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Jan. 27 2010 - 1:50 pm | 120,467 views | 41 recommendations | 305 comments

Populism: Just Like Racism!

It’s easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.

via Op-Ed Columnist – The Populist Addiction – NYTimes.com.

Normally one would have to be in the grip of a narcissistic psychosis to think that a columnist for the New York Times has written an article for your personal benefit. But after his latest article in the Times, in which he compares the “populism” of people who “blame Goldman Sachs” with exactly the sort of racist elitism I ripped him for last week, I think David Brooks might be trying to talk to me.

I think that’s at least part of what’s going on in his latest column, which is odd. If I were in his position, I probably would have punched me in the nose for the shot I took at him last week, but the response of David Brooks to being called out as a racist weenie is to write a passionate defense of the rich, one that includes the admonition that while blaming the wealthy is easy and feels fun, truly wise men should “tolerate the excesses of traders.”

I don’t want to get into the position of fixating on one guy for personal reasons. Obviously I’ve done too much of that with Brooks already, and I absolutely promise to give that part of it a rest for a good long while after this.

But leaving aside any discussion of Brooks the human being, this latest column of his is something that has to be discussed. The propagandistic argument he makes about the dangers of “populism”  is spelled out here as clearly as you’ll ever see it expressed in print, and this exact thing is a key reason why so much of the corruption that went on on Wall Street in the past few decades was allowed to spread unchecked.

That’s because this argument is tacitly accepted by almost everyone in our business, and most particularly is internalized in the thinking of most newspaper editors and TV news producers, who over time develop an ingrained habitual fear of publishing material that seems hysterical or angry.

This certainly has an effect on the content of news reporting, but perhaps even more importantly, it impacts the tone of news coverage, where outrages are covered without outrage, and stories that are not particularly “balanced” in reality — stories that for instance are quite plainly about one group of people screwing another group of people — become transformed into cool, “objective” news stories in which both the plainly bogus version of events and the real and infuriating version are given equal weight.

Brooks lays out the crux of his case his case in his first three grafs of his article:

Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists. The people who try to divide it on the basis of religion we call sectarians. The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists.

These two attitudes — populism and elitism — seem different, but they’re really mirror images of one another. They both assume a country fundamentally divided. They both describe politics as a class struggle between the enlightened and the corrupt, the pure and the betrayers.

Both attitudes will always be with us, but these days populism is in vogue. The Republicans have their populists. Sarah Palin has been known to divide the country between the real Americans and the cultural elites. And the Democrats have their populists. Since the defeat in Massachusetts, many Democrats have apparently decided that their party has to mimic the rhetoric of John Edwards’s presidential campaign. They’ve taken to dividing the country into two supposedly separate groups — real Americans who live on Main Street and the insidious interests of Wall Street.

Now, there’s bullshit all up and down this lede. The first lie he tells involves describing everyone who is a critic of Wall Street as a populist. It’s sort of a syllogism he’s getting into here:

All people who criticize Wall Street are populists.

All populists think of themselves as enlightened and pure, and are primarily interested in dividing society, the same way racists do.

Therefore, all people who criticize Wall Street are primarily interested in dividing society, just like racists.

This is obnoxious on so many levels it’s almost difficult to know where to start. As for the populism label, let me quote the Alison Porchnik character from Annie Hall (Woody’s first wife, in the movie): “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”

Brooks here is trying to say that by criticizing, say, Goldman Sachs for mass thievery — criticizing a bank for selling billions of dollars worth of worthless subprime mortgage-backed securities mismarked as investment grade deals, for getting the taxpayer to pay them 100 cents on the dollar for their billions in crap investments with AIG, for forcing hundreds of millions of people to pay inflated gas and food prices when they manipulated the commodities market and helped  push oil to a preposterous $149 a barrel, and for paying massive bonuses after receiving billions upon billions in public support even beyond the TARP — that in criticizing the bank for doing these things, people like me are primarily interested in being divisive and “organizing hatreds.”

He is also saying that by making these criticisms, people like me are by implication making statements about our own moral purity and enlightenment relative to others. He goes on:

It’s easy to see why politicians would be drawn to the populist pose. First, it makes everything so simple. The economic crisis was caused by a complex web of factors, including global imbalances caused by the rise of China. But with the populist narrative, you can just blame Goldman Sachs.

Second, it absolves voters of responsibility for their problems. Over the past few years, many investment bankers behaved like idiots, but so did average Americans, racking up unprecedented levels of personal debt. With the populist narrative, you can accuse the former and absolve the latter.

Stuff like this makes me want to scream. If I’m writing about a bank that took a half-billion worth of mortgages where the average amount of equity in the home was less than 1%, and where 58% of the mortgages had no documentation, and then sold those mortgage-backed securities as investment-grade opportunities to pensions and other suckers — and then bet against the same kind of stuff they were enthusiastically selling to other people — is Brooks seriously suggesting that I also have to point out that the Chinese economy was doing well at the time?

