Conservative New York Times political columnist David Brooks told members of the Twin Cities business and financial community that he sees no political solution to the looming fiscal crisis brought on by the growing federal deficit.
“We are in the middle of a weird economic moment,” caused by ballooning personal debt that has been “transferred into public debt,” he said last Thursday while addressing a joint Minneapolis meeting of the Chartered Financial Analysts and the Association for Corporate Growth’s Minnesota Chapter.
Pointing to a debt-to-GDP ratio exceeding 80 percent, “which is unprecedented in peacetime,” Brooks projected that interest on the debt would reach $800 billion by 2018. “That’s just unaffordable … I see no way we have a commission or Congress or anyone else who can agree on the tax increases and spending cuts required to head off that kind of fiscal crisis. There’s just no exit there.”
Personal debt remained stable at about 45 percent of GDP for most of the postwar period, Brooks said, but started rising in the 1980s, reaching more than 140 percent of GDP, which “helped contribute to the collapse” of the economy. Subsequent federal bailouts and stimulus moves then added to the deficit.
Brooks both criticized President Obama and gave him credit, saying he is exacerbating the problem by “spending too much … though he’s been more responsible than other administrations.”
Asked if he thought Obama might win a second term, Brooks gave an unhesitating “Yes.” While predicting that “Republicans will do extraordinarily well in November,” he said “the Republican Party has trouble reconnecting with the American people and Obama’s quite a good politician, so assuming the economy recovers, I won’t be surprised if he wins.”
Brooks, who described Obama as intellectual, perceptive and self-controlled, said the president’s “core trait” is his self-confidence, making the president comfortable with vigorous policy debates among his staff, in contrast to the previous administration, which he described as unwilling to challenge former president Bush.
The columnist said this self-confidence also has led the Obama team to believe they can win support by the power of argument and persuasion and has caused them to misread the mood of the public.
The Tea Party movement, which he called “an authentic populist movement,” poses the first potential third-party movement of significance in his lifetime “because … it’s so powerful and it’s pretty anti-Republican as well as being anti-Democratic,” he said.
Saying he is optimistic about America despite its challenges, Brooks advised the audience, “If you want to feel good about the country, you have to look beyond Washington … look at people under 30. They’re an incredibly wholesome and responsible generation.”
He also cited what he termed “moral materialism” as a source of the energy and innovation in the country “which makes us so dynamic.”
Speaking with the timing of a standup comic, Brooks warmed up the audience of 450 by calling on his Minnesota connections.
The conservative Brooks recalled growing up in Greenwich Village with his “leftist hippie-ish parents,” where a big Hubert Humphrey poster hung in his bedroom as “evidence of a disturbed background.”
He acknowledged the success of New York Times colleague Tom Friedman, a bestselling author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is a St. Louis Park native, as “one source of deep Minnesota anguish.” He recalled being chided by his son, who pointed to the neighboring Friedman’s larger house near Washington and saying, “Same job, Dad, same job.”
Recognizing former Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson in the audience, Brooks then complimented Minnesota’s political culture, pointing out “it’s not generally nice people who come to Washington. But Minnesota has sent tremendously nice and modest people to Washington … with a few exceptions.”
Brooks described meeting his future wife and Minnesota native, Sarah, as “a girl from Ottertail” who went on to work for former Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger. Brooks recalled Durenberger advising him: ‘You should be a moderate Republican. That’s the wave of the future.’ ”
The columnist then dryly commented: “Thanks, Dave. Really good advice!”
The name of one of the sponsoring organizations originally was listed incorrectly. It should have been the Association for Corporate Growth’s Minnesota Chapter.