Barack Obama Criticism Economics Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

The Left’s Odd Abandoment of Obama: Matt Taibbi

I recently castigated Glenn Greenwald for the umpteenth time for distorting the world to fit his ideological lens. He, like a significant portion of the left, seems to have turned on Obama. Despite his claims to judge politicians on a case-by-case basis and not to give them support or opposition based on their history, it is clear that Greenwald’s recent attempts at rationally ranting about Obama have a strong emotional core; I extrapolate this from the somewhat tortured manner in which he caricatures the positions of Obama and Obama’s supporters in order to take them down, and the eagerness with which he seems to try to get to his rants in which he loses the remaining bits of common sense he has. Thus, it isn’t that exceptional that he endorsed Matt Taibbi’s recent piece on the Obama administration. While Taibbi is sloppier than Greenwald – and lacks the “fair” persona that Greenwald sometimes adopts – both have a core position: they are anti-establishmentarian. Taibbi though writes news rather than opinion journalism and constantly hides behind the (no-doubt vigorous) fact-checking of his pieces by Rolling Stone – but his most egregious errors are implicit. He writes as if insinuation were fact, which makes him difficult to take seriously whether he is writing about AIG or Goldman Sachs or Obama. And his constant mode is paranoid conspiracy theorist – which certainly fits the moment. Perhaps the best response to Taibbi was to call him the “Sarah Palin of journalism.” And he certainly demonstrated that out-of-the-gate with his first sentence responding to critics:

When we went to print with the latest Rolling Stone piece about Obama’s economic hires, a couple of my sources advised me to expect some nastiness in the way of a response from Obama apologists.

Like Palin, Taibbi defends himself by pointing out who his enemies are, as if their existence makes him right. Granted, Taibbi is a better writer than Palin – and doubtless is better informed. But what he does with his knowledge is create elaborate conspiracy theories embedded in the colorful opinions he gives throughout his news:

The point is that an economic team made up exclusively of callous millionaire-assholes has absolutely zero interest in reforming the gamed system that made them rich in the first place.

Go ahead – fact check that! The main point of his most recent piece seems to be the pernicious effect of Clinton Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs head, and Citibank big shot, Robert Rubin. A good article could be written about this – but Taibbi chose instead to write a piece about Obama’s hypocrisy demonstrated by his embrace of Rubin’s mentees. Taibbi accomplishes this with a quick bait-and-switch, describing the vague hopes people had for Obama during the campaign – that he was “a man of the people” – and then deftly pivoting:

Then he got elected.

What’s taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history.

Now – this assertion is the core contention Taibbi makes – yet he entirely fails to do several things: (1) to describe what Obama actually campaigned on; (2) to fairly or honestly describe the Rubin/New Democratic positions; or (3) to describe accurately the attempts made by Obama to reign in the financial industry. Instead, Taibbi merely lists the many people who worked for Rubin at some point who now work for Obama as if that proved the audacious opinions he starts his piece with. His entire piece would work better as a footnote supporting one contention in his three paragraph opening.

Tim Fernholz also writes a good piece taking on Taibbi’s anti-Obama screed.

Andrew Leonard of Salon provided a pretty good summary of Taibbi in general:

It’s the classic Taibbi approach: vastly and sloppily overstate the case in absurd, over-the-top rhetoric while ignoring any possible counterargument.

But Ezra Klein as always has an extremely intelligent take:

But in this case, Taibbi chose a swift-moving narrative at the expense of an accurate picture of how — and more importantly, where — Wall Street is capturing the political process.

The issue here is not that Taibbi should be nicer to the Obama administration, which is how he’s framing most of the criticism of his article. Quite the opposite, actually. Taibbi is being much too nice to the Obama administration. He’s imbued them with a lot more power than they have.

If the result of the 2010 election is that Obama fires his economics team and moves his administration to the left, but the Republicans pick up 60 seats on the House and move the body to the right, then American public policy outcomes move to the right.

Economics Financial Crisis Politics The Opinionsphere

The Reagan Revolution (cont.)

There’s been quite a strong response to Paul Krugman’s column last week blaming the financial crisis on Ronald Reagan. William Greider from the left and Richard Posner from the right both made the case that it was actually Jimmy Carter who’s to blame. But I think Andrew Leonard in Salon has the best take on the whole meta-debate over the debate:

The continuing influence of the banking industry on Congress, on which point we witness new revelations nearly every day, should be enough to underline how both parties succumb all too willingly to the financial blandishments lavished by Wall Street. I’m sure Krugman would acknowledge that. Despite Posner’s dismissal of Krugman as a Democratic partisan, it is well worth noting that Krugman has been far harder on the Obama administration’s economic policy moves than your typical Republican partisan was on George Bush until late in his second term.

But there’s a different, perhaps more profound sense in which Reagan really did do it. Momentum for deregulation may have gotten started during the Carter administration, but the ideological case for it didn’t crystallize until the election of Reagan in 1980. From that point on, the predisposition to loosen the reins on the financial industry became explicit. Both parties helped get us where we are today, but one party in particular identified itself with the all-knowing wisdom of the markets. And that party is paying the price.

I still like the formulation I used – that does not lay the blame directly on Reagan or his advisors – but indirectly:

To some degree, these changes had positive effects – as the market was freer, as the economy grew, as corporations thrived, as the overall wealth of America grew.

But they spelled trouble down the road. The stimulus spending and tax cutting, the informal Bretton Woods II agreement, and concentration of wealth created an unstable system. Internally, the society was imbalanced as extremes of wealth and power were accumulated by a small minority. This eventually undermined the very free market and democratic discourse that is essential to the American tradition. A course correction later might have saved the Reagan vision – and for a time it seemed as if Bill Clinton’s moderate presidency had, as middle class wages finally began to grow again – but Bush doubled down on Reaganism when he should have pared back, and we are left with this mess.

Is this collapse Reagan’s fault? I wouldn’t say so. But he set the initial course towards this iceberg, even if the iceberg was out of sight at the time he set the course. He – and the 1980s revolutions in finance, economics, and government that his administration supported and enabled – are the true authors of this economic collapse, even if they cannot be blamed for not forseeing it.