Yeah, okay, the rise of China is a factor in the overall decline of the American economy, but it has nothing to do with the Goldman story, which is a specific crime story about a specific bank. If I’m writing about a gang of car thieves, what, we’re supposed to also mention that the endive crop was weak in that part of the country that year? What the fuck? And this whole business about how criticizing Goldman absolves voters — Jesus, how primitive can you get? Using that logic, criticizing anyone for anything is invalid:

ME: Well, Ike Turner was sort of a dick because he used to get high and punch his wife in the face all the time…

BROOKS: But it’s so easy to say that.

ME: It’s easy to say that a guy who punches his wife in the face is a jerk? (Scratching head) Well… I guess you’re right about that. Would you like me to say it while juggling three chainsaws? Would it be harder to say then, and would you have less of a problem with it?

BROOKS: But by criticizing Ike Turner, you’re absolving all the people who do other bad things. Like purse-snatchers in Central Park, and those kids who keyed my Lexus, and all those baseball players who took steroids! Rafael Palmeiro lied to congress! What about them?

ME: Dude, are you okay? Your pupils look dilated.

BROOKS: You’re absolving Mark McGwire! The single-season home run record is a fraud!

ME: (backing away slowly toward the door) Okay, yeah, sure. Listen, I’ll catch up with you later, okay? I’ve got to return some videotapes.

And so on. The entire argument is literally this nonsensical. If Brooks disagrees with criticism of banks like Goldman, he has a fantastic platform to point out where those criticisms are incorrect. The best platform there is, in fact. But not only does he not go in that direction, he does just the opposite — he concedes that these criticisms are basically true, and chooses instead to argue against the wisdom of making those criticisms, apparently because “bashing the rich” will make them less inclined to “channel opportunity to new groups.” The emphasis in this next excerpt is mine:

So it’s easy to see the seductiveness of populism. Nonetheless, it nearly always fails. The history of populism, going back to William Jennings Bryan, is generally a history of defeat.

That’s because voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine. Voters are capable of holding two ideas in their heads at one time: First, that the rich and the powerful do rig the game in their own favor; and second, that simply bashing the rich and the powerful will still not solve the country’s problems.

Political populists never get that second point. They can’t seem to grasp that a politics based on punishing the elites won’t produce a better-educated work force, more investment, more innovation or any of the other things required for progress and growth.

In fact, this country was built by anti-populists. It was built by people like Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln who rejected the idea that the national economy is fundamentally divided along class lines. They rejected the zero-sum mentality that is at the heart of populism, the belief that economics is a struggle over finite spoils. Instead, they believed in a united national economy — one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.

Hamilton championed capital markets and Lincoln championed banks, not because they loved traders and bankers. They did it because they knew a vibrant capitalist economy would maximize opportunity for poor boys like themselves. They were willing to tolerate the excesses of traders because they understood that no institution is more likely to channel opportunity to new groups and new people than vigorous financial markets.

What’s so ironic about this is that Brooks, in arguing against class warfare, and trying to present himself as someone who is above making class distinctions, is making an argument based entirely on the notion that there is an lower class and an upper class and that the one should go easy on the other because the best hope for collective prosperity is the rich creating wealth for all. This is the same Randian bullshit that we’ve been hearing from people like Brooks for ages and its entire premise is really revolting and insulting — this idea that the way society works is that the productive ” rich” feed the needy “poor,” and that any attempt by the latter to punish the former for “excesses” might inspire Atlas to Shrug his way out of town and leave the helpless poor on their own to starve.

That’s basically Brooks’s entire argument here. Yes, the rich and powerful do rig the game in their own favor, and yes, they are guilty of “excesses” — but fucking deal with it, if you want to eat.

And the really funny thing about Brooks’s take on populists… I mean, I’m a member of the same Yuppie upper class that Brooks belongs to. I can’t speak for the other “populists” that Brooks might be referring to, but in my case for sure, my attitude toward the likes of Lloyd Blankfein and Hank Paulson has nothing to do with class anger.

I don’t hate these guys because they’re rich and went to fancy private schools. Hell, I’m rich and went to a fancy private school. I look at these people as my cultural peers and what angers me about them is that, with many coming from backgrounds similar to mine, these guys chose to go into a life of crime and did so in a way that is going to fuck things up for everyone, rich and poor, for a generation.

Their decision to rig the markets for their own benefit is going to cause other countries to completely lose confidence in the American economy, it will impact the dollar, and ultimately will make all of us involuntary debtors to whichever state we end up having to borrow from to bail these crimes out.

And from my perspective, what makes these guys more compelling as a journalistic subject than, say, the individual homeowner who took on too much debt is a thing that has nothing to do with class, not directly, anyway. It’s that their “excesses” exist in a nexus of political and economic connections that makes them very difficult to police.

