Friday evening, September 24, 2021, I happened to stop channel surfing to watch Jonathan Capehart and David Brooks on the PBS News Hour. They were discussing the $3.5 trillion bill that I like to call the For the People Bill (but that name is really reserved for HR1-the Voting Rights Bill). The $3.5 trillion bill was joined with the American Jobs Plan which is now the separate Infrastructure Bill. So far, the larger worker-centered bill is mainly referred to as the “reconciliation bill”, or the “Build Back Better bill.”
David Brooks has been a Conservative writer for many years. He is a ‘bespoke’ 61-year-old, perfectly groomed American man, and worth 20 million dollars as of September 2021. He was born Jewish, but news sources suggest that he has evolved to a loosely Christian orientation. He speaks in terms of morality and community. Brooks seems to see the current extremism in the Republican Party as a temporary aberration that will go away any day restoring Reagan Conservatives as the appropriate voice of reason and flag-carriers of the true American identity. So, he traces a straight line from “saint” Reagan to now and ignores the Tea Bags and the Trump-sized garbage bag hanging from that line in recent years. He does not seem to accept that it is the nature of Conservatism that enabled the extremism in his party. For now, he is a man without a party.
This is what he had to say about the $3.5 trillion dollar plan when Judy Woodruff asked him about it.
“[W]hat strikes me is how so many people are drawing red lines. The progressives are saying, we want $3.5 trillion. We’re not going under. Manchin and others say $1.5 trillion, we’re not going over.
“And so that’s a gigantic gap. They can’t even agree on when to vote on what. And so, I think what they need to do is look at, what is the key insight of each side? The progressives are right that we need something big. We’re a nation in decline. We’re a nation — because of disunity. Lots of people have been left behind by this economy. And they’re right to do something big to try to jolt us back to unity.
The moderates, in my view, are right that we’re not going to have a European-style welfare state. We’re just not that kind of country. We’re an individualistic country. We like to tie benefits to work and have a work obligation. We’re never going to give away as much money in taxes as the Europeans do. The Norwegians give away about 46 percent of their GDP to taxes. If this passed, it would get us up to 19.
We’re just not that kind of country. So, if you take the scope of the progressives and the values of the moderates, I think you can get a deal, but they’re pretty far away from it right now.”
There is a lot packed in there. 1) We need something big, 2) We are a nation in decline, 3) So, Progressives are right 4) Moderates are also right 5) We (Americans) are not going to have a European-style welfare state.
“We’re an individualistic country.” What does that even mean? How individualistic does someone who is making $7.25 an hour feel? Do you think they would turn up their nose at free childcare? Do you think they would feel the same if childcare was a tax rebate? Do you think someone who will be burdened by the relatively low costs of a community college degree would be too proud to accept free tuition? Do you think any of these Americans would mind if we raised taxes on the rich?
Does someone with $20 million dollars in his bank account think he is truly able to judge how individualistic people are in this country? Does he think a senior would turn down help with dental work that becomes more expensive as we age? It would not stretch his budget at all if he wanted dental implants. For most seniors they are out of the question. Even good dentures are a stretch. If David Brooks needs new hearing aids every few years, he just buys them. Most seniors are lucky if they get one pair.
Does he admire Cliven Bundy who grazed his cattle for free on land other ranchers paid a fee to graze their cattle on, who then welcomed the ersatz militia guys who faced down the feds from a federal highway and who hauled out the old Posse Comitatus laws from Reconstruction to say that he only answers to the local sheriff? Is that the kind of individualism we revere in America? Although some Americans think Bundy is a hero, I don’t think David Brooks is one of those Americans.
“We like to tie benefits to work and have a work obligation.” This is David Brooks speaking for all Americans. The Protestant work ethic is a Conservative touchstone. No work, no eat. Can’t get a job. That’s on you. Brooks does express empathy for people who are poor, and he does suggest that we are a connected community and individuals should lift-up the less fortunate, just not government. If government lifts people up, they will not work. They will become lazy deadbeats living off the government dime. We will raise taxes on hard working people who have been successful to fritter money away on people who will not need to work. If we do subsidize those who are low wage workers, we need to make it as degrading as possible so that they will get off the public dime as soon as possible. Of course, “saint” Reagan is the one who came up with the term “welfare queens.”
