David Brooks in Paradise, Part I

GUEST: David Brooks
VTR: 06/09/04

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And about today’s guest some have said he reminds them of the late William H. Whyte, who nearly a half century ago engaged Americans in what some deplored, but many praised as “pop sociology”, with his intriguing book, “The Organization Man”.

Indeed, in1956, when The Open Mind began, I did a program with Holly Whyte, and then when he joined me here again 26 years later to discuss what, by then, had become his book’s enormous fame, I jokingly asked whether he had forgotten something the last time and had come back to retrieve it.

Well, today’s guest, David Brooks, hasn’t forgotten a darn thing since he was here just last year, when he had only recently become The New York Times newest OpEd Page columnist, presumably there to play The Conservative against Paul Krugman’s The Liberal.

Now he has indulged in even more, in what some friends and foes alike have labeled “pop sociology” of his own. And I think his wonderfully readable and quite compelling new Simon and Schuster volume, “On Paradise Drive” stacks up very well with “The Organization Man”, except that it’s funnier. Perhaps leading Michael Kingsley, the book’s Sunday New York Times reviewer, to carp a bit on the difference between sociology and shtick.

Indeed, I want to begin today by asking my guest to comment on Kingsley’s opening salvo, “For several years in the world of political journalism David Brooks has been every Liberal’s favorite Conservative. This is not just because he throws us a bone of agreement every now and then. In his writing and on television he actually seems reasonable. More than that he seems cuddly. He gives the impression of being open to persuasion. Liberals suspect that a writer as amiable as Brooks must be a Liberal at heart. Some Conservatives think so, too.”

So, how about that last zinger, David, that some Conservatives think you’re a Liberal, too.

BROOKS: Well, some Conservatives certainly do think I’m not conservative enough, that’s true. Though I would say most of the criticism I get on the Left, I’ve sort of puzzled over that, being the Liberals favorite Conservative. Sometimes I think that it’s good news, because if Al Franken takes over the country, I’ll be the last person he executes on the Right. I’ll be left standing.

If it means anything, I guess it means a couple of things. One, I’m a New York Jew, so culturally I have lot more in common with some Liberals than I do with some Conservatives. So there’s some cultural simpatico. Second, there’s a feud, a bitter feud going on in this country … and I just refuse to be part of it. Where, you know, you’re either one side or another, you can’t see any justice on the other side, you can’t grant the presumption of positive intentions to the other side. I just refuse to be part of that.

So I do think, you know, if Conservatives ran the country, Conservatives would run it into the ground just as if Liberals ran the county alone, Liberals would run it into the ground. I think …

HEFFNER: Now …

BROOKS: … you need that balance.

HEFFNER: … now, wait, wait a minute. What do you mean by that?

BROOKS: Well, I think … Isaiah Berlin said, “We have incommensurate values.” That there are always competing two values. And in any difficult question there are two things, two legitimate points of view which are competing, none of which has a monopoly on the truth. And I generally believe that’s true. Seymour Martin Lipsett another pop sociologist, a little more academic … once wrote an essay in which he said, “There are two great themes running through American history. One of them is equality. And one of them is achievement.”

And these are two important values and sometimes I think the Democratic Party is more the party of equality; the Republican Party is more the party of achievement. But I wouldn’t want one party or another to gain ultimate dominance. I do think we need this rivalry, which doesn’t mean I believe my ideas less, but I respect that, you know, things are complicated and you need people with opposing points of view to point out your mistakes and to correct your exaggerations.

HEFFNER: Well, now wait a minute. Did you make your own shift in order to point out your own former mistakes?

BROOKS: Well, I, I don’t know if I shifted. I, I … it’s very rare to change politics. I guess, I don’t think I totally did. What happened to me, personally, was that I grew up in Greenwich Village, considered myself a Socialist through college, to the extent that I was political. And then saw a couple of things. One of them has to do with Ronald Reagan, I saw Reagan fighting the Cold War and I thought he was essentially right in the way he fought it and his analysis of the Soviet Union.

