Missing the Days When Candidates Pretended We Had No Big Problems

A big thing David Brooks will miss about Barack Obama will be his not being Bernie Sanders. (Photo: Doug Mills/NYT)

Missing the Days When Candidates Pretended We Had No Big Problems

"I miss Barack Obama," writes David Brooks (2/9/16)--which is a tough thing to admit when your job is being the voice of sensible Republicanism on the New York Times op-ed page, and on the PBS NewsHour and NPR as well.

"I miss Barack Obama," writes David Brooks (2/9/16)--which is a tough thing to admit when your job is being the voice of sensible Republicanism on the New York Times op-ed page, and on the PBS NewsHour and NPR as well. But watching the 2016 primary campaigns, he can't help but feel that "many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses...have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply."

In part, Brooks is trying to say that the Republicans running are creeping him out without actually saying so. One of the Obama traits he's feeling a lack of is "a sense of basic humanity"--as exemplified in its absence by Donald Trump "vowing to block Muslim immigration" and Ted Cruz being, well, Ted Cruz.

But to me the more interesting points are the things Brooks sees in Obama that he misses in Bernie Sanders--because they're revealing of the criteria establishment media use to place politicians either inside or out of the club.

The first is "a soundness in his decision-making process": "Obama's basic approach is to promote his values as much as he can within the limits of the situation." Sanders, on the other hand, is "so blinded by his values that the reality of the situation does not seem to penetrate his mind." He doesn't understand that "a polarized Washington and...a country deeply suspicious of government" make it impossible to bring about fundamental change.

And Sanders, like Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, "wallow[s] in the pornography of pessimism." Listening to these candidates, you'd

conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That's simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on Earth.

"Less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on Earth." Really? When you think of the United States' problems, what do you think of--gun deaths, maybe? Here's a graph of gun-related homicides from the Washington Post-does this look like just about every other nation's problems with guns are more serious?

Gun-related murder rates in the developed word (Washington Post)

Source: Washington Post (12/14/12)

Or, to take a subset of this problem, there were 990 people fatally shot by police last year in the United States, according to the Washington Post. By comparison, there was one fatal police shooting in England and Wales from April 2014 to March 2015-to name just one place where the police shooting problem is not more serious than in the US.

Perhaps, like Sanders, you think income inequality is a problem--if you do, it's worse here in the US than in any other wealthy nation:

Gini Coefficient After Taxes and Transfers

Source: An Economic Sense (1/14/14)

The US's trade deficit is also far and away the largest in the world. As a percentage of GDP, it's more in the middle of the pack--but no other country would have to shift such a large percentage of the world's trade to balance its exports and imports.

Or take healthcare, an issue on which Brooks accuses Sanders of living in "intellectual fairyland" because his proposals would mean "epic social disruption." Most European countries have universal or near-universal coverage, in the 99-100 percent range; a few are lower down in the 90s, like Hungary (96 percent) and Estonia (93.7 percent). Even post-Obamacare, the US trails behind with 89.6 percent; the only other developed nation that doesn't insure at least 90 percent of its people is Greece, which used to have universal coverage but due to its economic crisis dropped to 79 percent. If Brooks had told Americans we shouldn't despair because our problems are less severe than those faced by Greece, he'd have a better case.

But US infant mortality, at 5.87 per thousand live births, is still higher than in Greece--and higher than in French Polynesia, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Guam, Bosnia and Croatia as well. Countries where infant mortality is less than half what it is in the United States include Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Singapore, Japan and Iceland.

The US doesn't do particularly well on life expectancy, either, coming in behind 36 countries (including Lebanon, Chile and, yes, Greece). More alarmingly, for a significant demographic sector, life expectancy is moving in the wrong direction, with death rates rising for middle-aged white Americans--largely due to increases in suicide, opiate overdoses and cirrhosis. No other country seems to have this problem.

You get the idea. But David Brooks is a writer who wrote a piece about a luxury world tour headlined "My $120,000 Vacation" (T, 11/13/15) in which he dithered about taking a "superfluous" second bottle of Champagne and whether the tour budgeted enough time for an epiphany at the Hermitage. "Sometimes it is the structure of things that you shall be pampered and you have no choice but to sit back and accept that fact," was his takeaway.

He also wrote a Times column (9/22/14) arguing that our era lacks "a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I"--climate change? never heard of it, apparently--and that all our problems are "eminently solvable" with a little leadership, which we can cultivate by not buying luxury cars for our college-age children.

If that's your idea of the kind of problems you face, then resigning yourself to the "limits of the situation" makes sense. If, on the other hand, you're in the large majority that's gotten the short end of the stick on income inequality, if you have one of the working-class jobs that's been subject to being shipped overseas, if your health insurance is unaffordable or nonexistent, if you're part of a community that's subject to being shot by police or driven to an early grave by despair--then maybe a little "epic social disruption" doesn't sound so unappealing.

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