But research into the future of work suggests that leaving benefits tied to work will not be useful for future workers. Workers will have to be more mobile; they may have to change jobs more often, even move to different cities. Some have suggested a ‘benefit’s passport’ that travels with a worker from job to job. But who pays? This would suggest private companies would offer benefit plans that would only be available to workers, but not paid by individual employers or the government. Without unions to represent workers what will those benefits be like? It could result in “the incredibly shrinking benefits”. Studies of the future of work also suggest that as AI and robotics become more common many may lose their jobs through no fault of their own, at least for a while. What economic guarantees will apply in a situation like that if all benefits must be tied to work?
Lastly Brooks argues that America is not Europe. (Conservatives think that turning into Europe is scary for Americans, but it’s probably not something we spend a lot of our time thinking about.) “The moderates, in my view, are right that we’re not going to have a European-style welfare state. We’re never going to give away as much money in taxes as the Europeans do. The Norwegians give away about 46 percent of their GDP to taxes. If this passed, it would get us up to 19. We’re just not that kind of country.”
Such arrogance from a man who has no party. Such arrogance from a man whose conservative policies led to Trump who is a man with no ideology and no empathy. Brooks does not seem to see that the times may call for a new ideology, a more progressive, less work-ethic-above-all kind of ideology. He’s very educated but not very flexible. Perhaps it’s because he has become a brand.
I think people like to work when they are treated well. I think they need work. Without some way to earn their own money and support a family, people are bereft. If there are people who don’t like to work perhaps it is because they have no good examples to call on, or they need to be trained to work productively, or they need to feel that their work has value. If there are large numbers of people who don’t work, there is a societal reason for that, and it needs to be explored and changed.
Europe has its own problems with benefits. Many European nations are far less diverse than America. The argument about giving money to ‘others’ is not as important. However, some benefits go to people who don’t need them but are protected by such powerful groups within the society that the structures that exist cannot be rearranged. Public employees are protected and cannot be fired but other workers are not so fortunate. Tax dollars are collected and then placed back in the same hands that paid those dollars which is inefficient and costly and not the point of a system of benefits. Europe has even more difficulty changing the “welfare system” as it exists than America does. If this $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill puts our number at 19% of our GDP to taxes it hardly seems outrageous, especially compared to the 46% in Nordic countries.
The times are against Conservative messaging. Our economy is in chaos. Our supply chains are broken. We are still in a pandemic, especially in ‘red’ states, (look it up). People can’t decide if they should return to their old jobs or take advantage of a fluid market and switch jobs. This is leaving employers short-staffed. Even employers are thinking about offering more paid leave. We need this bill to pass. We need to ignore conservative voices that led us to a right-wing that refuses to govern, that campaigns for conspiracy theorists and congress-people intent on sedition who pass their actions off as free speech.
David Brooks said this on Twitter, one day before speaking with Judy Woodruff:
“Progressives are right about one thing. We need a big spending infusion to reverse national decline.” 9.23.2021
Another Conservative, Andy Smarick, from the American Enterprise Institute (A Koch funded organization) popped up to offer this thread, proving that Brooks is not alone:
I have a piece coming out tomorrow that agrees with two of
points: 1) America is not Europe, and 2) America is struggling in important ways. But I disagree strongly with the third point–that American needs a massive federal package. I argue there’s another way…
And then he added:
My latest. “Consolidated power, centralized tinkering, and a bossy Washington are incompatible with American conservatism because the American character and the American experience teach us they are incompatible with American success.”
Do you sit around your kitchen table and talk like this about the American character and what is and is not compatible with American success? If you do discuss such things, do you arrive at the same conclusions? Or do you just go over your budget, what is happening at your child’s school, the grocery list, who will be home when your children arrive home from school, and wonder if you will lose your job if your child is exposed to COVID and has to quarantine at home.
Conservatives still have free speech but the failures of their chosen party, their flirtations with authoritarianism, should warn us that they may be too certain that they know all the answers, that they lack hubris, and their answers may be too outdated to help us make useful decisions about the next American century (if we last that long).
Why are Welfare States in US and Europe Different by Alberto Alessina, Edward L Glasser, Cairn Info, 2006