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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

    Thanks so much for such an informative and enlightening article. I was raised in a “Good Christian home” where your worth as human being depended on how much money you made and your regular,public attendance at church. This idea is kind of mainstream in America today. I know where these people at Goldman Sachs come from(they were the bullies you grew up with) except now there is no one to enforce any rules so they are like pigs at the trough and they don’t care what happens to other people or the country. P.S. I have relatives who are successful mortgage bankers and reap huge rewards for having no conscience!

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    Can anyone make it through an entire column by this chap? I can’t. His paraphrasing of Brooks is simplistic and misleading, which tends to make his counter-arguments sound ficticious. The more I (try to) read of Taibbi the more I find myself in agreement with Brooks, who at least presents his arguments with more thought than rant.

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    Great article, Matt, keep up the good work, but please don’t stop ripping David Brooks a new asshole. He is so symbolic of the people who need a serious ripping. I LOVE (don’t have heart symbol) to see you rip him and dweebs like him. You’re one of the best.

    One of the more depressing things about America is how so many people lap it up when appeasers like Brooks slather their baloney on situations where rage is the more appropriate response.

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    I first “met” you on “Real Time,” so I’m eternally grateful to Bill Maher for the introduction and for reminding me I should be reading “Rolling Stone” too.

    You deserve every top journalism prize out there for your scathing, searing, crystallizing reporting and commentary. As a former reporter for nearly two decades, I’ve known a lot of bad ones among the handfull who fall into your category.

    Guess you could call me an editorial elitist.

    During the 2008 election season, I watched a university-sponsored debate between Arianna Huffington and Tucker Carlson, who is David Brooks in a bow tie. (OK, so Carlson stopped wearing them, but really, that doesn’t mean we can’t still make fun of him.)

    Discussing the ever-widening income gaps in America and the huge transfer of wealth over the last few decades, Carlson offered the same pathetic class argument that Brooks posits. He noted that it is thanks to the rich that America has a middle class at all, that this country was founded by the landed gentry, and that we should not only suck it up but appreciate it too.

    I wanted to stand up and scream at him for being a fool and an ass, for failing to recognize that he has it exactly backwards: The rich are dependent on the middle class. Without mass labor and cheap labor, they’d have no one to staff their factories, companies, and corporations and no one to buy their lousy products.

    I didn’t stand up and scream, but I should have.

    You, undoubtedly, would have.

    Thanks for your courage, Matt, and your contribution.

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    Sorry, I am new to your blog. In the past I have enjoyed some of your writings. You are clearly a very smart person. But, your arguments would be so much stronger if your anger weren’t so obvious. And because your anger so illuminates your writing, you leave your readers angry and frustrated and yearning for more diatribe. Sadly, I don’t think that’s what we need right now. Right now, we need pragmatic solutions to old problems of poverty and bad education. We need your intelligence to help motivate and to build solutions — not to tear down people. Oh, how I wish you could use your gifts to encourage people to focus on creating jobs or building community. You should sponsor a writing contest, a poetry slam about how folks feel. Find sponsors to provide prize money for the best writing that reflects our time. Do something like that. Helps us solve the issue — don’t indulge your ego in some phony debate.

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    I think Mr. Taibi misses the point entirely in a cloud of his own anger.

    Yes these men are criminals. Yes it is unjust and something ought to be done. Brooks doesn’t refute this.

    His point is that it’s simply bad POLITICS to concentrate on prosecution in lieu of progress, which populists left and right are doing. There’s a reason the word ‘populist’ is often followed by the word ‘anger.’ Anger is not good policy.

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    So let’s say I’m fucking David Brooks’ wife, and in walk Dave and my wife. A crisis ensues, which me and Mrs Brooks might say “was caused by a complex web of factors”. Mrs. Brooks hasn’t had an orgasm in three years. China hasn’t been rising, if you what I mean. And honey, you always laugh at my dirty talk. You’re always laughing at something, anyway. But wouldn’t they be right in saying that the time it takes to get your pants down is time enough to exercise a little self-control, to see it’s wrong to lie to someone who makes it so easy by trusting you?

