Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Hillary Clinton was NOT right to separate Trump from the GOP on racism, xenophobia, and sheer meanness.*

She was wrong to separate him from the GOP on fiscal and regulatory policy and on court and administrative-agency appointees. It wasn’t a package deal, or rather, it should not have been. She could have made the distinction, but she didn’t; not with specifics and not even generically on any regular basis, anyway.

Washington Post blogger Paul Waldman yesterday posted a lengthy post titled “Why Hillary Clinton was right to separate Donald Trump from the GOP” in which he makes the same mistake that Clinton herself has made since she secured the nomination in early June: conflating the five-decades-long Republican racial/xenophobic/culture-wars Southern-and-blue-collar-white strategy with economic, fiscal and regulatory policy.

For Clinton this explains her decision to highlight to the Democratic Convention delegates her embrace of so much of Bernie Sanders policy agenda by agreeing to incorporate it into the Party platform—and then never mention most of it again.  And to never mention (until very recently, and then only generically and only very sporadically) that Trump’s fiscal and regulatory policy is Paul Ryan’s on steroids, that that his economic advisers are the Koch brothers’ and other Republican donors’ dream-come-true, as will be his Supreme Court and lower-bench nominees and key federal-agency heads.  Trump is the far-right-libertarian billionaire’s Trojan Horse.**

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Check your privilege again, Mr. Fortgang, and prove that you really did get into Princeton as a merit admittee. [Format-corrected repost.]

It is a familiar phrase on college campuses, often meant to serve as conversational kryptonite, the final word in an argument to which there is no response.

“Check your privilege.”

But Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman from Westchester County, had a response.

At Princeton, Privilege Is: (a) Commonplace, (b) Misunderstood or (c) Frowned Upon, Marc Santora and Gabriel Fishermay, New York Times, May 2

Indeed he did.

I’m betting that most AB readers haven’t heard of the “Check your privilege” controversy currently raging at Princeton and other prestigious American institutions of higher learning.  Or, for that matter, the phrase “Check your privilege” itself, although I could be wrong about that.  I myself learned of the controversy on Thursday, when I read Alexandra Petri’s satire piece on it in the Washington Post. (I had not read the article in the New York Times, which was in the NY/Region section.)  The Times article explains:

After class recently, he was explaining to a classmate his views on welfare and his concern about the national debt, when he was told — not for the first time, he said — to check his privilege.

He thought about the phrase, what it meant and last month penned a pointed essay in a conservative campus publication, The Tory.

“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laserlike at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung,” he wrote.

His essay touched a nerve.

Indeed it did. As you can imagine. The Times article expounds:

He was hailed on the right, his piece used as evidence that America’s universities are hopelessly liberal. Conservative bloggers and national publications picked up his cause.

He appeared on Fox News this week, in a segment labeled “Student Takes Down Liberals Over ‘White Privilege’ Debate.”

The reaction on the left was equally strident, with other students challenging his position and saying his own words were evidence that he had failed to understand the phrase.

Josh Moskovits, also a freshman at Princeton, said the phrase was not commonly used and argued that Mr. Fortgang did not even understand what privilege meant.

“In my opinion, it’s sort of a manufactured right-wing idea that people are running around left wing colleges saying ‘Check your privilege,’ ” he said. “He would have to say, in my opinion, something incredibly outrageous to get someone to say ‘Check your privilege.’ ”

The essay in The Tory–The Tory? Seriously? And that name is not meant as satire?–you’ll be interested to know, is called “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege.”  The title probably was the work of an editor, not of Fortgang, but it captures, exactly, Fortgang’s claim, as well as exactly what’s wrong with Fortgang’s position. And exactly why the essay itself effectively illustrates that Princeton is accepting the children of the wealthy upon the basis of something other than intellect. This guy just isn’t very smart.

The character he claims for himself is, in fact, the character of his ancestors and relatives, some who were murdered by the Nazis during WWII, some (including his grandparents) who survived unspeakable horrors and then made their way to America and started a wicker-basket-making business that supported this father’s nuclear family of six.  He co-opts as his own not only the horrors, perseverance and character of his relatives who were Holocaust victims or survivors; he does the same with his grandparents’ nurturing of their kids, his father’s studiousness at City College, CUNY, doing well enough “to earn a spot at a top graduate school.”

Was that graduate school Princeton, maybe?  I don’t know. I do know that his father, Stanley–who is quoted in the Times article, and who in his brief comments comes off as gracious; not the least bit entitled, obnoxious, silly or confused–is:

the founder and managing partner of Etzion Consulting Group, L.L.C., where [in 20011 he specialized] in consulting on fixed income markets, including the market for distressed loan trading. Mr. Fortgang previously worked at Jefferies & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, among other investment banking institutions ….

Apparently, he’s now back at Jeffries & Co., as its managing director.

What could have been a beautiful essay, published somewhere else, about his gratitude to his forebears for their hard work and perseverance, their nurturing and their focus on their kids’ education, is instead a weird conflation of what he and The Tory’s headline writer view as the “character” of parent and child–his family members, and others (i.e., blacks, rural whites, Hispanics).  It also pretends that his ancestors, who came to America with no money and no English, were left completely to their own devices in post-War America, a pretense that surely is false. Perhaps his parents and grandparents forgot to mention to him the structure in place among Jews, dating back to the early part of the last century and escalating tremendously after the War, to assist Jewish immigrants, many of whom already had family in America and Canada.

