Klein on Brooks, and How We Think About Policy

by Reihan Salam

Ezra Klein takes David Brooks to task for arguing that new technologies have helped change the romantic landscape for young people.

Columns like Brooks’s irk me because they demean not only my lived experiences, but those of everyone I know. To offer a slightly more modern rebuttal, Sunday was my one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. A bit more than a year ago, we first met, the sort of short encounter that could easily have slipped by without follow-up. A year and a week ago, she sent me a friend request on Facebook, which makes it easy to reach out after chance meetings. A year and five days ago, we were sending tentative jokes back-and-forth. A year and four days ago, I was steeling myself to step things up to instant messages. A year and three days ago, we were both watching the “Iron Chef” offal episode, and IMing offal puns back-and-forth, which led to our first date. A year ago today, I was anxiously waiting to leave the office for our second date.

It is not for David Brooks to tell me those IMs lack poetry, or romance. I treasure them. Electronic mediums may look limited to him, but that is only because he has never seen his life change within them. Texting, he says, is naturally corrosive to imagination. But the failure of imagination here is on Brooks’s part.

I wonder if the Pauline Kael problem is at work here. One could write a similarly compelling narrative about how a slightly higher income greatly contributed to one’s happiness and well-being, and allowed one to spend money on a beloved grandmother or a worth cause. Yet a hike in the marginal tax rate ruined everything. And so a person with high-earning potential could feel very irked by writers and thinkers who advocate higher taxes, as they are demeaning her lived experience and the lived experience of everyone she knows, i.e., other high-earners who went to the same schools, etc. For progressives, the case for higher marginal taxes isn’t ultimately about demeaning these people — rather, it is about financing a high level of public provision, and perhaps about “rescuing” the affluent for bidding wars over positional goods.

There is no doubt that the new romantic landscape has been very beneficial for some. I tend to agree with Klein: it has been a boon to my social life and that of my friends. But the real argument is whether or not these new technologies have been of net benefit.

Isn’t it possible that these new technologies have had an uneven impact on the romantic marketplace, and that this is worthy of some consideration? I’m not sure about the impact. I’m more sanguine than Brooks, if only because I think the olden days were actually not that great. All the same, I’m certainly not irked by efforts to understand how technology shapes our lives in good and bad ways. 

One small example: in the past, it was relatively easy to lose touch with former flames. Now, by virtue of the pervasive use of social technologies, it is perhaps a little harder. Defriending an ex-girlfriend on Facebook is a big step. But not doing so means she remains “present,” and thus potentially harder to get over. This obviously doesn’t mean we should ban Facebook. It does suggest that good things and bad things sometimes go together.

I’m struck by the way different people approach public policy questions. Paul Krugman will sometimes argue that Casey Mulligan is wrong because his conclusions sound funny, i.e., when Mulligan talks about the power of work disincentives to raise unemployment, Krugman will say that Mulligan thinks the unemployed are “taking a vacation.” But in fact Mulligan is well aware that people’s stated motivations don’t always map onto their actual motivations. 

In a similar vein, many political arguments are made on the basis of gut-level convictions regarding what it means to be a decent person, e.g., decent people want everyone to have health insurance coverage. Indecent people only care about themselves, etc. Or critics of my generation’s sensibilities are critics of my personal life, etc. But of course some people are concerned about invisible impacts. I’d say that people who fret about the corrosion of competitive markets fall into that category. Yes, we can highlight the plight of people who don’t receive a transfer payment. We have a far harder time highlighting the plight of people who can’t find work because an economy is burdened by heavy regulation. And it’s possible that people who criticize, say, the rise of single-parent families do so because they really care about the hardships faced by single-parent families.

Rant over!

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.