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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

What David Brooks thinks important

By Ezra Klein

Tom Wolfe was once asked, what is the most important change of your lifetime? He is purported to have answered: “Oh, that’s easy. Co-ed dorms.”

My own gloss on that answer is that we spend a lot of our time debating political events and the choices leaders make. But the most important changes are the shifts in culture, ideas and mentalities that people usually don’t even notice until after the fact. In 1960, it would have been absurd for most colleges to have co-ed dorms. A short time later, they were unremarkable.

That’s from the introduction to David Brooks’s new blog. If I was going to write a similar paragraph, I’d say we spend too much time debating political events and the choices leaders make and not enough time debating the structure of political institutions and the impersonal economic and systemic forces that drive the choices leaders make. In Britain, it would be absurd for a political party to win two decisive elections in a row but be completely unable to deliver on a host of campaign promises, but in America, it’s utterly unremarkable. “It’s the institutions, stupid,” is the right way to understand most of what happens in American politics, but it’s not the way people want to understand American politics, so it’s often ignored.

By Ezra Klein  | March 7, 2011; 1:15 PM ET
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Next: The three essential truths of public policy according to James Heckman


a great post. i couldn't agree with you more.

what do you think of devolution in terms of the solution for our political institutional problems?

too much power, money and attention focused on the federal level makes things nearly impossible.

more thoughts here:

Posted by: tmurdock | March 7, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

The institutions are the issue in economics too

Posted by: carolcarre | March 7, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

the effort to defund planned parenthood .... is a tragedy in this country.
i dont know where that fits into the subject of this post, but somehow it has been greatly on my mind.
it is hard to imagine our country, without planned parenthood.
as a woman, i cannot overstate what a terrible loss it will be for the women in this country.
a place for counsel, for information, for help....
i dont know how this can even be happening.
i dont know how reactionary forces...have gained so much control.
the horrific statements of huckabee this week, and he is seriously being considered as a presidential candidate?
and the effort at investigations, launched by peter king?
and the advertising campaign this week, in a number of states to try and defund planned parenthood?
and the intractable, hideous leadership of scott walker...and his inability as an elected official, to negotiate?
it is so hard to believe all of this is happening.
when many people start thinking like is terribly scary.
it must be some form of evil.
i cant imagine what else it could be.

Posted by: jkaren | March 7, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

As the father of a daughter who went to college, Tom Wolfe is inordinately obsessed with co-ed dorms to the point that wrote a rather long novel about it.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 7, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

"The institutions are the issue in economics too"
Right, you beat me to the punch, I was going to suggest Ezra look up Institutional Economics, which "focuses on understanding the role of the evolutionary process and the role of institutions in shaping economic behavior."

One contemporary institutional economist worth noting is the Korean professor (now teaching at Cambridge) Ha-Joon Chang. His value added over, say, Adolph Berle or Thorsten Veblen is that Chang is still among the living, with a new book out and available for interviews. :o)

Posted by: beowulf_ | March 7, 2011 2:54 PM | Report abuse


Speaking of institutions ... what say you lately about the fact that Senate Republicans still refuse to carry out their Constitutional duty and advise and consent on the appointment of federal judges (and other appointees)?

I stupidly held out hope in January that this issue would be resolved in the context of discussions about the filibuster. Silly me.

Given the increasing level of conflict between liberal policies and conservative judges and justices, isn't it imperative that Obama's backlog of nominees finally be approved? (Afterwards, we also will need to deal with Obama's slower-than-average pace of nominations.)

Posted by: paul65 | March 7, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Yes, David Brooks’ soft-conservatism pitch is like being spoon fed warm sweet foam by someone who's picking your pocket at the same time. I have no time for his malarkey.

Posted by: JohnL8 | March 7, 2011 3:09 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks is so squishy. Good post, Ezra, and well done on Maher -- I appreciated your pushing back and trying to articulate long form answers to the questions that Steinem and Maher were so quick to be glib and sloganeering about.

Posted by: bdballard | March 7, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Ezra, you make the same mistake so common among us liberal Democrats.

You contrast our political system with Britain's. But Britain's is a parliamentary system, where political party is paramount. Ours is not a parliamentary system, and that's why Ben Nelson et al. have as much sway as they do.

You say, It's the Senate filibuster! But Democrats could have changed that at the beginning of this Congress. They didn't because ours is not a parliamentary system and so parties -- well, Democrats anyway -- don't function as they do in parliamentary systems. In the U.S., parties run against one another only in the minds of pundits. So elected representatives owe very little, if anything, to their parties -- certainly not their votes.

Posted by: fredbrack | March 8, 2011 3:06 AM | Report abuse

FredBrack, respectfully, while what you say may be true, it misses the point. What matters is that the will of the majority of voters can be so easily thwarted by calculated obstructionism. This is corrosive to a democratic process and, more importantly, feeds a populist cynicism promoted vigorously by conservatives that "government can't do anything". Net net, it focus' power to monied narrow interests.

Posted by: JohnL8 | March 8, 2011 8:09 AM | Report abuse

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