But I doubt that the oversight was theirs. I suspect that, instead, the obliviousness is not a facet of his parents’ and grandparents’ character but of his own. Precisely, he write:

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Ah, yes. So not only did he not have to compete for financial aid for college; his father didn’t have to take out a student loan.  Perhaps because back then CUNY’s tuition was negligible because progressive local, state and federal taxes actually funded most of the costs at public colleges and universities?  Fortgang (the son) doesn’t mention how his father paid his tuition and living expenses at that top graduate school.  Might it be that he took out a federal-government-backed student loan at a low rate, to pay tuition that was steep for its day but pocket change now relative to what it is there now?  More from the essay:

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential.Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?

Our success has not been giftwrapped? Our success? Did anyone tell his father or his grandparents to check their privilege?  As opposed to telling him to check his?

Only folks who made it into the high echelons of wealth get up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time they want to spend with those he valued most—their spouse, or kids, or both—to earn that living?  So their kids’ failure to get into Princeton, perhaps through a legacy admission, perhaps through large financial donations to the university, but in any event surely through tutoring, SAT prep, aggressive outreach by a high school counselor who has contacts at the Ivy League admissions offices, and oodles of expensive extra-curriculars that actual have no legitimate business factoring into college admissions practices at all–is because of the kids’ lack of character, as well as a lack of the parents’ poor character?

Anyone who grew up with every imaginable advantage and thinks his own success has not been gift-wrapped because his father’s success and his grandparents’ successes weren’t isn’t just socioeconomically blind; he’s also just not very smart.

And, most revealing on that last point, is his claim and apparent belief that what was meant by “his privilege” was his race and gender rather than that he did indeed have the huge benefit of having grown up with access to excellent schools and so much more that money buys such a large percentage of students at this country’s most prestigious colleges and universities. Including, and in his case probably most relevantly, that he would not need financial assistance from the university’s endowment, to which his father may wll have already contributed before his admission and could be counted on to contribute to during the son’s time there.

This is, in one (but only one) important respect, reminiscent of a mini-controversy last year about David Brooks’s decision to us one of his NYT columns to publish, with permission, an essay written for a class assignment by a student of his in a Yale course he was teaching as a guest lecturer.  The essay, which Brooks thought was brilliant and had awarded an “A” grade, was pro forma–pretty banal, and (most glaring to me) included a statement that was nonsensical.  Its subject was generic millennial perspectives on the political process, but it was written, obviously, from the perspective of someone who was not, suffice it to say, attending Yale on a financial-needs scholarship.

Unlike the Fortgang essay, this one was not written with any malice or purpose of denigration toward certain racial minorities or poor whites.  Much less any borrowed superiority of character. It was written instead as a phone-in by an already mentally-checked-out college senior in her final semester, to complete an assignment in a filler course taken to get that final three credits needed to graduate. The student, who probably wishes she had never heard of David Brooks, surely already had accepted a position on Wall Street or in some prestigious grad-school program.  But she had indeed “come from money”.  Unless, that is, she had attended National Cathedral School on a scholarship. And, probably, so did the other students in that class. And this was the best of the essays.

But unlike that Yale senior’s essay, Fortgang’s presents something fairly ugly, in my opinion, that has been skirted but should not be. I kept wondering as read through his piece what his Holocaust-victim relatives–those who survived but are now gone, and those who perished–would think of his invocation of their lives and (for some) deaths as justification for his claim to have himself earned his spot at Princeton. Yes, he documents, they earned it for him.  But he says it’s due him by virtue of their virtue.

I wonder, as a Jew myself, how proud his late relatives would be (and how proud his father really is) of their legatee.  I suspect that his late ancestors would explain to him the difference between being the beneficiary of your parents’ and grandparents’ intense efforts, resilience, and the welcome assistance to them by others–being the beneficiary of their hard-earned successes–and being the beneficiary of your own.  And that his great aunts and great uncles who died at the hands of the Nazis during WWII would be grateful to have their stories told, but not as justification for a great nephew’s admission to Princeton.  I suspect that they would consider this, as I do, unseemly.*

*Paragraph edited, and the last two sentences added, 5/11 at 1:12 p.m.

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Kudos to Ross Douthat for his rebuttal to David Brooks on Piketty. Now, who will rebut Douthat about recent tax-policy history?

It turns out that Paul Krugman is not the only NYT columnist/blogger who reads Angry Bear. Ross Douthat does, too!

Okay, seriously: Douthat’s delicate-ballet filleting of Brooks’s take on Piketty is priceless.

Now, maybe someone can fillet Douthat’s take on tax-rate increases for “Americans making (or inheriting) in the $100,000-$500,000 range,” which, he says, “is a demographic, it should be noted, that’s proven much more successful at resisting tax increases in the age of Obama than have the true plutocrats above them.”

