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RUMINATIONS DURING DEFEAT! In theory, defeat can be instructive. Some reactions, churned up last night: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 20, 2010

From Kakutani’s hive: In yesterday’s New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Joseph Stiglitz’s new book, Freefall. It seemed to us that she probably did a good job summarizing Stiglitz’s views about (as expressed in the book’s subtitle) “America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy.”

That said, we were struck by the swarm of buzzwords which kept flying in from some mainstream press hive. This is how the review began. Why is that one buzz-word in there?

KAKUTANI (1/19/10): In a November 2008 Op-Ed article for The New York Times, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote that a huge stimulus package—as much as $1 trillion over two years—was needed to turn the Great Recession into a robust recovery and that new regulations were needed to change the destructive behavior of Wall Street that had brought about the fiscal calamities in the first place.

Some four months later, he wrote another Op-Ed piece for The Times in which he assailed the Obama administration’s plans for dealing with ailing banks, arguing that it was “a win-win-lose proposal: the banks win, investors win—and taxpayers lose.” He went on to characterize the administration’s approach as “ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses.”

Mr. Stiglitz’s new book, “Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy,” expands these populist arguments further.

Our question: Why did she stick the word “populist” in there? What was gained by that insertion? If you asked a hundred Times readers what the word means, you’d surely get two hundred answers. Why wouldn’t a reviewer simply say that Stiglitz expanded these arguments further? Was Kakutani giving herself distance from Stiglitz’s views? We couldn’t help wondering.

Was she staying a “Serious” person?

We wondered that as we started to read—but my, how the buzz-words continued to fly! As noted, Kakutani seemed to provide good summaries of Stiglitz’s views. But soon, we started again:

KAKUTANI: Before the deadly autumn of 2008, Mr. Stiglitz was one of the handful of economists who had been “expecting the U.S. economy to crash, with global consequences,” and in this book his prescience lends credibility to his trenchant analysis of the causes of the fiscal meltdown, though it also leads, at times, to an I-told-you-so sanctimoniousness about both the recession and Washington’s response.

“I suspect that if the government adopted the simple proposals of this chapter, the foreclosure problem would be a thing of the past,” he writes. “But regrettably, the Obama administration has followed the course of the Bush administration, directing most of its efforts at rescuing the banks.”

Was that quotation supposed to provide an example of Stiglitz’s “I-told-you-so sanctimoniousness?” We can’t imagine what would be gained by such an odd claim—unless Kakutani gains a bit of eye-rolling distance from Stiglitz’s plainly non-Serious views. Soon, she went there again:

KAKUTANI: Like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, Mr. Stiglitz reminds the reader that America was spared major financial crises in the decades following World War II, when ''there were strong regulations that were effectively enforced.''

As memories of the Great Depression receded, however, deregulation became increasingly fashionable—not only under the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes, but also during the tenure of Bill Clinton. Mr. Stiglitz, a member of Mr. Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers and later chief economist for the World Bank, frequently criticized the Treasury secretary at the time, Robert E. Rubin, and his successor Lawrence H. Summers, for their deregulatory policies; in these pages, he questions President Obama’s decision to make Mr. Summers his chief White House economic adviser and to name Timothy F. Geithner (who worked under Mr. Summers and Mr. Rubin in the Clinton administration) treasury secretary.

“Obama chose this team,” says Mr. Stiglitz, who writes with what sounds like a touch of sour grapes, “in spite of the fact that he must have known—he certainly was advised to that effect—that it would be important to have new faces at the table who had no vested interests in the past, either in the deregulatory movement that got us into the problem or in the faltering rescues that had marked 2008, from Bear Stearns through Lehman Brothers to A.I.G.”

What is gained by that highly subjective insertion? Why isn’t Stiglitz simply asserting his (perfectly reasonable) view? By the way: We’re always impressed when a writer’s nose is so fine that it can detect just a touch of sour grapes, not a full dose of the fragrance.

Kakutani goes on to offer a puzzling claim, seeming to say that Stiglitz’s proposal for “more progressive taxation” “stray[s] far from the realm of practical policy recommendations that actually have a chance of winning broad public support or being enacted by Congress.” As she closes, she warns that these impractical proposals “give ammunition to conservative critics who want to dismiss Mr. Stiglitz as a European-style liberal.” Let a million buzz-words bloom!

For the record, Stiglitz isn’t just “a Keynesian.” He writes “as a proud Keynesian, and his analysis of the recession of 2008 and its aftermath reflects his overall philosophy.”

