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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

    Maybe it’s time to bring back that old Reagan-era favorite, “moral relativism”. For Brooks, there is no right or wrong to massive financial fraud, just points of view.

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    galste, just wanted to tell you one thing on your oil link. It goes to NYMEX data, and NYMEX is only one of three exchanges.

    Goldman Sachs was a founder of the ICE exchange and trading in this exchange is dark, and the CFTC does not have nearly as much data on this exchange as the NYMEX. And what data is given to the CFTC is by the ICE’s choice. They are under no legal requirement to give the CFTC anything. This is thanks to Phil Gramm, Bill Clinton, and the famed Enron loophole.

    The CFTC concluded traders pushed up the price of oil, and Goldman was the biggest pusher. They were involved in squeezing a big short held by the now bankrupt company Semgroup. See the link: http://accidentalhuntbrothers.com/?p=213

    It is kind of complicated but if you can imagine Semgroup and Goldman playing poker, Goldman got to see all Semgroup’s cards and how much money they had. Picking off Semgroup then by pushing oil through the roof was a piece of cake.

    I hate that people make this out to be some crazy conspiracy. If I played poker with a Goldman man and his livelihood was dependent on his winning, I would be the most naive fool in the world to think that if he could see my cards and cash limit, he wouldn’t look.

    The real question is if Goldman is going to get caught, and my guess is no.

    The Enron loophole was written by Enron lobbyists to screw the average American. That it is still the law of the land shows just how corrupt our Congress is.

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    Brooks always starts his op-eds with an insane premise and then proceeds to develop a “logical” argument based on that particular day’s deluded Neocon view. Thanks for taking the time to brilliantly deconstruct his BS. And you’re so right. The economic meltdown in this country had to do with criminal, anti-social, sociopathic behavior—and the existing laws appear to have let them get away with it. And no, I don’t have any intention of tolerating them. They and their activities are parasitical and provide no socially redeeming value for anyone in this country. They are part of the “shadow elite,” whose sole purpose in life was and is to drain the government and the people of their money. The “bubble and bailout” was a premeditated theft. I think our biggest problem, however, is the collusion of the Obama administration with this theft. Geithner, Summers, Paulson, Bernanke aided and abetted this crime. And Obama has embraced them. This reality makes me want to move to some other country, maybe Finland, where I imagine things are not as corrupt. Only I can’t because I’m broke from paying for health insurance.

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      Amen, bro’. My choice would be Sweden next-door, which I contemplated moving to in 1980 after Reagan got elected. (Abbie Hoffman committed suicide after that; I wouldn’t have gone that far.) I also can’t for exactly the same reason (you may have been being rhetorical to make a point but it’s true for me:) my health insurance premium on a lousy, big-deductible policy takes a greedy, big bite out of my monthly income.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Talking about class in America is unifying – It unifies the middle class and the poor. Talking about race is divisive – so many races make up the poor & middle class. So, class as a subject unifies those voters as a bloc – much more difficult for the 1% to defeat.

  5. collapse expand

    I am going to channel this anger that you made me feel into working out tonight. So true on every single account.

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    Matt, Thank you for the very insightful analysis of the Brooks article. After reading Brooks I was simply angry and you have hit the focus of my anger well. This sort of noblesse oblige attitude of Brooks is exactly the problem with why there is no will to legislate against these criminals. When are Americans going to get it through their heads that these few “supermen” of finance created much of the dog s**t we are sitting in? Brooks’ ideas on populism fit vey well with his positions on most things… He believes that there are people who are better, more capable than others and never takes into account the thousands that cannot have access to education that would allow them to be better and more capable.

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    Thanks for this, Matt. I don’t even think I would have read that drivel if you hadn’t called Brooks out for it. His idea that people who are angry about banking abuses are only angry because they’ve been manipulated by cynical politicians trying to one-up other cynical politicians is just so absurd that it almost mocks itself.

    And now that Brooks has my attention, I’ve looked at more of his past articles and I’ve come to the conclusion that he generally makes some really good points as long as you don’t actually think too hard about what he’s saying. At least in that, he’s completely unremarkable.

