Come for the Politics, Stay for the Pathologies

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Idiot’s Guide to Driving off a Cliff


What do David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman, all have in common? Aside from the fact that they all write unhinged opinion pieces for the New York Times.

Not a trick question: they’re all idiots.

For David Brooks and Maureen Dowd’s part, they’ve both recently demonstrated this fact so adequately in their own respective columns (The Flock Comedies, Playing all the Angles) that no further external analysis is required. But Friedman and Krugman deserve more formal external validation.

Thomas Friedman’s brand of idiocy was recently splayed out by Bookworm in her column Why Tom Freidman is an idiot.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt BUT that Tom Friedman is an idiot.  His worship for Communist China — which in typical Friedman fashion routinely takes the form of acknowledging its failings, yet nevertheless lusting after the same power that creates those failings — is manifest evidence of his idiocy.  He’s coy, but he can’t disguise his unwholesome passion for totalitarianism.

It’s not just his totalitarian yearnings, though, that make Friedman stupid.  It’s also his blatant inability to align facts and conclusions.  Friedman made his reputation as a fact guy.  He’s written lots of ostensibly fact-based books.  Certainly, he impresses the self-styled intellectuals on the Left with his mastery of facts.  But the reality is that, in his columns, he frequently ignores painful facts, fakes real facts, and misuses actual facts, all of which adds up to stupid 

Bookworm explains her burst of animosity towards the Hot, Flat Globalist of Record:

If you’re wondering why I’m harshing on Friedman with such venom this morning, it’s because of a column he wrote yesterday about Israel and the Palestinians.  The whole column exists in a parallel reality universe.  Taking his usual irritating, condescending stance of wise father lecturing recalcitrant children, he essentially demands that Israel just get with the Obama program and make concessions that will inevitably lead to the lion and the lamb lying in peace together...

Bookworm explains that, like so many others, Freidman didn’t start out as a complete idiot, but was – again, like so many others – caught up in the one-way feedback of a closed system:

Friedman wasn’t always such an idiot.  He was always a pedantic, formulaic writer, but twenty years ago, he actually used to make facts and theory mesh well together.  The problem is the bubble.  Friedman is encased in an ideological bubble, with no countervailing forces, that renders him the functional equivalent of an unpruned hedge:  he’s wild and ugly now, instead of neat and compact…Because the Times decided to remove comments, Friedman doesn’t have the reality checks that, in the stripper world, tell that gal to go on a diet and keep her clothes on; and that in the political world, should tell Friedman that he’s got his facts wrong, that he’s missing facts, or that his conclusions don’t make sense.

I’m not able to do the rest of her lovely, salacious commentary justice, so do read the whole article here. It’s a great piece on what happens when you are disconnected from reality. You simply can’t comprehend how it is that everyone else is such a dolt. It’s the Pauline Kael syndrome.

Next up, Stephen Spruiell  recently hammered Paul Krugman (the Hot, Flat, Economist of Record) along similar lines in his article at National Review Paul Krugman: Professor Ahab. He attempts to explain Krugman’s motivation and journey from author of left-leaning but mostly fair-handed commentary on all things economic to the vitriolic partisan he is now.

And then you have a writer like Paul Krugman… He has developed a reputation among liberals as one of the Bush administration’s most unsparing and effective critics. Conservatives, by contrast, tend to regard him as a crass and occasionally vicious partisan. But Krugman was not always this divisive: Though he never made a secret of his liberal views, most of his early public commentary (which predates his column at the Times) was devoted to cleverly debunking economic tropes dear to both Left and Right. His transformation into a bare-knuckled liberal brawler is a testimony to the perils of life on the high seas of opinion journalism. Let us reconstruct his journey.

It wasn’t until “Presidential candidate Bill Clinton took to citing Krugman’s findings on the campaign trail” in order to prove a point that Clinton had been “trying to make for months” that middle class income had stagnated during the Reagan boom, that Krugman began to compromise some of his intellectual integrity.

… Bill Clinton made up his mind that the Republicans were to blame for income inequality before he read Sylvia Nasar’s article [which used Krugman’s data] on inequality. He “added the statistic to his repertoire” in order to bolster a claim that he had already decided was true. That’s okay — politicians are supposed to be hacks. But writers and economists aren’t. Krugman once was careful not to make the same leap Clinton did, writing in the early Nineties that “we don’t fully understand why inequality soared.” But as his celebrity as a political commentator grew, he added the “institutions and norms” theory to his repertoire, not because it was especially robust, but because it proved a point he’d been trying to make for years: Voting for Republicans causes the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. It just feels true, doesn’t it?

Spruiell then permits Krugman to be hoisted by his own petard:

In “How to Be a Hack,” (Krugman) wrote that “love of money is only the root of some evil. Love of the limelight, love of the feeling of being part of a Movement, even love of the idea of oneself as a bold rebel against the Evil Empire can be equally corrupting of one’s intellectual integrity.” One could certainly paint a picture of Paul Krugman as a man enchanted and corrupted by all of those things, if one wished. His harsh criticism of George W. Bush in the New York Times broadened his fame to the point that, as reported in The New Yorker, he got a dinner invitation from Paul Newman.

… and he leaves him there a while, wafting along in thin air:

Then there is his bald inconsistency. In 2002, the disappearance of the projected surplus and the sudden appearance of chronic deficits led him to wonder, quite sensibly, “What happens [when foreign creditors] lose their enthusiasm” for financing our deficits? But these days, when policymakers tremble at the truly staggering size of the deficit, Krugman mocks them for worrying about “invisible bond vigilantes.” The bond vigilantes were also invisible in 2002, when Krugman feared them. All that has changed is the size of the deficit: It has gotten much, much larger. Krugman’s justification for his inconsistency is that things are different now: Interest rates will stay low because creditors will continue to view U.S. Treasuries as a safe haven in uncertain times. But that’s an awfully big assumption for policymakers to rely upon. They have responsibility for the solvency of the U.S. government. Krugman has a newspaper column.

Spruiell concedes that Krugman did in fact simply grow more partisan over the years, but also notes another powerful driver in play:

But he is also a man caught in the grip of a powerful ideology he believes in his heart to be true — an ideology that came back into vogue for an all-too-brief spell before losing favor again for reasons Krugman believes to be unjust. His preferred monetary and fiscal policies appear in practice to have horrible unintended consequences and costs that are far out of proportion to the good they do, but he insists that this is because we’ve put the wrong people in charge.

Hubris, my friends. In short, Krugman, like Freidman, like the gang at Enron and the sitting POTUS all suffer from the same grand delusion: that they are the smartest guys in the room. They all came to this unholy conclusion in the same way. Their lives evolve around a feedback loop consisting of  sycophantic praise and a steady feed of carefully screened positive input. Negative feedback is deemed to be cynical, aimed at undermining the “team’s” agenda and therefore dismissed out of hand. All leaders, writers, actors and politicians foolish enough to follow this screed are guaranteed only one thing: eventual failure. Without allowing negative feeds into the inner sanctum where it can be analyzed and dealt with, it will destroy you. The only surprise is how many seemingly intelligent people make this foolish error of judgment. Sometimes even experienced players fall prey to these Sirens, but nearly all inexperienced players do. If this is your strategy, you better hope for a combination of  economic good luck and apathy on the part of your constituents – whomever they might be – if you want anything more than a short run.

From where I’m sitting, it looks like President Obama boarded the bus of idiots, previously piloted into a ditch by the Republicans, grabbed the wheel, tromped on the gas and managed to lurch it out of the gully and headed straight for a cliff. It doesn’t appear as though he’s got luck going for him, and the natives are surely anything but apathetic.

All Aboard!