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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

    Excellent analysis of Brooks column and on the money. The Brooks worldview and operating philosophy can operate (barely) in a context where a nation is on the path of economic ascendance (sp) but not in the current US economic climate. However a large potion of the population simply buys into the belief that the rich and powerful somehow “deserve” their position as just reward for their “hard work” and are the defenders of status quo which is preferred over “radical change” (fear of the unknown) which could shift power to gays, minorities, intellectuals, aetheists, non-fundamentalists, secularists etc. The 64K question is how long will it take 60-70% of the population to figure out that they are being both screwed and fooled.

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    I reject Brooks’ Lincoln characterization. When Lincoln needed financing for the civil war, he turned to the banks of Europe for help. At the time, the American currency was pegged to/backed by Europe. When the European bankers offered exorbitant rates, Lincoln turned the tables on them by making the federal government the guarantor of our currency and freed us of those leeches. An elitist would not have. Lincoln was very much a man of the people, albeit very pragmatic.

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    Great post. I’ve always despised the rationalization that ‘everybody’s guilty of something, so how can we punish just one’?
    I’d argue that too often, Brooks’s elites don’t create wealth so much as siphon it off the proles who actually produce and pay for things. No elites are more parasitical than Goldman Sachs. (Really, it’s not just a name, it’s a statement of purpose: “Goldman sacks.” They sure do.)
    Also, that true populists aren’t trying to divide but bring together. They’re trying to stop the exploitation of one group by another and raise those at the bottom to meet those at the top.
    Geez, I sound like a socialist.

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    I’m wondering if there’s not a whole lot of schadenfreude going on here Matt. Both against Brooks and against the Wall Streeters in general.

    The way I see it, you guys all come from the same place: by your own admission, you are an upper middle class private school grad.

    As are most of the guys on Wall Street.

    But they’re rich and you’re not. (At least not by their standards and/or your own labor- no idea what sort of trust fund you might have.)

    And I always find it ironic how much of the anger towards Wall Street comes from the journalists, documentary film makers, media execs, social workers, lawyers and accountants who were their classmates at Shady Hills Country Day and Cornell.

    Much of that anger boils down to “we were all so much smarter than them back in high school and college. So how come they’re making 10 times as much money as we are? It’s not fair!”

    Judith Warner summed up the sentiment quite nicely in her column last year “Waiting For Schadenfreude”

    And you know what? It isn’t fair. But the upper middle class populism, the “it’s not fair that Bill, who is so dense, that when we were in Intro to Shakespeare together, didn’t even realize that “Moor” meant Othello was Black, is getting a $3 million bonus while I write brilliant commentaries and get paid 1/100th of that”– that is not what Brooks is talking about.

    He’s talking about the Sarah Palin populism of people who don’t see a whole lot of difference between a Matt Taibi and a David Brooks. Or between a Matt Taibi and a Bill The Banker. Because anyone and anything associated with the current power structure is bad and dangerous and corrupt and must be replaced.

    There’s a different kind of anger coming from that sector and it’s the sort of anger that leads to bad decisions and foolhardy scorched earth policies. Which both you and Brooks would disapprove of.

    And might I suggest in closing that one of the reasons Brooks bugs you so much is that he seems to really strike a chord with all your fellow New York Times reading Shady Hills Country Day alumni, the ones who describe themselves on their Facebook profiles as politically liberal.

    • collapse expand

      “Much of that anger boils down to “we were all so much smarter than them back in high school and college. So how come they’re making 10 times as much money as we are? It’s not fair!””

      Maybe the anger has something to do with Goldman Sachs screwing the global economy and in the process…a lot of people by, basically, taking their money.

      Just saying.

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

        For people like yourself Rini, I have no doubt that is the reason.

        For the people I’m talking about– not so much. They tend not to see the world in such extreme terms and they’re far more concerned about their own economies than the world’s.

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

          Christ. All this is just further obfuscation and finger-pointing, whoever you are. See, you said this:
          He’s talking about the Sarah Palin populism of people who don’t see a whole lot of difference between a Matt Taibi and a David Brooks. Or between a Matt Taibi and a Bill The Banker. Because anyone and anything associated with the current power structure is bad and dangerous and corrupt and must be replaced.

          Why don’t you tell us what part of “the current power structure” isn’t bad. Really. Name one thing that couldn’t be done a whole lot better right now.