We have at least some way of dealing with the average guy who doesn’t pay his debts — in fact our government has shown remarkable efficiency in passing laws like the bankruptcy bill that attack that particular problem, and of course certain banks always have the option of not lending that money (and I won’t even get into the many different ways that the banks themselves bear responsibility for all the easy credit that was handed out in recent years).

But the kinds of things that went on at Goldman and other investment banks, in many cases there are not even laws on the books to deal with these things. In some cases what we’re talking about is the highly complicated merger of crime and policy, of stealing and government, which is both fascinating from a journalistic point of view and ought to be terrifying from the point of view of any citizen, rich or poor.

And even if I were to accept the Brooksian view of an upper class that must be looked to to fix things and take care of the lower classes and create the needed wealth to help us escape our economic crisis, the whole point is that this upper class he is talking about has abdicated that very responsibility — and, perhaps having reached the cynical conclusion that our society is not worth saving, has taken on a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all but simply absconding with whatever wealth is remaining.

It’s not pessimism or “combative divisiveness” to talk about these problems and insist that they get fixed. On the contrary, it’s a very positive view of what citizenship is to believe that everyone has a real role in fixing his country’s problems, and that when we identify problems, we should try to do something about them because we might actually succeed.

On the other hand, telling oneself that when powerful people “rig the game” one should just tolerate it, because one’s best hope for seeing the situation fixed rests in hoping those same powerful people fix it themselves — I would describe that as pessimism, or something worse than pessimism. The whole point of America is that we are all supposed to be our own masters, never viewing anyone as being by birth or situation inherently better or more capable than ourselves, and so the notion of relying upon some nebulous class of investment bankers to “channel opportunity” from on high strikes me as being un-American.

And besides, the fact that a lot of these guys have made a lot of money recently doesn’t make them “upper class.” They’re the same assholes we all were in high school and college, except that they made some very particular moral choices in adulthood, and became criminals, and have now arranged things so that they’re going to be tough as hell to catch. And when they fall, which a lot of them will… I mean a lot of these guys are ten seconds from losing it all and spending the next ten years working the laundry room at Danbury or pushing shopping carts under the FDR expressway. And they know it. These people aren’t the nobility. They’re people just like us, only stupider and less ashamed of themselves.

That’s not a class story. It’s a crime story, and it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with China.


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  1. collapse expand


    Oh, how I long for the day when a Bill Maher or even a David Gregory books you and Brooks on the same panel (or, better yet, you and Friedman).

    If that ever happens, please promise us you won’t play nice.

    Keep up the great work.

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    “Hamilton championed capital markets and Lincoln championed banks, not because they loved traders and bankers. They did it because they knew a vibrant capitalist economy would maximize opportunity for poor boys like themselves….”

    Brooks, like the teabaggers, seem to have an unhealthy appetite for days gone by.

    “Boy, the way Glen Miller played. Songs that made the Hit Parade. Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days! Didn’t need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight Gee, our old LaSalle (a car) ran great. Those were the days! And you knew where you were then! Girls were girls and men were men. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. People seemed to be content. Fifty dollars paid the rent. Freaks were in a circus tent. Those were the days! Take a little Sunday spin, go to watch the Dodgers win. Have yourself a dandy day that cost you under a fin (five dollar bill). Hair was short and skirts were long. Kate Smith really sold a song. I don’t know just what went wrong! Those Were the Days!”

    what’s really weird is it looks like we got a guy like Hoover again.

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    This really is some sick shit! The bus is teetering on the edge of a cliff, and Brooks says we’re not supposed to criticize the drunk bus driver for putting us here?!? Instead, we’re all supposed to praise him because, without him we never would have left the station, and there’s supposedly no one else to drive the bus? Fuck that! I’ll walk from here, thank you.

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    Great read Matt, and there is no way I can add to any of your points. But the last sentence of his op-ed jumped out at me.
    “They will have traded dynamic optimism, which always wins, for combative divisiveness, which always loses.”
    I am trying to figure when during most of my life (past 30-40 years) where this has been true in politics?

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      Brooks loves saying “dynamic.” It popped up a bunch of times during the healthcare debate, when Brooks was dithering with his healthcare straw man: “the US is more dynamic; countries with socialized medicine are less dynamic, but have more compassion [or something].” Is there an actual sociological/economic theory reference he’s making when he uses that word, or does he just like how it sounds, and the way it’s vague enough that one can use it without feeling obliged to back it up with facts?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Well said, Matt! Fucking beautiful!

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    I would post a long rambling critique of the disengenious nature of the modern intellectual community that Brooks is the conservative saint of, but truly am tired of the arguement….now Populist are Racist and Libreals are Fascist and Hitler was a Progressive. these arguements can go unquestion in our current society because we kept large swaths of our people ignorant…Brooks is doing what he is paid to do, to shroud the world from the average person throw giant globs of gorilla S!@# into the debate in this country to confuse folks. Brooks is a servant to his betters a little shoe shiner of the rich or there is another vulgar word that the south gave us for those slaves who toiled in the Master’s house, and that is all Brooks is.

