The Conversation

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about The Conversation (a joint op-ed “dialogue” between NY Times columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks) is that only Gail is ever having one. If you read her replies alone, they make no sense, whereas if you just read David’s, it’s a complete monologue without her being there at all.

And of course, now that I’ve decided to point this out on my blog, the most recent Conversation actually is a conversation, so I’ll go one back to the SOTU round-up. Here are their lines, and I’ve underlined the bits that seem like non sequiturs or make no sense at all without the other person’s lines, as well as the bits directly addressing the other person:

Gail:

Maybe they could turn it into a computer game that the whole nation would be able to play for just that one night. Every time you successfully matched some candy or thwacked an angry bird, you’d be rewarded with one presidential proposal.

I do love that idea. The governor of Vermont did that in his State of the State speech this year – he just talked about the growing problem of heroin addiction in Vermont. The address got both national attention and local support.

But let’s be honest. No president wants the country to wake up the day after his big speech thinking, “Wow, we’ve got a terrible drug problem.” Or even, “Wow, we should raise the minimum wage.”

They want: “Wow, the president has a lot of good ideas.”

You mean now that we’ve agreed it has all the drama of the F.B.I. warning on a DVD? I have so much faith in you, David, that I am confident we’re going to make this interesting anyway.

Then everybody would have yelled at him for creating bad feelings just when Congress is starting to work together and pass … the farm bill. You have to admit the poor man can’t win.

The White House is terrified the president will be accused of “class warfare.” Back in the day, they used to yell “Communist!” This is a new McCarthyism created for rich people by spin doctors.

Clinton was governing in a time of prosperity partially because he was balancing the budget by raising taxes. Class warfare!

I am sorry to have to deliver this message but the hopey-changey Barack Obama is gone, his spirit squashed to smithereens by Congress.

David, I’m so impressed! Obviously I agree totally, but aren’t you the one who has been complaining about anything that smacks of wealth redistribution?

Do not imagine that I would oppose wage subsidies for poor men. I just oppose taking money away from poor women with children in order to pay for them.

But your point is absolutely right. I’ve been thinking about early childhood education, which everybody likes. But to really pay for it – on a quality level – you have to combine it with big tax revenue. Which nobody wants to talk about. Except our new mayor in New York City, who’s being ignored.

Yeah, there’s a limit to how long we can congratulate ourselves for having a Congress that’s capable of passing a budget.

And then the president could get up and say “the state of the union is wild and woolly?” Works for me.

And David:

Gail, back in the early 1980s, I bought my first computer, a Kaypro. It was big, clunky, slow and by today’s standards, unbelievably primitive. Let’s face it, the State of the Union address is the Kaypro of political events. We ought to totally re-engineer the whole enterprise.

My model would be the annual letters that Warren Buffett sends out to shareholders or Bill and Melinda Gates send out to everyone. They don’t try to list every little item on their agenda. They just tell us what’s on their minds. Why can’t the president do that once a year? Just pick a topic that he thinks is important and tell the country what’s on his mind?

Even though we’ve determined that the format is hopeless, let’s talk about the president’s actual speech.

There were a few aspects that I liked. It was reasonably nonpartisan, especially considering this is an election year, and the president’s party is in some danger of losing the Senate. I expected him to go after Republicans a little more.

Also, it wasn’t very populist. The president has given some speeches that give voice to economic populism. But in front of a national TV audience he decided to go the other way. Instead of attacking big corporations and concentrated wealth, he made nice with them.

I thought the whole thing was pretty Clintonian. The mix of modest policies was the same: plans to boost savings, a vague reference to reforming the earned-income tax credit. And so on. The only problem is that Clinton was governing in a time of peace and prosperity whereas we are now in a time when a lot of people think the country is going down the tubes.

I wish the president had been more aggressive. Instead he talked about adding a few more tech hubs and reforming patent laws. I well remember those inspiring 2008 speeches on hope, change and modest improvements in our patent law.

I know his aides were trying to be realistic. Not much big can get passed, or funded, so let’s at least mention a few things that might actually happen like tech hubs. But if you are going to describe big structural problems — flat mobility, widening inequality, wage stagnation, stagnant human capital — at least you can describe a general approach commensurate with the size. I would have said to hell with realism — we can issue a white paper with our policy agenda. In the speech, let’s try to reframe the debate.

I would have understood and disagreed with a big lefty populist agenda. I would have supported a big agenda that mixes good ideas from left and right — wage subsidies for poor men combined with a big child tax credit, for example — but I’m frustrated with teaspoon approaches to torrential problems.

All this makes me think that we’re in for a bigger and wilder change election than maybe we anticipate. The country is in a sour mood, as, say, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows. Pessimism rules everywhere.

You certainly got no sense of fresh policy goodness from the Republican response either. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for something new and when it comes I suspect it is going to be wild and woolly.

Now of course, my first thought about this is that (sorry) it’s pretty typical of male/female interaction all over. But also, I have to admit that in my own “conversations,” I probably sound more like David than Gail.

So I suppose the takeaway is, next time you’re having a conversation, pay attention to whether you’re actually having a dialogue, or whether you’re having a monologue with occasional pauses during which the other person says some stuff.

Of course, in order to evaluate your own speech in this way, you have to pay even less attention to the person you’re talking to, so I don’t know, do what you want.

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