    Oh, wait. What am I saying? You’re a rich guy and a card carrying member of the Ivy League elite! Class warfare compels that I denounce you! DAMN YOU, POPULIST POLITICIANS! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MEEEEEEE?

  8. collapse expand

    “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”

    Please, Matt, Please don’t stop translating Brooks for us!! He really needs this and so do we!

  9. collapse expand

    Bravo and thank you for saying what so desperately needed to be said about Brooks and his misguided ilk. Reading him makes me so angry my head spins. You’ve countered his absurd thesis articulately and with the perfect amount of outrage and contempt. Your last line sums it up beautifully, even though it illustrates the tragic flaw in our culture- a reverence for wealth and the trappings of wealthy lifestyles that’s so profound, unless we’re a direct victim, we can’t see the crime in acquisition by any means. So,unfortunately, most people don’t care about the illegal and immoral games the bankers played. They just want the president to wave his magic presidential wand asap and instantly fix the economic mess that it took more than a decade to create so they can get another go on the get-rich-quick- merry-go-round.

  10. collapse expand

    Matt (or anyone else reading),

    Another person that is need of a little Matt Taibbi style interpretation is Timothy Geithner. Two days ago he gave testimony before one of the House Oversight Committee’s and presented a written statement. In short, Mr. Geithner was explaining why he needed to bailout AIG. Honestly, there is so much bullshit in this written statement that someone needs to go through it line-by-line and show how nearly all his assumptions were wrong.

    My 30,000 foot view and take on it is that Geithner and his rich banker friends are delusional. If you hear Timmy tell it, he and his banker friends saved the world that blustery September day in 2008 when they saved AIG (and us) from certain doom.

    Someone needs to give this guy a reality check – He’s no Superhero.

    First, Superhero’s don’t blame a computer tax software (TurboTax) for the fact that they tried to evade taxes. Second, if you respond to a financial panic by panicking – you’re not a Superhero. Finally, throughout his written statement, he keeps stating that if we just enact President Obama’s TARP/Bank tax, we’ll get all the money back. Note to Superhero (I call him Fedman); I have never seen Superman or Batman tax the bad guys into submission. Seems pretty weak.

    At one part, Geithner explains why he had to pay the counterparties 100 cents on the dollar (which is really what boils everyone) – supposedly because that’s what the contract said and when the counterparties were asked (once) if they would take less, they said no. Hey Fedman, it’s called negotiation. They say “no,” then you say no.

    Ps: The best part is near the end when Geithner states:

    “I am personally very confident that if we (had) not acted, the crisis would have caused more devastation and would have cost far more money.”

    Really? Hey Fedman, your opinion (and the people like you) means nothing to me. Don’t you get it? You were completely wrong in 2008, suddenly now, you have complete clarity. Sorry Fedman, it’s time to turn in your Spock ears.

  11. collapse expand

    thanks, Matt, for helping me get a handle on something that’s been eating me for the better part of a decade now. David Brooks, Cokie Roberts, and pretty much anyone being paid to sound “reasonable,” really make my fucking blood boil.

    I can’t read Brooks first hand anymore, I just get bits and pieces from you or Greenwald, but it’s still enough to torque my psyche. I won’t listen to NPR this evening, because I may hear his voice for a second. I know better than to double dose Brooks in a 24 hr period when the likelihood of being able to chop wood for an hour is slim. Cokie’s voice –Christ, that goddamned name– and Brooks’ mewling make me tense. If I don’t get a handle on things and divert myself from considering anything they may have just said, it’s not long before I feel generally furious, and taking things personally.

    Yeah, the Becks and the Limbaughs can be infuriating, but I don’t tend to interact with the people to whom they provide reassurance. I do, however, interact with people to whom Brooks and the Reasonable crowd are bedrock. People, take my father for example (he used to work at Goldman, incidentally), who are fully capable of, and even willing to acknowledge obejectively fucked up shit without the comforting aid of pre-packaged set of justifications, eventually bottom out when talk turns to actually addressing and changing the fucked up shit.