Secondly, I saw what I thought was the collapse of the welfare state. I saw it hurting people in the inner cities in the seventies and eighties and I thought Conservatives had fresh, new approaches, some of which have been implemented in welfare reform. And I think some of which have worked.

HEFFNER: Did you think that Bill Clinton’s approach to welfare was accurate, correct?

BROOKS: Yeah. He passed welfare reform with Republicans and it was created by a lot of Republican Governors, but some Democratic Governors really got the ball rolling. It happened in Congress and then Clinton signed on. And to me, what’s happened is that we’ve moved a lot of people off welfare and into work.

That does not mean they are out of poverty. They are still … they are working, but they’re still in poverty, so there are still other steps that need to be taken. But I think getting people off welfare so they are responsible for themselves, had self-dignity and self-respect was an important step. There are millions fewer children living in poverty now than there were 15 years ago, in large part because of welfare reform. So I think it was, it was a very good reform, one of the most successful laws of the last 20 years and it was essentially a Conservative law.

HEFFNER: And Social Security?

BROOKS: Social Security. I don’t have a problem with the idea of Social Security. You know, you can define Conservatives by what year they want to go back to. Some people joke. And some people do want to go back before the New Deal. I’m not one of them. I’m, I’m fine with the New Deal. Those programs, I think, alleviated a lot of suffering, one of the greatest successes.

Another great success that we’ve had is the alleviation of senior citizen poverty, which is now down to very low levels. And so I’m, I support Social Security. I do think it needs to be fundamentally reformed. One of the big, long standing problems and I … most experts will say this, is the aging of the Baby Boomers and the way this stretches entitlements. Or stretches the costs of entitlements and starves everything else.

What’s happening fundamentally in this government, and if you only pay attention to one thing, pay attention to this … it’s that the cost of entitlements is growing and growing and growing. The amount of money left over for every other Federal government program is shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. Liberals, above all, should be concerned for this, because the amount of money available for education, for welfare, all these other programs, is just getting sucked away by Medicare and Social Security. And we need to reform those programs.

HEFFNER: How would you reform them?

BROOKS: Well, with Social Security, I do believe people should have the option of sending part of their Social Security, pension money into the market. I think the returns would be much higher. I don’t think you can pick one 30-year period in the 20th century, including the Great Depression when the money wouldn’t be greater in a market system, rather than the system we have.

I think it would create a sense of responsibility; people could control their own pensions. The problem is the cost of getting there.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, the cost of getting there?

BROOKS: Well, when you move from the system we have now to a system where there’s some option for market based, you’ve got to pay for the current system at the same time you’re paying for the future reformed system. So, for a little while, you’ve got two systems you’re paying for.

Frankly, instead of the tax cut that we had in the Bush Presidency; I would have rather seen the money devoted to that problem. But it wasn’t, and now we’ve got to reform the system and reform Medicare which is even the more immediate problem, with no money left, and that’s a big problem.

HEFFNER: Well, let’ talk about the tax cut, for a minute. How important … more than a minute, given its importance. Doesn’t that loom for you as something of a litmus test for what’s politically wise and acceptable and what’s politically unwise and unacceptable?

BROOKS: No. It’s not a litmus test for me because I have complicated views about it. When it was proposed by the Bush Administration I opposed it. I wrote a New York Times OpEd piece opposing it because I felt we were heading toward a war and I didn’t think we should be cutting taxes in time of war.

In retrospect I have a little more complicated view. I don’t support the way it was done, I don’t support what was targeted in that tax cut, I would like to have seen lowering the rates and eliminating tax loopholes and making the whole Code much more simple. If you’re going to have … the chance to reform the tax system only comes around once every decade or so. So we should have taken advantage to simplify the system.