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    Wow – did i tell you that I love you? And Im totally straight (I think).

    This idea of “populism” isnt populism at all – just a way to attack those of us who protest the fast moving train to South American style kleptocracy.

    But dude, very depressing….you want to a fancy private school and grew up rich? My image of you has been slightly shattered. Whatevers.

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    i love how when you attacked brooks, his response is an article even MORE revealing of his fucked sense of entitlement.

    i was so happy to read the other day that obama has been reading rollingstone. and i’m certain it was a contributing factor for obama to go after these swine.

    you’re a patriot, not a hate-mongerer, mr. taibbi.
    brooks should be ashamed.

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    ….tear rolling down cheek. But Ill get over it. Ill have to.

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    Wow, great blog. One of your best.
    Maybe you should criticize Geithner’s cock next.

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    Another accurate and insightful article Matt. The sad thing is that while his opinion/articles are read/heard by god know how many, am guessing this article is read by a few hundred and commented on by even fewer. NY Times and the author owe it to the public to discuss this in public and not shovel it under the rug by dismissing it as a rant… i am sure it’ll happen one day. until then, we go to blogs and vent and drink heavily…

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    The Taibbi Rules…

    Brooks will probably down an extra pint of butter-pecan and fall asleep with a stomach ache in his kimono after reading this…

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    Great column, but depressing because after you think about it for a few minutes in shocked silence, you realize that precisely this criminal activity is the reason so many people are starting to actively dislike Obama and the Democrats. It’s because they know that what Taibbi writes is true, but they don’t know what to do about it . . . or they see that no one is going to do anything about it, so they resort to blaming the party in power and associating that party with the criminal activity of the people who created this situation in the first place. This kind of frustration leads not to action, but to apathy, something Taibbi will understand given his many years living in Russia. The next thought is: what is the political program that SOME political party should be advancing — the specific steps that must be taken to stop this kind of robbery and corruption? It’s not hard to think of how to sensibly limit banks’ power, advance legislation that helps the poor, increase revenue by taxing the rich, etc. It’s finding the political group to make it happen that seems impossible.

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      Right… and what do we get for our populist ire?

      watching little Timmy Geithner on CSPAN from earlier this afternoon getting ripped for his role in the bailouts…
      Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) calling it ‘perhaps the greatest theft in history’…

      i mean, it’s fun and all to watch TGs brows furrowing with unbridled indignation, trying in earnest to explain to the silly, petulant House Reps. how they “just don’t understand” why it was so necessary to funnel taxpayers’ vanishing dollars to prop up his ol’ boys after they obliterated most Americans’ pension funds with their deregulated, risky behavior… but it’s not nearly enough.

      A start would be if Obama shit-canned him at the start of his speech tonight. That might buy back Obama an iota of respect from me.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Matt, Great post, this is the first time I’ve registered for comments this post gave me enough passion to find my voice. I’m a grad student studying political communication and this topic is the exact focus of my research. I’m interested in why the media stays away from class based narratives in discussing economic policy. It’s so blatantly obvious that Brooks has no idea what poor people are like and what makes them tick…he’s probably too busy enjoying his gold flake crusted chocolates on his yacht to notice the woes of regular working stiffs. My question is why most prominent journalists have such a tough time adequately describing the class structure in this country (it’s BS that people see this country as classless) I’d love to chat more with you about this topic. It seems like the NYT is a particularly good case study when it comes to avoiding class strife, their readers are so insulated from the problems of others. I’m interested to know how you feel about Brooks’ characterization of populists vs. rich. Is that how rich people see class politics? Populists get angry because the rich know the tricks to get the policies they want?

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      the fear of the great underclass revolt has been with this country since George Washington wrote to General Knox about this fear exposed by the Shay’s Rebelion, hell even before then as the Whiskey rebelion atest too…so the media’s job is to tamp this down….to sing the song of common unity, that anyone can get ahead, that America is a meritocracy..the slaves like being slaves or are slaves by their own foolishness…those who go into the biddness of Journalism learn early on how to tailor their messages to their betters….so it isn’t surprising that the vulgarities of economics are hidden from the masses…as a Grad student I am sure you are aware of Charles Beard or C Wright Mills who would give you a similiar anaylisis of why class was stripped from the nation’s discourse, it is just in the rich’s interest to do so

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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      It has a lot to do with the fact that over a relatively short period of time, the working class was shut out of journalism in favor of hiring college grads (and especially Ivy League grads) who, while not always members of the upper classes, aspired to them and tended to identify with those who were exploiting, rather than the exploited.

      And it certainly has something to do with ever-declining readership, too.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        You make an excellent point. Couldn’t we do with a Mike Royko or Jimmy Breslin now? No offense to Mr. Taibbi’s efforts but they were made for this.

