When it comes to domestic policy, there are two Barack Obamas.
On one side there’s Barack the Policy Wonk, whose command of the issues — and ability to explain those issues in plain English — is a joy to behold.
But on the other side there’s Barack the Post-Partisan, who searches for common ground where none exists, and whose negotiations with himself lead to policies that are far too weak.
As for Brooks, I don't agree with his take on the substance of the stimulus and health care bills, but the first half of Tuesday's column, regarding Obama's ceding of control to Congress when it comes to shaping legislation, is on point:
(We) have to distinguish between two types of pragmatism. There is legislative pragmatism — writing bills that can pass. Then there is policy pragmatism — creating programs that work. These two pragmatisms are in tension, and in their current frame of mind, Democrats often put the former before the latter.
It must have been difficult for Brooks to return to the dreary day-to-day world of politics. On Friday, having had to write about health care and Iran and other boring stuff for a couple weeks, he'd finally gotten to run free -- the wind in his face, his glasses jostling on his nose -- devoting some time to what's really important: his latest ramblings on sociological, psychological and philosophical shit he doesn't understand.
The point of the column, as far as I can tell, was that, because some guy wrote a book about evolutionary psychology that pressed the argument too far, the entire field, in Brooks' view, has "had a good run" but probably is cooked.
I have neither the time nor the energy to hit Brooks with a form tackle and wrap him up, so instead I'll dive at his feet on the sidelines by pointing out two things. First, here's how he starts the column:
Has there ever been a time when there were so many different views of human nature floating around all at once? The economists have their view, in which rational people coolly chase incentives. Traditional Christians have their view, emphasizing original sin, grace and the pilgrim’s progress in a fallen world. And then there are the evolutionary psychologists, who get the most media attention.
He has to come up with two "views of human nature" to support his opening sentence and the first one is economists and a world in which "rational people coolly chase incentives"? Yes, and the Sasquatch hunters have their view as well, in which we will never fully understand ourselves until we find and discover the secrets of our ancestral cousin, the elusive North American forest ape.
"Rational people coolly (chasing) incentives" doesn't even explain economic behavior, let alone human nature. Look at the market meltdown. You could make the argument that each person involved in the financial crisis -- the bankers who were richly compensated for taking on obscene risk in search of short-term profit, a financial industry that created investment instruments so complex that the vast majority of people on Wall Street didn't know how they worked, the lenders who took advantage of aspiring homeowners who didn't understand they were getting in over their heads, and the homeowners themselves, who signed on for high-risk mortgages they couldn't afford -- pursued his own set of incentives in a rational way. You'd be wrong. But you could make that argument.
Is the stock market rational? No. Certain decisions that are made in that context are, but there's a reason the words "irrational exuberance" and "panic" have been used to describe booms and sell-offs, respectively.
But let's leave economics aside. Who in their right mind would say that "rational people coolly (chasing) incentives" is a legitimate view of human nature? Look at the life and death of Michael Jackson and his many psychofans. Look at what's happening in the Middle East. Think about the fact that Glenn Beck has good ratings. Reflect back on "Freedom Fries." Think about your own state of mind when you've been in love or depressed. Is any of this rational?
The reality is just the opposite. The likely tragedy of the human race will be that our capacity for reason was ultimately thwarted by our primitive, irrational nature, that our technological development was never matched by emotional, psychological or spiritual advancement. (Thinking specifically here, as far as scenarios for the collapse of human civilization, of the increasing likelihood that global warming will create massive destabilization and territorial wars over resources.*)
Toward the end of the column, we get another fascinating glimpse into the peculiar mind of David Brooks:
Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.
That sounds purty and all, but when you go to the mall, do you see people in the midst of a "never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are"? That's a pretty generous description. If I were an avid shopper, that's what I'd tell my spouse the next time she complained about the credit cad bill: "Honey, why are you standing in the way of my never-ending voyage of self-creation and discovery?"
That's a better euphemism, incidentally, than "wine tasting." It sounds so much more sophisticated to say you're going wine tasting than to say, "We're going up to Napa to get drunk."
*He cites the remark by Obama that has become the clearest distillation of the disingenuousness behind the argument against the public option: “If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care, if they tell us that they’re offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can’t run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That’s not logical.”
**Given population growth and the increasing scarcity of water in California, we're heading for a "Road Warrior"-esque dystopia in which aquifer-controlling warlords dispatch their minions across the arid landscape in vehicles with cow catchers on the front and gun turrets on top.