With sharp scissors in hand, David Brooks is chasing Paul Krugman around the office--again. Brooks doesn't utter Krugman's name. That would be ungentlemanly. But David's full-scale, frontal assault on Paul (and all who think like Paul) is getting personal, while the more intriguing aspect of this particular squabble is that it isn't actually much of a squabble.
Brooks' key tactical thrust is to accuse Krugman and all the Keysenian Krugmanites of lazily supporting "the status quo"--spend, spend, spend on short-term stimulus--while progressive, global thinkers--that would be Brooks & Co.--are fixated instead on "the core issues" of tomorrow: adapting America's workplace to socioeconomic-inclusive technological change, improving our educational system, and refashioning the tax code to achieve more fairness and competitiveness. That, essentially, is Brooks' 800-word offensive, boiled down to 63.
Yet I fail to see any real dispute here, except that which inheres in Brooks' temperamental aversion to massive interventionist stimuli of the Keysenian variety. But even that isn't much of a dispute, since most any Keysenian's point is that in addition to massiveness, fiscal interventionism is indeed short-term. In other words, within a year or 18 months--once the economy recovers to the point where the private sector can resume its premier role--extraordinary deficit spending to stimulate the economy would no longer be an issue.
We would then all move on to improving education, refashioning the tax code, and so on, just as Brooks suggests. If we don't get the economy moving now, however, two years or 10 from now there won't be much of one left, and what is left will be much harder to regenerate. We should recall that in Keynes' times, the anti-Keysenians (the David Brookes) preferred to emphasize almost exclusively the long run--that far-off, nearly utopian time in which patience and prudence would most certainly pay off, although, as Keynes dryly noted, by then we'd all be dead.
What's most striking about Brooks' piece, though, are is comments on political will. The Keyneses/Krugmans have on their side "almost no politicians willing to embrace the cyclicalist agenda, which would mean much larger deficits"; while Brooks' cadre hasn't "a perfect champion either." What comes next from Brooks is nothing short of stunning:
President Obama is too minimalist. He doesn’t seem to believe America’s structural problems are that big, making his reform ideas small. Mitt Romney and Representative Paul Ryan understand the size of the structural problems, but their reform plans are constrained by the Republican Party’s single-minded devotion to tax cuts.
Brooks argues that his camp is as screwed as Krugman's, and I doubt Krugman would offer much resistance to that argument, either. Again, there's actually little disagreement between them. In the above quote, however, Brooks grossly mistackles not Krugman, but the politicians.
Not since FDR have we had a president who pondered the long run like Barack Obama does. Virtually every conceptual proposal that emerges from his presidency is geared toward tomorrow--whether its educational reform, entitlement reform, tax "fairness," multilateral alliances, a smoother integration into global markets, and so on. For Obama, it's all about, and always has been about, the long game--although like any first-rate pragmatist, or effective incrementalist, he also understands and accepts the shorter stepping stones required to successfully complete the long run. This staggeringly manifest and most notable characteristic of the Obama administration--one malevolently countered at every turn by the congressional GOP--Brooks seems to have missed (and Krugman, in three years, has come to comprehend).
Brooks' alternate contention that Romney and Ryan possess, over Obama, a deeper understanding of ... anything, yet are tragically "constrained" by their party's tax-cutting barbarians, is, well, just laughable. Today, Republicanism = tax cuts = Republicanism. Aside from slashing essential regulations, that's all there is.
What Brooks struggles to imply is that contemporary conservatism is, at least theoretically, the forward-looking philosophy, while modern progressivism is an atavistic heap of unoriginality. The twofold problem with Brooks' formulation is of course this: any theory is likely to work out marvelously on paper; and if empirical evidence proves the alternative's effectiveness, who cares if it's atavistic or unoriginal?