David Brooks on "What Government Does"

Being a New York Times op-ed columnist must be one of the easiest high-profile positions in all of the press.  While I will not deny the sheer entertainment value I get out of my daily trip to the op-ed page, I am routinely stunned at how utterly lacking in content and value these bits of editorial wisdom often are.

Let's take David Brooks' column today, What Government Does, as a case study of sorts.  In the midst of our national debate on federal spending, Brooks decides to do a little research by spending the week at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After spending several paragraphs discussing the brutalist architecture of HUD's headquarters and putting in a flippant comment about Democratic resistance to voucher programs generally, he gets to his point: a play-by-play of a meeting regarding assistance to homeless veterans.  He spends a few paragraphs lauding Secretary Shaun Donovan's "deep involvement" at HUD and his efforts to drive agency policy.  He initially appears supportive of the bureaucracy's statistically successful efforts to move veterans into housing.

But then, as if a light went off in his head, Brooks notes how struck he was "the vast difference between the way a government sees the world — numerically and organizationally — and the gritty and unpredictable way the world sometimes looks to, say, a crime reporter or a homeless veteran himself."  While finding his visit to HUD "extremely useful," he ends his piece by pondering "the limitations inherent in government planning."

The Times wants readers to pay for that?  David Brooks just realized there are limitations in government planning!

Even as Brooks admires "the talent and commitment of real-life government workers running a successful program," he feels compelled to second-guess their efforts.  He proceeds to list the number of messy issues these talented servants are attempting to navigate, but Brooks wonders if HUD really truly utterly understands the "messy reality" on the street — not that Brooks is spending his weeks with public assistance organizations to get a first-hand view of what charities do.

He wonders how HUD is addressing the drinking, drug, and mental issues of homeless veterans.  HUD might be making them less homeless, but Brooks asks whether "ill and addicted veterans off their meds [are] menacing apartment buildings?"

Brooks is not answering that question, even while noting that studies "do, indeed, show modest benefits [from] the counterintuitive Housing First approach." What more does Brooks want from HUD at this point?  Give the program to the private sector?  Let individual charities figure it out?  Who knows, but David Brooks learned government has limitations, I suppose.