On the other hand, the amount of jobs created by that tax cut, according to independent economists, is a million, a million and a half jobs. I don’t think the country would be better off if those people were out of work. I really think the recession we faced in the early part of 2000, 2001, 2002 had the potential to be a really serious problem. People were talking about Japanese “stagflation”; it was the popping of a bubble. I think that the bold action Alan Greenspan took at the Fed and the Bush Administration took with its fiscal stimulus got us out of that problem.

They left us with a long-term problem, and I don’t deny that. But they did solve the short-term problem.

HEFFNER: But let’s, let’s harp for a minute on that long-term problem. Were you, would you willingly trade off the one for the other?

BROOKS: I, I … I go back and forth. Here’s my simple mind … I’m not an economist so I can afford to be simple minded about this.

For many years the amount of … of our entire GDP, our entire economy that goes to the Federal government in revenue, was about 19%. I was fine with that. That seemed an acceptable amount of money to spend on the Federal government. It was 19%, 19%, 19% through Clinton, through Bush, through Reagan. After this tax cut and in this recession, it dropped to about 14% or 15%, so we were still spending around 20%, but our taxes were only 14% so hence the problem.

I’m fine with a tax system that gets us back up to 19% which may mean some sort of tax increases. We may get up there naturally as the economy expands and churns off more revenue. But if, if we’re down to 14%, that can’t last. We have to raise taxes, and in that case I would be in favor of a tax hike. Because we’ve got … it’s just out of balance when you’re spending 20% and your only getting revenue for 14%

HEFFNER: But I guess the question I really mean to ask is, isn’t that such a fundamental point. And you make it sound enormously important and it is …

BROOKS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … that I have to ask how can you go ahead and support …

BROOKS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … an Administration that said, says, “David, who’s David, I don’t care what he wrote. He’s wrong and we’re gong ahead.”

BROOKS: Yeah. To me that’s not the litmus test, the litmus test is the war against terror. But, you know, I have become totally non-ideological about economics. I don’t believe in Keynesianism, I don’t believe in supply-side anymore. I don’t believe in any doctrine. I, I just lost faith in all of them. And so I have a very pragmatic non-ideological view of economics. We’ve got a problem, what are our problems, what will solve the problems?

And I thought the tax cuts solved one problem. Which was the short-term possibility of a really deep recession and a long recession. We now have the longer term and a bigger problem. To me it’s not a litmus test issue, it’s a, it’s a question of trade-offs and which, which set of levers you’re pulling and what trade-offs you’re making.

And so to me it’s not … I mean I can disagree with the Bush Administration about this tax cut, but as long as I think they’re protecting the country and projecting America around the world and championing democracy, I still will be basically supporting …

HEFFNER: Well, I, I certainly don’t want to ignore that or abandon that, but let’s, let’s stay on this, this matter a bit. I have to go back, since it was in The New York Times, you …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … “your” paper, the Michael Kinsley review, there is something here that I thought was so impressive. The question: “Is he serious? Is an interesting question about David Brooks. Buy a more important question for Brooks himself and for all of humanity (joke, joke) now that he is a Times columnist, is ‘is he Conservative?’ although Brooks mockery is genial rather than sneering and distancing, like Tom Wolfe’s, there is no doubt”, and this is such an interesting point, “that if a professed Liberal New York Times columnist, say Paul Krugman, were to describe the products and culture of capitalism the way Brooks does in [On Paradise Drive] his lines would be cited and denounced on every right wing radio talk show.

BROOKS: I don’t really agree with that. I mean I make fun of Home Depot, for example. I make fun of suburbia, but I do it as in my nature which is sort of … I, I, I imagine and I say this is a book about patriotism; it’s a book about patriotism not for the ideals of the country, but for the way people actually live. It’s easy to love the ideals of America. It’s harder to love the way people actually live, but I genuinely do love the way people actually live. I walk down the street here in New York or in some suburb in Arizona and when I make fun of it, it’s the, the fun one … a senior couple who’ve been in love for 50 years … make fun of each other.

HEFFNER: You know, my wife and I have been married …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … for 54 years …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … and if we made fun of each other that way …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … the way you do, I don’t know that we’d last another four minutes.

