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David Brooks at his Best ? and Worst

Uploaded: Apr 13, 2014
David Brooks writes wonderful stuff when he speaks from his heart ? it's a very good heart. Unfortunately, he doesn't live there full-time, and too often in his columns he commutes to his head. It leads him astray -- I expect it to explode one of these days.

Brooks has been the conservative alternative pundit in the New York Times for a decade ? kind of like Debra Saunders in the Chron, except with shreds of thoughtful analysis and credibility. He's also a regular on NPR, and the Sunday talkies. He's written three books, the most recent of which is the best-selling "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement."

In it, he argues, as he said in an interview "The most important thing is what happens unconsciously, deep in the mind. Emotion isn't stupid ? it can be very smart. If you have two choices, flip a coin, and pay attention to how you feel about which way that comes out. Deep in your mind, you've figured it out. That's your unconscious telling you how to think." He backs his thesis with reams of social and medical research.

His emotional self also provokes him to write columns from the heart, like the recent "What Suffering Does" (4/7/2014). Not all agony is redemptive, he writes, but that part that is, changes people. "Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider's perspective, an attuned awareness to what other outsiders are enduring?. It gives people a sense of their own limitations," he continues, "what they can control and cannot control. Try as they might, they just can't tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or missing the one who has gone."

He concludes: "Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability?"

I love that column ? in part, because it reflects my own experience with redemptive suffering. Loss lends perspective to our lives, and makes them precious. It also demonstrates survivability ? showing us that we should not fear the vulnerability of living fully. Indeed, folks who shrink from emotional depth out of concern for possible future pain have prematurely begun the process of dying. That article is Brooks at his 'feeling' best.

Unfortunately, he is also called-upon to discuss policy, and here he is a prisoner of his University of Chicago economics training. It impels him to check all that humanity at the door, in preference to a strictly rationalist model of behavior, and a belief that economics is everything. The so-called Chicago School is great theoretical stuff, and its preference of monetary policy-based solutions has a role to play.

Where 'Chicago' gets it wrong is in its insistence that reality invariably follows theory, that monetary policies are the Only solutions, and that economics IS everything. In fact, however, people are not rational (as Mr. Brooks should recognize), Keynes was also right, and there are communitarian social interests that override the cold economics. People matter. When he relies on his free marketeer's education, Brooks loses a huge chunk of his human perspective.

The examples are legion; let me just deal with one that arises out of his very next column: "The Moral Power of Curiosity." In it, he admires the perceptiveness and gumption of the heroes of Michael Lewis' new book, "Flash Boys." They doggedly resisted the Wall Street blandishments of mere money maximization, in favor of satisfying their curiosity about how it worked.

They were rewarded by uncovering a not-(yet)-illegal mechanism to rig the market ? a nerdish kind of "front-running" stocks. In the digital bowels of modern markets, mere milli-seconds of trading foreknowledge allows big institutions to profit just a bit on every transaction. In the market's zero-sum game, that insider profit means everybody else loses the same amount, every time. The casino is rigged (in another, new way we didn't know about).

These flash-boy heroes chose to exploit their new learning by setting up an exchange on which that technical flaw is neutralized. They have built a better mousetrap, and will be rewarded handsomely for it (a fact that Brooks seems to under-appreciate). That's a wonderfully bright tiny beacon in a sea of inky darkness on The Street.

Brooks' head, however, takes this opportunity to conclude that such innovation is The Cure for every market imperfection. He writes: "? if market-rigging is defeated, it won't be by government regulators. It will be through a market innovation in which a good exchange replaces bad exchanges, designed by those who fundamentally understood the old system."

That statement egregiously, fundamentally misapprehends the tale he just told, and its implications for the market. Flash Boys is about an incidental, technical artifact of new computerized trading that could be exploited ? consciously or not ? for profit. Lewis' heroes are doing well by doing a good thing ? eliminating a glitch-in-time. Regulation is a very different thing. It is not designed to failsafe against such technical flaws ? it is intended to neutralize the larcenous character flaws of participants in the market.