Hmm.  You’d almost think it was the Republicans rather than Obama and the congressional Democrats who tried to restore to Clinton-era levels the Bush-era tax cuts for people in the $250,000-$500,000 range, and estate taxes, and that Obama and the congressional Dems put a halt to it. Unless, that is, you have no familiarity with the psychology term “projection.”  Or you just have a short memory.

This did happen in the age of Obama, though, so I guess it’s fine to suggest falsely that it was Obama’s choice. Obama orchestrated Republican obstructionism. Who knew?

And that Republican threat last December to shut down the government again, before finally acceding to some part of Obama’s tax-rate increases?  Or am I confused, and it actually was the other way around?

Elsewhere in his post, Douthat says the Democrats won’t propose higher tax rates on people in that income bracket because, if they do, people in that bracket won’t vote for them.  I guess he’s surveyed the many millions of people in that bracket who voted for Obama in 2012 despite his tax-increase proposals, and learned that they’ve had a change of heart since the election.

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The David Brooks Phenomenon: He does ‘rewrite’ for Megan McCardle! [UPDATED]

Piketty wouldn’t raise taxes on income, which thriving professionals have a lot of; he would tax investment capital, which they don’t have enough of.

— David Brooks, The Piketty Phenomenon, New York Times, today

Alexandra Petri has a trademark-funny piece today in the Washington Post that she promises tells you “[e]verything you need to know about Capital — the hot summer beach read.”  She goes on to say that although many people will buy the 700-page book, and that many already have–Amazon is out of stock!–not many of those people will actually read it.  And that most of those lucky enough to already have a copy, have not read much, if any, of it yet.

So I’m wondering: Which category is David Brooks in? As a NYT columnist he probably had access to an advance copy before the book’s English-translation release. But since his claim that Piketty wouldn’t raise taxes on income sounds suspect to me–you can figure out from that comment which category I’m in–I wonder whether, rather than read the book, Brooks just Megan McCardle’s Bloomberg View op-ed three days ago, which Petri links to, and which reads as a rough draft of Brooks’s article.

McCardle, as Petri points out, says she has not read the book.  She also says:

What hasn’t improved [since the 1970s in America] is the sense that you can plan for a decent life filled with love and joy and friendship, then send your children on to a life at least as secure and well-provisioned as your own.

How much of that could be fixed by Piketty’s proposal to tax away some huge fraction of national income from rich people? Some, to be sure. But writing checks to the bottom 70 percent would not fix the social breakdown among those without a college diploma — the pattern of marital breakdown showed up early, and strong, among welfare mothers.

Maybe not.  So how about writing checks to, say, the University of Michigan, which back in the not-that distant past, when it received roughly 80% of its funding from the state, and large research grants from the federal government, had a student body that consisted of something slightly less than 125% that were from upscale households within the state or from Manhattan and Connecticut?  How about writing checks to the Detroit Public School system, or the Lansing Public School system, of the Kalamazoo Public School system, to hire teachers who have excellent credentials and pay them well?  How about writing checks for excellent mass transit systems between rural areas, inner cities, and thriving university and research towns like Ann Arbor?

Or how about writing checks for tutors and test-prep classes and informal community learning centers for children and adults?  Or for paid apprenticeships and internships?

You get the picture.  But Brooks does not.  He writes, not for the first time, about the appalling gap between the advantages that the children of educated professionals have and the children of working class parents.  He’s spot-on on that.  But does Piketty really say that taxes on non-capital “income” of the elite should not be raised? And can Brooks explain why income from capital should be taxed at a lower rate than income from labor? In typical Brooks fashion, he doesn’t even acknowledge that it currently is.

Piketty is French.  He is neither an American citizen nor an American resident.  He has spent all but (from what I can tell) about five years of his life in France.  His Ph.D. is from the London School of Economics, and his first teaching job was at MIT; he taught there for two years, 1993-1995.  If he doesn’t expressly recommend a higher tax rate on upscale American salaries and bonuses, might that be because it is only here in the United States where top corporate executes receive such huge compensation and where certain professionals are paid disproportionately well vis-a-vis those lower on the socioeconomic scale?  Piketty’s wealth-tax proposals are not narrowly prescriptive to the United States.

Ultimately, of course, it’s the specifics of Piketty’s research, not his policy suggestions, that make the book the phenomenon that it is. But I suspect that Brooks if wrong when he says that Piketty thinks taxes should not be raised on income of high earners in the United States.  I’ll have to rely on someone who’s read the book to correct me if I’m wrong.  I wish Paul Krugman read Angry Bear.



UPDATE:  As Bruce Webb and Dan Crawford pointedly pointed out in the Comments, there are in fact strong forensic indications (I’m paraphrasing here) that Krugman does read AB.


Paul Krugman DOES read Angry Bear. For God’s Sake he cited me once and has referenced other Front Pagers as well.

AB consistently shows up in lists of top 20 most influential politico-economic blogs. that not so many of those top opinion makers take the time to stay and comment is not surprising. …


Usually AB is cited 3-4 times by PK each year.

Actually, I knew that. I replied:

OK, OK, OKayyyy. Yiiikes. Can’t you guys take a joke?!

It’s no fair, though, cuz he’s never, ever cited ME. And until he does, it’s not official that he reads AB!

Unrequited love is so painful.

