David Brooks jumps the shark

I used to be a big fan of David Brooks and his NYT column, which sometimes dealt with politics through a realistic, right-of-center perspective and sometimes seemed to channel significant cultural trends into a nifty 750 words.

But what’s going on lately?

Here’s a paragraph from today’s musings on innovation from the overly cleverly titled Where Are the Jobs? He manages in three sentences to ignore both the simple fact of diminishing returns and the deepening crisis in health care (an economic and political problem, not a sign of failing technical innovation:

The Green Revolution improved grain yields by 126 percent from 1950 to 1980, but yields have risen only by 47 percent in the decades since. The big pharmaceutical companies have very few blockbuster drugs in the pipeline. They are slashing their research departments.

A lack of innovation? That 126% improvement was the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, the problems with today’s column begin long before that paragraph:

Let’s imagine that someone from the year 1970 miraculously traveled forward in time to today. You could show her one of the iPhones that Steve Jobs helped create, and she’d be thunderstruck. People back then imagined wireless communication (Dick Tracy, Star Trek), but they never imagined you could funnel an entire world’s worth of information through a pocket-sized device.

Mr. Brooks cites Star Trek, but I guess he never noticed everything those tricorders could do.

In a recent column The Limits of Empathy, Mr. Brooks seems at times to mock people who want to make the world better through empathy, which he calls a “sideshow.” One example at the center of his column is the Holocaust (65 years ago), another from the 1970s (35 years ago).

In The Lost Decade, which was mysteriously accepting comments on the NYT site the night it was posted only to shed them by the next morning, Mr. Brooks throws millions of Americans under the bus — young adults trying to get established in our culture and economy, the unemployed, the underemployed, the poor — with his sweeping insistence on focusing on long-term issues and giving up on the short-term ones. He follows that with a laundry list of policies — some of which would hurt struggling middle- and lower-class Americans — that seems like it was assembled by asking one’s Facebook friends for ideas to save the economy:

Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.

Simplify the tax code. End corporate taxes and create a consumption tax. Reshape the European Union to make it either more unified or less, but not halfway as it is now. Reduce the barriers to business formation. Reform Medicare so it is fiscally sustainable. Break up the banks and increase capital requirements. Lighten debt burdens even if it means hitting the institutional creditors.

For more on some of the spurious assertions in that column, check out Dean Baker’s David Brooks Is Upset at Liberals Who INSIST on Applying Arithmetic to Economics.

Does Mr. Brooks clarify any of these increasing vague and moralistic assertions in his blog at the NYT? No. It has not had a new post since August.