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Shields and Brooks on economic ‘sludge,’ immigration reform standstill

February 7, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the state of the economy in light of the latest job numbers, whether the debt ceiling will inspire another fight, the ongoing immigration debate in the House, plus hopes for the Olympic Games.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s talk jobs, a report, mixed report for the month of January, Mark. The number of jobs created was less than what was expected, but the unemployment rate has gone down. You heard Paul Solman’s report. Should we be concerned?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, we should be concerned.

This is 52 months after its ended, after this — and we are not returned to the number of jobs we had before the recession began. And at this rate, at the rate, the current rate of job creation, it will be six years before we get back to that level. It is — it’s hardly reassuring. It’s upsetting.

And it ought to get our attention. I would just say one thing, Judy, and that is, somewhere in recent American history, probably in the last 30 years, we changed our economic values. The economic value used to measure the economy in employment and how many people are employed, what their wages were. And then somewhere along the line, it became a stockholder, a shareholder economy.

Last year, corporate profits were at their all-time high. The percentage of — the percentage of the income that went to corporate profits and corporations was at their all-time high. The top 1 hazardous had their highest income share since 1928, and percent of the income that went to wages was the lowest it’s ever been. And something — something changed.

I mean, the health of our economy should be on the number of people working and that they are progressing and making more and being productive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we do talk about the job numbers every week.

I do think we pay attention to labor force participation. I sort of do agree somewhat with Mark that there does seem to be an imbalance in the power relationship between capital and labor.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s — yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I don’t think we’re going to go back to unions, the way they were understood before. I don’t know what the next form is, employee-owned companies.

But I do think you — there probably should be something done to rebalance that relationship. Nonetheless, when I look at the jobs numbers — and I think they’re disappointing. Somebody pointed out, if we were in a normal recovery, we would have six million more jobs than we have now.

And so I look at what’s causing all the sludge in the economy, whether we’re not innovating enough. And there’s some evidence of that, some stagnation in that. A lot of people have just dropped out of the labor force. And that long decline — Doug Elmendorf, the head of the CBO, was asked.

One of the things that is moderating growth, it’s the aging of the population, shrinking of the labor force. And if you don’t have a lot of people working, paying taxes, making stuff, you’re just going to have a sludgier economy. And so there’s a whole bunch of reasons. Some have to do with the complexity of the government, which imposes costs, the complexity of the tax code.

It just feels like we have been a middle-age or late-age economy, and we need some rejuvenation of some sort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is anybody predicting that this is going to turn around in a positive way, in a big, positive way?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there’s sort of this prediction of economic growth, and that 2014 was supposed to be good, and the market at the end of the year.

The decade — the first decade of the 1st century is the only 10-year period in the country’s history, as long as we have kept records, that we didn’t create any jobs, that there was no net increase of jobs. I mean, that’s just amazing.

And one of the things that has happened in this recession, Judy, is that the brutal austerity imposed is the number of public jobs, state, local, federal, firefighters, teachers, nurses, public employees that have been laid off. And they have not come back. I mean, even this past month, we’re still laying off people in the public sector. And, to me, it’s sheer folly, both in public services and economically.

DAVID BROOKS: It should be said that the CBO also had a report on the projected debt of the country going up, and they basically raised the debt level by $1.7 trillion. We’re going to be ramping up our public debt levels massively over the next 20 years.

MARK SHIELDS: Twenty years.

DAVID BROOKS: And that’s — that’s — that’s part of the equation of why the public employment has not gone up.

I just feel like — you know, there’s — Mancur Olson, a great economist, late economists, said countries — why did Germany and Japan do so well after World War II?  It’s because, perversely, they lost the war, but all their institutions were cleaned out and they started afresh.

And middle-age economies just get a little more brittle. And it feels like we’re in that. And I don’t know how you then rejuvenate the economy, how you have a second burst, or a third burst in our case, but that sort comprehensive thing has to be talked about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of the debt, which you just brought up, we had the forecast, I guess today, from the government that in a few weeks they’re not going to be able to pay their bills unless Congress raises the debt ceiling.

The president is saying, I want this. I want it with no conditions.

Mark, Speaker Boehner is saying, there won’t be a default, but, on the other hand, he’s saying, my members are not yet on board. Where is this headed?  What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s headed for a Kabuki dance.

I just — one point on David. David is absolutely right about the long-term debt. But as a percentage of the gross domestic product in this country, the deficit this year is lower than it was in Ronald Reagan’s years. OK?  So that’s taken some of the urgency, because we do deal with the immediate in this country.

As far as the current crisis, Judy, it was revolved last October. The nuclear option was exercised by the Republicans last October. They closed…

JUDY WOODRUFF: When they shut down the government.

MARK SHIELDS: They shut down the government. The nuclear device blew up on the launching pad, and left the Republicans at the lowest point that any party has ever been in the history of the Gallup poll. They don’t want to go revisit that going into the 2014 election.

They’re going to try and ride the Obamacare horse to victory, I guess, to use just terrible metaphors all the way through.


MARK SHIELDS: And I know David will bail me out at this point.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And not — and not talk about…

MARK SHIELDS: No, I just don’t think — plus, I think the Patty Murray-Paul Ryan deal took an awful lot of pressure off as far as the fiscal picture is concerned in the short range.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think this is just a stalling thing and…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they’re going to reach a deal. I’m trying to figure out Mark’s Kabuki horse and metaphors.