It is, Paul.  It is.

[Italics added; you can’t italicize in the Comments.]

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Mainstream Journalism As Just Another “Ism.” (The fallacy of the belief that the modern mainstream media has actual standards)

(Reuters) – Employers tried the carrot, then a small stick. Now they are turning to bigger cudgels.

For years they encouraged workers to improve their health and productivity with free screenings, discounted gym memberships and gift cards to lose weight. More recently, a small number charged smokers slightly higher premiums to get them to quit.

Results for these plans were lackluster, and healthcare costs continued to soar. So companies are taking advantage of new rules under President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul in 2014 to punish smokers and overweight workers.

—  How your company is watching your waistline, Kathleen Kingsbury, Reuters, Nov. 13, 2013

May I suggest that Ms. Kingsbury’s employer, Reuters, use a cudgel to get her and her editor to actually think about whether what they offer their news-media subscribers doesn’t contradict itself within the very same piece?  (Reuters is what was known for a century or so as a newswire service and is now just known as a news service; like the AP and UPI, it was historically, and now still mainly, a news-gathering service that publishes only through major-media outlets that subscribe to its services.  Such as Yahoo News, which is where I read it three weeks ago.  Thus, the reference to “their news-media subscribers.”  Okay, okay, I’m a journalism pedant.  I even know that Reuters is pronounced Royters, not Rooters, and that unlike AP and the old UPI it is a British import.  Thanks, Dad!)

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Is Margaret Thatcher Responsible for Silicon Valley, As David Brooks Claimed Recently?

[T]he myth of the welfare state fostering a lazy citizenry just doesn’t hold water. A group of small nations (combined population: about 25 million) that came up with Linux, Skype, Ikea, H&M, and Lego — to say nothing of well-written television shows and mystery novels, innovative designers and brilliant architects from Alvar Aalto to Bjarke Ingels — can’t be that lazy.

— George Blecher, participant in today’s New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion about Denmark’s welfare state, apparently the most generous in the Western world.

The New York Times has been running a sequence of pieces in the last month about Denmark’s uniquely generous public-welfare laws, a categorization that includes tax laws and spending programs that apply to all that country’s citizens, not just certain economic classes of citizens.  I hadn’t read the articles until today, when the Times made them (and their subject) the topic of its Room for Debate discussion.

Which reminded me that last month, in a column paying his respects to Margaret Thatcher after she died, David Brooks attributed the existence of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and all those other successful Silicon Valley companies started since the Thatcher/Reagan revolution began, to … Margaret Thatcher.  To whom he expressed gratitude for saving the Western democracies from adopting Swedish-style welfare-state policies, and–he said, in his trademark unexplained ergo-conclusory-declaration fashion–therefore preventing the end of technological innovation of the Silicon Valley variety.

Yes, Brooks really made that claim, if I understood him correctly.  And I think I did.

My immediate reaction upon reading that column was: Well, maybe some other prominent journalist will pick up that gauntlet and go right to the horses’ mouths, and ask some of these tech innovators whether a few of those Swedish-style benefits would in fact have caused them to forego inventing what they invented, and starting their startups or continuing to innovate and invent through their ongoing companies.

Steve Jobs is gone, so he can’t be asked whether he would have ditched the idea for the iPhone a decade ago, had this country had universal single-payer healthcare insurance, access to quality preschools, and guaranteed decent pensions.  But still alive and active are Andy Grove, Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang, David Filo, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Sean Parker, Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Systrom, Mike Krieger, and almost all of the inventors of all those apps available to anyone with a computer or a smartphone.

Brooks could have asked a few of them before he made his claim, except that he, well, doesn’t do fact vetting before he makes representations of fact. He just uses his perch as a tenured New York Times columnist to make ever-more-outlandish declarations of what he represents as fact. And receives a huge salary, as per his unquestioningly-renewed contracts.  At a time when his own paper, and most others that continue to practice this pundit-star brand of commentary journalism, are dramatically reducing or outright decimating their actual newsroom staffs, because of severely declining revenues.

I keep wondering whether these folks actually bring in substantial revenues, or whether instead they simply continue indefinitely because, y’know, that’s they way it’s always been.  If the latter, it shouldn’t matter any more than that having good-sized staffs of actual professional reporters and editors was the way it had always been, too, at most mainstream newspapers–until it no longer was.  So, why does it, if it does?

Brooks’ Thatcher-Saved-Us-From-the Fate-of-Sweden column was titled “The Vigorous Virtues.” A headline writer, not Brooks himself, titled the column.  The headline writer, a journalist who had enough vigor to read the column and enough virtue to sum up its claim accurately–and who as of a month ago remained employed at the Times albeit at a salary surely a small fraction of Brooks’s–might also have some refreshing takes on government fiscal policies. Thoughts that aren’t mindless statements of ideology transparently masquerading as fact.  But no matter.  He or she, after all, is not a star.

Much better to have Brooks, who is one, reiterate generically yet again that central and northern Europe are innovation wastelands than to require tangible fact as foundation for declarations inferentially based upon supposed fact. There is a difference between opinion and fact (actual fact and false fact, both), although you can routinely switch out opinion for false fact if you’re a big-name pundit under recurring contract with a big-name media organization.

