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Print view: We bungled our piece on David Brooks. We make our point more clear
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WHERE PIFFLE CAN POSE AS DEEP THOUGHT! We bungled our piece on David Brooks. We make our point more clear: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 14, 2011

Shortest weekend of the year: We’re here this morning, right on time, despite the way an hour was stolen, producing a 47-hour weekend.

How strange: To think that bureaucrats in a distant city can toy like this with our lives!

How THE HOWLER is saving civilization: Remember the way the Irish saved civilization? (According to Wikipedia, Thomas Cahill’s book of that approximate name “argues a case for the Irish people's critical role in preserving western civilization from utter destruction by the Huns and the Germanic tribes.”)

Here at THE HOWLER, that’s the role we’re currently playing with regard to MSNBC.

Good God, how that new, improved liberal channel does love to shovel the bullroar! This tendency has become quite clear in its coverage of the Wisconsin budget fight. We liberals keep getting fed misinformation, as The One True Liberal Channel becomes more and more like Fox.

Consider what happened last Friday night when Lawrence O’Donnell kicked off his evening’s Wisconsin coverage. The analysts groaned and covered their eyes when they heard Mr. O say this:

O’DONNELL (3/11/11): Tonight in the spotlight: Wisconsin’s most polarizing bill becomes law. Following weeks of protest and unprecedented legislative maneuvering that no one had ever seen and no one predicted, today Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed the bill that eliminates almost all collective bargaining rights from most of the state’s public employees.

The bill exempts police and firefighter unions who supported the governor in his election campaign. It’s due to take effect on March 26.

Oof! There he went again, reciting that claim about the police and firefighter unions! (To see Politifact shoot down that claim, go ahead—just click here.) This time, though, a rebuttal was heard, just a few minutes later! The rebuttal was voiced by a Wisconsin Republican, state senator Glenn Grothman. This was Grothman’s first point after being introduced:

GROTHMAN: You led off this segment by saying…that the firemen and the police endorsed Governor Walker. You have to know that’s not true, because we have corrected it so many times in the past.

The firemen’s union, probably next to the teachers union, is probably the most rabid Democratic union in the state. The Milwaukee police did endorse Governor Walker. But the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the biggest police union in the state, supported his opponent.

So when you say things like we exempted firemen and police because they supported Governor Walker, that’s just plain not true.

As far as we know, Grothman’s statement is basically accurate, though liberals keep hearing the opposite.

Did O’Donnell know his own statement was bogus? Unlike Grothman, we wouldn’t assume that Mr. O would know such basic facts. But note O’Donnell’s pathetic rejoinder to Grothman:

O’DONNELL (continuing directly): Senator Grothman, could I go back? Certainly there was at least one police union that supported the governor.

GROTHMAN: I said, the Milwaukee Police Union.

O’DONNELL: Are you saying that there were no—there was no firefighter support for the governor’s election?

GROTHMAN: One firefighter local, the city of Milwaukee again, perhaps because they knew Scott Walker because he was county exec. The vast majority—as far as I know, every other fireman in the state, their union supported Governor Walker’s opponent, including the fire union where I represent.

So to say that is just plain misleading.

Truly, O’Donnell’s response was gruesome. Rather than acknowledge misstatement or express doubt, he decided to play the sophist. But so it has gone on The One True Channel, right from Day One of this story. On that occasion, Ed Schultz interviewed Grothman—and he too fashioned a sad response when corrected on a blown fact.

On February 15, the fight in Wisconsin was just starting—and Schultz had a basic fact wrong. How would state workers’ incomes be affected by Walker’s requests for give-backs? “People who earn $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 a year might have a 20 percent of their income just disappear overnight,” Schultz said, incorrectly.

After being introduced, Grothman challenged that statement too. Note the way Schultz reacted:

GROTHMAN (2/15/11): I think you misled your audience a little bit in the buildup to my interview. I think maybe an average person, including myself, who makes about $50,000 a year, is going to see a cut in take-home pay of around 8 percent or 9 percent.

SCHULTZ: Wait a minute! I didn’t mislead the audience. I said increase their obligation—meaning that they are going to have to pay more in. That’s exactly what I said. Increase their obligation to pay more in.

GROTHMAN: Right. Right.

SCHULTZ: So there is no mis—

GROTHMAN: You used the figure 20 percent, Ed.

SCHULTZ: Excuse me?

GROTHMAN: You used the figure 20 percent. And that is misleading.

SCHULTZ: That is not misleading because that is the figure that we got.

Oof. And sad.