    I really don’t have any issues with my dad. I’m not thanking you, because you helped me to see that’s it’s really my dad, and not Brooks who makes me feel like skinning someone, or some shit. The thanks is for helping me get a handle on why I tend to get personally offended by Brooks/Roberts. These cocksuckers say objectively retarded, and even morally reprehensible shit that comforts my dad when he contemplates the less fortunate in the bottom of a pit, making him and the others in the managerial class deeply believe that the natural order of things is to stop looking over the edge at the people in the bottom, and insisting everything will be just fine, because savages who put them there are still in charge of things.

    In a nut, Brooks neutered my dad.

  12. collapse expand

    Thank you Matt for bringing this nonsense to light. One thing this makes me wonder is if Brooks and people like him (Palin is a good example, Bush was another) are really this dumb or if that is a cover and they are just that calculating and manicial (sp?).

    Guess we will never know.

  13. collapse expand

    I am grateful for the Brooks piece, but only because it was so outrageous it forced Matt to acknowledge his economic philosophy more concretely than ever before. It’s heartwarming to see a line drawn in the sand and a good, talented person standing on the right side of it, screaming.

  14. collapse expand

    This article is the most honest assessment of what is going on in Washington and Wall Street.

    I recently watched an HBO series about John Adams. It just reminded me how serious minded our founding fathers were about what to do the right thing. What is really happening is we have facism now in the US. We are on a slippery slide. Ron Paul basically said we headed for some real convulsions.

    There is no wonder Europe mostly hates war. They know that war is a terminal illness that should be avoided at all costs. To pursue war as an end in itself is insanity.

  15. collapse expand

    nice ‘American Psycho’ reference Matt…

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    I have always had a hard time reading Brooks because his thinking is so sloppy and his tone so smug.

    So thank you for laying this one out.

    Brooks gets under my skin way worse than your average dumbass politician (like our own Lt. Gov. in SC, for example) or teabagger simply because he’s posing as something more informed and broad-minded. But there’s more pose there than substance most days.

  17. collapse expand

    The other shoe, the other foot.

    As Brooks writes, “They were willing to tolerate the excesses of traders”. What happens when the “lower class” commits crimes against the “upper class? When the welfare recipient breaks into the home of the Wall Street banker we should really just let him go because, after all, “we should be willing to tolerate the crimes of the poverty stricken and downtrodden”.
    Or maybe Brooks thinks there are two kinds of crime, good crime and bad crime. Clearly, bankers only commit good crimes and as a society we should be okay with that.

  18. collapse expand

    Matt Taibbi:”a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all but simply absconding with whatever wealth is remaining.” Exemplified by Dick Cheney (the 1% view): “This is our due.”

  19. collapse expand

    Who would have thought all this time all I had to do was shine David Brooks helmet to get ahead?

    The real problem is all of the mindless gnomes in this country not realizing that people like this asshole are stealing from them everyday.

    I strongly encourage you to keep making it personal with David Brooks…it is highly entertaining.

  20. collapse expand

    Great work Matt. Hope you read “Battle of the Titans…” on truthout.org, you know better than anyone Goldman/JPM is taking the market down until OBummer-Volcker backs-off regulation. Hope you also read on jessescrossroadscafe Jan 22 how the Fed’s Treasury purchases are being front-run and the Fed’s MBS purchases have been concentrated on OPTIONS EXPIRATION weeks, averaging $60 Billion to the Cartel’s prop trading desks.

  21. collapse expand

    I cam over to the post due to an intriquing Huffington Post headline and I find that once again I see one talking head, albeit Matt is a thoughtful one, speaking back and forth with another, Brooks is a paid hack, while in the end nothing is accomplished. One side – another side – one pundit and another, dogs barking while the roof rats eat the dog food.