BROOKS: [Laughter] See …

HEFFNER: But when you write the “Out for a Drive” …

BROOKS: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … segment … and you get in your mini-van and you go through America and describe it … I write here, in the back of the book, “How can he go on so negatively about us, about the U.S. if he doesn’t mean it?” Now is this just your skill in writing?

BROOKS: Yeah. I really don’t think it’s negative. It’s, it’s making fun. And you know, when you’re talking about American culture, I go back at the end of the book to Walt Whitman and the book is about “are we as shallow as we look?”. And so I go back to Walt Whitman at the end, who wrote a great essay called “Democratic Vistas”, in which … part of the essay it’s about how crass and vulgar American culture is. He’ll do a paragraph of that, then he’ll do a paragraph of how profound and impressive America is.

And then he’ll go back and do a paragraph on how awful American literature and novelists are. Then he’ll do a paragraph about how wonderful the American soldiers behaved in the Civil War.

So it’s one paragraph after another … different tones, doesn’t try to reconcile that because these are both faces of America. And at the end says that the vulgarity is the scum on the surface of what is a profound and wonderful nation. And so that’s basically … I’m following Whitman. Or at least learning from him.

HEFFNER: Well, maybe, maybe in contemporary times you and I can read Whitman and agree on what he’s writing. But, as we look back, but for contemporary times I’m not so sure that that works. And I go back to Kinsley and he says, “When he ridicules consumer appetites Brooks is safely within the permissible … rueful, conservative critique of capitalism’s contradictions. But when he declares the hard working business executives are living their whole lives in a furrow, in that furrow, your personality becomes a mere selling device; friendships become contacts; the urge to improve deteriorates to mere acquisitiveness; money becomes the measure of accomplishment. Well, frankly, that sounds more than a bit like Karl Marx.”

BROOKS: Well, you have to take it in the tone. That section, for example, is written as a tone “this is a danger one can fall into. But one of the things I try to say, that this is a possibility that confronts us and it does engulf a lot of people. But one of the things I say about this country is we’re always spiritually striving … where people are going to church, synagogues and mosques. People are joining volunteer organizations, there are many successful organizations, there are many successful businessmen and women who understand that money can take over their lives.

And I find them always struggling against that. Aware of the dangers that entrap anybody in whatever life we’ve chosen for ourselves. But struggling against that. So in that particular passage I’m talking about that danger.

I once had a very successful businessman … had me over to his house in Sonoma County, California. And he said to me, “You know I’ve achieved success,” and he had the whole valley and a vineyard, “but I haven’t achieved significance.” And this ate at him.

Somebody else said, “If my wife had heard him say that, she would have punched him right in the mouth.” Because he’s got this beautiful vineyard in Sonoma County. But, but I think that eats at a lot of people. And I think that’s a sign that there is this danger, always, of, of succumbing to the shallowness, the materialism that is all around us.

But I think deep in the nature of this country, is a spiritual hunger, and that’s one of the themes, I quote Sacvan Bercovitch, a Harvard historian, who says Americans have always had the … an inability to make the distinction between the material and the spiritual.

And if you see people out shopping at Ben and Jerry’s ice cream for a humane world-saving ice cream, that’s what they’re talking about. So I think the danger is there, but I’m not condemning Americans saying they’re living lives of quiet desperation. That’s what Thoreau said and I don’t agree with that. I’m with Whitman and not with Thoreau. That the material and the spiritual are intermingled in this complex mosaic.

HEFFNER: Well, David, all I can say is that when next semester I come to assign Willy Loman and “Babbitt” I was thinking that maybe instead I’ll give them your book.

BROOKS: No … if you through … and I mention this in the book, the whole range of writing about this sort of lifestyle … “Babbitt” and Willy Loman are part of it … but then even “The Organization Man”, William F. Whyte’s book is part of it.

Every … if you look at every novel written about suburbia in the last thirty years, practically, you would think there’s no American who’s happy; they’re all leading these lives of quiet desperation.

