WHERE PIFFLE CAN POSE AS DEEP THOUGHT (permalink): We’ll admit it! Last Friday, we bungled our treatment of David Brooks’ most recent columns. In one of those columns (last Tuesday’s), Brooks laid out the premise behind his new book, The Social Animal.
Blame it on the bossa nova? This time, we’ll blame it on the columnist’s longing for additional metis and limerence. (Real words, though just barely. This longing was voiced in last Tuesday’s piece.) The analysts quickly began writing limericks, attempting to mock this foppish desire. Hoping to gather our thoughts about this strange column, we resolved to wait before offering comment. But the foolishness of Brooks’ column last Friday provoked us—and we wrote too soon.
No limericks today, not even about the columnist raised near the Village/Whose affect allowed no emotional spillage. Instead, let’s look at Brooks’ column from last Tuesday—the piece which gives an overview of his insightful new book.
Truly, this piece was astounding. Consider the first half of the column, in which Brooks lists four major American policy failures, then describes the “single failure” from which all these failures derived.
First, Brooks listed those policy failures. Truly, David Brooks has seen rivers. Here’s how his column began:
BROOKS (3/8/11): Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.
We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system—trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers—that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.
Truly, Brooks has seen rivers. In that passage, he lists four “policy failures” he has covered. Let’s set aside the post-Soviet policy failure, which is obscure to most Americans. Behaving charitably, let’s ignore what he says about public schools, since he’s merely reciting the latest cant on a topic he doesn’t understand.
That leaves two of America’s greatest modern “policy failures:” The massive bungling in Iraq, and the recent financial meltdown. Why did these policy failures occur? Continuing, Brooks offers an astounding explanation for all the policy failures he lists. What follows may be the weirdest “explanation” we’ve ever seen in a newspaper:
BROOKS (continuing directly): I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society—not only in the policy world, but in many spheres—that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.
This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.
When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.
As Brooks continues, things only get worse. But please note what he says in that passage! According to Brooks, all those major policy failures “spring from a single failure”—from “an overly simplistic view of human nature.” According to Brooks, the faulty financial regime which collapsed in 2008 sprang from the following failure: “We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.”
Go ahead—just try to believe it! Just try to believe that a major nation’s most important newspaper could publish such consummate piffle!
Did the failure in Iraq and the failure on Wall Street really “spring” from this single source? Who could possibly think so? This simplistic explanation is amazingly strange, for reasons we’ll note below. But as we continue, let’s note two effects of Brooks’ odd explanation:
We’re all responsible—and thus, no one is: Who created these policy failures? Note how vague Brooks is on this point. He does acknowledge a “sphere” called “the policy world;” tangentially, he acknowledges that there are many other “spheres” in our society. But mainly, he discusses the things “we” do—the things “we” say, the things “we” believe. No one is singled out; all are included. This wipes away any question of who has created these failures.
Did Wall Street billionaires help create that sector’s policy failure with their political contributions? Presumably, yes. But then again, so did some car salesman west of Dubuque! After all, he relies on that overly simplistic view of human nature, just like the Masters of the Universe! And the policy failure which led to that meltdown springs from that single failure, as does everything else.
The conduct of miscreants gets washed away in this ridiculous formulation. But then, so does all self-interest, including even criminal conduct:
Everything has been done in good faith: The policy failures in Iraq? The policies which led to that financial meltdown? According to Brooks, “these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.” And since that view pervades our culture, it seems to follow that our policy failures have been created in basic good faith. All through the culture, “we emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below.” Presumably, no one does this on purpose, not even the “experts” to whom Brooks refers at one point. Our failures all spring from this simplistic view—and this view bubbles up from our culture.
Luckily, Brooks’ new book will help us see past this simplistic view of human nature. But his formulation seems to wash away the self-interested conduct of extremely powerful players.
Can we talk? If Brooks really means what he says, his view of the policy world comes to us live and direct from somewhere on Sunnybrook Farm. Did this country suffer that financial meltdown because “we” aren’t good at discussing emotions? This morning, in that same New York Times, Paul Krugman discusses an ongoing part of that same financial meltdown. But how naïve this silly man is! As he describes the (ongoing) meltdown, Krugman seems to think that powerful players pursued their self-interest in immoral, perhaps criminal, ways:
KRUGMAN (3/14/11): …the rich are different from you and me: when they break the law, it’s the prosecutors who find themselves on trial.
To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, look at the complaint filed by Nevada’s attorney general against Bank of America. The complaint charges the bank with luring families into its loan-modification program—supposedly to help them keep their homes—under false pretenses; with giving false information about the program’s requirements (for example, telling them that they had to default on their mortgages before receiving a modification); with stringing families along with promises of action, then “sending foreclosure notices, scheduling auction dates, and even selling consumers’ homes while they waited for decisions”; and, in general, with exploiting the program to enrich itself at those families’ expense.
Notice, by the way, that we’re not talking about the business practices of fly-by-night operators; we’re talking about two of our three largest financial companies, with roughly $2 trillion each in assets. Yet politicians would have you believe that any attempt to get these abusive banking giants to make modest restitution is a “shakedown.”
As Hector said of Paris, Strange man! Like Nevada’s deluded attorney general, Krugman’s still talking the silly old talk, in which powerful players deceive and exploit the masses. To this day, he just doesn’t get it! He still doesn’t see that these problems occur because people at “our largest financial companies” are divided creatures who aren’t comfortable talking about emotion! So too with the politicians who rush to defend them—pols who have accepted big campaign cash from these other divided creatures.
As Brooks continued this column, he was soon explaining the need for additional metis and limerence. The night before, he had blubbered a bit with Charlie Rose about his own emotional state. Inevitably, these cris de coeur provoked rebuttal from our young, inexperienced analysts. But those cries accompanied one of the strangest columns we’ve ever perused.
Good grief! In yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas Nagel reviewed Brooks’ book. Forget the metis and the limerence—Brooks’ needs may be more basic:
NAGEL (3/13/11): The main idea is that there are two levels of the mind, one unconscious and the other conscious, and that the first is much more important than the second in determining what we do. It must be said immediately that Brooks has a terminological problem here. He describes the contents of the unconscious mind as “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms,” and later he includes “sensations, perceptions, drives and needs.” A majority of the things on this list are “conscious,” in the usual sense of the word, since they are parts of conscious experience.
Good lord, is that error basic! As he continues, Nagel is reasonably kind, though he also offers this: “Brooks seems willing to take seriously any claim by a cognitive scientist, however idiotic.” (We’ve noticed.) And this, with which he ends his review: “Brooks is out to expose the superficiality of an overly rational view of human nature, but there is more than one kind of superficiality.”
Nagel reviewed an entire book. Someone should explain the cultural world in which a column like last Tuesday’s can appear in a major nation’s most important newspaper. The column offered absolute nonsense—and a full-bore airbrushing of the way the real world actually works.
Do “we” have trouble discussing emotion? Is that what caused the financial meltdown? Surely, it would be pretty to think so—especially if you don’t want to say that very rich folk have their way with the world.
But how does someone like Brooks reach the point where he’s willing to publish such piffle? More importantly, how does a nation reach the point where such piffle can pose as Deep Thought?