This is just a (sort of) quick hit before returning to the Brooksalypse I’ve promised here more than once, but I thought today’s Douthat ejaculation deserved just a bit of slicing and dicing in its own right.
For those of you with the good sense to save your neurons and avoid baby Bobo’s deep thoughts, here’s a shorter:
“I don’t know anything about Ireland that John Wayne didn’t teach me, but this poor island sold it’s good Catholic soul for a mess of pottage served in MacMansions. Once Ireland got the pill and Irish women stopped being permanently pregnant, the country went sex-and-cash crazy, but then all that nasty fun had to come to a halt.
Why, precisely? Well, apparently the beast-with-two backs is kind of to blame for bankster thievery, not to mention that pride (wealth) goeth before a fall. Oh, and Europe is a bad idea too. Plus, modernity sucks.”
Not kidding. That’s really about it. Before I go to town on Douthat just a little bit, can I ask what on earth the Times was/is thinking when it hired this guy?
I mean really – this is Brooks without the sophistication, and I say that, sadly, with a straight face. (I’ll admit, a competition between these two on most subjects, but especially economics, resembles a wine tasting featuring Ripple vs. Mad Dog).
Douthat begins his piece by describing the insight he gets from driving from Dublin to Ireland’s west coast and discovering that there are new houses built next to traditional villages. He really does invoke The Quiet Man, and says, apparently sincerely, that,
…it’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.
Which suggests, I guess, he doesn’t think that several centuries of British colonial rule have anything to do with Ireland, early or late.
Seriously, “my taxi driver explained it all to me” meme is simply pathetic. (And no, it doesn’t get better if you are the one behind the wheel. It’s worse, obviously, as you only have the echo chamber of your own head to ratify your sudden, deep insight into a country, history and culture not your own.)
Whatever the Times paid for this column, Douthat stole.*
But even though Douthat discredits himself from the first lines of this piece, what fascinates – and horrifies – here is the relentlessness with which Baby Bobo wills the Irish story into the same morality tale he always wants to tell, terrified as he is of coupling bodies and the exercise of human reason.
I’m not going to fisk the entire piece here – this is just too silly a piece to warrant such effort. But a couple of examples will show just how fraudulent are any Douthat claims to public intellection.
Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.)
Well, that’s one lasting benefit of the last few decades of Irish cultural evolution.
But in fact, this is just a piece of careful misdirection. The “theme” that Gladwell discussed was not the cap on female opportunity that comes with large families – though certainly, child-rearing constrains access to the paid-work economy.
Rather, the point made in both Gladwell’s treatment and the underlying paper is that the reduction in family size altered Ireland’s dependency ratio.
That is: when there is a reduction in the proportion of the population, old and young, that cannot work, the output of those who can must support fewer people, resulting in more wealth per person. As Gladwell’s sources, David Bloom and David Canning put it in another paper,
This boost in the growth rate coincides closely with the falling dependency rate in Ireland. Thus, the raw data are consistent with the view that demographic change contributed to Ireland’s economic surge in the 1990s.
Nothing there about what Douthat rails against as “a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation.” It ain’t the sexy time that his dreaded secularists identified when they looked at actual data – it was just a quick look at who was supporting whom.
Just to check the score here at halftime: Douthat argues that abandoning rigid fidelity to the Irish Catholic hierarchy and thus releasing Irish women into non-traditional roles is somehow to blame for Ireland’s current financial troubles.
Not only is this nonsense on its own terms — Ireland’s crisis has its roots in very specific banking and real-estate transactions, not in a somehow overly feminized work force — Douthat simply misconstrues the data he attempts to cite. You can argue that he was dumb and/or ignorant in doing so, or you can argue that he’s smart enough to recognize the sleight of hand he attempts here. Neither conclusion speaks well, either for him or his employer.
The rest of Douthat’s blather is of much the same level of sophistication. Love of money is a sin, and, says Douthat “utopians of capitalism” need remember “that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth.”
This means exactly what?
To begin with, it’s wrong on its face. Debt and ruin do not always shadow prosperity. Or rather, debt is not in and of itself a measure of nearness to ruin; it is rather, an essential tool in the construction of growth, which like any tool, can be turned to purposes well or ill.
But the larger implication here is what at once silly and malign. Is Douthat telling us that capitalism dooms us to suffer impoverishment in cyclical lockstep with encounters with wealth?
Tell that to this chart. Busts are enormously painful. They are also blips in the larger historical time-line. Economic growth due to iscientific and technological inquiry, industrialization and capitalism, is one of the single greatest generators of human well-being ever. Probably the greatest, full stop.
That the transformation of the material conditions of existence carries an abundance of costs and complications is a given. That there are losers and winners, ditto. That the epithet “free” market is a cartoon, an abstraction and a bludgeon wielded by the politically vicious, understood. But to wail pathetically about “debt and ruin” stalking prosperity and growth is both nonsense and, by implication, murderous. Dearth and misery are what you get when you don’t achieved prosperity.
And this is Douthat’s high point of analytical precision. He goes on to writes that
The Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation…
…by which I take him to argue that the very partial rejection of the Irish church hierarchy is to blame for failures of Ireland’s small banking and speculative elite.
There are at least two fundamental errors here. One is the absolute and false dichotomy: Ireland must choose either unstable wealth (and sex-for-fun) or abject poverty and the consolation of religion.
Is that really all there is? Just off the top of my head, I might suggest that the Irish try some modest banking regulation just to see if they could dodge the need to hand back all those contraceptives and tie Irish womanhood back to the kitchen and the crib. Just a thought….
And notice that Douthat slyly conflates “decadence” with klepto-captialism. But if he does that, he has to explain why godless Scandinavia isn’t being bailed out along with the still quite Catholic Irish Republic. Despite his wishing it to be so, there is little evidence, if any, for Douthat’s persistent belief that accepting the greater wisdom of Benedict and his hierarchs actually produces better outcomes of health, wealth and happiness than cheerful godlessness. He might wish it were so, but the experience of billions is against him.
Believe it or not, it gets worse. Douthat actually says that
….the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.
Oh my FSM, what grotesquely self-confident ignorance lies there.
To get just a glimpse of the morally bankrupt cynicism behind that statement, check out this chart. It documents the depopulation of Ireland in the wake of the Great Famine Hunger. (per Lysana) There is an ongoing argument whether the colonial power’s role in that disaster was one of active genocide or malign neglect, but anyone who conflates membership in an economic union and superstate-compact with the full and often murderously oppressive weight of imperial rule is laboring to deceive.
Which returns me to my original question. I know some folks at the Times. They aren’t stupid. They can read. They have to recognize that Douthat is not just a hack, but an ignorant and obvious one. The Quiet Man! for FSM’s sake!
So I guess I’m wondering if he’s at the Great Grey Lady (no longer) of 43rd St. because he’s legitimately the best right-wing pundit they could find – which says volumes one way…
…or if this isn’t some 11 dimensional chess on the part of the “liberal” New York Times to allow the right wing to self-immolate weekly on their pages.
I’m betting on door number one, myself.
*This is what I mean about Brooks being more sophisticated than Douthat. He disguises the utter paucity of his actual knowledge much more gracefully. In the column I promise I’ll get around to skewering – and soon – Bobo begins by writing of “the psychologists, artists and moral philosophers I know.” Now that’s a nice touch. Just as unverifiable as Douthat’s driving impressions, but so much more authoritative, invoking both access to and membership in an elite. This is what distinguishes the bumbling apprentice from the old pro.
Images: Judith Leytser, “The Proposition,” 1631.
Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.
(Cross posted at the Inverse Square Blog.)