In November 1999, Kakutani showcased her remarkable skill at forcing High Manhattan Conventional Wisdom, no matter how daft or irrelevant, into reviews of political books. (For part 1 of our four-part series, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/99). In this review, she seems to summarize Stiglitz well. But along the way, an army of buzz-words swarms from a hive. Is Kakutani letting us know that we should hold our distance from these non-Serious views?

RUMINATIONS DURING DEFEAT [permalink]: In theory, defeat can be instructive. Some reactions, drawn from last night’s events:

The quality of the progressive discourse: We can’t find transcripts or tapes of the later, live editions of MSNBC’s programs last night. But in one remarkable session, Lawrence O’Donnell explained the procedural problems with the “reconciliation” process. According to O’Donnell, 60-vote majorities are needed along the way in passing a bill through reconciliation, although the final vote on the bill will only require 51 votes. For that reason, O’Donnell said, the process is unlikely to be helpful in any ongoing health reform effort.

In effect, O’Donnell is number-two man at Countdown; in the last month or two, he has served as Olbermann’s frequent guest host. He’s quite well informed on many matters. But Olbermann has continued to advocate use of reconciliation. As recently as Monday night, he said that a bill passed under reconciliation “would be a better bill”—that “you could conceivably pass a more liberal bill” through use of reconciliation (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/19/10).

The quality of our progressive discourse has been very poor in the last year. For ourselves, we made a bit of a resolution to be less insulting about Olbermann in this new year. But we were struck again last night as we saw Countdown’s number-two man expound on matters he’d apparently never mentioned to Countdown’s number-one man. Progressives have wondered all year long about the use of reconciliation. Olbermann kept us reliably updated on the state of Carrie Prejeans’ swim wear. But he seems to be utterly clueless on this topic—as on so many serious topics, things which actually matter.

Our progressive discourse has been very weak, a situation which stretches back decades. A winning progressive politics will never emerge from this mess.

What do voters think: In this morning’s hard-copy edition, the New York Times has a fascinating feature—quotations from 27 voters encountered around the state of Massachusetts. Some voted for Coakley, some voted for Brown; no systematic picture can be drawn from these brief, “anecdotal” snapshots. But progressives rarely make any real effort to sit down with “regular voters” and puzzle out what they have on their minds. Often, such voters won’t know what they’re talking about—but that’s often true of us, on our side. And the bottom line is this, of course: You can’t achieve progressive reform in a system like ours without confronting the voters.

How “blue” is Massachusetts? Our guess: Not as “blue” as the caricatures have it—the silly caricatures which seem to rule every part of our public discourse. From 1986 through 2002, the state elected nothing but Republican governors, and may be prepared to do so again. And then too, there was Lenny Clarke, on stage with Scott Brown last night.

We’ve only met Lenny in passing, though he’s been a major star of Boston comedy for decades. (He was always perfectly decent to us, even when we were essentially an open-miker.) He never went huge on the national stage; his CBS sitcom, Lenny, was canceled fairly quickly in 1991. But much as Wikipedia says, “Clarke was the most famous ‘saloon comic’ in Boston during the 1980s, the heyday of the Boston comedy scene.” That scene produced some well-known “conceptual” comics (Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright, Kevin Meaney). But it was anchored by a potent “blue collar” comedy world. When Clarke was unknown in the rest of the country, Bostonians stood in line to hear him. Also Don Gavin, Steve Sweeney.

Lenny Clarke was on stage with Brown last night, and he was briefly acknowledged. What does Lenny think about contemporary politics? His outlook probably doesn’t match ours in every way. But many other Boston people presumably see things the way Lenny does, and much of what they think simply isn’t “wrong.” By the way: Despite all the blue state caricatures, Massachusetts is a major town-and-gown precinct; Boston has always been a city of major upper-class institutions—and a sardonic white working-class eager to take the swells down.

What do such voters think in Massachusetts—or in Oklahoma? Have you seen progressive outlets ask?

Death by demon: Olbermann was screeching again last night about the demon Brown. This approach is deeply, profoundly childish. Our guess? As a progressive political strategy, it will never work:

OLBERMANN (1/19/10): We stay in Massachusetts for the first of tonight’s "Quick Comments." And I wanted to apologize for calling Republican Senate candidate, Scott Brown, an irresponsible homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees.

I’m sorry—I left out the word "sexist." And I left out the story of the day, Brown upset by on-line criticism from some student, went to that school and swore at the entire student body. I’m very sorry.

For all the blowback from the right on this, from people who regularly mutter worse things about Barack Obama in their sleep, when it came to the facts I cited to paint this picture of this horrifically unqualified would-be senator, we have heard nothing. No contrary evidence, no repudiatation, not even a plausible excuse.

