The Alternate Universe Strikes Again

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 12:18 AM EDT

It's probably not a wise use of time to obsess too much about David Brooks, but.....I just don't get the guy. Today he argues that the global economy is on the verge of a train wreck and neither Democrats nor Republicans are thinking big enough:

We need an approach that is both grander and more modest. When you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. You wouldn’t be smart enough to find it even if there was.

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.

Wow. Eliminate corporate taxation! Completely reform the EU! Fix Medicare! Break up the banks! Declare a debt holiday! And do it all now now now. This is coming from a guy who likes to think of himself as a Burkean conservative?

At a grand policy level, it's not even that I disagree that much. I've written in favor of all these things except for simplifying the personal tax code (sort of trivial on the scale Brooks is writing about) and reducing the barriers to business formation (the World Bank ranks us pretty satisfactorily on this already). But whether or not these are good ideas, this is a pretty mind-boggling list of things to just casually toss off with one sentence apiece. I mean, what's the pitch to the Europeans? You've probably never thought about this before, but you need to either dissolve the eurozone or create a United States of Europe. Tick tock, time's a wasting. What's it going to be? [Cue Jeopardy theme music.]

It's probably not a good idea to dash off a column right after you've jerked awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Especially one week after writing a column castigating President Obama for cynically proposing ideas that "couldn’t get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress." But implementing a VAT, getting healthcare costs under control, reforming the tax code, and breaking up the banks could? In which universe?

In the universe we actually do live in, Democrats are willing to talk about the kinds of things on Brooks's list. Maybe not as bravely or as fully as Brooks would like, but at least they'll entertain his ideas. But Republicans? They're dead set against any tax reform that isn't effectively regressive; they're dead set against a VAT; they're dead set against any new revenues for Medicare, which is plainly required as part of any serious reform; they're dead set against breaking up banks; and they're dead set against any kind of debt relief. Until conservatives like Brooks manage to get their more rabid compatriots to abandon this antediluvian approach to just about everything, there's not even a faint hope of getting anything on his wish list done. That's Job 1. In the meantime, there's hardly any point in writing about anything else.