Most market rigging involves variants of wrongdoing ? price-fixing or insider trading as examples ? whose genesis lies in the dark recesses -- not of computers, but of human nature. You cannot innovate your way out of people trying to trade on an insider's knowledge of the future (a la Wall Street, the movie). You can't make it impossible to bundle worthless mortgages and sell them to unsuspecting clients. What you can do is make such chicanery illegal, and severely punish it when it is uncovered ? because the regulators will never find all of it, and deterrence can work in this context.

Now, this is Not to say that we do regulation well ? the fact that nobody has gone to jail for all those worthless securities is proof enough of that proposition. I blame the Obama Administration, and especially AG Holder for those failures -- but not the concept, itself. Regulation is like killing roaches ? you can't expect to win completely, but if you do nothing, the vermin will overrun the place. And to take the utterly unrelated tale of Flash Boys and feed it into the Republican orthodoxy of less regulation is absurd and damaging at its laissez-faire worst.

As the good-Brooks wrote ? not all suffering is redemptive. And the losses that would be suffered by policies espoused by bad-Brooks would be merely unfortunate, and devoid of broader meaning. Those tragedies can, and ought to be, avoided. Maybe, before he actually publishes his political columns, he should flip a coin?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Suffer the little bloggers, a resident of Canyon Creek,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 8:18 pm

Ah yes, plumbing the depths of pop pundit David Brooks -- his use of ghost writers for his books, his selective use of social science publications in order to support his narrow view of the world, his not-quite-erudite and not-quite-nuanced views on things. And to squeeze three topics into one blog at the same time to disguise blogger's inability to treat systematically and with rigor any of the three topics on their own terms. Sigh. If only Brooks weren't a Milton Friedman wannabe, then the blogger could claim to be his ideational twin. Lots of painful self-examination must have led blogger to this position.

Posted by BF, a resident of San Ramon,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Bravo!!! LOL!!!

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 14, 2014 at 10:20 pm

Poor fellas -- spending your time writing futile smack about my blog, when you Could have been watching our relentless, first-place A's come back in the ninth on a pinch hit, two-run homer by John Jaso. It's the Best and Worst of how to invest your evening.

You do bring up an interesting point, without attribution of course, about the possible use of ghostwriters in producing books like 'Social Animal.' I have assumed that folks with a 'brand' like Brooks' have junior researchers on-staff doing that kind of labor, but I really don't know. I'm guessing that you don't either, but hey -- it's the internet, right? Shoot first!

To me, ghostwriting is a very different thing -- and much more likely to be done by non-writers seeking to cash-in quickly on fickle fame. But again, I don't know -- if you DO know, then howsabout coming forward with some actual proof on Brooks' book, meaning evidence, rather than innuendo. It's real easy to link to the web -- the fact that you never do so speaks volumes about your bomb-throwing.

Posted by Still Remains, a resident of Blackhawk,
on Apr 17, 2014 at 6:50 am

Web Link

Posted by Formerly Dan from BC, a resident of Bridle Creek,
on Apr 17, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Formerly Dan from BC is a registered user.

David ("Obama has nice creases") Brooks is conservative?!

THE David Brooks who voted for Obama TWICE?!

Surely you jest, sir.

David Brooks is an opportunist who plays both sides.

True conservatives had this guy figured out a long time ago. Welcome to the club.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 6:25 am

Hi Dan: couple things. Generally speaking, a guy who has written for the National Review, the Weekly Standard, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (which has nothing on The Onion, except they're serious), and who came to the NYT in 2003 to be "the kind of conservative who doesn't make our readers shriek and throw the paper" -- can be safely identified as a conservative.

Further, he self-identifies: "I think that I?m part of a longstanding conservative tradition that has to do with Edmund Burke, which is be cautious, don't think you can do all things by government planning, and Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to use government to help people compete in the capitalist economy."