          Or was your reply simply intended to make Taibbi feel shitty about not having 10 swimming pools, asshole?

          Scorched earth worked pretty well for the Founding Fathers. If the Tea Party tards ever actually joined with the HuffPo tards, well, then there’d be some hope, if you ask me.

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

            In the worldview of the Tea Party set, both Matt Taibbi and David Brooks are overeducated preppies who make way too much money writing apologist liberal tripe for the liberal media. The “Eastern Establishment” personified. They’re just not seeing a whole lot of difference.

            And if I really did have the ability to make Matt “feel shitty about not having 10 swimming pools” I’d be one powerful asshole then, wouldn’t I?

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

      People get angry when they see other people bending and breaking rules. When times are good, they tend to let it go: no harm, no foul. But times are not good now.

      By the way, I want to say I spent a good portion of my life in one of the poorest areas in Louisiana, Winn Parish, and I worked a year between high school and college at one of the filthiest manufacturing jobs imaginable. My grandfather was born there and attended school with Earl K. and Huey P. Long. I’m happy to say, in this discussion of populism, I don’t have the embarrassment of a prep school or Ivy League background.

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

    I’ll be yet another person to express my gratitude for Matt Tiabbi’s clear headed and honest opinions.

    Personally, David Brooks gives me hives.

  6. collapse expand

    It isn’t often that a delay on my part is rewarded, but indeed it has.

    When I read Brooks’ column deriding populism, I almost had an aneurysm. What an elitist, arrogant sack of sewage. I had hoped to take time to craft a paragraph-by-paragraph deconstruction of this piece of journalistic effluent, but my ten-hour-per-day, seven-day-per-week job somehow kept getting in the way.

Then I come across this fabulous gift from Matt Taibbi! It gets to the heart of the matter in a way that I could only imagine doing on my own. Big, big ups for Matt!!!!!

  7. collapse expand

    Nice work. The fundamental problem I see is that money is the prime directive and that whoever is making most of it finds a way to blind the public to it. Either they mask it by convoluted mathematical models we “shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about”, or they turn to populism. They get some douche looking to get his to go on TV and spew words such as “communism” and “attacking our freedom” to rile up the victims of the crime against the very people trying to get them justice. Very effective tool used for decades to put down people’s aspiration for social justice.

    I agree, populism can be the opium of the people, regardless of who is wielding it. The problem with Brooks, as you so aptly illustrated, is that he leaves no room in his definition of populism for protecting the public. You either allow elitists to call our economy their bitch or you are guilty of bashing them for secondary gain.

    We already tolerate excess in our athletes and celebrities, to their detriment. I don’t see how allowing Wall Street to invite us to their room and then date rape us is going to make anyone richer than if we demand they take us out to dinner and treat us like a lady.

    My 2 cents.

  8. collapse expand

    You continue to astound me, Matt. You see through the maze as though you wear glasses with bullshit filters on them. And having lived in Texas my entire life, I know a bit about that subject. I think the only mistake you make in your assessment of the Wall Street traders and Masters of the Universe from New York to Fort Worth, is that you omit the impact of sheer, dumb luck on their fortunes. For instance, many of them are no better at their business, nor do they work harder than so many of your and my professional contemporaries, yet because they happened to be in the right place in a bull market, or looked the other way when their pals oversold, then shorted packaged mortgages, they made fortunes. Problem is, having those fortunes convinced them they WERE smarter and better and more entitled to their spoils. They lose perspective. They lose awareness of their luck. They are furious if their bonus isn’t enough to buy a Ferrari or pay off their second home, yet don’t notice their secretary can’t afford new tires, or their cousin the homebuilder no longer has homes to build.

    Because I have populist leanings, I see what they miss. I know some of these guys very, very well, and while I am not in the business and didn’t suspect criminal acts, I sensed something years ago. I think this tacit conspiracy among bankers and regulators and politicians runs deeper and wider than most can imagine. That populist opinion doesn’t detract however, from my love of the intellectual, elitist pastimes of say, working or reading, or serving on the board of the symphony.

    One can hold both populist and elitist views simultaneously. Well, some of us can anyway. . . .