Poetic license is fine when limited to art, but when published in the New York Times as fact–and these statements, by their nature, are, notwithstanding that they’re made in op-ed pieces–they should come with an explicit disclaimer.  They really should.


UPDATE: Reader Jack posted a comment saying:

Why do intelligent people waste their time and attention discussing anything about David Brooks. Look in the dictionary under either toady or sycophant and you will likely find a picture of Mr. Brooks. As to why he is paid by the NY Times, or any other media company, to regurgitate his gruel? I can only suggest that is easily controlled by those who sign the checks and will produce what he is directed to do so.

I wasn’t sure he was referring to me, since he did specifically reference intelligent people, but I responded nonetheless, explaining:

My intended point wasn’t just about Brooks, or even just about the NYT, Jack. It was about these venerable media companies.  Their finances are really stretched, and they keep sacrificing actual news gathering by relentlessly cutting reportorial and editorial staff.  Yet they keep these big-name pundits under contract, paying them outsized compensation, without giving any apparent thought to whether these people, as individuals, often say anything enlightening or informative.  Mostly, their columns read like Facebook pages.

This isn’t to say that any of these people never has anything insightful or genuinely informative to say.  Thomas Friedman, for example, after years of writing columns that were so clearly just “phoned in” thoughtlessly, became a joke; people started doing hilarious parodies of his columns.  But he’s an actual expert on something important–the Middle East–and his columns on that subject are worth reading because they do provide information and some semblance of insight on that topic, irrespective of whether the actual opinion he advances in one or another column, based on that specialized knowledge, is convincing.

And I do NOT mean to suggest that it is a matter of the age or generation of the columnist.  By far the most important pundit right now is Paul Krugman, because of WHAT he writes, based on his extensive specialized knowledge coupled with his his political leanings. Former Slate writer Tim Noah, who wrote a well-received book called “The Great Divergence,” on the reasons for the rapidly escalating inequality in this country, and to a much lesser extent in Western Europe, detailing his own extensive research for the book, is in his mid-50s.  He was fired recently from the New Republic.  He’s a thoughtful analyst of important socioeconomic issues, and I’d love to see him write periodically for the Times.  He’s unemployed now probably because of his age, yet Brooks and Ron Fournier, both of them baby boomers, have regular gigs and get actual attention–lots of it, apparently–for the truly mindless things they keep saying and saying and saying.

There just doesn’t seem to be any filter through which the people who run these media entities sift what–actually, who–they publish in their oped pages.  It appears to be on autopilot.

I do think the issue of whose political and economic commentary gets fairly widespread attention is important.


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Soooo … Eric Posner’s Angling to Ghostwrite David Brooks’s Columns. Or At Least to Fully Shed That John-Yoo-and-I Stigma. Fine, But Don’t Stigmatize ME In the Process. [FORMAT-CORRECTED AGAIN]

When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested Friday night, the celebration was instantly overtaken by an ideologically charged debate. Liberals argued that the government must respect Tsarnaev’s constitutional rights, by which they meant that he should be treated the same as any ordinary criminal suspect—informed of his Miranda rights, supplied with a lawyer, presented to court as soon as possible. The subtext was that the treatment of Tsarnaev would refute yet again the hated Bush administration’s claim that it needed expansive war powers to fight terrorists. Conservatives by contrast, notably Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, argued that the government should classify Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, and thus deprive him of the rights of ordinary criminal suspects. For the left, the Tsarnaevs are examples of “vulnerable Muslims” driven to extremes by President Obama’s immoral drone war; for the right, they are foot soldiers in a civilizational war. …

Neither the knee-jerk liberal nor the knee-jerk conservative response appreciates all of these underlying dilemmas. For liberals, the constitution is a fetish to be stroked at times of peril; it will protect us, whatever the stakes. They forget that criminal procedural rights were cobbled together over decades by fallible judges, who were responding to the needs of the time. What might have been appropriate during the civil rights era, when police used criminal law to suppress protesters and torment African-Americans, may not be appropriate for an age of terror. …

The isolation of terrorist suspects is hardly a new idea; it was used effectively in the 1970s by Germany, Italy, and other European democracies to defeat terrorist groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigade. Here and now in the U.S., there are several advantages to this approach. It treats in the same manner anyone who engages in terrorism or mass killing and does not single out Muslims, who are burdened by the legacy of the declaration of war against al-Qaida. It gives the police broad powers to deal with cases of extraordinary violence without granting them similar powers for ordinary criminal investigations. It avoids any reference to war or martial law, skirting the massive legal and political complexities associated with war powers. And because Congress would make the rules, and judges would oversee the system, the courts would likely hold it constitutional.

The New Law We Need in Order to Deal With Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: Congress should authorize the isolation and detention of suspected terrorists., Eric Posner*, Slate, yesterday

After reading that article this afternoon, I posted the following comment to it:

For the left, the Tsarnaevs are examples of “vulnerable Muslims” driven to extremes by President Obama’s immoral drone war; for the right, they are foot soldiers in a civilizational war? Really? For the entire left, Prof. Posner?

