Why should it surprise the reader that David Brooks would resort to the economist Mancur Olson, and his ‘ interest groups’ as the bad political/economic actors, holding back innovation and excellence, two concepts that marked the Reagan Era Free Market propaganda.
In 1982, the economist Mancur Olson set out to explain a paradox. West Germany and Japan endured widespread devastation during World War II, yet in the years after the war both countries experienced miraculous economic growth. Britain, on the other hand, emerged victorious from the war, with its institutions more intact, and yet it immediately entered a period of slow economic growth that left it lagging other European democracies. What happened?
In his book “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” Olson concluded that Germany and Japan enjoyed explosive growth precisely because their old arrangements had been disrupted. The devastation itself, and the forces of American occupation and reconstruction, dislodged the interest groups that had held back innovation. The old patterns that stifled experimentation were swept away. The disruption opened space for something new.
The Economist of May 5, 1998, offers a more honest appraisal of Mancur Olson’s economic thought, in their obituary. Mr. Brooks writes a ‘History Made To Measure’ in service to ideological ends!
The conclusion was striking. Narrow, self-serving groups had an inherent, though not insuperable, advantage over broad ones that worry about the well-being of society as a whole. How might that insight explain the fate of nations? In 1982, in “The Rise and Decline of Nations”, he offered an answer.
In any human society, he said, parochial cartels and lobbies tend to accumulate over time, until they begin to sap a country’s economic vitality. A war or some other catastrophe sweeps away the choking undergrowth of pressure groups. This had happened in Germany and Japan, but not in Britain, which, although physically damaged in the war, had retained many of its old institutions. Surely there was some less cataclysmic route to renewal? Yes, said Mr Olson, a nation’s people could beat back the armies of parochialism, but only if the danger were recognised and reforms embraced. Make these points to a student of economics or politics today and he or she will say, “Of course.” But the ideas were obvious only after Mr Olson made them.
Note that Mr. Olson’s negative economic actors, is a larger field, and more descriptive than Mr. Brooks’: Narrow, self-serving groups, parochial cartels, ! Even Mr. Olson fails the mention the favorite target of Conservative Thinkers, and propagandists: Unions are these un-mentioned negative economic actors, who placing themselves as advocates for a fair wage and working conditions, hold in abeyance the desired excellence and innovation that an unfettered Capital can produce?
All this to frame the Covid-19 Melodrama as the impetus for an American Revival under the leadership of Joe Biden and his pastiche of the New Deal?
Here is a sample of the Brooks’ cliched boosterism;
Millions of Americans endured grievous loss and anxiety during this pandemic, but many also used this time as a preparation period, so they could burst out of the gate when things opened up.
The last three paragraphs of his essay are testimony to his iteration of that ‘cliched boosterism’:
In 1910 the educator Henry Van Dyke wrote, “The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.” That energy seemed to be fading away in recent years, as Americans came to move less and start new businesses less frequently. But the challenge of Covid-19 has summoned forth great dynamism, movement and innovation. Labor productivity rates have surged upward recently.
Americans are searching for ways to make more money while living more connected lives. Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban studies at Chapman University, points out that as the U.S. population disperses, economic and cultural gaps between coastal cities and inland communities will most likely shrink. And, he says, as more and more immigrants settle in rural areas and small towns, their presence might reduce nativism and increase economic competitiveness.
People are shifting their personal lives to address common problems — loneliness and loss of community. Nobody knows where this national journey of discovery will take us, but the voyage has begun.
Is it the ineluctable fate of Americans, to own a business, and make more money? Commerce is the lifeblood of this once Republic? What of the Teachers, Social Workers, Nurses, Doctors and whole of the Helping Professions. Or the Gardeners, Bus Boys, Dish Washers, Waiters & Waitresses, Hotel Maids, Trash Collectors, Street Maintenance, Flood Control, Fire Fighters etc. etc.? Where do these valuable citizens of this nation figure in this Brooks pronouncement on the American Fate?