  9. collapse expand

    I always get worried when people walk away with the idea that “the problem is they only want to make money”. Most people just want to make money. As long as they work within those quaint things we call “laws”, that’s all good and well, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Steve Jobs. Greed *is* good. Theft *isn’t*. Combine the 2, and typically you have to create a valuable service and/or product to succeed. The economy thrives on greed, but when the theft gets too big, those “excesses” Brooks thinks we should tolerate, the economy tanks. A “free” market doesn’t mean an “unmaintained” one, just like parks and any other public good. The point being, we keep substituting “fraud” for “capitalism”, and there’s a big difference, even though fraudsters follow the money.

  10. collapse expand

    Thank you for the truth in your work.
    Remember Bapu loves you.

  11. collapse expand

    Taibbi, you’re great! I hope that Bill Maher can call you to be on his show; crossing fingers!

  12. collapse expand

    Brooks always uses the word hatred to describe the disaffected people wanting to take the country in a new egalitarian direction. The word hatred should be reserved for the amoral profiteers who would sink everything and everyone to line their pockets. Of course when Brooks talks about “loser” populists like William Jennings Bryan, he of course would have been happy to be employed by the rapacious William Randolph Hearst and to have towed the McKinley (pre-Bush the first) corporatist agenda.

  13. collapse expand

    Matt, I have been a big fan of your analysis of the hypocrisy of our “democratic” society, especially when you lay your scalpel on its nerve endings, the pundits who ride range over the media with little or no governance. Your dissection of Friedman and Brooks has been masterful, as well as your deep probe of GS and their shameless robber-baron ethics. BUT, so far you have failed to address WHY these financial public enemies are able to loot the country, bring the global economy to its knees and escape, not only without jail time, but also to enrich themselves on the downside. What you are missing is the false tenet put up by the media (left and right) that there are no bad actors in the American drama. I will spare you the history lesson (we all know where that leads), but let’s say that any bad action that happens to “benefit” the player and “damage” the country is excused by the terms, “mistake”, “poor judgement”, “lack of foresight”, “no one could have predicted this catastrophe”, etc. Thus, there is only one bad guy in each historical event: (going backwards — Madoff, Hussein, Bin Laden, The Ayatollah, Nixon, LBJ, Oswald, Castro, Hitler, etc). In the case of GS, when they put out a scam product then make billions as it tanks because their former CEO heads the government agency which oversees the fraudulent transactions, no one, I MEAN NO ONE suggests that these people are part of a giant racketeering mob who lock stock and barrel should be prosecuted and jailed. There are bad actors, who are trying to enrich themselves, damn the torpedoes and fuck the American people, but the media persuades every day that no no one in the ruling elite would ever knowingly act in a nefarious manner. This fiction, this myth, perpetrated in the modern media era since 1963 permits this rape of the American public go on and on ad nauseum.

  14. collapse expand

    “don’t want to get into the position of fixating on one guy for personal reasons.”

    Oh come on now Matt! I thought Thomas Friedman was you squeaky plush toy. I just love watching you worry that sob, and the more personal it gets the better.

  15. collapse expand

    Brooks is clever. He knows where things are going in term of this incipient populist uprising. Scott Brown was not necessarily a Republican victory, it was a populist victory. What his election really signaled is the depth of the anger against the elites. It was the elites that took us into Iraq, that enabled the mortgage blowout, that rescued the bankers but not the average American. People know this. Whoever is able to capture this embroyonic populism–and it could be the left or the right–is going to capture the power in this country. People are suffering. They want the truth, they want justice. The fallout from the Great Recession is not over yet.

  16. collapse expand

    Well Matt, if you read this…
    I was a republican for several years. I went to a state university and got the usual stuff in macro and micro econ. I listened to Rush, and then I figured out what he was doing. This was back in the 90’s, when Newt had his college class on pbs, which was BS too. Then Fox came along, and I got into arguments with another guy who was “conservative”.

    The one thing that has struck me, time and again, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, is that these people have a thing about “image”, and they have a need to be “right”. David Brooks went to great lengths to explain how he was right. Bill Krystol (sp?) is the same way. Sarah Palin isn’t qualified to be in any governmental position. Yet he was all over her “image”. Bill Bennett is the same way. I believe that if William F. Buckley Jr. were alive today, he would be criticizing Wall Street, and therefore be a populist under Brooks’ terms.

  17. collapse expand

    I love this article, I think it’s right on target and I hate to nitpik but . . I’m lying, I love to nitpik: How can there be “billions of dollars worth of worthless subprime mortgage”?