MARK SHIELDS: The Kabuki horse is a — is a big concept.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m not stepping into that one.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Mark’s right. The polling is, if there was sort of a debt blowup, who would you blame, American people?  It’s roughly 59 percent would blame Republicans, 20-something would blame President Obama, so it’s a clear political loser.

So, they have got to ask for something, and they have talked about asking for, if he can approve the Keystone pipeline, then will approve it. They just want something in return. They will probably end up with like half a Pretzel M&M. They will get that and they will sign. And so they’re not going to walk into that again.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the speaker, this is not the only headache on the speaker’s — headache on the platter — that may not work.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s not the only thing he’s got to deal with right now.

Immigration reform, just — it seems like just a few days ago, we were hearing from the speaker that it looked like they were ready to deal on immigration, Mark, but then they went off and had their retreat, and ever since then, they have been saying no. So, maybe not, the speaker said this week.

MARK SHIELDS: This is one where I have to admit David was right.


MARK SHIELDS: I was a lot more bullish about immigration reform, and David has been bearish, and I think events have borne him out.

Judy, it’s the difference we talked about, between a congressional party and a presidential party. The Republican Party presidentially is doomed on immigration. I mean, just take the Asian — Asian-American population, India, China, Korea, Japan. These are people of highest — higher income, highest education, entrepreneurial.

They should be Republicans; 55 percent of them voted for George H.W. Bush. More — they had a higher percentage vote for Barack Obama than Latinos did in 2012. I mean, they have lost everybody. They’re down — they’re down to the Caucasian caucus, the male…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: The Republicans, the male Caucasian caucus.

But, I mean, at the presidential level, they have got — Mitt Romney got 59 percent of the white vote and he lost by five million votes. And I just don’t know, as they look at this, why they won’t act on it. But it’s the congressional…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what happened, David?  Because it was — the speaker was saying some positive things, and then something changed.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, let me say, I liked the first part of Mark’s answer back there. I’m going to make it the ring tone on my phone, I think.


DAVID BROOKS: What happened was, he didn’t have his members. And that says a lot about where parties are in general these days, not only the Republican Party.

Parties have trouble being led from the top. And the authority in parties is no longer with the speaker, with the leaders. It’s all dispersed. And there are a lot of reasons for that. Some of it has to do with no earmarks. The leaders can’t give out favors, so nobody listens to them. That’s not the only reason, but that’s a little piece of it.

And so they can’t control their party. And so the national leadership of the Republican Party understands what Mark just said, that they need this to get an entree into the immigration reform.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: But the members, from their own House district A. in Arizona or in Utah, they don’t feel that pressure at all.

And so the leaders of the parties cannot control the parties. And, therefore, they can’t do the long-range thing that’s in the benefit of the entire party. And so parochial interests take over, and a parochial veto group has emerged. A lot of the smart, young Republicans, the rising stars in the House, are against this, and they exercise effective veto power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Though some people are out there saying it’s — it could turn around later this year after the primaries. Do you see hope…

DAVID BROOKS: It doesn’t — it clearly wasn’t going to happen before the primaries. The party is really split. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen this year.


And Mitch McConnell, in addition to David Brooks, predicted this week that it wouldn’t happen. And he even is closer to the situation than David is.


MARK SHIELDS: So, I just — I don’t see it happening.

The one voice who endorsed John Boehner, who backed off on immigration, was Steve King, the congressman from Iowa, whose contribution to the debate has consisted most recently of saying, these DREAM Act people who are here that the president has refused to deport, who — undocumented immigrants who were brought here by their parents, they aren’t class valedictorians. They have thighs the size of cantaloupes and calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re drug dealers.

And when he said that — I mean, he said it on the floor — John Boehner denounced him and described him in a two-syllable expletive to a couple of Democratic members. That’s the one voice I have heard endorse John Boehner’s position this week on immigration. So, it’s got to be cold comfort for the speaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, complete change of subject. The two of you were right last week on the Super Bowl. You both — I mean, just kudos to both of you. You both predicted Seattle would win.

So, let’s talk about the Olympics. Now, you both follow bobsledding and, what, downhill, luge and all those things very closely.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re actually dance — we’re judges in the ice dancing.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So what are — what’s your prediction?  We have heard a lot about security, David. We have heard a lot about Sochi not being ready. What are you getting — what are you excited about?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the Jamaican bobsledders, of course. The skeleton, I’m thrilled about.

I actually don’t think about the Olympics — the Winter Olympic sports at any moment, except for the moment they happen to be on. So I’m unaware of luge until that moment.


DAVID BROOKS: And then it is completely erased from my memory banks. It only exists in the present, the Winter Olympics, for me. So I don’t have any prejudgments, I’m afraid.

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think the Olympics are in trouble, for a very simple reason. They have violated one of the first rules of politics, which — make — make sure the press has clean beds and hotels that — where there’s a bar open and they’re serving palatable food.

And they have guaranteed, Sochi has guarantee themselves bad press by not — not pandering to the press. I mean…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re not suggesting reporters…

MARK SHIELDS: I would not suggest that, and certainly not sportswriters least of all.


MARK SHIELDS: But I do — I’m holding my breath that we don’t have…


MARK SHIELDS: … another 1972 Munich or…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Absolutely. We’re all…

MARK SHIELDS: … 1996 Atlanta, or whatever. I mean, that’s — I think that’s the biggest concern I have at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re all hoping for that.

Mark, David, thank you. See you next week.