Tuesday, May 20, 2014


In today's column, David Brooks laments the decline of democracies in the West, while looking wistfully eastward and saying, Man, those guys may be autocrats, but they sure get their trains to run on time:
... In the U.S., Washington is polarized, stagnant and dysfunctional; a pathetic 26 percent of Americans trust their government to do the right thing. In Europe, elected officials have grown remote from voters, responding poorly to the euro crisis and contributing to massive unemployment.

... A new charismatic rival is gaining strength: the Guardian State.... In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative.

In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service. The technocratic elites play a bigger role in designing economic life....

These Guardian States have some disadvantages compared with Western democracies. They are more corrupt. Because the systems are top-down, local government tends to be worse. But they have advantages. They are better at long-range thinking and can move fast because they limit democratic feedback and don't face NIMBY-style impediments....
It's never particularly surprising when Tories living in democracies find their hearts racing a bit faster as they gaze admiringly at an authoritarian state -- it's sort of like the good girl from a wealthy family daydreaming about a greaser on a motorbike.

But if you take Brooks's argument seriously, what's the difference here? He complains about the sclerosis in "democracy," but I'm not sure that word means what he thinks it means:
At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections.
That's not democracy; that's corruption. Politicians aren't really "campaigning all the time" -- what they're really doing all the time is fund-raising. And I'm sure Brooks thinks the Sierra Club is as responsible for the long-term decline of Western democracies as Koch Industries, but I beg to differ.

Brooks laments American influence-group politics -- but he says countries like Singapore and China are corrupt, too. So what difference does it make how palms get greased?

I think the difference is that, in Singapore and China, what powerful interest groups want isn't allowed to trump the best interests of the nation. It seems to me that there's more of a sense that the powerful forces in business and government are trying to row in the same direction.

In America, by contrast, we'd benefit from more spending on education, more investment in infrastructure, a shift to a post-fossil-fuels energy mix, and the revival of our middle class. But our elite class doesn't want to take its foot off the necks of consumers, the fossil-fuel giants want to spread the mass delusion that climate change isn't happening, and the typical America fat cat doesn't care if the kids are stupid and the bridges are crumbling as long as his profits are secure. In short, our elites don't care if this country is destroyed -- and European central bankers seem to feel the same way about their countries.

Maybe I'm naive or poorly informed, but I don't see this in China and Singapore to the same extent. I don't know if it's patriotism exactly, but it certainly isn't the anti-patriotism of our elites. Our elites could demand that trains run on time, but they'd rather secure only what suits their own interests. The rest, as far as they're concerned, can rot.


Victor said...

"But our elite class doesn't want to take its foot off the necks of consumers, the fossil-fuel giants want to spread the mass delusion that climate change isn't happening, and the typical America fat cat doesn't care if the kids are stupid and the bridges are crumbling as long as his profits are secure."

I all fairness to our fat cat's, THEIR kids will go to the best schools!
So, why should they care about anyone else's kids.

And who needs bridges, when you have helicopters?
Only the peasants need bridges, when you have helicopters!

aimai said...

Very good essay, Steve. I'd like to say that Brooks, as usual, longs for a technocratic elite who can "get things done" fast but he mistakes the reason we don't have one in the US for a problem of democracy. Its a problem of anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and right wing anti elitism. The Republican party strongly rejects the notion of problem solving for government at all. But they are for devolution of power and term limits and all that grassroots democracy stuff only when it suits them and their corporate agenda. At the top level they have always been willing to use the power of the state to force localities to stop being so difficult or anti development or pro-drug legalization or gay marriage. So when innovation at the local level is left wing or progressive the Republican party comes down on it like a ton of bricks. When it is right leaning and leaves the local area more subject to corporate abuse then local democracy is encouraged. You can see this happening right now with the Republican backlash against the Tea Party. They were willing to use the Tea Party, and support it, until it made some localities ungovernorable by big business. Now they are campaigning to crush it.

Julia said...

Not surprised that the same people who decry the nanny state are getting wood for the guardian state. The guardian state carries a gun and will kick your ass. Rrrr!

However, China has done horrible things to its environment and its people for gain, so I'm not sure how you reached the conclusion that they're better on the environment than our domestic greedy bastards.

Here's a good synopsis from WWF, http://wwf.panda.org/who_we_are/wwf_offices/china/environmental_problems_china/
but it is regularly covered in the news. Remember how they struggled to make the air semi-breathable leading up to the Olympics?

Anonymous said...

Didn't this use to be called "National Greatness Conservatism"?

aimai said...

I agree with Julia on this as well. The elites of China and other authoritarian countries--like Russia where nothing gets done but quite autocratically--have a terrible record on environmentalism and have routinely been responsible for massive environmental health disasters which are covered up or ignored. The fact that they are sometimes also capable of pushing through big construction projects or high speed rail is not really because they have better intentions than US politicians. Its because they have a different relationship with localities and eminent domain and there are fewer stakeholders and chokepoints to pushing through big projects. Three Gorges Dam is a good example.

Julia said...

As an almost completely irrelevant aside, is it me or has the IOC been pulling some spectacular bloopers of late when it comes to locating the games?

Joe said...

Brava, Julia! It's a very short step from "corrupt totalitarian dictatorship" to the IOC. And thence to FIFA.

Ten Bears said...

I recently had myself a grand old time watching my reich-wing acquaintances spit stutter and stumble as I explained to them the reason China is actively divesting itself of its American holdings. They are, from a purely business perspective, not worth a fuck.

With half the world's population, they don't need us for anything.

Exceptional indeed, exceptionally stupid.

No fear.

Steve M. said...

China's environmental record is awful, but there are some efforts in the direction of mitigating the problem, even if they're inadequate. America does better ... for now. I think in a Koch-ite federal government (which could happen in 2017) the official policy of the U.S. will be that climate change is a hoax and the environment can endure whatever we pump into it. We may pass China going in the other direction.

Julia said...

This seems to contradict your original point. Or are you now predicting that the U.S. will get worse or we'll just get worse than China?

Steve M. said...

Well, both. There used to be environmentalists in both parties -- hell, Nixon started the EPA -- and there are still environmentally decent Democrats, so there's some legacy environmentalism in our laws. But the right is determined to purge it from our laws, while persuading the public that climate change is a massive scientific/liberal conspiracy.