  18. collapse expand

    One post-JFK phenomenon we have is we’ve been trained as a culture to deny conspiracies. The word “conspiracy” is neutral, but in our folklore, it’s synonymous with “loony”, guys who see battalions coming over the grassy knoll.

    The upstart of this is we’re unable to point to actual conspiracies, because the media immediately labels this as crazy. The default always falls to the lone gunman – so Rove can deny that there was any concerted move to fire all non-Bush loyal attorneys, and the media prints it as true. Republicans can deny a concerted effort to deny Blacks the right to vote, and they get the benefit of the doubt. Try asking people whether 9/11 was a conspiracy. Most will instinctively answer “no”. Then ask them, “well, does 19 people working together to hijack 4 airplanes and bring down several buildings count as a conspiracy?” They’ll then get mad and say, “I thought you meant a government conspiracy”. Of course I didn’t tell them to jump to conclusions, I just asked a simple question. Not that they know whether those 19 hijackers had help from some low-level FAA employees – which would still qualify as a “government conspiracy”, just not an executive level one.

    The fallout is that we can’t look back and ask questions about 9/11 or the Iraq War or Katrina or the financial collapse – because by even asking questions, we’re going in for conspiracy theories, which are now assumed to be crazy, even if they happened. Sadly, that means anyone who does persevere to put together details of conspiracy comes across sounding unhinged – such as the guys at DeepCapture. Of course it sounds stranger that all these huge financial organizations with their lobbying machines and direct phone contact to the administration *wouldn’t* conspire in numerous ways to take control of the situation, especially noting how well they benefited in the end. Like Fannie Mae *didn’t know* there was a housing bubble? AIG/Goldman Sachs, et al. *didn’t know* they were selling worthless crap? It’s peculiar that in the “information age” that suspension of disbelief is one of the basic principles of our society. But that’s what we have. People are willing to believe 2+2=4 *and* 2+2=5 at the same time, as long as it fits their worldview and keeps the safe at night. That’s how they’ve got an auto mechanic or steel worker or counter help at Wendy’s thinking what’s good for the Dow is good for him. It’s like a religion – the more you suffer, the more you know it’s true, you’re on the right path, patience of Job in the face of adversity. Which is also why our approach to health care reform won’t work – we’re trained to believe the more hoops we have to jump through, the more divine our system – the problems are a feature, not a bug, a sign of America’s greatness. As long as we’re happy to pay for dysfunctionality, it won’t change.

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    Fuck me, that was the best thing I’ve read in years. Decades, maybe.

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    Excellent point, if conspiracies are a priori only discerned by maniacs and no “American” would ever plan the execution of a sitting president to further their aims in Vietnam or clear the path for oncoming terrorists to further their aims in Iraq, then those who actually do perpetuate these crimes are never even considered as possible culprits. All this is made possible by a corporate media conglomerate who have taken the Shakespearean diabolical essence out of American power players and substituted it with a Pollyannaish mythology of the bumbling agency who just happens to foster calamity time after time. I love the way they present Watergate as an example of investigative journalism, even today after we know that Deep Throat was the #2 man at the FBI, Mark Felt, and thereby Watergate was by definition an insider coup to topple Nixon. At best, Woodward and Bernstein functioned as glorified stenographers to render the downfall of Tricky Dick, probably because some patriotic members of the FBI considered him a threat to the freedom of Americans. Only the fearless investigators who get the true independent facts, publish books and internet articles, give usa glimpse into any meaningful truth about the real history of this country. For instance, check out David Frasca, the FBI special agent who was in charge of the Islamic Fundamentalist Unit and who deflected the hundreds of memos coming from Minneapolis and Phoenix which warned of the young Arabs taking flying lessons — no one ever questioned him as to his motives. What about the Saudi FBI informer who by “coincidence” hosted two 911 hijackers in San Diego and was later paid two hundred thousand by the CIA, and what about the informer who a few months ago on “Nightline” said how he was convinced Mohammmed Atta was Al Queda and here on a mission, but was told by Frasca NOT to infiltrate the Mosque in Florida where he was worshipping. Of course, if you believe that there is no possibility that any American would engage in such treasonous behavior, they will implicity have free reign to conspire, because it is CRAZY TO CONSIDER ANYONE WOULD EVER ACT IN A DIABOLICAL MANNER TO FURTHER THEIR OWN AGENDA, AT LEAST NOT AN AMERICAN GOVERNMENT OR CORPORATE OFFICIAL.