        On the topic at hand, the easiest solution to David Brooks is not to read him. I don’t read Cal Thomas, Donna Brazile or Phyllis Schafly, either and Maureen Dowd is on a short lease with me.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          Agreed; I don’t see Brooks’s writing to be substantial or relevant enough to read. Those who agree with him won’t agree with Taibbi or anyone else on the other side, and there are greater mountains to climb. I used to love Maureen Dowd, but she hasn’t been the same since her book came out.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
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      Might I suggest is most journalists want to be rich, and rub elbows with them, and work for them. Plus, the mold has been cast for so long, in muting populism journalism in favor for false even handedness.

      Then, get away from Journalists and look at their bosses. All of them. Unless you can find me not-for-profit jounalism, basically ALL mainstream (corporate) media is run by rich folks, for rich folks. Every single corporo-media outlet is beholden to their advertisers….rich fat cat corporations…and the media outlets themselves are rich fat cat corporations. So you really need look no further for the corporate/rich bias we find in our network news.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    brilliant posting Matt. submitted it to Digg. it needs to be widely read.

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    Ah, don’t worry about using Brooks as a foil. Plato had Socrates…then again, there is no comparison…anyway, this is way better than your religious work. But two points: The “worth” of the lower classes is always exaggerated to the negative in ritzy schools that promote themselves as the “best”. So there is that built in antagonism towards unlike others. It’s up to the individual to surmount it…or, (for the 2nd point) even realize that there are others in lower positions that could readily take their place. The replaceable factor is what has kept mankind going…
    Listening to Michael Savage (Ah, there is that streak of Idiocy in America that what you listen to or look at is what you are…gotta have them blinders on…) the other day he backed Obama on Bank controls. But he only could go that far. He made the premise that the “leaders” at GS are OK if kept under control. He did not fault them as you did.
    And about other things he can have such a big mouth. For what that is worth…
    And, to add, I still think you should spend time in the far North in an Eskimo village.
    Why? They exist as a combination of very real subsistence economies combined with mucho Federal help. And they seem to be growing.
    Is this sustainable? Maybe we can learn something there. Plus, you have this built in resistance to natives by others there, even, supposedly smart people. I have a friend clerking for an Alaskan Supreme Court Judge and when I ask him about the western part of Alaska the attitude is that they drink, rape and drug. (As Palin’s husband is part Eskimo you can understand why my friend does not like her…) Yea, but they sure know how the lay of the land is and how to live off it. It’s a whole mish-mash of conflicting themes you could comment on. Maybe it is not as important as the Big Banks…then again, in some way, it is. It’s all an experiment…mankind.
    PS..Loved the syllogisms!

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    We’ve seen this movie before. I’m convinced that all of the too big to fail rhetoric, not to mention the kid gloves treatment the banksters get on the Hill, is all ultimately a re-hashing of that ol’ Milton Friedman school of economics: if the rich get richer, they will, through the goodness of their hearts, give back to the commoners so that the government doesn’t have to take your money in taxes. In my mind, the populists are the ones who have finally woken up to the fact that the least among us will be left to starve unless the government steps in and taxes the hell out of these people. More importantly, that they should aggressively pursue all the tax that isn’t being paid.

    As a mother of two kids in public school, I’m sick of education being robbed to bail out the likes of Goldman Sachs. I’m sick of infrastructure crumbling around us to wage more war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’m sick of the predatory practices of both the healthcare and banking industries so that their CEOs can take home millions at the expense of people who can least afford it. I’m also sick of being told that if I disagree with this Administration, the one I voted for, it makes me as crazy as the teabaggers.

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    Matt, dude, I love you like a brother – “Hey, get your stinking hands off my baseball mitt!” – but really, big guy, nobody reads that ultra-wussy wussy (did I happen to mention he’s a wussy douchecy wussy???) clown.

    Brooksy is about the sorriest mutha around, for gosh sakes! It’s like that clown, what’s his name, Ben Steincrystal, or is that Bill Crystalstein????

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    Imagine that? Rapacious sociopaths in positions of great power manipulating vast sums of wealth in a way not benefitting the rest of us! Sounds like, oh, about six thousand years of human history.

    I think you can accept a lot of the amoral drivel that Brooks spews and still come to this conclusion: dust off the guillotine and let’s have a house cleaning.

    Sure, the rich are always that way. Sociopaths will rise to the top in a system that favors only profit taking. But every once in a while, it’s still good for the indigestion for the peasants to rise up, grab their torches and pitchforks and well, storm the Bastille, burn down Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, or do the tar and feather shuffle.

    It clears out bad blood,it’s fun, and it gives new, perhaps less destructive sociopaths a chance to “rig the game”, and well, it’s balance. Those Gold Sachs a-holes want to fly so high? Well, coming down’s a bitch.

    I mean, that’s a more immutable and universal law than “suck it up”, ain’t it?

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    Thanks Matt. I grew up without much. Seriously, thanks.

