Warren Brookes, 1929-1991

Mr. Ferguson writes the Business World column for The Wall Street Journal.

It was a late evening in 1981 when I met Warren Brookes over the transom. I was sorting through prospective op-ed material at California’s Orange County Register when I came across this guy who used real, meaty numbers to build his argument—Census and IRS and Labor Department calculations I hadn’t seen in all the papers and magazines I scanned.

Warren won my editorial heart and soon a regular place in the Register’s lineup. It helped that he seemed willing to take calls at all hours from some nobody in California who, much as he too loved data, never saw a table he didn’t have a question about.

In those days Warren was usually available because, I learned, he was something of a recluse. A personal preference going back to some unhappy days in Boston, word had it. Only after Tom Bray, editorial chief of The Detroit News, made Warren his man in Washington a few years later did he begin making the rounds of the political cocktail circuit.

Still, when he died at age 62 trying to outwork pneumonia on the last weekend of 1991, Warren remained mainly a presence on the pages of newspapers in secondary markets and conservative journals. Although politicians were confronted with his arguments thanks to an outlet in The Washington Times, he remained virtually unknown to the Pooh-Bahs of the big-city press.

Television? Except for a moment of glory on a 60 Minutes segment following up on his work, forget it. I remember calling Ray Brady, economics correspondent of CBS News, months after a media watchdog had chided him for being ignorant of Warren’s writings and statistics. Mr. Brady maintained he’d still never heard of Warren Brookes.

Warren got harder to ignore over the last few years, however, as his powerful drive and independence led him away from the macroeconomy and into the area of environmental science. Many of us market-oriented commentators tend to shy away from that subject because the topics often seem so technical that precious weeks of study would be needed before one could write with confidence about them. A Harvard grad with an average guy’s instincts, Warren showed no such trepidation. He wrote path-breaking articles challenging conventions of the environmental media about pollution, food safety, you name it.

He had a strong notion that the various scares were a left-wing fraud, just as years before he had kept writing—to only belated notice—that Michael Dukakis’s “miracle” in Massachusetts was bogus. Warren was proven right on that latter story and I suspect that, even conceding the genuineness of some environmental perils, he will emerge correct in his more recent cause.

He raised some conservative eyebrows toward the end when he aligned himself with Representative John Dingell in attacking “political science” by tax-paid investigators. Maybe he didn’t always consider the whole chessboard of power. But, at the very least, in his overall efforts he succeeded in engaging the regulatory bureaucracy in popular argument where it had hardly before been so tested.

In recent years, Warren was not only writing, but speaking, and proved popular with business audiences. His stuff was somewhat of a samizdat on the right. Among free-market conservatives, you would hear increasing references to his findings, even while the prestige media would carry nary a reference. I was surprised he got even a three-inch obituary in The New York Times.

His columns weren’t often stylistic gems. Interviews seemed to require “so-and-so told us” references, and he used exclamation marks where punchy rhetoric would have sufficed. Only in his spiritual column each Christmas season did he let his humanity show. But by sheer dint of information, his stuff was one-of-a-kind. With a bit of Warren’s tenacity, a number of us might try to shoulder his load. If only we had his grasp of the numbers.


The Need for Moral Standards

At its roots, economics is a metaphysical rather than a mathematical science, in which intangible spiritual values and attitudes are at least as important as physical assets and morale more fundamental than the money supply. Products, after all, are the assembly of qualities, and their value derives directly from the innate character and ideals of those who create them and the workmanship of those who produce them. Things are, in their final analysis, the expression of thoughts. Quality products derive from quality thoughts, shoddy products from shoddy thoughts.

Plainly, then, a national economy, like an individual business or a specific product, is the sum of the spiritual and mental qualities of its people, and its output of value will be only as strong as the values of society. There are many examples of barbaric societies which practiced the “free market” of the jungle and finally perished in the poverty of hedonism. Without the civilizing force of universal moral standards, particularly honesty, trust, self-respect, integrity, and loyalty, the marketplace quickly degenerates. A society that has no values will not produce much value; a nation whose values are declining should not be surprised at a declining economy.

—Warren Brookes, The Economy in Mind