    I think the cause of economic crisis is as simple and vulgar as that: everyone involved knew what they were doing was bullshit but took the money and did it anyway. The bankers, the buyside, the mortgage brokers, Fannie and Freddie, Congress, and most of the poor homeowners – who cashed almost a trillion dollars of “equity” out of their houses and stocks and have what to show for it? If anyone had just felt dirty enough to zip up and walk away the whole thing would have stopped a lot sooner – maybe even soon enough -but no one did. To miss that and make the “economic crisis” into some unstoppable, incomprehensible, indifferent force of nature or Tolstoyan lit fuse of irreversible unintended consequences is to miss the way to effect the revolutionary change that’s necessary: just stop participating.

    I agree fraud and crime passed for finance far and wide, but the more insidious and more devastating form of corruption “on Wall Street” is the corruption of what investing means. It used to mean you tried to bring together the right inputs, add money, and get more than you started out with – MORE FOR EVERYONE. Products, services, quality of life, wages, profits and investment returns. I think that is the essence of the good old days Dave is yearning for. But there is evidence that this kind of investing has been diminishing in the US for a long time. It’s been more than a decade, for example, that the US has been unable to create enough jobs for its own people. And I think one thing we should have learned from the economic crisis is that we have now brought forward from the future into the present more of that “more for everyone” than anyone believes we can actually deliver, at least fast enough to service and repay all the debt. So instead of investing in this sense, and making new wealth, “channeling opportunity”, “Wall Street” just buys and sells, back and forth, amongst the clubmembers, the stock of claims on existing wealth (which, remember, now includes all the future wealth anyone believes we can realistically produce, in the form of debt). When there’s not enough MONEY for the price to go higher, the banks create more (i.e., they lend it). When there aren’t enough CLAIMS for prices to go higher, the banks create more: CDS, TRS, CLNs and other derivatives. And a “good investment” is now anything you buy the price of which goes up, no matter how little sense a higher price makes – i.e., when there are not enough products, services, improvements in quality of life, wages and profits to satisfy all those claims at the prices we’ve bid them up to.

    I find that more insidious and more devastating because if you threw out the 25% of the financial sector who KNEW they were stealing, I’ll bet more than half of the 75% left who weren’t stealing cannot comprehend that not everything you buy that goes up in price is a good investment. And they will parlay your savings into thin air if you le them. You can make actual money this way. Like if you gave Bernie Madoff your life savings in 2004, say, but redeemed at the end of 2007. Or if you sold your million-dollar McMansion in 2006 and are still making 34k per year. But if there’s not a zero-sum mentality at the heart of that? I will come in voluntarily – with the map of which toilet seats at 85 Broad Street I rubbed poison ivy on.

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    I would take your Brooks-is-a-racist attack
    more seriously if you did not kiss the ass of the worst racist in the media–dry drunk Don Imus. Though forced to adjust his long and miserable coon shtick after “nappy-headed hos,” he has hired an Uncle Tom to carry on in lower frequencies. The “fag” stuff, too, remains in muted foreign epithets on the show, but recently Imus reverted to his nasty smear of Hilary Clinton as a “lesbian.” Journalists who dirty their hands with Imus should be more careful about raising their race fists with journalists who don’t anymore. May I suggest that you do what I once did: ambush Imus live (Clarence Page was my surrogate) with a pledge, have him promise to drop all slurs of the least of the brethren. See how long he keeps it. He recited my pledge for Page, but broke it before the end of the program.

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    nice piece, but dont really get the Randian hating…Blankfein, and the GS lot are the archetypes for the villains in Atlas Shrugged

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    FYI….Danbury is a federal prison for women..I can see it from my house( I know it isn’t Russia, but)… maybe some “masters of the universe” would find it “stimulating”?

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    Great stuff…you are a lil wrong about the Randian view imho

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    thank you for reading dave so i don’t have to. his op-ed reminded me of the time he defended his neo-con friends by taking swipes at their critics for being anti-Semitic; it’s sort of surprising that he restrained himself from that tactic this time.

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    God Bless You for exposing the transparent elitism and dishonest, Republican political swill for which Brooks is so renowned. I don’t read him at all, so you go for it: Punch him back often! It IS a crime story.

    But it’s also the sad story of how our nation became, for the time being, a benevolent fascist state, flagrantly violating whatever international laws we have, and committing, and now, enabling, war crimes.

    Pity Obama hadn’t the guts or the stomach to expose & prosecute BushCo. It might have gotten real health reform passed.