To the last point, it can be argued that Brown should have been given the benefit of the doubt after a supporter shouted at him that they should shove a curling iron up Martha Coakley’s butt, that he did not hear that perhaps. That when Brown then said, "We can do this," he was not responding to the lunatic in the crowd.

The Boston Globe, though, makes an unanswerable point about that. Even if Brown really didn’t hear it, where was his statement later, decrying the obscenity and violence his supporters suggested? Not only did Mr. Brown not offer even the mildest reproach, but when pressed for one by Senator Kerry, Brown replied only that people are tired of John Kerry’s partisan politics.

In Scott Brown, we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, sexist, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and against politicians with whom he disagrees. And if he or you don’t like that characterization, my answer to you is simple: Disprove it, because he hasn’t.

It would he hard to overstate how stupid that is. And how poorly it’s likely to work as a model for winning progressive politics.

On MSNBC, Olbermann wanted us to get upset about a stupid remark some voter apparently made about a curling iron. (We say “apparently” because it’s impossible to hear the remark on the tapes of the event we have watched.) For the record, did “the Boston Globe” really produce an “unanswerable point” about this matter? Presumably, Olbermann refers to this characteristically silly column by a Globe columnist, Joan Venocchi. On Monday night, he had asked us to get upset about the videotape, which provides only the flimsiest “evidence” that Brown heard the comment in question. Last night, he seemed to acknowledge that obvious problem, but found a new way to pimp rage.

On MSNBC, Olbermann wanted us to get upset about a stupid remark by some voter. On Fox, Hannity has been urging us to get upset because a Coakley aide bumped into (or pushed) a journalist, causing him to fall backwards over a low barrier. This politics of trivial pseudo-outrage has worked fairly well for conservatives in recent decades, in large part because the mainstream press corps was willing to join the conservative world in pimping such moronic, trumped-up furies against both Clintons and Gore. The progressive world will never have that sort of institutional advantage. Aside from the sheer stupidity of this kind of politics, this kind of politics is unlikely to work in service to progressive causes.

How long will liberals be willing to play the fool? It has been sad and embarrassing to watch this guy working to invent demons and dragons. Last night, he also offered the following bit of pure/perfect nonsense. There are no words to describe how stupid this is—this childish pimping of devils and demons. Progressive interests will never be served by this type of approach:

OLBERMANN: The update of the vote in Massachusetts. Twenty one percent Of precincts reporting, 53-46 Brown. The second of tonight’s quick comments now.

The tea-baggers may have elected their first guy tonight. Thus, they will be expecting legislation by tomorrow morning making a death penalty offense to call them “tea-baggers.” It’s, thus, useful to remind them anew how the term originated and with whom.

A TV news report aired last March 14th in which a correspondent described the original protest act. Quote, "Take a tea bag, put it in an envelope, and mail it to the White House." He added, "Read TeaParty.com as a headline. Tea-bag the fools in DC on tax day."

Thus the verb “to tea-bag” was invented by the tea-baggers themselves. And the correspondent who put it on TV was a Griff Jenkins, from Fox News. Send your complaints to him.

Nine months later, the monster dumbness continues. Our view? If progressives hope to build a winning politics, someone needs to take this overwrought fool by the arm and slowly lead him away.

By the way: Last night, Olbermann told us that Brown supporter Curt Schilling is “the most disliked man in baseball and probably no worse than the third dumbest.” Unfortunately, the hugely likable Doug Flutie was also on stage with Brown last night, standing right next to Clarke. Can KO help us demonize him? More important, will someone please step forward and lead KO slowly away?

Olbermann just keeps getting more trivial—and dumber. Everyone is a racist but us. Progressive politics can never succeed this way. Can we possibly stage a new collection? Would he take his five million and run?

Contempt for the public: In all these foolish manifestations, you see a deep, ongoing problem. Tomorrow, we’ll share an e-mail we got, from a very smart reader, about the uselessness of addressing the public. We understand our reader’s frustration. But as a matter of politics, it seems to us that his instincts can’t possibly work.

Progressives may think Clarke and Flutie are wrong. But Clarke and Flutie get the same vote that progressives do—and tons of other voters see the world the way they do. Just because your tendencies differ, they aren’t necessarily “wrong.”

That said:

Last night, Rachel Maddow clucked just a very small bit about Brown’s sense of humor, as regards the marital status of his two daughters. We had the same reaction to Brown’s joking remarks.

Sorry, though. Most voters didn’t react that way. Tomorrow, we’ll ask a basic question: As progressives, do we like, or do we secretly hate, the voters, the public—the people? It’s hard to build a winning concern if you don’t like the people in charge.