And as to criticism from the Right: "if it?s from a loon, I get a kick out of it. If it?s Michelle Malkin attacking, I don?t mind it.... I don?t mind liberals praising me, but when it?s the really partisan liberals, and you get an avalanche of love, it?s like uhhh, I gotta rethink this."

Now it's true that these labels can depend on where the labeler sits on the spectrum -- hell, one regular, shape-shifting commenter to these blogs whom I call "Comrade" regularly accuses me of being a conservative. Of all people. Ouch.

Finally, I don't know how he voted, but you always need to consider the alternative. Per whitepages.com, there are hundreds of David Brookses in NY and the DC area -- maybe it's a different person?

Posted by Formerly Dan from BC, a resident of Bridle Creek,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 7:52 am

Formerly Dan from BC is a registered user.

Hi Tom,

Good points.

However you might be missing the conservative philosophical point that you made yourself in the very last sentence: "Maybe, before he actually publishes his political columns, HE SHOULD FLIP A COIN?"

If we was truly conservative, you wouldn't be so confused (?) regarding his writing.

And you are NOT, most assuredly, a conservative :)


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 8:52 am

Yup -- his head and his heart are at-war -- and maybe he should just come in out of that cold conservatism and admit he's a closet libbie. And thanks -- the water's fine. ;-)

Posted by Fiscally Conservative Republican, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Well, Dan. You sound like those 100% conservative purists, who cause Californians to live under Dem Governors, Dem Senators, and hand US Sen Leadership to Reid. Dems love your kind of conservative, it makes their races so much easier to win. Many very fiscal conservatives want to vote for Republicans, but are pushed out of the R column because of religious crusaders like Santorum. Meddling into personal private lives is the opposite of limited, conservative principles.
If we're ever going to fix our US economic future, Republicans need to stick to economic, governmental issues, and get elected....by butting out of private lives. A good start would be providing free condoms everywhere. For pennies, we could save Billions of dollars...and Millions of lives. Condoms prevent abortions...and condoms prevent poverty, abused, unwanted children for US government/taxpayers to support through every stage of life. That would be economically logical for struggling families, and fiscally responsible for our country. But for the crusading meddlers it would also save families, stabilize families, have wanted, cared for, provided for children, and....PREVENT the reason for abortions. Everybody should be happy with a plan like that, and real economic conservatives would be swept into offices. A financially crumbling federal government would have no reason to discuss personal, private lives. Everybody wins!
Of course social crusaders are always free to form their own party, since they run against Republicans anyway. But Republicans would be the Majority. Condoms Prevent Abortions . . . Condoms Prevent Poverty.

Posted by Fiscally Conservative Republican, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Also, last week, there was a fabulous "Frontline" special on this Pope. He was showing his concern for the poor (who continue to breed), and all about the real world, and problems our world faces. It was such a special, special. One interesting comment we watched and heard him say, he will work with the wants of people of the today's world. He is open to issue changes on past restrictions. He said the ONLY issue he will stand firm is abortion. He has seen lots of modern poverty, including in today's cities. He is a realistic man. He knows in this 21st century, a mother in poverty with 3 children she cannot feed or educate, does not see a 4th or 5th mouth as a blessing, knowing they will all stay in poverty. Her first 3 might survive better if coins & morsels weren't further split.
There are limited resources of all kinds for all of us. Economic, with middle-class job losses and struggles,It is very wrong and unfair to expect the US taxpayers to rescue all in the world caused by irresponsible breeding. Mother earth's resources are depleting...the list goes on. World poverty, with children living in gutters would be greatly eased with condoms. In 5 years, 3 or 4 breeding cycles, their lives would improve. Pouring vaccinations and dollars is a bottomless pit. First, STOP THE BLEEDING, THEN poverty will improve. Don't send food, "Teach them to fish" by giving them a 'breather' and their lives will improve. The Pope is ready and willing. Availability of condoms for the entire world population would be the cheapest and fastest solution for poverty. Quality of life for all would improve..in our US cities, states, neighboring countries, and all poverty pits on the globe. The only issue the Pope won't change is abortion. They would be rare with readily available condoms for all. Back to the needed bumper stickers "Condoms Prevent Abortions" and "Condoms Prevent Poverty"...anything else is just 'talk' and wasted money and efforts. Face reality, and deal realistically.