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    You make some good points, but I think you are misunderstanding Brooks’ bigger argument. The main thrust of Brooks’ piece is that populism, as a political tactic, is often unproductive and ineffective. Through your syllogism, you are misrepresenting this larger point. Brooks is not saying that any criticism of Wall Street misdeeds is unfounded, he is simply saying that when politicians try to co-op these completely appropriate objections that most people hold to some of the activities on Wall Street, it will likely be at the expense of eventually enacting policies that help repair the still broken system, without sending the still fragile economy into a tailspin.

    Brooks’ is a top-down argument – that government should not engage in or help facilitate class warfare. That the role of government is to help maximize opportunities for all by allowing, for example, financial institutions to operate in way that allows for innovation and growth in that system. You seem to be confusing this with a bottom-up argument – that the general population should not criticize the people that run these financial institutions or others in the social elite. While Brooks may or may not believe this bottom-up argument, it is not what he is arguing here – he is simply saying that it’s not the government’s place to support the over-generalizations and stereotypes that are used to build populist factions and serve as sources for sound bites and talking points.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree, in general with your commentary about the financial crisis and the criminal actions of many people working in Wall Street. And the anger among the public is justifiable – I share it as well. But, I do think that much of the populist rhetoric from the government and the political parties oversimplifies the problem and squares the blame only on Wall Street, when the government is as complicit through lack of regulations and creation of an underground, “wild-west” economy, that now drives our real economy; and, yes, the public is complicit through our buy now, pay later mentality, as well as our political apathy that lets policy-makers on the right and the left dismantle our financial regulatory regime, or does not drive them to create a robust and muscular, long-term financial regulatory regime. When politicians co-opt our anger and distill it’s complexity into sound bites, and channel it into populist railings against only the “fat-cats” on Wall Street, thereby deflecting it from themselves, and from ourselves, we are in danger of setting ourselves up for being led down a path that does not solve any problem, but only serves to put short-term fixes in place without solving the larger, long-term problem.

    You’re right – the anger against Wall Street is a crime story, not a class story. The problem is when government co-ops that anger to serve a political agenda, typically it becomes a class story. And that’s the problem.

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    I read you because Obama said he does, and, I’m certainly glad he does. You have a new fan!

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    This is why I Love Matt Taibbi, for this sort of writing:

    “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.”

    Oh, EXACTLY! This is what makes writers like Brooks have the arrogance to write a bunch of pus-filled sh*t. Pardon my french. We poor, we’re So Grateful for all those Smart Rich people! My a$$, we are!

    Matt Taibbi writes: “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.”

    EXACTLY!!!! See, rich or poor, any fool can back up loathsome actions, as a way to either protect the rich or align w/them – including poor and middle-class people! We’re being sold a bill of goods – or bads – about this idea that we should worship the wealthy. NOT when they are white-collar criminals!
    Progressive Lawyer/talk show host Mike Papantonio often says that one man w/a briefcase can steal Way more than some guy w/a gun! He’s right!!!

    Matt Taibbi writes: “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.”

    Matt is a truth teller, just as Mike Papantonio is, and so many other Progressives are! Brooks, of course, is a rank apologist. If you go to the Dictionary of the Obvious (I don’t know if it exists, but it Should), you will see a photo of the Brooks mug next to an image of a big pile of hip-deep sh*t. Shovel it on, Brooks, Shovel it on! Maybe someone will smell those turds and think of roses! Not me!

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    matt. Your perspective is always right. Please e mail me at lgillooly@aol.com. I have an important idea to get out there and you have the audience…I don’t. I promise you won’t regret it.

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    I think you should lose the hat.

    Other than that I agree. Fucking A.

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    Thanks for this on-point critique of David Brooks which, in my opinion, is fitting in this context as well as many others.

    Often, while reading his articles or listening to him on a Sunday talk show, I am annoyed by his snide “moral absolutism.”

    As a lesbian activist who grew up poor (I put myself through law school with the help of government programs no longer available to single mothers), I really DO know what life is like from both sides of the tracks.

    I get so frustrated by Brooks. He always seems so sad and burdened. You know, it can’t be easy being him!

    After all, he knows the true soul of the average American — haven’t you heard? We are patriotic, Christian, “center-right” and hardworking. We are the unwashed masses.

    If it were not for David Brooks, who would know our plight?

    I really enjoyed your article and will keep reading this website!

  20. collapse expand

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

    Can I use that line, (or some variation thereof) as a bumper sticker for my new political party? (We’re trying to come up with a name. So far all we got is the “Balls” party. Too sexist?)