I’m a regular writer on a blog called Angry Bear, a left-of-center economics/politics/legal-issues blog, and yesterday, at the request of the guy who runs the blog, I posted a lengthy piece on these issues, at [this link; link corrected 4/25]. I began writing for that blog three years ago at the request of the guy who runs it, and a few of my pieces have been linked to or tweeted by some heavy-hitters. Including Paul Krugman (once), Brad DeLong, several times, and Naked Capitalism, also several times. (And occasionally by non-ideological blogs and tweeters as well, although that doesn’t matter here.) Suffice it to say that I’m of the left. Have been all my life. Almost literally; by the age of about six, I knew about McCarthyism, courtesy of my parents!

So I’m a good test case, and I invite Prof. Posner to read my blog post (if he can bear the thought and expend the time to read something written by a no-name) and point out where exactly I said or implied that I view the Tsarnaev brothers as examples of vulnerable Muslims driven to extremes by President Obama’s immoral drone war. And, since he won’t, I invite all you readers here to do that. I wish you luck.

Posner spent the early and mid 2000s angling (I think) to join his father as a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, an effort that included co-authoring with that well-known civil libertarian John Yoo (google him, folks, if you don’t know who he is and therefore don’t get the reference and characterization). Posner has spent the time since his dalliance with Yoo trying to salvage his own reputation, fairly successfully, and this article is, I think, another piece in his ongoing attempt to rid himself of the Yoo-association taint; you never know when a Republican might win the White House next, and anyway, well, y’know.

But the next presidential inauguration is nearly four years away, and so to bide his time he’s apparently now auditioning as David Brooks’ ghostwriter. Brooks really, really does need one, and Posner has that sweeping-generalizations-and-categorizations thing down pat, which is a good start. All he needs now is to practice up on the faint-correlation-equals-definitive-causation thing. Or at least the a-series-of-statements-of-fact-invites-a-non-sequitur-conclusion technique, a David Brooks special. And no one will be the wiser that the columns are ghostwritten.

As a liberal, I can also attest, by the way, that it is not a characteristic of ours to forget that criminal procedural rights were cobbled together over decades by judges. Nor to forget, or not to, um, notice, that judges are fallible. We notice that; trust me. Some of us even think that some judges are deliberately fallible. In fact, some of us are pretty sure of this.

As for what’s appropriate for an age of terror, one thing that I’m pretty sure is not is that any statute passes constitutional muster because Congress would make the rules, and judges would oversee the system. Congress sort-of-normally makes the rules in detailed statutes, and judges sort-of-normally oversee the system that statutes establish, at least since Marbury v. Madison. So I don’t know why the courts would likely hold it constitutional because Congress would make the rules, and judges would oversee the system. At least until Professor Posner becomes a member of one of those courts.

And just to be clear, I do not consider the Tsarnaev brothers examples of vulnerable Muslims driven to extremes by President Obama’s immoral drone war. This even though that may well have been why the older brother was able to gain the younger brother’s assistance. And even though I, too, believe that the drone war is immoral. And that there is no legitimate reason for this country to be involved in Afghanistan militarily, and that there has been no reason for a decade or so. It already looks likely that the younger brother was vulnerable to his older brother’s manipulations, probably mainly concerning the drone wars, but that the older brother had an agenda apart from the drone wars.***


*Eric Posner is a longtime professor at the University of Chicago Law School and a son of Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner.


**I had to fully edit the format of this piece once and then still make another formatting correction, because I’m still having trouble getting used to our new platform.  After the second edit, the title disappeared, so I had to edit this a third time. Aaargh.

Steve Roth, Dan Crawford, and reader RJS have helped a lot via emails–thanks, guys!–but I’m still semi-clueless about it all.  Apologies, readers.  I think I finally got this one right. 4/23 at 3:04 p.m.


***In light of my exchange with Woolley in the comments below, I just amended this paragraph in  my Slate Comment and here. 4/23/13 at 4:19 p.m.


Wellll, as I learned the hard way from perplexed emails to me about this post, our format here in WordPress does not distinguish blockquotes clearly enough.  JazzBumpa, for example, said he wondered who had poisoned me–until he finally realized that that stuff was a blockquote.  [Poisoned me?  More like kidnapped me, and then waited for Stockholm Syndrome to kick in before he allowed me to post anything.]  The solution, for the moment anyway? Italics.










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David Brooks Bemoans the Low Standards of Living in Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland

In his NYT column today, David Brooks employs his standard column-writing formula of plucking two or more unrelated facts from their context and specifics, putting them into a sequence, and–voila!–suggesting a causal relationship, or at least a relationship of some sort, and therefore some conclusory fact.  

This time around, he does it in the service of suggesting that the House Congressional Progressive Caucus’s proposed fiscal plan, written “by people hermetically sealed in the house of government”.  Unlike, say, the Ryan plan, written by Paul Ryan, who has spent most of his career in manufacturing.  

The CPC plan calls for raising the top income tax rate to 49%, taxing investment income at the same rate as other income, closing a variety of tax loopholes such as the carried-interest gig, taxing estates at their pre-2001 levels, and eliminating the corporate money-laundering-through-foreign-shell-subsidiaries option. It also proposes additional expenditures on such things as infrastructure and education.  Brooks says all this means that the CPC members “believe that government is the [economic] horse, the source of growth, job creation and prosperity.”  Not a source, but the source. Because this is a zero-sum game.  