Posted by Formerly Dan from BC, a resident of Bridle Creek,
on Apr 18, 2014 at 9:45 pm

Formerly Dan from BC is a registered user.

Hello FCR,

Your lecture regarding my conservatism is interesting but alas, not accurate. Instead of making accusations about my beliefs, why not just try, you know, asking me?

Yes...condoms will solve EVERYTHING!

I always enjoy it when some people expect everyone to act rationally in all situations; to be just like themselves. There's something about human nature that they just can't seem to figure out.

Go figure.



Posted by Roz Rogoff, a resident of San Ramon,
on Apr 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm


You are correct about controlling population through birth control but not about condoms. That gives men control over pregnancy, and many men don't care what happens to the women or the babies they make. In some cultures it is status symbol to father many children, thereby proving their potency.

Give a free diaphragm to every woman through Planned Parenthood. Women only need one because they are reusable, and the man doesn't even have to know she has one.


Posted by Fiscally Conservative Republican, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Apr 20, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Thank you Dan and Roz. You are both correct. Dan, I like independent thinkers like David Brooks, who is one of the "80% your friends". Reagan won over masses with his 'agree 80% is your friend' message and were all welcome in the big Republican tent. Something faux conservatives like judgmental TPers just don't get. Instead they scare voters away from a false image of Republicans, thus handing easy victories to Dems.
Roz your approach is correct. To start I thought I would tiptoe into the topic. Actually, for most of the poverty pockets in the world, I would like the medical aid volunteers keep village records and implant IUDs & check on their next visit, or nurses in neighboring cities visit yearly. QUALITY of life must start being at the start of all conversations. (like seniors save for retirement, quality, pleasure, not just longevity).
Much of the world poverty in catholic countries, i.e. Mexico,. 'The' church doesn't 'provide' for their flock. This Pope has seen the 21century poverty and he is open to more responsible reproduction. 500 years ago 'human cells' weren't even understood...it was pure blind doctrine. That was OK in an all agrarian society, self-sustaining. Today's city ghetto is not self-sustaining. It's the US taxpayer who gets stuck with all the world's fiscal issues. Newsflash, Welcome to the new world order. US middle-class taxpayers now are paying the load for our own who don't provide for themselves, either through choice or circumstances. But 2014 middle-class need to get on their own feet. It's time for others to be taught,at home and afar, to learn and practice personal responsibility.
It can be Bill & Melinda Gates, Planned Parenthood, environmentalists, or all churches. It can be condoms or IUDs. But, it is time for all responsible people to work on teaching and living 'family personal sustainability'...for quality of life for all, taxpayer fairness, earth's resources...the list goes on. Government implanting IUDs, although the best method,goes to a different level. For simplicity and to start the bumper sticker campaign, I'll start with "Condoms Prevent Abortions", and "Condoms
Prevent Poverty". It seems Poverty is becoming a political football, so it is time to get real, address the medical 'cause', which is 'contraception' regardless of method. The Pope merely used the general word 'contraception' which he is open to....he has seen poverty in the gutters. Let us honestly face medical science. He has been clear..."stop scaring away members". It's time for modern mankind to act in an intelligent, responsible manner.

Posted by Judy Scavone, a resident of Pleasanton Valley,
on Apr 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Tom, Are you the Tom of Dupont Environmental? Hello! I do think David Brooks is a moderate conservative (is that an oxymoron) and generally I agree with many of his columns. I should note that I am an Obama Democrat; and on occasion, a moderate conservative like David is worth listening to.

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Apr 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Hiya Judy -- it's been quite a while, but yeah -- guilty as charged. The by-line photo, however, is my grandfather.

According to another poster, Brooks likes Obama, too. I like Brooks when he writes from his heart. Head needs work. ;-)

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