Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Planet Brooks, Britain has a functioning political culture

I never bother reading David Brooks, although I have noticed that bloggers I respect, like Dean Baker and Brad DeLong, tend to go apoplectic on a regular basis about Brooks' Op-Ed columns in the New York Times.

Now I understand why. David Brooks has just written a piece extolling the virtues of Britain as an example for the United States to follow, a country 'blessed with a functioning political culture'. In view of this, 'We Americans have no right to feel smug or superior' concedes Brooks.

The basis for this pathbreaking argument is an account of post-war British politics which is probably only recognizable to the Queen, Margaret Thatcher and Jim Davidson. We learn that Britain was messed up between 1945-79 (a period which saw rising living standards across the board and a flourishing British culture, despite relatively mediocre economic performance), but sorted out by Margaret Thatcher (source: a nice chap called Oliver Letwin).

In 1979, British people were 'enervated' and 'some mired in poverty' (although all the data suggest that the poverty came after 1979: UK Gini coefficient in 1979 was 0.27, now it's 0.36. But whatever).

Thankfully, Margaret Thatcher 'liberated the economy' and New Labour 'built on those gains'. Since the turning point of 1979, Britain has moved 'from a centralised, industrial-era state to a networked, postindustrial one'. David Brooks hasn't noticed the probably permanent 6-7% shrinkage in UK output since 2008, nor the abject collapse of Britain's key postindustrial activity, financial services, which caused it.

But all this is nothing compared to the constitutional analysis. Where Brooks excels is in lauding the British class system and establishment: 'Britain is also blessed with a functioning political culture. It is dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school.'

So let's be clear about this: the key to a successful democracy is to have a closed oligarchic elite of rich school chums. Wasn't that in de Tocqueville somewhere?

Lawd help us, as we say around here.