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    I’m feel much better about the whole situation since joining the “David Brooks is a smarmy, self-righteous asshole” Group on facebook.

    Link below:

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    some random thoughts….if it’s a crime, then let the US Attorney take over. If it’s a matter of regulation, and if these guys got away with murder due to lack of regulation, then Congress needs to promulgate regs. I like what Paul Volcker wrote today about too big to fail. I think we are all in some way to blame for what happened. I think we all need to shape up, tighten our belts, and do the right thing. We will always have the rich and the greedy and the poor and the needy. We do not have social classes in America at least in theory. If we do have them, they would be based upon money. I cannot blame someone for wanting to get ahead; it it the tactics used that cause the difficulty. It’s all lucre but is it filthy or not? I have many rich liberal friends who are Dems. Some of them are mean as hell. I also have rich GOP friends, nice as can be. It’s the content of your character that counts. Yes we should all be striving to do the right but who among us can really cast the first stone?

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    Matt I read a lot of your stuff and I really like your thoughts on these very serious subjects. Although not many people, including myself, can “chop it up” the way you can, we do see the same things you see. What has always amazed me about human beings is their ability, in spite of a lack of formal education, to see through bullshit. My beloved grandmother, who never went past the eighth grade was the wisest person I have ever met. She died at 93 years old and till her last day she was passing out wisdom to all of her children and grandchildren. In my opinion God has placed in every person the ability to intuitively see through bullshit and even when most don’t say anything, they still see it. My grandmother would tell you in her own simple Alabama raised way “Baby, he ain’t no good”. She was never wrong, not one damn time!

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    Matt, my head is still spinning and my heart is pounding. Thanks for saying what I’ve always thought to be true.

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    Beautifully and tightly reasoned. Thanks for doing such good work.

    At the end of the day this is about power, and the people will have to keep pushing. I think the left and right are developing a limited but important consensus view here.

  26. collapse expand

    Brilliantly well said, Matt. I want to say, “finally some common sense from someone!” But, unfortunately, the term common sense has been hijacked by the right to mean mentally challenged. In any case, thank you for an excellent article. I hope it gets the readership it deserves.

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    Brooks, like Friedman, specializes in obscuring essential ethical issues with poorly conceived armchair sociology. Thanks for taking his faulty premises and analogies apart so thoroughly.

  28. collapse expand

    Keep up the Good Fight Matt!

    Unfortunately for those of us who DEMAND a return to general reason, rule of law & accountability the tide is OVERWHELINGLY against us. Take Brooks for example. Brooks is but ONE douchebag out of the almost INFINITE ocean of American political & social douchebaggery. Please don’t allow yourself to become bogged-down, wasting waste your valuable time & energy on pond scum like him.

    Keep hacking instead AT THE HEAD of the beast (Goldman Suchs & the Fed) and IGNORE slimey TENTACLES like Brooks.

    Or is it ‘testicles’?

    In Brooks case; same difference.

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    I, for one, am very grateful for what inherent isolation Matt might endure in that fair, thoughtful and dare i say Hunter-esque composing of these scathing symphonic bashings-in of the collective elitist skull. These pieces do their bit to prevent the dead-rot from spreading that much further out as quickly as it might, otherwise, from the vapid core of those elitist centerpieces of influence whom trumpet the value of that undermining of what is effortlessly discerned as the more noble side of human nature, generally, but of the value of their fellow man and woman, specifically. In other words, thanks for pointing out who doesn’t give a flying fuck about the rest of us.

  30. collapse expand

    Brooks asserts the non-stupidity of Americans by claiming they can entertain two ideas at once. He is misquoting Fitzgerald, of all people, who said that the mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contrary ideas and still function. He misses the point (and the quote) in misunderstanding and misusing a premise posited by Gatsby’s author to defend robber baron type practices.

  31. collapse expand

    Brooks: “In fact, this country was built by anti-populists.”

    Oh, is ‘anti-populists’ the latest euphemism the kool kids are using?