    It is worth noting that Brooks had to go all the way back to WJB to find a populist. Post-New Deal (FDR = an elitist w/ balls BTW) we’ve been pretty light on Populists –hmmm, I wonder why that would be? I’m sure a gold-filigreed uberdouche like David Brooks can figure it out.

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    I think Brooks, Krugman, and others are working on the alibi.

    When this fails it will be the little guy’s fault for not believing hard enough. It will be the little guy’s representative for bending to “populism.” They tried, but we had not enough faith. “So fuck the little guy, we’ll just let it all blow up on purpose.”

    That’s what we’re supposed to believe anyway. The reality is that this is a crime, they need time to move everything to the Enron folders (shredders), and they need to steal just a little more to be ready for the generations of poverty that will follow this collapse.

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    Why do journalists try to portray Populists as evil? Did they study history from some textbook the Gabblers censored for the Texas State Board of Education?

    You can find Populist doctrines by checking the Cleburne Demands, the Ocalla Demands, and the Omaha Platform of 1892. Now update it: change direct election to senators to direct election of president, votes for women to equal rights for women, etc. Far from racists, Populists early on tagged Jim Crow for what it was, a way to keep poor whites and poor blacks divided so they couldn’t act against the robber barons.

    Learn the truth about the first progressives and stop libeling them.

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    “But the kinds of things that went on at Goldman and other investment banks, in many cases there are not even laws on the books to deal with these things. In some cases what we’re talking about is the highly complicated merger of crime and policy, of stealing and government, which is both fascinating from a journalistic point of view and ought to be terrifying from the point of view of any citizen, rich or poor.”

    I think this is something someone up there in media land should be talking to smart people and writing about. We’re basically at the point now where we’re not asking the government to regulate businesses from fucking their workers or eating their competitors, we’re asking government to pass rules that keep businesses’ employees and executives from looting their own business and tanking the economy simultaneously.

    I’m a small business guy and have always worked in startups, so this mindset is a little foreign to me (we build shit for a living), but it’s been amazing to me how much focus is still on the entities themselves and not on this fundamental conundrum that the inmates are running the asylum and the asylum owners are simultaneously asking for help and asking for no one to fix their problem.

    It’s like some crazy world of after school specials where junkies are out of control on PCP and their parents keep calling the ambulances and then demanding that under no circumstances should their junkie kid be taken to rehab. Please just give him some drugs to calm him down and drop him off at the crack house.

    They’ve created a situation so crazy that government almost can’t step in just because it’s so fucking stupid and mixed up that what the Hell do you do?

  24. collapse expand

    It strikes me as being hillarous that someone from the party that boils everything down to “terrorist” or “communist” (or when they’re really being highbrow, “faggot”) should imply that populists lack nuance.

    That is just too funny.

  25. collapse expand

    Matt -
    “The whole point of America is that we are all supposed to be our own masters, never viewing anyone as better or more capable than ourselves, and these people at these investment banks are the perfect example of that concept.”
    It seems to me that people who choose to be investment bankers often want to become investment bankers precisely because they implicitly believe that having money DOES make you a better, more capable person. They tend not to believe in an ideal of a society of equal “masters”. They equate riches with mastery over others (understandably enough), but also tend to believe in them as markers of their own talent and maybe even virtue. And so we get The Apprentice. Is that what you were saying? Or am I lost?

  26. collapse expand

    I will also note that, “The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists”, is dogmatic stereotyping (ie: lumping everyone who is a populist in one bin).

    How is that different from blaming it all on one company or whatever? It’s all rhetoric and dogmatism. It’s all chopping the nuance out.

    Anyway, people who do Op Eds like you or Brooks are supposed to be rhetorical and take things down to their lowest common denominator. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called an “Op-Ed”, it’d be called a “book” (and if you gave that much nuance, you’d be called elitist anyway!).

  27. collapse expand

    Mr. Taibbi,

    I think Mr. Brooks point is that there are only two realistic economic options right now:

    1) The rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer.

    2) Everyone one gets poorer, including the rich.

    He prefers 1) to 2).

  28. collapse expand

    I’m guessing Brooks wouldn’t like the populist/progressive message sent yesterday by us Oregon voters who handily approved two tax increases: one on corporations; and, one on the wealthy. I dare say the people know they’re getting jobbed in a rigged game.

  29. collapse expand

    My sister has an adorable chihuahua with an IQ of about 4. When my father and, to a lesser extent, I walk in the room, she is so happy to see the hulking paternal figure/alpha dog that her back legs shoot straight back, paralyzed. Yipping, she drags herself forward on her crotch, legs frozen behind her, trembling with delight and fear that the BIG MAN has come home to pick her up, give her a treat, and pet her as she shakes.

    This is the image that David Brooks calls to mind. Except I think he pisses himself a bit presence of The Man.

  30. collapse expand

    At an event the other night, I was holding forth in a vein similar to this post , and someone asked me “how much have you had to drink?” Typical ad hominem, kill the messenger, avoid the issue response. (I’d had only 7 or 8 sauvignon blancs)

  31. collapse expand

    “Therefore, all people who criticize Wall Street are primarily interested in dividing society, just like racists.”