  22. collapse expand

    Very disappointing. Seems like you enjoy being flip but I was looking for a more serious response. Attack was malicious and unnecessary. Better to comment like an adult instead of like a college sophomore. Maybe you had too many puffs before you started.

  23. collapse expand

    Brooks has always struck me as – yes a wienie – but also an apologist for the worst excesses of “conservatives”. He seems to want to believe that everyone is well-intentioned AND competent. He often also plays sleight of hand with his analyses. For example, he often focuses on PROCESS rather than CONTENT (and INTENT for that matter). He’s superficially more civil, but his analyses are no less troubling than his more brash and openly aggressive conservative counterparts. THanks for your decontruction and expose of his logic. Way to put that elitist education to use for the common good Matt!

  24. collapse expand

    It’s an old, old game, and it works very well in the American establishmentarian punditocracy — which is itself structurally part of the power elite circles, comprising the super-rich (typically owners and publishers, occasionally the Tom Friedman billionaire columnists) and their hired lackeys (pundits).

    Real attacks on the vast majority, and a push by the business classes from the late 1960s on to reverse the labor and middle-class gains of the New Deal, and the subsequent transfer of wealth from the vast majority to 1920’s era levels of concentration — this isn’t ‘elitism’ or ‘class warfare’, this is just nature, it is the ‘air we breathe’, it is normality, it is the proper function of government, of highly valued think tanks, of major news media, of lauded pundits.

    Aiming to reverse that hardened elitism, aiming to distribute the gains of wealth created by the labors of the vast majority, to take advantage of our great numbers to enact government policies which can pool our potential for our own social and economic benefit, rather than for that of the richest and their hired lackeys?

    *That* is “populism”, that is “class warfare”.

    Doing *anything* to challenge raw, naked, thieving elitism — including speaking about it truthfully — is dangerous, rebellious, dicombobulating of the lower classes, it is ‘populism’, it is anything that helps the punditariat to convince the citizenry that their looking out for their own interests and that of their families and neighbors is pretty much the same thing as sedition, or the Khmer Rouge, or any other comparison which works.

  25. collapse expand

    “Over the past few years, many investment bankers behaved like idiots, but so did average Americans, racking up unprecedented levels of personal debt”. Juxtapose this statement with the following statement from the same column -” voters aren’t as stupid as the populists imagine” – but perhaps they are as stupid as the investment bankers imagined. We were bamboozled and our outrage has been channeled by O’Reilly, Hannity etc (and other apologists for these crooks) far more effectively then by the populists Mr. Brooks refers to. Remember this is the same columnist who called President Bush a visionary rather then a delusional fool.

  26. collapse expand

    Now you’re back on message/target. It is a crime story. Stay on task and maybe you’ll see some of these crooks walk the plank. Not necessary to try and be cute.

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    Great column Matt, I’m not one that always loves your columns. I agree with the crux of almost all of them but at times I think your tone is pretty harsh. I think you’ve nailed a lot of the inherent intellectual contradictions within the current Republican Party and the conservative movement in general. How can these politicians and op-ed writers be “populist” when movement conservatism runs totally counter to the values they try to “sell” to the American Public? I know you’ve been plenty critical of Obama’s administration as well as congressional democrats. However when you watch Obama take on nearly the entire GOP House Caucus as he did in Baltimore yesterday you realize just how far apart these two parties are. The fact of the matter is that a functional government, even one that is passing relatively moderate bills runs totally counter to how conservatives view the world. I’m a big Thomas Frank fan because I think he’s done a great job of illustrating how efficient government has no place in conservative ideology. If the GOP goes along with Obama and things were to improve, even just modestly. Then the current GOP loses in the public sphere. Obama did a great job of pointing that problem out yesterday. The GOP only wins when cynicism wins and what you were pointing out about Brooks is rooted in an extremely cynical vision of the world we live in. That’s important, Obama is important because he has the ability ( doesn’t mean he will succeed) to convey this to a much larger audience then me, or you, or just about anyone in the Nation does.

