that. So I think I have a little bigger role for government than maybe you do. So I think there’s a difference.

HH: Now you’ve just named by hero. Hamilton’s my hero, so…

DB: Okay, so I withdraw the comment.

HH: No, that’s okay. But that’s not a slander. I’m just wondering about, though, if you agree, last couple of questions, David Brooks, that the right is more vehement than the left right now in politics, because my experience from my emails, my callers, my general interactions with the public is that the right is intense but not vicious, and that the left is intense and generally much more vicious than the right. What do you think about that?

DB: I’ll tell you what I tell my liberal friends all the time, that I worked in liberal organizations, and I’ve worked in conservative organizations. And the further right you go, the nicer people are in the organization. That’s my genuine view. And the other thing I tell them by the way is that I’ve spent a lot of my time in liberal circles where I’m the only conservative, and I’ve spent a lot of time in conservative circles. And I hear fewer racial comments in conservative circles than in liberal circles.

HH: Very interesting. David Brooks, good to talk to you. When’s the next book coming out, by the way? Is it December?

DB: January.

HH: Why is the deadline keep going backwards?

DB: Because the writing keeps going backwards.

HH: It’s about success, correct?

DB: Yeah, neuroscience and everything, yes.

HH: Oh, neuroscience. All right. David Brooks, great to talk with you, look forward to having you back soon.

End of interview.

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