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    For a minute there, I thought you were channeling Doghouse Riley. He rips Brooks a new asshole at every opportunity. Have you read his blog? He really is worth a look.

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    To comment, I should have something smart to add, but instead I’ll just say what I feel after reading any of your posts…..you’re incredible. And, thanks.

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    Mr. Taibbi, you clearly need an editor, to prevent you from doing stuff like this. I generally admire your thoughtful analysis, and cannot say the same for Mr. Brooks. However, you have slipped off the deep end, here. It’s not always about you.

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    Enjoyed the column, but think you let him slide on one of the more ridiculous comments he made. In a world of finite resources (i.e., the real world), economics IS a zero-sum game. When criminals rig the system to get more than they should, they are doing so at the expense of someone else– someone without the political clout to rig the system in their own favor or without the moral bankruptcy necessary to even try.

    No one seems to see how ridiculous the system we have built has become. Stocks often dip not because corporations have lost money or failed to make a profit, but because their profits haven’t grown large enough relative to the previous year. So these corporations downsize and outsource jobs to lower costs– but seem to forget that now there is no one here who can afford the shit they are peddling. No matter, that’s years down the road; by then, they’ll have made billions in bonuses and can retire young and happy.

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    Matt, I’m a huge fan and was pleased to see your byline while surfing the web (on a site I’ve never heard of before) and of course read your article. The thought of commenting on your article and that you might actually read the comment was enough to get me to register etc. Gotta love the internet!

    First off, in David Brooks defense, calling David Brooks a “racists weenie” is “so easy”, so no gonzo points there. Secondly, while I agree Goldman is possibly crime story (and one I would really love to read,–recommendations?) I think not including the context in which the “crime” took place would be not to paint an accurate picture. Were actual laws violated, crimes committed? Or was this just unregulated greed? And were the people taking out mortgages they could never afford guilty of the same “crime”–hedging their bets with almost nothing down, interest only loans, rampant speculation in a hot housing market? You compare the banks to a group of car thieves but what if people were knowingly buying their cars (or borrowing them) from those very same thieves? We all know a deal too good to be true is too good to be true.

    Since this is America and bigger is better, why wouldn’t Goldman et al bundle up a bunch of these turds and sell it as the good shit? If the ducks quack, feed them. And why shouldn’t GS short that same shit, they’re smart fellas? To quote Mark Knopfler, “I never look down on a sucker stake. They all pay the bills. I never gave a sucker an even break. And I never will”. It’s the American way.

    And speaking of suckers, if there is one born every minute here, how many are born in China? China, flush with U.S. cash because American consumer’s (populistst’s?) insatiable appetite for cheap plastic crap. Flush because American capitalists (elitists) moved all our manufacturing to Asia because it was hell cheaper to make crap in a land of oppression. Flush because we ran out of cash a long time ago and they’ve been loaning us jack to keep us at the trough ever since. Who better to queue up with the rest of the suckers to buy a slice of the American Pie? U.S. mortgages, what could be better, safer? And the returns aren’t bad either… So that’s what’s got to do with the price of tea in China.

    Sure, be outraged, God knows there isn’t enough outrage (especially in the media) considering all the outrageousness going on. But don’t pardon the excesses of the poor while you point your finger at the excesses of the rich. Now that the shit is hitting the fan everyone wants to blame the other guy. There’s blame enough to go around. I suppose what Brook’s was saying is that the populist or elitist both try to elevate themselves by devaluing the other. Same M.O. as the racist. But you are a smart guy, you get that, I know. I’m just saying look at the forest not just the tree. And, if the forest is on fire, this vitriolic divisiveness that we are experiencing right now in the United States, the blame-game that pits Us against Them, You against Me will do little to put it out. It’s time for some humility. It’s time to admit we were all playing with matches (OK, some of us had a can of gas too). And you know what they say about playing with fire…