For the record, there was an apples-to-oranges problem here, at least on the surface; Schultz spoke about “income,” Grothman about “take-home pay.” But after his weak response to Grothman, Schultz instantly dropped his own statistic; for the rest of the program, through several segments, he referred to “an 8 percent or 9 percent pay cut.” Politifact reviewed Schultz’s initial claim, giving him a rating of “false” (though we find an apparent typo in their report). Politifact noted that Schultz’s staff failed to present any data supporting his initial claim.

MSNBC has devoted many evenings to the fight in Wisconsin. In the course of that coverage, its anchors have routinely misstated basic facts while failing to clarify basic issues. Liberals watching The One True Channel have heard a drumbeat of ungled claims. This is the way it works for conservatives when they tune to Fox.

Liberals watching MSNBC have repeatedly heard these claims:

  • There was a budget surplus when Walker took office. (False.)
  • Wisconsin’s budget shortfall was created by Walker’s tax cuts. (False.)
  • Walker exempted the police and firefighter unions because they endorsed him (False.)

As Grothman noted, that last claim has been corrected many times. But last Friday, O’Donnell was still reciting it. And here was Rachel Maddow, just one night before, pretending to scold Walker:

MADDOW (3/10/11): If the existence of unions themselves was so expensive, then why did you exempt the unions that supported you in the last election? Those unions have some of the most expensive benefits of any in your state. But you let them off.

As we all know, Maddow loves correcting her own mistakes. Based on her work in the past few weeks, she also likes to repeat them.

At one point, the Irish saved civilization. That’s the role we now find ourselves playing. At times like this, do corporate progressives need false facts to make a case against GOP policies? Our view: People like that will never succeed in building a winning politics.

Civilization may hang in the balance. Are we all ditto-heads now?

WHERE PIFFLE CAN POSE AS DEEP THOUGHT (permalink): We’ll admit it! Last Friday, we bungled our treatment of David Brooks’ most recent columns. In one of those columns (last Tuesday’s), Brooks laid out the premise behind his new book, The Social Animal.

Blame it on the bossa nova? This time, we’ll blame it on the columnist’s longing for additional metis and limerence. (Real words, though just barely. This longing was voiced in last Tuesday’s piece.) The analysts quickly began writing limericks, attempting to mock this foppish desire. Hoping to gather our thoughts about this strange column, we resolved to wait before offering comment. But the foolishness of Brooks’ column last Friday provoked us—and we wrote too soon.

No limericks today, not even about the columnist raised near the Village/Whose affect allowed no emotional spillage. Instead, let’s look at Brooks’ column from last Tuesday—the piece which gives an overview of his insightful new book.

Truly, this piece was astounding. Consider the first half of the column, in which Brooks lists four major American policy failures, then describes the “single failure” from which all these failures derived.

First, Brooks listed those policy failures. Truly, David Brooks has seen rivers. Here’s how his column began:

BROOKS (3/8/11): Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system—trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers—that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

Truly, Brooks has seen rivers. In that passage, he lists four “policy failures” he has covered. Let’s set aside the post-Soviet policy failure, which is obscure to most Americans. Behaving charitably, let’s ignore what he says about public schools, since he’s merely reciting the latest cant on a topic he doesn’t understand.

That leaves two of America’s greatest modern “policy failures:” The massive bungling in Iraq, and the recent financial meltdown. Why did these policy failures occur? Continuing, Brooks offers an astounding explanation for all the policy failures he lists. What follows may be the weirdest “explanation” we’ve ever seen in a newspaper:

BROOKS (continuing directly): I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society—not only in the policy world, but in many spheres—that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

As Brooks continues, things only get worse. But please note what he says in that passage! According to Brooks, all those major policy failures “spring from a single failure”—from “an overly simplistic view of human nature.” According to Brooks, the faulty financial regime which collapsed in 2008 sprang from the following failure: “We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.”

Go ahead—just try to believe it! Just try to believe that a major nation’s most important newspaper could publish such consummate piffle!

Did the failure in Iraq and the failure on Wall Street really “spring” from this single source? Who could possibly think so? This simplistic explanation is amazingly strange, for reasons we’ll note below. But as we continue, let’s note two effects of Brooks’ odd explanation:

We’re all responsible—and thus, no one is: Who created these policy failures? Note how vague Brooks is on this point. He does acknowledge a “sphere” called “the policy world;” tangentially, he acknowledges that there are many other “spheres” in our society. But mainly, he discusses the things “we” do—the things “we” say, the things “we” believe. No one is singled out; all are included. This wipes away any question of who has created these failures.