  32. collapse expand

    Matt, i get the gist of what your saying, but 2 points of contention. First of all, lets not use Goldman Sachs as a synonym for banks/banking. The point that was being made is the vilification of all bankers. as you eloquently pointed out, banks lend money a number of ways. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a commercial banker. It absolutely is harmful to let everyone who shares that broad functional title to take the brunt of a justifiable witch hunt. It casts the sins of a few on an entire group.
    Also, where it the personal responsibility of the people borrowing the money. Not every last one of them was a gray haired old woman being taken advantage of by the big bad bankers. Lot of greed to go around and fudging numbers. Heck what about the pols and regulators who encouraged bad loans and continue to do so.
    The banks have always been an easy target in any economic crash in the US because they are a bigger target. I agree with Volker about breaking up the TBTFs institutions. But lets give the true trueslant not just the liberal elitist one.

    • collapse expand

      You guys just don’t get it. To extend Taibbi’s proferred analogy:

      “Leave Ike Turner alone! He didn’t manufacture the baseball bat he hit Tina with!”

      Whatever. The problem here is one of ethics and basic humanity. No one wants to take responsibility. With every “yes, you are 100% correct, situation X was the root cause of X, and X is a complete, horrible scumbag” there’s a “but.” We’ve been butted to death in the grand political discourse to the point that it’s simply too late to save the thing.

      Know what would help calm things a smidge? Just one of these pieces of shit bankers admitting they were a piece of shit for putting their scuzziest, lowest-level greedy impulses before anything else, including their neighbors and the country.

      But I do mean it’d calm things only a smidge. The country is absolutely on the fast track to destruction and/or bankruptcy, no question, and things will not end well. It’s not just the fault of the Goldman guys either. The swine-like, myopic greed of the (now infinitely vast) military industrial complex will simply not go away until there is simply no more money left.

      The Goldman guys (and I’m sure you would make this move too if you were more successful at your job) are rats leaving our sinking ship with whatever they can stuff into their international bank accounts.

      Tell me, joedonlevy. Would you sacrifice your industry and work at some other thing so that others could simply live?

      Didn’t think so.

      Even if the sorely needed worker uprising occurs, the kingpins will never, ever face the music.

      This country, my friends, is dead.

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

    hooray matt, thanks for calling out the obfuscators and people who can justify anything.

  34. collapse expand

    From Matt Taibi’s trueslant.com article re David Brooks’ defense of financial elite criminality”:

    “In some cases what we’re talking about is the highly complicated merger of crime and policy, of stealing and government.”

    “The whole point is that this upper class…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.”

    Me now: Brooks says populists have a “zero-sum mentality” when criticizing financial elite criminality, but the truth is that the financial elite long ago declared “zero-sum war” against the rest of the country in order to do what even Brooks calls rigging the system in their own favor.

    The elite wealthy declared the class war and impugn the motives of people merely trying to defend themselves and their families from the hunger and abject servitude that inevitably result from the already ongoing class war of the rich against the not rich.

    Methinks Brooks and the oligarchic state for which he so servilely solipsizes protest way too damned much.

  35. collapse expand

    Long time first time. I love the article. It has some minor editing errors (“his case his case” before you lay out his nut grafs. the productive” rich” etc) that might allow Brooks and his dittos to discount your wise words too quickly.
    I would be happy and honored to help in the editing process (for free, of course).

  36. collapse expand

    Great fucking column. Only issue is the class premise that he partially gets you to buy into. It’s not rich vs. poor – it’s corporations vs. people. Some of the workers come from pony families, some are plebes, all get bent when they join this system. But there’s a difference in behavior between Enron and Hewlett-Packard (founded by 2 non-trust fund babies). It wasn’t Steve Rockefeller III that started Apple, and while they may play hardball here and there, we don’t have to excuse Apple selling exploding computers to Rwanda. Why is it that the financial/insurance industry requires selling yourself to the devil to enter, and gets the subliminal excuse-on-sleeve at the ready by the media? Is there something about selling a mortgage that’s inherently different than selling an information system, the first requiring me to be dishonest and unscrupulous, ready to screw my client at a heartbeat? And something that requires a “boys will be boys” attitude from the press, those little “excesses” that wouldn’t be tolerated if it were say a radiation leaking nuclear reactor, but a financial crisis that destroys millions of families – just be understanding? Extend this to energy companies and military contractors. But due to labor unions, Detroit automatically earns bashing points – send in the rapier Wall Street guys who are 10 times as unsuccessful as Detroit to tell them how to do business and hand out pink slips – the ultimate chutzpah, considering GM isn’t allowed to sell exploding cars, while Wall Street is allowed and even encouraged to sell toxic assets.