  26. collapse expand

    You are right on the mark. Former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips has been making these points for years, e.g., in “Democracy and Wealth,” and other books. It is difficult to make these points, in the increasingly consolidated media, which just amplify the charges of class warfare. The NY Times and David Brooks are too timid to depart from the common narrative of the MSM.
    What Democrats need to do now, is what they did to the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008: shine a spotlight on the greed, thievery, dishonesty, and ineptitude of the great malefactors in the financial sector ASAP and regulate Wall Street and the banks so that this meltdown will not happen again. AS conditions remain now in finance, it is just a question of when and how it will happen again. How likely is it that the Democratic party will shine the light on the financial sector, to launch a modern version of the Pecora committee investigation, into those who are great contributors to it? Without public financing of political campaigns, alas, neither real investigation nor strict regulation a la Glass-Stiegall Act, is likely to occur. The recent Supreme Court decision removing McCain-Feingold restrictions on political campaign contributions by corporations renders real reform in finance, health care, and climate change and clean energy even less likely.
    Who are the new Howard Zinns and Edward and Robert Kennedys who will step forward to challenge the charges of class warfare that serve to disguise the dysfunctional government to serve the common good? How long, O fools, will you love folly?

  27. collapse expand

    I’m sure his use of Hamilton and Lincoln probably aren’t that suitable, but even if they were correct, neither of these greats were known for cultivating or creating a middle class, which was the great development (correct me if mistaken) of the twentieth century, largely that of FDR. And what was it FDR and his predecessors did? Tempered the power of the railroads and elites and brought stability and accessibility to the economic system. Which required great minds who, unlike Brooks, acted on principle, not the protection of his financial supply lines.

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    Right now, the Securities Industry Lobby is meeting with key policymakers in Washington at the Gaylord National Hotel, Jan 30 – Feb 4.

    Banksterusa.org awarded Chief Executive and President of the Securities Lobby a cheeky “Golden Throne” award for his leadership during the economic crisis, specifically the Lobby’s “cashroots” campaigning to blunt the “populist overreaction.” Bankster exposes their tactics: http://www.banksterusa.org/content/golden-throne-awarded-tim-ryan-spinmeister-us-securities-industry

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    I agree that their isn’t anything noble about them and that it’s a crime story but I disagree about them being stupid.
    They are people that are very well informed about the realities of climate change, peak oil and what it will take to compete with China in a globalised world.
    I think everyone would be doing themselves a favour to consider the pragmatism they used and success they have had in ensuring that they will still be the “elite” when the shit hits the fan.
    A future, it seems, that won’t include even the pretense of democracy or accountability.
    Dissing them as merely stupid thieves is a tad off the mark man.
    They both own and govern the U.S.A.
    That’s a fair effort.

  30. collapse expand

    If you substitute the word “anti-Semite” for “Populist” and “anti-Semitism” for “populism” in Brook’s piece, his motivations in defending Goldman Sachs from the ire of the people starts to become clearer. ‘Codes within codes, bendrith, codes within codes.’

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    I agree with Matt’s analysis across the board. What is missing is what to do about it. My contention is that the Wall Street types and their fellow travelers and defenders have not suffered the pain of their injury to the common folk and institutions that they defrauded.

    I suggest that some direct action and guerrillas tactics are in order. These people need to feel fear not where they work , but where they live. In my area of the country there are many trophy homes some behind gates and some just out there. It is relatively easy to find out who owns this property from the online tax records at the local assessors office. One can then Google the names and find out where the owners work and get their money. Also, one can look up the directors and executives of major financial corporations and work the system that way.

    When you have located some culprits, plan demostrations at the gates of these enclaves and trophy homes especially during the summer and holiday periods when they are likely to be coming and going. Bring signs, you will know what to say, and print up a press release on who lives there and what their crimes against the public are to hand out to the press and those who are not paying attention.

    At the very least you will make the local if not national media. Isolated property can be posted with appropriate signs in the public right-of-way to be seen when the transgresssors arrive or look for signs of occupancy like lights at night etc. to see if they are home. Mind you, I am not advocating any crimial activity, no personal threats, no property damage or anything like that–just the right of people to assemble and express their thoughts and opinions. If it scares the hell out of some people who deserve to be scared, great! Its time to bring the pain to those who really deserve to feel it!

  32. collapse expand

    I find it deeply ironic that Brooks should take this smug tone when scolding anyone using populist rhetoric or engaging in “class warfare” since he is responsible, more than anyone, for popularizing the whole red state/blue state meme with latte drinking, Volvo driving liberals from the coast engaged in battle with Salt of the Earth conservatives from the heartland. He has actively encouraged these “types” to see themselves as different from each other and involved in some Darwinistic zero-sum game from which one must emerge victorious. He should be ashamed for what he has wrought and he should be doubly ashamed for trying a different tack now.

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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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