Mike Brake | August 1, 2015
Outnumbered Three to One, Arthur Brooks Shines
Panel discussions on poverty tend to take a predictable course. Speaker after speaker will deplore the existence of poverty, accuse the wealthy of running off with all the money, and propose more taxes (and—as inevitable as sunrise—more government programs).
That is especially true when you stack the panel with President Barack Obama, leftist columnist E. J. Dionne, and Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam, which is what the organizers did for a May 18 discussion at the Catholic-Evangelical Leadership Summit on Overcoming Poverty.
But there was a fourth chair on the stage that day, and it was occupied by Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute. The audience at Georgetown University may as well have been watching a high-level tennis match as the two sides, ultimately represented by the two presidents, volleyed back and forth. The winner? Well, listen to these exchanges:
President Obama started out with some promise, even admitting that some on the left react to poverty with knee-jerkism and more spending and programs. Of course he soon slid into brief diatribes against “coldhearted free-market capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody is moochers.” What to do? Our President, quite predictably, would like to raise taxes to take money from the undeserving rich and bestow those dollars on the poor. He raised the common liberal analogy of the pie with finite slices where the rich gobble all the cherries and leave nothing for the poor.
Not so, Brooks volleyed back. The rich are not stealing from the poor. “In fact, two billion people around the world have been lifted out of poverty because of the ideas revolving around free enterprise and free trade . . .”
Brooks offered a three-pronged point of view: that the social safety net is a good thing upon which all should agree, that it should be deployed only for the truly indigent, and that work should be an expected response by the recipients of that taxpayer generosity. In other words, it’s good to help those who really merit that help, but in turn they need to get up and work.
And then came President Obama’s tired old pie analogy with lamentations about income inequality and the need for more taxes. He noted that the “banker’s son” and the “janitor’s son” should be equals. To which Brooks responded with a cleaver that cut right to the heart of the issue. It’s not about the banker’s son or the janitor’s son, he noted; it’s about the ever-expanding entitlement state (can you say Obamacare?) and the intolerable present and future costs that expansion represents. And in fact that is precisely not how you help the truly poor.
“When we don’t make cost-benefit calculations at least at the macro level about public goods, the poor pay,” Brooks said. “If you don’t pay attention to the macro economy and the fiscal stability, you will become insolvent, you will have austerity. And if you have austerity the poor always pay.”
In other words, Mr. President, your way lies Greece.
And then Brooks cut even deeper. “The real issue? Middle-class entitlements—70 percent of the federal budget.”
To which President Obama said . . . well, he made a joke about the infamous “Obama phones.”
The entire discussion was civil and elevating, but it was clear that despite being outnumbered three to one, Arthur Brooks and his views virtually dominated the discussion.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.