If you’ve seen the movie “American Beauty”, it’s about people stuck in arid suburbs desperately unhappy. “The Graduate”, you can go on and on and on. Fundamentally, I don’t think that’s accurate, that’s a distortion of reality. If you hang around suburbanites, or anybody in America, and I’m not even sure of the distinction between urban and suburban anymore, you find people are happy with their lives. They’ve got problems, they are complicated … some are spiritual, some are less spiritual. But the idea that it’s a wasteland, that it’s … that people are leading lives of quiet desperation … to me that’s a little close to snobbery; of literary people thinking that the average people are not living up to their spiritual standards.

HEFFNER: Now you’re sure … honest to God sure … that it’s isn’t your old Liberalism that’s creeping out here.

BROOKS: [Snicker] No. No, I have … here’s one thing I do have doubts about … again the question is “are we as shallow as we look?” I sometimes think maybe it’s just I don’t want to face the fact that we’re as shallow as we look and so I’m creating this image to, to invent a spiritual …

HEFFNER: Just joking?

BROOKS: Not just joking, but out of desperation not to lose faith in this country. And I, I … sometimes think maybe that’s just it. But people will read the book to see whether I’m persuasive or maybe I’m just trying to fool myself.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s why … when I met you when you cam into the studio today, I said, “When are you coming home?”

BROOKS: Well …

HEFFNER: Because it read as though you were about to make another sea change …

BROOKS: MmmHmm. Here’s one thing I would disagree. I think Conservatives have no … there’s no Liberal Conservative on this. I think Conservatives are very worried about spiritual growth; they’re worried about materialism. Most Conservatives are not, you know, materialistic Ayn Rand free marketeers. Most Conservatives, I’d say even evangelical Conservatives who live out in the places I’m often writing about have the same doubts and anxieties about materialism, shopping and living the sort of office park life that anybody else has. I really don’t think it’s a Liberal concern or a Conservative concern. I’m … I don’t … maybe you’re getting at something else.

HEFFNER: Well, I don’t know. I’ll have to ask myself whether I am, because I’ve asked you and you say I’m not getting it.

BROOKS: Yeah. All, all I would say is …

HEFFNER: Something else …

BROOKS: All I would say is that in the reviews of this book, the Liberals who have reviewed it, who are explicitly Liberals have tended to be negative. And the Conservatives have almost all been positive. So …

HEFFNER: Well what are they going to do with one of their own?

BROOKS: Well, well that’s my point. When my last book game out four years ago, the reviews … you couldn’t tell the politics of the review. There was no difference. And I think a lot of things have changed in the country; the country’s become more polarized. I have a different profile because of The Times column.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting, The Times column … I have to say that my wife and I used to talk about James Reston, “well there he goes again” to use Ronald Reagan’s expression, when it would be on the one hand and on the other in today’s Reston column, next week’s Reston column.

But I have the feeling about David Brooks that there is … you, you, you do seem to move and is that because you can’t accept or adopt or wrap yourself around the extremism of the others in this country today.

BROOKS: Well, that’s part. Let me … well maybe I should just say what I believe in.

HEFFNER: Go ahead.

BROOKS: Because it … it is … it fits uncomfortably in both camps. I consider myself a Teddy Roosevelt, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, Rudy Giuliani Conservative. Which is a tradition that began with Hamiltion, goes through the Whig Party in American history … Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and then it sort of dies out. And Giuliani and McCain are really part of it. And, but it puts you uncomfortable in either Left or Right camp.

I really think there are … we have two official parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Buy nationally we really have three parties … we have the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and then the McCain/Lieberman Party. And I would be most comfortable in that McCain/Lieberman Party. But that doesn’t exist so I’m, I’m … a Conservative, I’m not quite a Bush Conservative, I’m certainly not a Liberal. But I’m so … I’m stuck in between. And if there’s been “on the one hand and on the other hand” in the column recently, it’s part because of what I think of as modulation, but some people think may be ambivalence about the Bush economic policies or environmental policies. And then about the war in Iraq, things have not gone as I expected, and so I’m trying to learn and figure out what’s happened. And that leads to a little “to-ing and fro-ing”.