Did Wall Street billionaires help create that sector’s policy failure with their political contributions? Presumably, yes. But then again, so did some car salesman west of Dubuque! After all, he relies on that overly simplistic view of human nature, just like the Masters of the Universe! And the policy failure which led to that meltdown springs from that single failure, as does everything else.

The conduct of miscreants gets washed away in this ridiculous formulation. But then, so does all self-interest, including even criminal conduct:

Everything has been done in good faith: The policy failures in Iraq? The policies which led to that financial meltdown? According to Brooks, “these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature.” And since that view pervades our culture, it seems to follow that our policy failures have been created in basic good faith. All through the culture, “we emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below.” Presumably, no one does this on purpose, not even the “experts” to whom Brooks refers at one point. Our failures all spring from this simplistic view—and this view bubbles up from our culture.

Luckily, Brooks’ new book will help us see past this simplistic view of human nature. But his formulation seems to wash away the self-interested conduct of extremely powerful players.

Can we talk? If Brooks really means what he says, his view of the policy world comes to us live and direct from somewhere on Sunnybrook Farm. Did this country suffer that financial meltdown because “we” aren’t good at discussing emotions? This morning, in that same New York Times, Paul Krugman discusses an ongoing part of that same financial meltdown. But how naïve this silly man is! As he describes the (ongoing) meltdown, Krugman seems to think that powerful players pursued their self-interest in immoral, perhaps criminal, ways:

KRUGMAN (3/14/11): …the rich are different from you and me: when they break the law, it’s the prosecutors who find themselves on trial.

To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, look at the complaint filed by Nevada’s attorney general against Bank of America. The complaint charges the bank with luring families into its loan-modification program—supposedly to help them keep their homes—under false pretenses; with giving false information about the program’s requirements (for example, telling them that they had to default on their mortgages before receiving a modification); with stringing families along with promises of action, then “sending foreclosure notices, scheduling auction dates, and even selling consumers’ homes while they waited for decisions”; and, in general, with exploiting the program to enrich itself at those families’ expense.


Notice, by the way, that we’re not talking about the business practices of fly-by-night operators; we’re talking about two of our three largest financial companies, with roughly $2 trillion each in assets. Yet politicians would have you believe that any attempt to get these abusive banking giants to make modest restitution is a “shakedown.”

As Hector said of Paris, Strange man! Like Nevada’s deluded attorney general, Krugman’s still talking the silly old talk, in which powerful players deceive and exploit the masses. To this day, he just doesn’t get it! He still doesn’t see that these problems occur because people at “our largest financial companies” are divided creatures who aren’t comfortable talking about emotion! So too with the politicians who rush to defend them—pols who have accepted big campaign cash from these other divided creatures.

As Brooks continued this column, he was soon explaining the need for additional metis and limerence. The night before, he had blubbered a bit with Charlie Rose about his own emotional state. Inevitably, these cris de coeur provoked rebuttal from our young, inexperienced analysts. But those cries accompanied one of the strangest columns we’ve ever perused.

Good grief! In yesterday’s New York Times, Thomas Nagel reviewed Brooks’ book. Forget the metis and the limerence—Brooks’ needs may be more basic:

NAGEL (3/13/11): The main idea is that there are two levels of the mind, one unconscious and the other conscious, and that the first is much more important than the second in determining what we do. It must be said immediately that Brooks has a terminological problem here. He describes the contents of the unconscious mind as “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms,” and later he includes “sensations, perceptions, drives and needs.” A majority of the things on this list are “conscious,” in the usual sense of the word, since they are parts of conscious experience.

Good lord, is that error basic! As he continues, Nagel is reasonably kind, though he also offers this: “Brooks seems willing to take seriously any claim by a cognitive scientist, however idiotic.” (We’ve noticed.) And this, with which he ends his review: “Brooks is out to expose the superficiality of an overly rational view of human nature, but there is more than one kind of superficiality.”

Nagel reviewed an entire book. Someone should explain the cultural world in which a column like last Tuesday’s can appear in a major nation’s most important newspaper. The column offered absolute nonsense—and a full-bore airbrushing of the way the real world actually works.

Do “we” have trouble discussing emotion? Is that what caused the financial meltdown? Surely, it would be pretty to think so—especially if you don’t want to say that very rich folk have their way with the world.

But how does someone like Brooks reach the point where he’s willing to publish such piffle? More importantly, how does a nation reach the point where such piffle can pose as Deep Thought?