    Maybe; but the ones criticizing are merely talking about it, whereas Goldman, the Gov & the Street are actually doing it! It’s a matter of who’s talkin the talk, and who’s walkin’ the walk, baby!

  32. collapse expand


    Your commentaries are outstanding and refreshing..I am one dark skiined negro with a negro dialect that respects you and your body of work….

  33. collapse expand

    Excellent column. What I find infuriating about Brooks is that I know progressives who think he a rational voice instead of a right wing hatchet man, another F’Buckley only less creative.

  34. collapse expand

    Mr. Taibbi,
    Thank you so much for “keeping the faith”. As long as we have folks like you to put the likes of Brooks in their place, we have a fighting chance. And I don’t blame you for being rich.

  35. collapse expand

    Wow, I have never heard someone describe stealing money as an “excess.” An excess is tivo’ing an entire season of American Idol or using bottle water to bathe your dog. Participating in a giant pyramid scheme mortgage fraud where homeowners perjure themselves on applications and brokers assist and Hedge Fund Managers pretend that everything is fine and sell this crap as CDO’s while at the same time they know that these mortgages will never be paid back is anything but excess. In short, it’s criminal. From Top to bottom, every single person in the chain should be held accountable.

    And this Brooks character is so misinformed and arrogant that he has the audacity to suggest that Hamilton and Lincoln would have forgiven these poor Wall Street guys for their crimes. No, Lincoln (or Hamilton) would not have “tolerated” this criminal conduct. And, neither should President Obama.

    Sorry Brooks but we are not “bashing the rich and powerful” by expecting people to accept responsibility for their actions. And, we WILL be solving the “Country’s problems” by eliminating the fraud and corruption at the epicenter of the financial world. (Do I really need to say this aloud?). If you know your employee is a thief, do you really keep him at the cash register?

    That’s the problem here no one has taken any responsibility for their actions and no one has been held accountable. I have spent half a lifetime, learning that this may be the most important trait we have as humans — the ability to change. And, in order to change, you must first accept responsibility.

    It’s bad enough that I was taken by the Wall Street crowd and they stole some of my money but then did we have to add insult to injury by using my hard-earned tax dollars to bail them out after they misspent all my stolen money. This is the part that really drives me crazy. Under this logic why doesn’t the Government step in and rescue Bernie Madoff – what’s the difference?

  36. collapse expand

    I’ve noticed of late when poking around facebook, looking at comments of 21 and 18 year olds that are my kids age, some funny socio-pathic stuff from the minds of the next generation right wingers.

    Kids (whose parents pay $40K+ a year for them to basically lounge in creature comforts of gleaming dormitories and endowed course programs that basically exist to consume capital while the students party and slowly come around to motivations to at some point exert an effort in life) say stuff like “the problem is we are paying people too much to do menial jobs that anyone could do”, “these unions make it so if you are good at your job, you can’t get paid more” or “lower all taxes and shrink the government and all these problems will just vanish.”

    It’s not the supposed “populist” that can’t put two thoughts together, it’s that they are the only ones that keep repeating two thoughts loudly that people actually put them together.


    Obama and liberalism in power= high unemployment, increased economic distress

    Just one thought, easy right?

    Now try this:

    Bush, Paulson, Bernanke in power, wild criminal speculation, thievery of people by Bush gang (and then Obama) to avoid massive downward wealth shift = huge windfall for criminal bankers, high unemployment, increased economic distress to workers, total stall in demand with no possibility of deflation.

    See, that’s the multiple thoughts populists have to annunciate. Pointing to Goldman’s decadent bonuses at a time when people are essentially giving up their well nurtured lifelong dreams of a semi comfortable retirement is just the simplest way to wrap them all up in a nice neat package.

  37. collapse expand

    Fucked up for just one generation?

    Much much longer, methinks …

  38. collapse expand

    The only thing I have to say is: thanks.

  39. collapse expand

    The opening quote of Brooks’ is really a mendacious affair. In the words, you can see his mind twisting to shift the focus from wealthy banksters over to something or someone else… The Yellow Peril perhaps? Perfect!

    Why does Brooks so vehemently want to protect banksters? Are they his friends? I doubt he truly knows one if any. It’s his natural inclination. Rich? Connected? Intelligent? You MUST be a gentleman beyond reproach. The proles and peons of the world are the cause of its sorrows. In short, Brooks is the Super-Snob.

    Anyway, yeah. Brooks is a poison chalice so move off talking about the SOB. He’s distracting Matt from bigger pictures.

  40. collapse expand

    Hi Matt -

    Count me as another white, male, Ivy educated populist with some money in the bank and a fine house who wants these crooks stopped.

    Notice how there’s plenty of room for “moral relativism” when the crooks are rich and politically ocnnected?

    If you make your money by busting open parking meters it’s 3 strikes and you’re out.

