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The Progressive Era and Obama Error

David Brooks on how the Obama Administration used the wrong historical analogy of Progressivism--more government to deal with our crises--to get the nation into deeper trouble. 

First, the underlying economic situations are very different....

In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.

Second, the governmental challenge is very different today than it was in the progressive era. Back then, government was small and there were few worker safety regulations. The problem was a lack of institutions. Today, government is large, and there is a thicket of regulations, torts and legal encumbrances. The problem is not a lack of institutions; it's a lack of institutional effectiveness.

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....

In the progressive era, 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....

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values -- a bad combination.

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.

Brooks concedes far more to Progressivism than he should on both policy and its philosophic soundness:  "The country needs a productive midlife crisis."  It needs rather to reassert its founding identity.  Here are some incisive brief essays on Progressive loopiness and radicalism. 

Categories > Progressivism

Discussions - 9 Comments

And didn't the Progressives, and their children in the New Deal make the same point Brooks makes about America no longer being young?

Brooks: "In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant." Lincoln's point (along with founding documents): America must always renew itself in its founding. (Cf. Machiavelli) The Living God does not age; living Constitutions pose another problem. Constitutionalists must always argue that the country was mature at its founding. Coolidge: only reactionaries deviate from the Declaration....

Brooks writes: “In the progressive era, the economy was in its adolescence and the task was to control it. Today the economy is middle-aged; the task is to rejuvenate it.”

This is the sort of nonsense that makes Brooks just look foolish -- as if today’s economic problems resulted from the infirmities of age. And as if the economic vibrancy during the Progressive Era were only a product of robust youth.

That is slightly ridiculous, but since he is a columnist, he is concerned with copyright, which requires him to fix a "modicum of creativity" in a tangible medium of expression.

It is more artistic liscense, but it hints at some truth, or perhaps quite a bit of truth.

If you don't think age has any bearing on the economy(or relevance for a job at the federal reserve) then your main man in the Senate is Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Shelby more or less axed Peter Diamond because "His academic work has been on pensions and labor market theory."

Peter Diamond (not David Brooks) is probably the leading economist on the issue of how aggregate age affects the economy. Peter Diamond recently received a nobel in economics partially for the modification of the Ramsey growth model, that supposedly accounts for the fact that some folks are being born and others dying off.

Peter Diamond is also a policy guru when it comes to social security. Without a doubt when you are talking about entitlement programs that kick in at certain ages, you have to grant that age matters to the economy.

Age matters to employers as well for a host of factors, some of which have prompted labor regulations barring certain "age discrimination" and allowing certain other types of age discrimination that can pass intermediate scrutiny.

Age matters to insurance companies, both in ascertaining risk, and in creating actuarial tables for the value of annuities(which to the insurance companies is still risk). (when you watch tv, do you notice all the peachtree and J.G. Wentworth commercials? "It is your money, use it when you need it!")

The age demographic of those who watch certain television shows is relevant to commercial revenue.

In some sense the ageing of our population is already proping up community colleges, who are busy minting nursing degrees. Those deficit tables showing the explosive growth in entitlement liabilities, means jobs for nurses and pharmacists, and doctors.

A very strong case could be made for the idea that both politics and certainly the markets, or in combination the economy, respond to the needs of ageing consumers.

Even ideologically perhaps older folks like Ken Thomas and Richard Adams, and perhaps even progressives are worried about the Legacy of the "DI" or the "New Deal".

I think that especially in this fast moving world ideological legacy is an interest group.

"Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo." Last time I checked Heritage via NLT "interest groups" are apparently the lingo of Herbert Croly (amazing the extent to wihich conservatives go to preserve the legacy of progressivism).

Interest groups don't really emerge to protect the status quo, they simply wish to be part of the status quo going forward. A lot of interest groups are foward looking, so when the population ages, the character of the interest groups changes.

This is actually not that debateable or rocket science. You buy different christmas presents for kids and adults of different ages, recognizing that each age has its own special interests, and creates demand for the products it wants and needs.

I don't think Brooks was talking about the average age of Americans. That point applies to virtually every nation in the world, by the way. But it certainly is an important point.

I read him as making the same point as the Progressives made--that America is no longer a new nation. The closing of the frontier was a big theme then. Along with other facts, it was taken to mean that the U.S. had to build a state, or perhaps I should say Stadt, like they had in Europe. The irony is that Brooks does not recall that the Progressives said the same thing he is saying, with the twist that he is saying Progressivism was suited for a new "young" nation.

Good grief, man. You wrote more than 500 words to thrash a straw man.

Brooks wasn't referring to PEOPLE'S ages, and neither was I. He clearly wrote, "In the progressive era, THE ECONOMY was in its adolescence ..." (emphasis added).