    But you’re right, it’s disappointing to see people of your ilk who should have morals discard them.

  37. collapse expand

    It’s too bad logic doesn’t seem to matter anymore in political discourse. Democrats still argue logically and expect that to make a difference in what actually happens. We all read the Huffingtonpost and other liberal outlets and agree that the other side is wrong and illogical, but the other side is making almost all the policy anyway. We need people like Matt Taibbi calling them out, but we need way more than that! I would like to hear what people can do to actually put some pressure on.

    • collapse expand

      Um, first of all, not all of us are readers of HuffPo. I’ll go back to them when they stop running self-serving, unimaginitive, preach-to-the-choir bullshit commentaries from celebrities and have half the thing devoted to the intellectually depthless subject of Kim Kardashian’s tits.

      That said, sure, here’s what you can do:

      1. Shut your computer off now, right now, don’t wait.

      2. Round up some friends, drain all your bank accounts and hire a great lawyer and everyone on his team. Dershowitz, someone like that, savvy? Matter of fact, hire two or three Dershowitzes.

      3. Find Rubin or someone else who was directly responsible for this holocaust, and make a citizen’s arrest of him or her. Hole them up someplace safe, like in a compound in Wako, Texas, while you wait for the gears of justice to get around to an actual trial, should one be granted.

      4. The result of this would be court precedent that you could use to arrest the Bushes, the Clintons, everyone in Congress, all the Goldman/Monsanto/Dow Chemical people. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh will be calling you a poopyhead and you will feel ridiculously unappreciated.

      5. Repeat as needed.

      That’s what you can do, “Facebook User.” And if you don’t do it, the country is lost. The fate of our country rests on you.

      Or you can go back to reading Jamie Lee Curtis talking about her mother or whatever the fuck it is you usually do with your time.

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

      I disagree that Democrats “argue logically”. Frequently they’re unable to argue at all, which means to successfully expect and deflect the opposition’s arguments. Instead they get people like Sarah Palin tying them in knots, and can’t figure out when they’re losing, so proud of themselves. Matt is an exception here both because he deflects the logical arguments, but he also handles the meta. But if you watch Sunday morning talk shows (which I don’t, but I’ve heard…) it’s a mess of Democrats wanting to be properly respectful of both sides of the argument (even if there’s only one logically valid one), and unable to refute the simplest lie. No messaging, no preparation. Tea baggers prepare. Democrats pat themselves on the back. Which one wins the media spot of the day?

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

    “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” Since you have sworn off writing about David Brooks and his NYT posts might I suggest searching out why the US attorney general seems so silent on these investment bank “crimes” or what is a currently recussed Fannie and Freddie lobbyist Bernard J. Knight doing in Obama’s General Law, Ethics and Regulation Dept. One more thing Is Tim Geithner doing his income tax this year?

  39. collapse expand

    “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” Since you have sworn off David Brooks and the NYT I would love for you to pursue this “fascinating” thread. Maybe,What is Obama’s Attorney General pursuing along these lines? Or What are Bernard J. Knights contributions to Obama’s General Law, Ethics and Regulation department considering his Fannie/Freddie lobbyist background

  40. collapse expand

    I grew up dirt poor in South Texas, the last of eight children. In my thirties I began to make some money and (out of character) joined an exclusive country club so I could learn more from the smart rich guys that hung around there. I was immediately appalled at how fundamentally stupid they were. Almost to a person. Earning a lot of money in America has more to do with your birthright than anything, to get truly rich, though, you must truly have no morals.

  41. collapse expand

    Yesterday I posted the following as a tweet in reply to a friends’ twittered ruminations on the subject of our current circumstances.

    Re:”reforming financial system” How abt we begin with an object lesson? The summary execution of the recently “parachuted” CEOs?

    This tweet was intended as a bit of hyperbolic fun. Now, I’m wondering if it might actually be a useful bromide for our nation’s financial indigestion. OMG! I’m turning into Robespierre!
    Lubricate the guillotines!

  42. collapse expand

    you got it. blame the victims. then patronize them? why do you think the “personal security business” is booming, especially in nyc? if i were these guys, i’d hire frickin’ food tasters to follow me around to restuarants…:)

  43. collapse expand

    Keep shaking the monkeys out of the trees Matt.
    Your generation (and the generations to come) desperately needs those like you with a fire in the belly.

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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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