He first claims that these high tax rates for the top bracket, when coupled with other taxes–state and local taxes, sales taxes, gas taxes–would amount to about 60% of their income. But Brooks being Brooks, he then says, without explanation, that the rates would be “80 percent or 90 percent of somebody’s top marginal earnings.” Somebody’s, maybe, but it’s certainly not clear who’s.  Anyway, this would “begin to change behavior and [we would] wind up with a very different country.”  Which I don’t doubt.

“Higher taxes,” he says, “will produce long-term changes in social norms, behavior and growth.”  Not necessarily bad changes, though, since no one is actually talking about taxing 80% or 90% of anyone’s income.  No one serious in this country, anyway.  But what would a David Brooks column be without a sleight of hand or two?

Brooks offers an illustration to buttress his argument:

Edward Prescott, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, found that, in the 1950s when their taxes were low, Europeans worked more hours per capita than Americans. Then their taxes went up, reducing the incentives to work and increasing the incentives to relax. Over the next decades, Europe saw a nearly 30 percent decline in work hours.

Yup.  Those 40-hour-a-week labor laws here and in Europe sure lowered standards of living. Bring back sweat shops! Foxconn, not Siemens, is what we want our companies to be modeled after.  
“A study last year by the economists Michael Keane and Richard Rogerson,” Brooks continues, “found that tax rates can have a surprisingly large influence on how much people invest in education, how likely they are to create businesses and which professions they go into.” No doubt. Get rid of the carried-interest break and start taxing hedge fund managers’ income at the same rate as salaries from working as an engineer, and some people who had planned to go into finance might instead go into engineering. Which would be awful for our society.  And raising taxes to the rates they were when state universities received about 70% of their funding from the government rather than most of it from tuition, as they do now, might allow students to borrow–er, invest–far less to go to college.

I myself don’t favor a top tax rate as high as the 49% proposed by the CPC.  Nor do I claim that the top tax rates in each of the countries I list in the title of this post has top tax rates that high. But what’s so striking and revealing about Brooks’s column is its utter untethering of actual standards of living from his litany of loose declarations of fact and silly conclusions.  There is no apparent recognition in that column that the purpose of fiscal policy isn’t abstractions but personal and societal well-being.  
There is, though, on the New York Times’s website today, in the Opinion section, a lengthy, detailed column that actually does exactly that, This one is not by a political pundit but instead by an actual working economist, albeit not one who Brooks would even read, much less cite: Joseph Stiglitz.* And, lo and behold, it demonstrates using relevant, rather than disembodied, facts and statistics, that the government-horse thing isn’t a zero-sum game after all. Unless it’s being ridden backwards by the Tea Party or saddled by a pundit who doesn’t work too hard even though he doesn’t live in Europe.

Raise David Brooks’s taxes a bit and he’ll cut his workweek from 20 hours to 15.  Praise the lord.

*Stiglitz also is a Nobel laureate, by the way.

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From Today’s New York Times Front Page, and From Tomorrow’s New York Times Op-Ed Page

Today, in the New York Times:

With the Dow Jones industrial average flirting with a record high, the split between American workers and the companies that employ them is widening and could worsen in the next few months as federal budget cuts take hold. …

“So far in this recovery, corporations have captured an unusually high share of the income gains,” said Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “The U.S. corporate sector is in a lot better health than the overall economy. And until we get a full recovery in the labor market, this will persist.”

Tomorrow, in the New York Times:

If President Obama really wants to show leadership, he will seize this moment and propose a reduction in corporate tax rates, so that corporations will have money to invest and hire and raise salaries and wages.

Carpe Clueless, David Brooks, op-ed

Bet on it.

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Oh, Dear. The David Brooksification of the Washington Post Editorial Board. And Brooks Doesn’t Even Write For The Washington Post. (But he does still write for the New York Times.) – UPDATED

As Greg Sargent pointed out this morning, the new “it” gimmick of the pox-on-both-houses punditry is to borrow National Journal editorial something-or-other Ron Fournier’s tac of pretending that Obama can order the military to invade the House of Representatives and hold its members at assault-weapon-point until they agree to a grand bargain.  Or at least to a less-grand one that includes additional tax revenue mainly through the closing of loopholes for the wealthy.  

Sargent doesn’t give credit where it’s due, though; he fails to identify Fournier as the etymoligcal source for this.  But, best as I can tell, he is; he just forgot to copyright it.

The key to this particular gimmick is a slight variation on the Orwellian redefinition of the word “lead” offered, repeatedly now, by John Boehner. In that original form, lead actually means follow.  Or, capitulate.  As in: The president needs to show leadership by delegating policymaking to the Republicans.  But in the slightly morphed from being employed by the punditry, it means–seriously–using actual force to compel the House to agree to a compromise that includes raising more tax revenue from the wealthy.

And surely this will resonate with the public.  After all, doesn’t everyone want a president who leads?  And isn’t all that matters simply the use of the word lead–regardless of how closely that use corresponds to the actual common English-language meaning of the word?