My point (since you sailed past it) is that economies aren't necessarily robust in their youth or decrepit in their old age. Economies don't develop or age as people do, and Brooks only looks foolish when he implies that they do.


Just testing html here.

"He clearly wrote, "In the progressive era, THE ECONOMY was in its adolescence ..."

And I clearly started off by granting your point and then went on to construct a point which he might be making. To best do this I looked to the legal structure which governs his Economy, in this case Copyright law. The standard for Copyright is that one must say something with a "modicum of originality" and "fix it in a tangible medium of expression."

So I interpreted Brooks to be saying something reasonable, in a creative way.

"My point (since you sailed past it) is that economies aren't necessarily robust in their youth or decrepit in their old age."

I understand that and agree, the difference being I think David Brooks doesn't think that either. Primarily I think David Brooks is trying to make money as a columnist, but secondarily he is a reasonably deep thinker, who suffers fancy pants syndrome. But again I would say that some of this fancy pants syndrome is related to intellectual property concerns...i,e. copyright. The internet is still a youthful economy, but it isn't as youthful/new as it used to be. How many different ways still exist to communicate a point? Granted the modicum of originality standard is rather low, but if he doesn't express himself creatively he is going to either run afoul of copyright or get hit for plagerism.

It is quite possible that the clearest thinking and writting has already been done, that is that the Economy of the written word (of course economy of the written word can also mean brevity, not my strong suit.) was robust in its youth and is now decrepit. That is the remaining "modicum of creativity" is full of clever personification, and its flip side cousin objectification.

The harder you really think about it the more of an unusual widget the "economy" is. (I know it is not a widget, it is a concept describing the sum of all productive activity) Does the monopoly on clear thinking granted by indefinite copyright protection (I know it says limited times...but the ninth circuit has said this is not actionable, and that congress can keep Mickey Mousing.) Wait, that was supposed to be a question...

Lets try for clear thinking!

"Economies don't develop or age as people do, and Brooks only looks foolish when he implies that they do."

The sentence that preceeded this said:

"My point (since you sailed past it) is that economies aren't necessarily robust in their youth or decrepit in their old age."

Human beings aren't necessarily robust in their youth or decrepit in their old age. I grant the general point...but you want to talk about the economy...

In their youth, human beings (in the United States at least) tend to earn less money. In their old age they tend to earn more money. (unless you are most robust when you are 65, and decrepit when you are 80). 40 and under youth, 40 to say 80 (slightly more than life expectancy) old age.

Americans earn a lot more in old age. So the "robustness" of youth doesn't really translate into income (unless you are talking about certain economies, like proffesional sports.) As an asside for clear thinking I don't like the word economies, I prefer markets. The NBA is a market for the limited number of folks with the physical skills and talents to play basketball, this market is governed by contract law, as the shortened season remind us. The broadcast for the NBA is also a market, mostly a contract involving copyright set up between Disney(ESPN) and the NBA. Of course the legal structure is not why folks watch, but it may affect ticket prices...A team is likely to go thru many different players as the wheel of time turns and seasons run into seasons, From Jordan to Rose...of course the market in Jordan's is still hot long after he stopped playing.

But you are right the Chicago bulls don't necessarily age with the passage of talent. The entity continues, the game of basketball continues...Still the Chicago Bulls were more "robust" in the age of Jordan...

So if by an economy one is thinking of an entity or corporation that countinues with a business plan and whose main product is say the Iphone, then the entity is remarkably resilient where its imputs are concerned, but it still might "age".

But I would still say the economy is made up of markets, and the work product within these markets can change with the ageing, death or departure of its members, and this is more true in a service economy, especially in partnerships, which often times must dissolve with the death of partners.

So the more you think about the economy as a large entity or corporation and made up of large entities and corporations the more indifferent it is to human ageing, death and birth. The best occupy Wal-Street sign was the one saying: "only people are people."

I might say that sole proprietorships are individuals. Partnerships are people, and Corporations are legal/logistical engineering systems, designed in part to escape "risk", both liability and the death of members or shareholders.

In addition Corporations were somewhat in adolescence at the time.

Brooks also says: "The problem was a lack of institutions."

Corporations are institutions...and a lot of folks do think of the economy as an institution, or as a snap shot of numbers institutions consider when making decisions, say unemployment or infrastructure...

So maybe by employing personification Brooks is trying to think of the economy as something other than an aggregate of institutions.

> Human beings aren't necessarily robust in their youth or decrepit in their old age.

I didn't imply that they are. This must be the straw-man thread. Everyone seems to be going after them.

People typically (but not necessarily) have more strength, agility, and energy in their adolescence than in their middle years. Brooks was plainly suggesting a parallel in the development of the U.S. economy, and it was a silly parallel to draw.

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