Thursday, December 24, 2009

Intellectual fanboy David Brooks

When he tries to talk about economics, he sounds even more like a clown than usual:
Economic change is fomenting intellectual change. When the economy was about stuff, economics resembled physics. When it's about ideas, economics comes to resemble psychology.
The economy is still about stuff, just as the economy was always about ideas. McCormick's reaper and Morse's telegraph were both ideas before they became stuff.

The Brooksian tendency toward breathlessness -- he's read yet another "important new book" about a subject he doesn't actually understand -- is balanced by his habitual petulance, as when he complains about economists being "excessively individualistic and rationalistic." He seems to be boning up on intellectual trends among economists to "get a complete view of where the debate is headed."

But "where the debate is headed" is not the same thing as where the economy is headed. Brooks prattles on like a Star Trek fanboy, a spectator getting a vicarious thrill. When you get through reading his column, you don't really know anything about his ostensible subject, Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz's new book, From Poverty to Prosperity. It may indeed be important, but Brooks' column does a piss-poor job of explaining why.

Contrast this, just for example, with Joseph Lawler's discussion of unemployment in the January issue of the American Spectator. Lawler explains that the "jobless recovery" problem is due mainly to the fact that recent changes in our economy are not cyclical, but structural, requiring the shifting of workers from one labor sector to another. In many cases, this will require that workers relocate, and policies that encourage them to stay put -- collecting unemployment in their hometown, waiting for something to come along after the local factory closes down -- actually make matters worse.

Lawler's discussion is lucid and informative, because he's actually trying to explain a real phenomenon, rather than playing the intellectual fanboy game.


  1. Years ago, Harper's, I think it was, though it might have been The Atlantic, did a breathless article about the shift from a material economy to an informational one, and how this was green, blah blah blah. If people could eat astral projection, that would be wonderful, but even information needs to be stored . . . in material. Dumbasses.

  2. For a worthwhile discussion about "From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Lasting Triumph over Scarcity", check out this interview with Kling on EconTalk:

    From that interview I took away that Kling's main point is that economics in academia and the press is nearly exclusively focused on scarcity. (Unlimited wants versus limited resources). Kling certainly doesn't dismiss the truths behinds that, but wants us to also notice a growing phenomenon of abundance and how many things today are not scarce in that classical way.

    As an example (in the interview at least), he looks at computer hardware versus computer software. Hardware requires a lot of resources to reproduce, but software does not. Two people can use exactly the same copy of software without interference. He also looks at other easily reproducible intangibles like ideas - from how to create a vaccine to how to run a country.

    There's a lot more to be sure, but hopefully that gives a better introductorary summary than Brook's rambling.

  3. It would if the admin and Congress quit trying to keep people in their "homes" instead of walking away from the albatross and going where the jobs are. If there are any.