    If you’re a Tuck MBA stealing billions from the middle class with 0% loans from the Fed, rigged transactions, and a taxpayer guarantee when things go wrong… well, in that case, you’re a financial innovator!

    These people are the worst kind of cheap criminals. They are traitors to their country. Federal prison is too good for them.

  41. collapse expand

    Brooks has a grand way of twisting things like *populism* into definitions that serve his purpose – mainly, to support the current GOP agenda. Bill Crystal is a little more skilled int his area, but about as annoying.

    One of the problems is that populism is that it’s defined by appealing to “ordinary people,” “plain folks,” “the rank and file/working class.” For someone like Sarah Palin, this means those sportin’ Carhart’s (and who happen think the ex-gov is hot, so whatever she says must be a great message). For Brooks – in this particular OpEd – it seems to be blue collar vs. white collar, thus a divider. For hard working stiffs who don’t receive bonuses that would be at least 5 times what we already make – whether we’re white, pink, blue, or no collar – populism is more Main street vs. Wall Street support. Yeah – whatever the latter means.

    Since populism is so easily manipulated to suit whatever political aim, it’s easy for one politico to use the approach to appeal to have-lesses and have-nots to vote in favor of a party line, but NOT in the interest of those low on the totem pole.

    Brooks can bend an idea or policy to suit his current needs about as well as the next pol. He did it in the Haiti article: the Harlem Zone (and No Excuses), with “with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands” via “intrusive paternalism” would make such a great approach for Haiti – so much better than donating, or letting them keep ruining their own lives. Yet Brooks poo-pooed Geoffrey Canaday and his Harlem Zone project when discussing possible influences of Reinhold Niebuhr on Obama – that the desire to create such institutions inhibits individuals’s freedoms. (later in the same interview with EJ Dionne and Krista Tippett, Brooks managed to remind listeners of his use of “morally hazardous action” – a semi-conscious reference to Nieburhr – to support the Iraq War, as opposed to the left’s [and at the time, Obama's] use of this phrase against the war.)

    So he uses the populist vs. elitists paradigm to illustrate yet another divide in our country. It does not occur to him that there might possibly be some overlap in these classifications! If I had oodles more time I’d make a list of all the super intelligent, talented, philosophically advanced human beings that I consider elitist but not necessarily money rich, then create a links to all of them. I’m thinking of those who want to help the less fortunate rise up in some way – through education, helping them find/create work (uh oh – too Edwardsian? One of his good things is his Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity), lending a helping hand when the chips are down (and when the buildings have been rendered rubble).

    Brooks only sees the populist vs. elitist as class clash. He can then use it to smite those who insist on going after those who make money – such mean divider populist anger folk! He seems incapable of processing how these crooks created negative money: a big sucking sound on American’s wallets going nowhere fast because the crooks had a gambling habit to fund. Unfortunately, Brooksy, there is a difference in taking people’s money and people making poor choices during a slick swindle. Absent this wherewithal, Brooks can point the finger at those who dare cry foul at such corporate crime. I call these people elitists, for being in the elite group who can both figure out the situation and explain it to those who were so screwed they’re still trying to figure which way is up.

    So Matt, stay elitist in your populist rants, you privileged little latte drinking, finger pointing ivy school grad!

  42. collapse expand

    What’s different about the bankers and financiers of today and the robber barons of old is this: Today, they make money and jack everything up for everyone by churning worthless paper. Nothing tangible is produced. It’s all fog and smoke and low numbers of people are employed in the process. No true wealth is created.
    Compare that to the mining, steel, coal, railroads, lumber, and cattle businesses of 80-130 years ago. These entities were held by a relatively few persons, but they employed millions, produced tangible goods, provided needed services, and built a strong economy. The owners were guilty of incredible excesses, but they created a powerful nation. I’m not making excuses for them, I’m merely drawing a comparison between them and the useless, clueless assholes of today who are doing everything in their power to tear everything down.

  43. collapse expand

    Please keep pointing out that what happend to our financial system was not an accident. It was an organized crime against every step of the ladder from lending money, buying homes, rating mortgage securities, and selling these securities. Everyone took their commission and passed the buck all the while knowing the music had to stop eventually. The people making the most knew how the place would blow and our politicians disarmed the laws and regulators that should have been protecting the citizens, in effect turning off the alarm so the robbery could take place. I think every one of these guys should be prosecuted, fined, imprisoned and refused any license to sell anything more financial then a calculator as a school supply.

  44. collapse expand

    Righteous. Thank you Matt. You are awesome.

    Ned, people are blaming the people in power because they see Wall Street making out like bandits. Obama didn’t create this mess, but his actions haven’t sided with the little guy at all. Let’s hope this changes. Did you see Elizabeth Warren on Jon Stewart? There are some rays of hope out there.

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    About Me

    I'm a political reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, a sports columnist for Men's Journal, and I also write books for a Random House imprint called Spiegel and Grau.

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