Well, obviously, the answer to that question is yes, because today the Washington Post features an editorial called “Sequester offers President Obama a time to lead,” which suggests that Obama offer a grand bargain that includes … additional tax revenues from the wealthy.

Call up the Army, Mr. President. And a Marine unit or two.  

Actually, apparently the purpose of the editorial–its purported purpose, anyway–is to try to goad Obama into proposing a grand bargain that would cut Social Security and Medicare benefit and that would include additional tax revenue.  So editorial writer casually segues from “leader” as someone who forces an actual agreement to “leader” who proposes a bold, sweeping, grand solution that the other side will reject out-of-hand and that therefore doesn’t resolve the sequester issue that the writer insists Obama is obligated to force a resolution of.  

But the actual purpose of the editorial–at least one actual purpose–is to support and subtly reiterate Bob Woodward’s false and baldly silly claim in that paper last weekend that in Aug. 2011 Obama agreed to a deal that forbade him and the Senate Democrats from bargaining to replace the sequester with any agreement except one that was even more abhorrent to the Dems’ position than the sequester.  According to Woodward, Obama agreed as part of the sequester itself that the Repubs were free to try to replace the sequester with a deal that removed Defense Department cuts and replaced those cuts with draconian cuts to social safety net programs and to other agencies and programs that the Dems support.  (The EPA!  The SEC! The Consumer Product Safety Commission!)  But, Obama agreed, the Dems would not be entitled to try to replace some of the cuts with additional tax revenue. 

Uh-uh.  No, sir.  This train runs in only one direction: Republican.

Sounds to me like a deal that Obama could have just cut to the chase and taken right then and there, in Aug. 2011 rather than waiting 18 months.  But it doesn’t sound that way to Woodward. Or to the editorial’s author, who writes:

The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes.

Yup. I guess that if you’re a Washington Post editorial writer, you can try to get away with saying that Obama “agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes,” and not identify which deal you’re talking about–the sequester deal, which indeed was all spending cuts, or instead a deal to replace the sequester, which has yet to be made and therefore includes no deal that is all spending cuts.  At least if you don’t give a damn about your paper’s credibility.  

And if you don’t care that you’re playing with fire.  Words have actual meanings, and these semantics sleights of hand are matches.

But the editorial is dangerous in a substantive, rather than only a semantics, respect as well, because it bases its grand-bargain argument upon a claim that we must agree now to cut Social Security and Medicare in the future in order to pay for things like increases in education funding and guaranteed quality preschool now.  At least I think that’s what it’s saying.  

Ben Bernake, by the way, made clear today under questioning before the Senate Banking Committee, that he begs to differ with the assessment that this is a grand idea. The Washington Post’s economics and finance reporter who covered the hearing will report accurately on what transpired. The Washington Post’s editorial board won’t even understand it. Or won’t admit that they do.

Meanwhile, never to be outdone in recommending policies to Obama so that Obama can lead, without offering an iota of explanation or support for them, David Brooks weighed in this morning with another leadership-as-a-double-entendre column.  This time, fresh from his mea culpa about his last column, and in fact reiterating the walk-back, Brooks acknowledges that inequality has spiraled out of control since the Clinton era, and agrees that Obama should propose policies to address this.  Like a consumption tax to offset an elimination of income taxes on incomes up to $100,000 and a reduction of corporate tax rates to 15%.  

Brooks doesn’t explain the policy reasons for the two offsets he suggests.  But he doesn’t have to.  Everyone knows that the less progressive the tax code, the less inequality in wealth we will have, and that record corporate profits and record corporate hoarding of those profits leads to more equality of income.  After all, they’ve read past Brooks columns.

As for the Washington Post editorial board, when they consider important people who should lead, but aren’t, they might want to look in the mirror.  They emphasize that the Republicans are right that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011.  But they don’t mention that the alternative was the default by the United States on all of its already-incurred financial obligations, including its Treasury bonds. Nor that that, by absolutely all accounts, would have destabilized the entire world economy.

This is important stuff. And as the editorial board of one this country’s emanant general-news publications, they’re important people. They should take that responsibility seriously. They should lead.


UPDATE:  Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes, in a column posted this afternoon:

Much as I would criticize Obama, it’s wrong to say that both sides are equally to blame for what’s about to hit us. This isn’t a one-off case of Republicans using Obama’s sequestration legislation to force reckless budget cuts. It’s a pattern of behavior: First the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling; then they were careening toward the “fiscal cliff.” This isn’t a legislative tactic anymore; it’s an addiction.

Excuse me, Mr. Ignatius, but given that you acknowledge that the Republicans were prepared to shut down the government and damage the national credit rating with their showdown over the debt ceiling, isn’t it a bit–oh, I don’t know–odd for you to imply that that was unconnected to, y’know, Obama’s sequester? Since, without* Obama’s sequester, the government would in fact have shut down, and the damage the national credit rating would have been, um, significant–so, this is what Obama’s sequester avoided?

Or was Obama’s sequest really just proposed in a vacuum, as you suggest? I forget. Or you do.

Or maybe you just pretend to.

*Typo-corrected. Originally, it said “with” rather than “without.” Oops.

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