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    Brooks, in his column, never said that Goldman Sachs is perfect and should not be punished, but what he is saying that our policies should be based on rational thought and not on wild rage based on a populist hatred for rich people. Some of the policies that liberals are proposing are stupid, like taxing bonuses and they are more based on getting revenge than a working economic system.

    Plus, if you think people on the left AND right aren’t exploiting this financial crisis for their own political goals, you are smoking serious crack.

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    The problem with the populist rhetoric is not that it is one sided or slanted; it’s that it’s oversimplistic bullshit. It’s convenient for the simpleminded to designate one common enemy and blame that enemy for every ill known to man. That worldview sells papers… it enables bobo wannabes to feel good about themselves (as they load their $8 organic pasta into their lexus in the whole foods parking lot, as they think at least I didn’t take my ivy league ed and go into investment banking…)…it enables matt taibbi to seem cool (and earn a slightly more modest living than the scum of the earth) when he writes “fuck” in his shallow, bombastic, drivel-filled, ad hominem attacks on wall street and any one who questions his fancy private school mind… everyone… a round of applause for the very convenient…

  30. collapse expand

    You Rock journalism!!!
    Great unpacking of Brooks column. I watch
    Brooks present himself every week on the News Hour as a reasoned measured concerned moderate voice in Right of Center nation. Underlying this presentation is a Calvinist Philosophy. The Wall Street Bankers are where they are because of a Protestant work ethic and they are the Select. A few in Purgatory can work hard and make it into the Select. The rest are the Damned. It’s God’s Work as the Gold-Man said. Populism is the Devil trying undermine God’s will. It’s all a rationalization for greed. They see compassion as a weakness the devil seduces a Select member with.
    Elitism is very cultish.
    The Great English Historian Arnold Toynbee writes at length on the fall of Civilizations being directly caused by elitism. It’s a very dense read but predictive of where we are headed if this isn’t stopped. I wonder if you have read him?

  31. collapse expand

    Matt, thank you for dissecting and analyzing this article in such detail. I read it the other day and was greatly enraged but couldn’t really articulate specifically why. Now I see that there were some unstated underlying arrogant assumptions directing his commentary. This also clarifies many of the comments I have heard him make on news shows. I probably could’nt recognize them because I am not part of the “elite” class with the Harvard education. I follow your commentary on television avidly. Please continue to be the “translator” for us…you define and expose so much policital chicanery as no one else in the media does. Thank you.

  32. collapse expand

    Heh….really interesting piece.

    If David Brookes ever accuses you of resorting to ad hominem, just remind him that he compared populism to racism!

    I can’t stand Pseudo intellectual, corporate shills.

  33. collapse expand

    “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
    ~Warren Buffett
    New York Times, November 26, 2006.

    “The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment.”
    ~David Brooks
    New York Times, March 2, 2009

  34. collapse expand

    I remember Matt at the Moscow Times in the early 90’s. His reporting was passionate and had a morally righteous anger back then. His writing continues to impress because of his attempts to point out to people the inherent unfairness of American society where the rich just keep getting richer and the middle class keeps shrinking. Matt- Keep up the good work! I have always thought of David Brooks as just a big weenie who like most conservatives acknowledges the unfairness in our society and thinks we should just suck it up and take it. I say we don’t have to accept the status quo and we should vote progressives into office who may be able to change things.

  35. collapse expand


    I think you’re being a tad bit paranoid.

    Clearly, when Brooks says:

    “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.”

    He is describing Republicans. The “tell” is in the first sentence. I’m sure it should have rung a bell when he quoted “some believe”, as these are the same “some agree” and “some think” oft quoted on a major “news(y)” network.

    When he goes on to say:

    “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.”

    He is clearly calling out “Republican Voters” who have been blindly voting for the candidates that promoted the policies that allowed the Banks to do what they did. They are the people who embraced “trickle-down” economics with their hearts and souls, and believed that being able to take their 10% off the bottom somehow meant they were on the road to “prosperity” even though the cost of living was rising at a rate of 13% and they were financing their lifestyle on “cheap credit”.

    Finally, when he states:

    “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.”

