The Age of the Wonk

That's right, wonk is the opposite of know.

David Brooks at the New York Times is not that bright. Like Andrew Rotherham, he comes from the world of Neoconservative wonks that willfully ignore the messy truths of history for the neat world of theory. Brooks proved it in his recent article recommending value-added assessments for universities. He proved it again yesterday with some more wonkish drivel. In regards to deciding on proper government policy, Brooks advocates the following:

What you really need to achieve sustained learning, Manzi argues, is controlled experiments. Try something out. Compare the results against a control group. Build up an information feedback loop. This is how businesses learn. By 2000, the credit card company Capital One was running 60,000 randomized tests a year — trying out different innovations and strategies. Google ran about 12,000 randomized experiments in 2009 alone.

These randomized tests actually do vindicate or disprove theories. For example, a few years ago, one experiment suggested that if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction. But researchers conducted dozens more experiments, trying to replicate the phenomenon. They couldn’t.

Businesses conduct hundreds of thousands of randomized trials each year. Pharmaceutical companies conduct thousands more. But government? Hardly any. Government agencies conduct only a smattering of controlled experiments to test policies in the justice system, education, welfare and so on.

We see the typical Neocon celebration of the wisdom of the private sector. More importantly, we see the cold, bloodless language of “models” and controlled social experiments. We see people being reduced to automatons: “if you give people too many choices they get overwhelmed and experience less satisfaction”. No wonder Brooks also supports value-added model of education. Human beings, to people like Brooks and Rotherham, are nothing more than pegs on a Chinese checkerboard to be moved around and manipulated at will by wonks such as themselves.

What prompted Brooks to mention this approach was his observation that President Obama’s stimulus package failed to bring us out of the Great Recession. Never mind that an $800 billion stimulus over the course of 10 years, a third of which came in the form of tax cuts, is a spitball in the context of a $13 trillion economy. Never mind the fact that Obama’s flaccid stimulus was not comparable to the massive and bold programs of the New Deal. He goes ahead and works the New Deal into his discussion anyway.

His revisionist analysis of the Great Depression shows the type of selective memory necessary to be a Neocon:

… Nearly 80 years later, it’s hard to know if the New Deal did much to end the Great Depression. Still, it would be nice if we could learn from experience. To avoid national catastrophe, we’re going to have to figure out how to control health care costs, improve schools and do other things.

Even the most conservative of conservatives would be forced to concede that it was our involvement in World War II that ended the Great Depression. That involvement entailed massive government spending on war material to the point where the American industrial machine was working at full capacity for the first and only time in history. In other words, it entailed the philosophy of the New Deal on steroids. One would have to ignore this obvious point to say something as intellectually barren as “it’s hard to know if the New Deal did much to end the Great Depression.”

The historical lessons do not stop there. One of Franklin Roosevelt’s goals during the New Deal was to prevent another Great Depression from ever happening again. That is not to say that he wanted to do away with business cycles. It means that he wanted to cushion the downswings of those cycles. Americans of his era were catching on to the idea that the engine of the economy was consumerism. It seems obvious to us living in 2012, but it was not so obvious to an America still caught between the urban and agrarian worlds. John Maynard Keynes had accurately explained that the crisis of the Depression was a crisis of demand. FDR set out to build institutions that would guarantee some sort of minimal demand in the future. This meant ensuring people would always have some sort of cash in their pockets. The minimum wage, Social Security, public works, the Wagner Act and the GI Bill all reflected this goal.

Once the war was over, there was a real fear throughout the country that the Great Depression would return. People who had lived through the scarcity of the 1930s grew accustomed to believing that economic depression was going to be a permanent state of affairs. Yet, despite the conversion back to a peacetime economy, not only did the Depression not return, but the United States embarked on the longest and most equitable economic boom of its history. It was what historian James Patterson dubs “The Biggest Boom Yet”.

One can argue that New Deal institutions and the embrace of Keynesian economics (as Nixon said, “we are all Keynesians”) did not cause the Biggest Boom Yet. Proximity does not imply causality. There were certainly other factors at play, like America having a larger share of the global economic pie than it does now, less immigration and technological barriers that made it harder for corporations to move jobs and capital overseas. Yet, one would have to have ideological blinders on to not see the connection between the relative prosperity that took place during the heyday of New Deal institutions and the economic polarization that has coincided with the undoing of those institutions over the past 35 years. The proof is most certainly in the pudding.

Yet, here is David Brooks advocating for the government to experiment with public policy, as if human institutions operate in a laboratory. Instead of a simple historical truth that was revealed decades ago, namely that a consumer-driven economy needs people who are able to consume, he wishes to reinvent the wheel. It is this supposed search for truth on his part that keeps people like him in business. A country that knows its history has no need for someone like David Brooks.

David Brooks, Andrew Rotherham and the entire class of Neocon policy wonks have such esteemed public platforms for a reason. Their analyses of our very human problems are markedly inhuman. They speak in sterile, pseudo-scientific terms. People are statistics. Policy is a matter of calibrating a machine. They deliver dogmatic answers by talking as if they are disinterested observers. Their search for truth is a straight line that pounds flat the flesh and blood contours of flesh and blood issues.

Is it any wonder why these two men are consistent cheerleaders of this travesty we call “education reform”? Their unquestioning faith in standardized exams reduces students to data. The pseudo-objective manner in which they approach schooling reflects a worship of science, or pseudo-science as it were, that discounts humanistic education. Since they cannot quantify things like historical understanding, music appreciation or literary analysis with data, then they believe it does not count. Is it any wonder that one of the crimes of education reform has been the steady elimination of art, music and history from schools across the country? The New York State Board of Regents might very well make a decision next week that puts Global History on the road to extinction. Only in the age of education reform can something like this happen.

And why should we have humanistic education? The employers of tomorrow do not demand workers who can analyze the world around them or think abstractly in any way. They want number crunchers and formula followers. This is what the push for STEM subjects is all about. Only that the high-paying jobs will not require any advanced knowledge of STEM, since any mathematician would tell you that an advanced understanding of math requires stepping into the world of abstraction. Instead, public schooling is to be the training ground of tomorrow’s low-level, low-paid functionaries who press the proper buttons.

Our schools and our economic system are too important to be left in the care of mere wonks. They want to create the world in their own image. Specifically, they want to turn tomorrow’s citizens into people as one-dimensional and ahistorical as the policies for which they advocate.

Another simple historical truth that bears repeating is that no civilization anywhere ever achieved anything great by taking heed of the words of numerically-minded policy wonks.

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3 responses to “The Age of the Wonk

  1. m lewis redford

    ‘They speak in sterile, pseudo-scientific terms. People are statistics. Policy is a matter of calibrating a machine. They deliver dogmatic answers by talking as if they are disinterested observers. Their search for truth is a straight line that pounds flat the flesh and blood contours of flesh and blood issues.’ Beautiful summative descriptions – there is such a relief to read words like this which affirm that I am not overly cynical to think and observe what I do. Even though I live in a different nation to the one you describe. And even though I don’t know what a wonk is. Although I very much like the sound of it. Is someone who practises being a wonk a wonker? I am sorry, I am getting too much juvenile pleasure out of this!

    Thank you, as ever, for your therapeutic observations.

  2. Americans are awash with wonks. They are all over the television and newspapers telling the rest of us what to do. I wonder how it is in the UK. Do you guys have wonksters out there? Self-appointed experts in fields like education with which they have absolutely no experience. I know the drive for data over there is huge. I’d like to think there are more sensible British minds than there are American minds and that the wonk class over there is not nearly as influential. I surely hope.

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