Brooks/ Tacoma Narrows

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RussB's picture
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Brooks/ Tacoma Narrows

Today's David Brooks column in the NYT

is written in his standard code. He wants to pretend that everyone is equally at fault for the travails of the time, and that the Bush/Obama bailout agenda, to the extent it rewards rich malefactors, is an anomaly, or an abuse, or a necessary evil (today he's chosen that last one), at any rate something out of the ordinary.

But this is standard right-wing obfuscation and misdirection. Brooks is a conservative and therefore fights for an agenda that exalts and empowers the rich across the board. The current bailouts of the rich are not anomalous, not an abuse, not a divergence, but another form of the status quo. Such theft is a feature, not an exception, let alone an abuse.

This status quo is class war from above and wealth redistribution from the non-rich to the rich. The current crisis is in itself such a massive redistribution, and the bailouts are intended to supplement it.

I offer that brief comment as a suggestion on what these allegedly "reasonable" conservatives really want, even as they write in their moderate-sounding code. I only picked Brooks because I've long been a connoisseur of his code in particular.

But what inspired me to comment in the first place isn't Brooks or conservatives, but a striking metaphor he used which is used exactly 180 degrees the wrong way.



Right now, the economic landscape looks like that movie of the swaying Tacoma Narrows Bridge you might have seen in a high school science class. It started swinging in small ways and then the oscillations built on one another until the whole thing was freakishly alive and the pavement looked like liquid.

A few years ago, the global economic culture began swaying. The government enabled people to buy homes they couldn't afford. The Fed provided easy money. The Chinese sloshed in oceans of capital. The giddy upward sway produced a crushing ride down.

These oscillations are the real moral hazard. Individual responsibility doesn't mean much in an economy like this one. We all know people who have been laid off through no fault of their own. The responsible have been punished along with the profligate.

It makes sense for the government to intervene to try to reduce the oscillation. It makes sense for government to try to restore some communal order. And the sad reality is that in these circumstances government has to spend money on precisely those sectors that have been swinging most wildly - housing, finance, etc. It has to help stabilize people who have been idiots.

This is the way TPTB want us to look at things, and probably the way most of them really see things. But it's exactly wrong.

The Tacoma-Narrows Bridge oscillated because it was poorly engineered. The oscillations were not the result of any exceptional situation, but an inherent feature of the poorly-designed bridge. It was doomed to collapse eventually, as soon as its built-in oscillation feature got out of hand, which it did soon enough. Anyone whose idea was to simply put band-aids on the cracks and believe on faith that the bridge would be OK was a dreamer.

So anyone who analogizes today, as Brooks does, and as pretty much everyone in government and the pundit class does, that "It makes sense for the government to intervene to try to reduce the oscillation", but that the bridge is fundamentally alright, is simply wasting time we don't have and wasting what little real wealth is left, desperately trying to hold steady for the eye a bridge that can no longer do anything but oscillate until it collapses, when what we need to do is build a new bridge.


Quercus bicolor's picture
Quercus bicolor
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Backwards Metaphor - Brilliant!


Your detection of the error in David Brooks' metaphor is brilliant!  The bridge needed either a major and carefully planned retrofit or - more likely -  a demolition and rebuilding with more sound engineering.  Our economy needs the same thing.

The questions that had been asked about the bridge "is it strong enough to support the required weight?", "Is it durable enough to last a long time?"  are the same one's that have been asked about our economy for a long time. "How can we facilitate the smooth flow of ever more goods and services?".

But, the question that needed to be asked is "Is there something inherent in the bridges design that will allow it to go unstable and essentially facilitate it's own destruction?"  That's the question that not enough people are asking about the economy.

I wonder - has the economic oscillation gotten past the point of no return?  Is self-destruction inevitable and a complete rebuilding our only option?  Or can we keep the oscillation in check long enough for a well thought out retrofit, or at least a more orderly demolition while the new system is being built?

Have you considered submitting your thoughts to the Times as a letter to the editor?  Or perhaps to somewhere where it is more likely to be accepted?

Steve Young 

Woodman's picture
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Re: Brooks/ Tacoma Narrows

This is how I see the analogy:

My understanding is the Tacoma-Narrows bridge was engineered at a time before there was a common understanding of harmonic oscillations in structures.   However, engineers learned from the failure of the bridge and include harmonics analysis in the design of modern bridges and buildings.   Engineers are generally motivated to do the right thing for the long term.

In contrast, politicians are driven in general by short term needs and getting re-elected.  They haven't learned how our economy really works from past history and are not trying to design a more stable monetary system.


RussB's picture
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Re: Brooks/ Tacoma Narrows

Woodman, I think that's just what we have, political and economic "engineers" who only want to engineer the cosmetics of the short term (i.e. only long enough for their own careerism).

Thinking about the bridge metaphor a little further, perhaps an even better way of looking at it is that these fancy bridges we can just breeze across at will with no effort or thought are destined to become a thing of the past. If we're really to think seriously about a new bridge, it's probably more a rope footbridge like in some adventure movie. Or a rope ferry. But more and more, people are going to have to learn to live on "their side of the river", and do with less of what's on the other side.

Steve, thanks for your words. I haven't tried sending letters to the editor, but I am planning to start my own blog in the next few weeks. I just need to rope together some of these thoughts into coherent posts. Hopefully I have something interesting to say. We'll see.

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