HEFFNER: Do you think that the Administration has learned?

BROOKS: Yes, I do, actually. I think if you look at the last month, I’ve gone through a period in April where I was quite depressed about the way things were going.

HEFFNER: I know. You wrote it, too.

BROOKS: I wrote about it. And Abu Ghraib was happening and that was an emotional blow aside from whatever … everything else. But I think if you look at the last month or the last period. The Administration has learned its fundamental mistake … first mistake, which we’re beyond, which is not having enough troops to actually make it a safe country, the later mistake and the more significant one was, not handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people almost immediately. Because they’re a proud, nationalistic people. And they want to run their own country. The whole idea of nation-building is elitist. The idea is that we’re going to gift-wrap and build a nation and hand it back to them, that’s not … that’s anti-democratic.

HEFFNER: Do you think the Administration has abandoned that point of view.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think they understand. I know from conversations that they understand they did not hand back sovereignty quickly enough. They are now doing it with, I think, important dispatch. They have gone to the UN, which to me is not that important. But the key thing is handling things back to the Iraqis. And the news recently has been that Iraqis are taking the lead, they’re not sitting around waiting for Paul Bremmer to make some decisions.

Now you have actual Iraqis taking the lead, doing things, disarming militias, they’re beginning to think about elections. And I think we should move those up. So, I think we’ve seen some hopeful changes in the last period.

HEFFNER: But, David, in just the two minutes we have left … it seems that at the beginning the, the whole business about nation making and creating was basic and do you really feel that that has been set aside?

BROOKS: Well, I, I just don’t think we can do it.

HEFFNER: Now, now, now …

BROOKS: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … I’m not asking whether you think we can do it … whether they think we can do it?

BROOKS: Yeah. I think they never were comfortable with the idea of nation-building. They hoped to do it on the cheap and just hand things back, but then the system … the situation got out of their control. But … you know, it has to be up … it’s their country, and we didn’t treat it like their country. We treated it as this place we were going to come and rescue. And, and that just created all sorts of psychic problems, it created a psychic backlash. Our shadow overshadowed what we’re trying to do. People didn’t see democracy, they saw America. So instead of looking at us as people who would help them through democracy, they saw us as Americans bringing their arrogant lifestyle to their country. And so they reacted against it. And while most Iraqis clearly do want democracy … every poll shows that. That’s an abstraction. But humiliating America, this arrogant country was some pleasure they could enjoy every day. And so we got this psychotic relationship because we were too all over the place.

HEFFNER: But you think we’re not “all over the place” anymore? You think that the bold statements made by the President at the beginning of our nation building have been set aside now. We don’t …

BROOKS: Well, I think …

HEFFNER: … we officially don’t think that way anymore?

BROOKS: Well I think the statements about democracy were the bold statements that mattered. And I still think we get some credit in Iraq for that. But now when I look at Iraq I see Alawi, the prime minister making decisions. I see deals being cut with Sastani and the disarming of the militias. I see campaigning going on. I see the Kurds upset over this or that. So I see a lot of things and they are the major players. We are no longer the major players. The decisions they take will be up to them, but as long as they are seen as the major players on Al Jazeera, then I think the Iraqi people will be a lot happier.

HEFFNER: We’re no longer the major players … the big foot of our military presence?

BROOKS: We’re obviously a “big foot”, but I think you’ve seen even in the last period, we have … we’ve ceded a lot of control over what we do to Iraqis. In Fallujah there was a US desire to go in and clean out that city. The Iraqis said, “No, that’s a stupid idea.” And it turned out their version of reality happened. Not ours.

HEFFNER: David, I just got a sign that said “Good bye”. And I’m supposed to say that to you, but to stay where you are so we can do another program.

BROOKS: I’ll be here.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I should have said thanks to David Brooks. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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