Over-simplifying reality in order to fit it into neocon memes is how David Brooks makes his living. It prompted the New York Observer’s Matt Haber to repeat Michael Kinsley’s review of Bobo’s technique:
The Brooks sociological method has four components: fearless generalizing, clever coinage, jokes and shopping lists….
At the very least, Brooks does not let the sociology get in the way of the shtick, and he wields a mean shoehorn when he needs the theory to fit the joke.
Why does what Bobo says matter? Because prominent intellectuals rank him among America’s top 100 public intellectuals. Conservatives like federal appellate court judge and Chicago Law School professor Richard Posner. True, reviewers found Posner’s book flawed – his list of top public intellectuals included addicted gambler William Bennett, performance artist Ann Coulter and conservative icon David Horowitz.
How curious…that the work suffers–in extremis–from exactly the foibles Posner attributes to public intellectuals: namely, the pretense of scholarly expertise in a field in which the author fails to demonstrate even rudimentary competence.
David Brooks gave it a "C", not an "F", even though "the pretense of scholarly expertise in a field in which the author fails to demonstrate even rudimentary competence" fits his genial neoconservative writing to a "T". But people remember the headline, not the review.
David Brooks One Nation, Slightly Divisible illustrates the risk of relying on Mr. Brooks’ opinions. In it, he uses his patented pop sociology to describe how "Red State" America differed from "Blue State" America shortly after 9/11. Here, he describes the meaning of "big headroom" vs. "small headroom" people:
People who went to business school or law school like a lot of headroom. They buy humongous sport-utility vehicles that practically have cathedral ceilings over the front seats. They live in homes the size of country clubs, with soaring entry atriums so high that they could practically fly a kite when they come through the front door. These big-headroom people tend to be predators: their jobs have them negotiating and competing all day….
Small-headroom people tend to have been liberal-arts majors, and they have liberal-arts jobs. They get passive-aggressive pleasure from demonstrating how modest and environmentally sensitive their living containers are. They hate people with SUVs, and feel virtuous driving around in their low-ceilinged little Hondas, which often display a RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS bumper sticker or one bearing an image of a fish with legs, along with the word "Darwin," just to show how intellectually superior to fundamentalist Christians they are.
Bobo uses Franklin County, PA, and Montgomery County, MD as stand-ins for Red vs. Blue America, itself media jargon for an America too complex to bother explaining to readers and viewers.
Why those two examples? Why not do what a Nobel laureate did: get in his pick-up with his dog and travel coast-to-coast with Charley? I don’t know. But Bobo lives in Montgomery County, home to prominent DC suburbs like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring. And rural Franklin County, in south central Pennsylvania, is two hours north. Both are East Coast/Mid-Atlantic, predominantly white and familiar, and avoid analyzing complex cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City, Phoenix, Portland and their rural catchment areas. Bobo would have been more informative, and have spent less on gas, had he compared Bethesda or Northern Virginia’s predominantly white "telecoms" suburbs with predominantly black urban DC. He didn’t and he wasn’t. He gives us extremes, but not informative ones.
As for his skill as an observer and forecaster, here’s Brooks’ prediction of the restrained way Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove-Bush will react to 9/11:
If the September 11 attacks rallied people in both Red and Blue America, they also neutralized the political and cultural leaders who tend to exploit the differences between the two.
Philadelphia Magazine journalist Sasha Issenberg, in Boo Boo’s in Paradise, repeated Bobo’s journey two years later, and found that many of his observations – and therefore his comparisons and conclusions – were false. When Issenberg called him on it, Bobo complained that Issenberg was too literal, too inexperienced to discern a joking exaggeration from an incorrect fact, and that what he described was accurate in silhouette, if not in color and proportion.
His response makes "public intellectual" into an oxymoron, and he mirrors that five year-old response in today’s fearmongering about the costs of health care reform. He repeats Ross Douthat’s GOP-inspired meme that "it’s too expensive", but with more bite. But health care "cost" means only what David Brooks says it means, neither more nor less.
He makes his point with standard Republican scare tactics. Using an old, divide-and-conquer meme, he attempts to alienate those with insurance from those without it by saying that we should tax the value of "employer-provided health benefits". That rational way to raise taxes (normally, a Brooksian contradiction in terms) will never happen because the now Democratic Party-controlled Senate is a dysfunctional old boys club. Not a concern heard from David when the GOP ran things.
Bobo continues his scare tactics by saying any health care reform must be "revenue neutral" its first ten years, or we’ll break the government bank. He doesn’t support that claim or discuss multiple ways of raising money or the cost of not reforming health care. He simply laments:
[T]here is almost nothing that gets to the core of the problem. Under the leading approaches, health care providers would still have powerful incentives to provide more and more services and use more expensive technology.
We’ve built an entire health care system (maybe an entire government) on the illusion of something for nothing. Instead of tackling that basic logic, we’ve got a reform process that is trying to evade it.
He has the nub right: the reforms promoted by the GOP and rightwing Democrats inside the Beltway inadequately reform the process. He ignores who is pushing for less reform and which party famously claimed that deficits no longer matter – the GOP. His something for nothing meme has an echo in Mr. Obama’s wish for less partisanship, but it more accurately describes Mr. Bush’s catastrophic management of the national treasury, one reason Mr. Obama has so much work to do.