Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Reading David Brooks and Missing William Safire

David Brooks’ “The Missing Fifth” (NYT, May 10) sent me to Google to confirm that Brooks is really the token conservative in the NYT’s stable of liberal columnists. Yes, the internet chatter says it is true.

I try to read Brooks’s columns, but I am hard pressed to find anything conservative in what he writes. Am I alone in this assessment?

Take Brooks’ “Missing Fifth.” In this column, he asks why America has lost its “energy” as reflected in the fact that only eighty percent of American men aged 25-54 work today versus 96 percent back in 1954. According to Brooks’ source (the OECD), the American “Missing Fifth” is the highest among the G-7 countries. I suspect this is because almost 3 percent of US males in this age group are in jail. Three percentage points of Brooks’ twenty percent have lost “energy” because they are sitting in jail. If so, this brings us down to the “Missing Seventeen Percent.”

Any conservative thinker, when confronted with the question of non-working adult males, would consider the incentives and human motivations underlying the “Missing Seventeen Percent.” Brooks mentions the increase in Americans on permanent disability, but he does not ask why. It is doubtful that we collectively became less healthy in the last three decades. Nor does he ask whether there are incentives to qualify for disability that were not present earlier. Consideration of disabilities is a diversion, however. Unlike the Netherlands where at one time some ten percent of the work force was on permanent disability, our numbers are small.

Brooks does not ask whether the costs of “not working” have dropped. In 1954, unemployed men had a small percentage of their lost earnings replaced and only for a short time. Today, it is a much different story. Nor is he curious about other countries, such as Germany, where unemployment benefits have become an entitlement. With growing political pressure to extend unemployment benefits, we are only a few steps behind Germany (which is trying to correct its earlier mistake).

A glance at the latest BLS statistics shows a 9 percent unemployment rate for adult males and another three percent or more for “discouraged workers ” or workers marginally attached to the labor force. Thus, Brooks’ “Missing Fifth/Seventeen Percent” is explained mostly by unemployment and tenuous attachment to the labor force.

Brooks does not ask whether food stamps, AFDC, or more generous and extended unemployment benefits have anything to do with this. I do not know the answer, but these questions should be asked.

Instead, Brooks goes into a rambling discussion of human capital and the rise of services and other structural issues and commits the old Marxian fallacy about machines replacing men. At least Brooks concedes that Keynesian solutions are not the answer.

His proposed solution to the “Missing Fifth” is that we (meaning the government) must spend more on community colleges, wage subsidies, and extending unemployment benefits to potential entrepreneurs. Brooks’ knee-jerk reaction is: If there is a problem, the government must fix it. There is no curiosity about whether the government has caused the problem.

Brooks’ writings evoke in me nostalgia for William Safire. How about the venerable NYT hiring a real conservative columnist?

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