    He is clearly noting that the “political and social rage of the Tea-Parties” are “self- castrating” in that they are focused on holding the elites to blame for all their troubles, but are, at the same time, demanding reduced spending on Education, Scientific Research, and increased regulatory enforcement.

    Clearly, he is simply pointing out the folly of “their” populist movement, not attacking you.

    Hope this helps you feel better about him. ;)

  36. collapse expand

    Great article and hits many nails on the head. I love many of your articles and usually follow up some of the points you raise with by finding articles or books to get a better understanding of some of the issues being raised. Being middle age, unfortunately this search for knowledge is something that I’ve grown into with time. The sad truth is that the majority of people in our country will never take the time to dig a little deeper than what their news regurgatator of choice provides them with.

    This is the greatest dilemma our country faces. It becomes almost impossible to define what our problems are when you have so many groups their own agenda describing them and add to that a complete lack of honesty to correct anything without winning a political leg-up. The amazing thing about many of our problems is that you could assemble a small group of intelligent folks who without a political battle to fight could solve most of our problems with simple common sense solutions. However, the political process as it is now has completely crippled any chance to solve our challenges.

  37. collapse expand

    May whatever Supreme Being that does or does not exist Bless you Matt Taibbi!!!

    Your voice is crucial for informing and educating all Americans but especially for the younger citizens. Your cred as a Rolling Stone writer gives you an entree into a critical demographic.

    Keep up the fantastic work and thanks a million for cutting through the bullshit that we are fed by corporate media and the corporatocracy that governs us.

    You will be in the pantheon of journalists! A thousand thank yous!

  38. collapse expand

    Well Said!!!!!!!!!!

    The Banks made alot of money SELLING not giving ladders to home buyers and owners, all the while telling them it is ok to reach for the stars.

    Then when the ladders were found to be faulty the home owners lost everything unlike the Banks.

  39. collapse expand

    Great article Matt; Remember the Key-Hole peeping Bastards can only see well enough to shoot at the largest target. You have arrived my friend. Keep writing the good stuff and don’t remove the Bulls Eye from your back, just keep a rear-view mirror an Laptop handy.

  40. collapse expand

    I’ve been a fan of Matt for a long time. This is good writing. Motherfuckers like Brooks piss me off. They should get a job out with the people they consider to be below them to see how the other 99% lives. I am also a fan of the essay Philip Agre posted at UCLA http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/conservatism.html

    Q: What is conservatism?
    A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
    Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
    A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

    Brooks and his fellow travelers and the people for whom he would be an apologist want to be the aristocracy of America. But they are just rich criminals.

  41. collapse expand

    Matt has been crucial to exposing CORRUPTION in financial markets. It’s not about “left” or “right”. Populism is now coined in the derogatory, that’s the implied meaning. It’s no different then coining “pro-abortion” enough times in the media until it replaces “pro-choice”. Goldman(GS) and JPM have gamed the system, using Fed BACKSTOP$, the evidence is all there. Goldman’s the largest hedge fund in the world with at least $50 Billion in Fed(Treasury backed) credit lines/programs! WHY???? Meanwhile, they get direct exchange floor access to High Frequency Computer’s, paying the exchange a commission, scalping .5cent on trades where they flood bids in milliseconds,not adding “liquidity” as GS claims, only adding “volume”! In fact, 70% of the day’s volume is HFT or Flash. Yes this is elite corruption. Americans don’t know how it affects them, but they know it smells. Goldman games the commodity markets too, and I know damn well their monopoly in commodity markets, using derivatives and swaps resulting in higher utility costs, passed on to the consumer’s heating bill. It’s not rocket-science to follow the corrupt monopoly road to working American’s pocketbooks, whether natural gas, heating oil, or diesel for trucking. It’s racketeering, and apparently it’s still legal.

  42. collapse expand

    If you believe the guys who did this will fix it you’d probably believe Michael when he tells Carlo, “Come on Carlo, do you think I’d make my sister a widow?

    Don’t insult my intelligence!

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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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