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By Tom Cushing

David Brooks at his Best – and Worst

Uploaded: Apr 13, 2014

David Brooks writes wonderful stuff when he speaks from his heart – it's a very good heart. Unfortunately, he doesn't live there full-time, and too often in his columns he commutes to his head. It leads him astray -- I expect it to explode one of these days.

Brooks has been the conservative alternative pundit in the New York Times for a decade – kind of like Debra Saunders in the Chron, except with shreds of thoughtful analysis and credibility. He's also a regular on NPR, and the Sunday talkies. He's written three books, the most recent of which is the best-selling "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement."

In it, he argues, as he said in an interview "The most important thing is what happens unconsciously, deep in the mind. Emotion isn't stupid – it can be very smart. If you have two choices, flip a coin, and pay attention to how you feel about which way that comes out. Deep in your mind, you've figured it out. That's your unconscious telling you how to think." He backs his thesis with reams of social and medical research.

His emotional self also provokes him to write columns from the heart, like the recent "What Suffering Does" (4/7/2014). Not all agony is redemptive, he writes, but that part that is, changes people. "Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider's perspective, an attuned awareness to what other outsiders are enduring…. It gives people a sense of their own limitations," he continues, "what they can control and cannot control. Try as they might, they just can't tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or missing the one who has gone."

He concludes: "Many people don't come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability…"

I love that column – in part, because it reflects my own experience with redemptive suffering. Loss lends perspective to our lives, and makes them precious. It also demonstrates survivability – showing us that we should not fear the vulnerability of living fully. Indeed, folks who shrink from emotional depth out of concern for possible future pain have prematurely begun the process of dying. That article is Brooks at his 'feeling' best.

Unfortunately, he is also called-upon to discuss policy, and here he is a prisoner of his University of Chicago economics training. It impels him to check all that humanity at the door, in preference to a strictly rationalist model of behavior, and a belief that economics is everything. The so-called Chicago School is great theoretical stuff, and its preference of monetary policy-based solutions has a role to play.

Where 'Chicago' gets it wrong is in its insistence that reality invariably follows theory, that monetary policies are the Only solutions, and that economics IS everything. In fact, however, people are not rational (as Mr. Brooks should recognize), Keynes was also right, and there are communitarian social interests that override the cold economics. People matter. When he relies on his free marketeer's education, Brooks loses a huge chunk of his human perspective.

The examples are legion; let me just deal with one that arises out of his very next column: "The Moral Power of Curiosity." In it, he admires the perceptiveness and gumption of the heroes of Michael Lewis' new book, "Flash Boys." They doggedly resisted the Wall Street blandishments of mere money maximization, in favor of satisfying their curiosity about how it worked.

They were rewarded by uncovering a not-(yet)-illegal mechanism to rig the market – a nerdish kind of "front-running" stocks. In the digital bowels of modern markets, mere milli-seconds of trading foreknowledge allows big institutions to profit just a bit on every transaction. In the market's zero-sum game, that insider profit means everybody else loses the same amount, every time. The casino is rigged (in another, new way we didn't know about).

These flash-boy heroes chose to exploit their new learning by setting up an exchange on which that technical flaw is neutralized. They have built a better mousetrap, and will be rewarded handsomely for it (a fact that Brooks seems to under-appreciate). That's a wonderfully bright tiny beacon in a sea of inky darkness on The Street.

Brooks' head, however, takes this opportunity to conclude that such innovation is The Cure for every market imperfection. He writes: "… if market-rigging is defeated, it won't be by government regulators. It will be through a market innovation in which a good exchange replaces bad exchanges, designed by those who fundamentally understood the old system."

That statement egregiously, fundamentally misapprehends the tale he just told, and its implications for the market. Flash Boys is about an incidental, technical artifact of new computerized trading that could be exploited – consciously or not – for profit. Lewis' heroes are doing well by doing a good thing – eliminating a glitch-in-time. Regulation is a very different thing. It is not designed to failsafe against such technical flaws – it is intended to neutralize the larcenous character flaws of participants in the market.

Most market rigging involves variants of wrongdoing – price-fixing or insider trading as examples – whose genesis lies in the dark recesses -- not of computers, but of human nature. You cannot innovate your way out of people trying to trade on an insider's knowledge of the future (a la Wall Street, the movie). You can't make it impossible to bundle worthless mortgages and sell them to unsuspecting clients. What you can do is make such chicanery illegal, and severely punish it when it is uncovered – because the regulators will never find all of it, and deterrence can work in this context.

Now, this is Not to say that we do regulation well – the fact that nobody has gone to jail for all those worthless securities is proof enough of that proposition. I blame the Obama Administration, and especially AG Holder for those failures -- but not the concept, itself. Regulation is like killing roaches – you can't expect to win completely, but if you do nothing, the vermin will overrun the place. And to take the utterly unrelated tale of Flash Boys and feed it into the Republican orthodoxy of less regulation is absurd and damaging at its laissez-faire worst.

As the good-Brooks wrote – not all suffering is redemptive. And the losses that would be suffered by policies espoused by bad-Brooks would be merely unfortunate, and devoid of broader meaning. Those tragedies can, and ought to be, avoided. Maybe, before he actually publishes his political columns, he should flip a coin?