Tuesday, July 17, 2012

David Brooks Explained

(David Brooks is the New York Times apologist for pure unregulated predatory capitalism, which is the Romney brand. Here's his most recent column, with explanatory footnotes.)


Published: July 16, 2012

Let’s say you are president in a time of a sustained economic slowdown. You initiated a series of big policies that you thought were going to turn the economy around, but they didn’t work — either because they were insufficient or ineffective (Or because your opposition and their clients and the trillions of bailout dollars hoarded by Wall Street were dedicated to making sure they didn't work). How do you run for re-election under these circumstances?

Do you spend the entire campaign saying that things would have been even worse if you hadn’t acted the way you did? No. That would be pathetic. (But it would be true. I guess the truth is pathetic if you don't like it.) You go on the attack. (Not an unreasonable thing to do since the Republican opposition has attacked and blocked and ridiculed and filibustered and evaded every proposal and every compromise you've tried in the past three and a half years.) Instead of defending your economic policies, you attack modern capitalism as it now exists. (Capitalism as it exists, as enabled by the extreme deregulation of the Bush years, is a gross distortion of the practical, regulated, moderate and egalitarian capitalism its inventor, Adam Smith, described in 1776.) You blame the system for the economy. (You blame the reckless greed and extreme inequality of wealth and power between Wall Street and Main Street, which is only fair. And honest.) You do this with double ferocity if your opponent (an affable, square jawed, handsome vulture capitalist and exporter of American jobs with unknown millions in secret bank accounts in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda) happens to be the embodiment of that system.

This is what the Obama campaign appears to have done in recent months. (Finally!) Instead of defending the policies of the last four years (which had started a decent recovery until the GOP retook the House and were able to shut it down again), the campaign has begun a series of attacks on the things people don’t like about modern capitalism. (Why argue with the American people? Give them some credit for intelligence.)

They don’t like the way unsuccessful firms go bust. (Or fairly prosperous firms are seen as vulnerable by takeover artists like Romney, who use the companies' own cash to buy them, then load them up with debt to pay themselves huge bonuses, then plunder their pension funds, slash their workers' pay and benefits, break their unions and ship their jobs overseas, using the proceeds to buy a few more homes and show ponies.) Obama hit that with ads about a steel plant closure a few months ago. They don’t like C.E.O. salaries. (Why should the boss of a company earn more in a day or an hour than an average worker earns in a year by actually making stuff?) President Obama hits that regularly. (Amen!) They don’t like financial shenanigans. (Let's quit mincing words. Call it crime, fraud, looting, corrupt practice, creative tax evasion.) Obama hits that. They don’t like outsourcing and offshoring. (Explain to me how firing people and moving their jobs overseas where you can hire a 12 year-old for a dollar a day is patriotic.) This week, Obama has been hitting that.

The president is now running an ad showing Mitt Romney tunelessly singing “America the Beautiful,” while the text on screen blasts him for shipping jobs to China, India and Mexico. (The text quotes newspaper reports that are actually factual. The singing is Romney's own. This is Politics 101.)

The accuracy of the ad has been questioned by the various fact-checking outfits. (Questioned before new information emerged that indicate Romney either lied to American voters or lied to the SEC about whether he was running Bain Capital during the period it was aggressively shipping jobs to China and India. Or maybe he was lying to Massachusetts election officials about whether he was living in his his Utah home or his Massachusetts home and running Bain. And how many homes does he own? Six?) That need not detain us. (Let's hurry past this because Romney's financial statements are dubious at best.) It’s safest to assume that all the ads you see this year (most of which will be paid for by the billions flowing into Republican PACs) will be at least somewhat inaccurate because the ad-makers now take dishonesty as a mark of their professional toughness. (A standard set by Nixon a generation ago and perfected by the Bush family.)

What matters is the ideology behind the ad: the assumption that Bain Capital, the private-equity (vulture capitalist) firm founded by Romney, should not have invested in (and subsequently looted) companies that (under Romney's/Bain's firm direction) hired workers abroad (after firing their American workers and looting their pension funds and taking away their health insurance); the assumption that hiring Mexican or Indian workers is unpatriotic (it's jolly patriotic if you're Mexican or Indian); the assumption that no worthy person would do what most global business leaders have been doing for the past half-century. (Let's just say it: If you could get away with being completely ruthless and greedy and violate trust and obligations right and left and ruin a lot of lives and make yourself rich in the process, wouldn't you do it? Some wouldn't. Very few people would have the gall to run for president on such a record.)

This ad — and the rhetoric the campaign is using around it — challenges the entire logic of capitalism as it has existed over several decades. (Actually, David. No. Go reread your Adam Smith. Reread your Theodore Roosevelt. Reread your Dwight Eisenhower. I'd recommend you reread Keynes, but you won't.) It’s part of a comprehensive attack on the (utter corruption and destruction of the) economic system Romney personifies. (He's the poster boy for the corporate “shenanigans” that collapsed our economy in the last few months of the Bush administration.)

This shift of focus has been audacious. (And long overdue. Obama has been too polite, too reserved, and too trusting in the age-old democratic rules and traditions in Washington, old traditions like cooperation and polity, which the Republicans have been spitting on for years. A word about audacity: Washington and Ben Franklin were audacious confronting the largest empire in the world. TR was audacious to confront the great powers and monopolies on Wall Street. Audaciousness isn't always a bad thing. Calling Obama audacious is audacious, in the negative sense.) Over the years of his presidency, Obama has not been a critic of globalization. (Globalization isn't necessarily bad. Free trade can also be Fair Trade, benefiting all sides of the trade. When globalization is an excuse to exploit disorganized and unprotected workers in impoverished countries or steal their raw materials or to dismantle workers' rights in your own country, using the infrastructure and institutions and perverting the laws created as part of a fair society to do so, that is bad globalization. That is the Romney model.) There’s no real evidence that, when he’s off the campaign trail, he has any problem with outsourcing and offshoring. (He isn't in the offshoring business. Obama hasn't exported a single job, but none of us can avoid buying tennis shoes made by teenagers in Malaysia or the Philippines.) He has lavishly praised people like Steve Jobs who were prominent practitioners. (He praised their inventiveness and the quality of their products designed here. Like most of us, he no doubt wishes they were made here.) He has hired people like Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, whose company embodies the upsides of globalization. (If you want someone to advise and manage a complex economy you hire somebody who has experience advising and managing complex international companies. It would be foolish not to hire the most competent people. Sometimes even when they don't entirely agree with you, as FDR did when he created the SEC.) His economic advisers have generally touted the benefits of globalization even as they worked to help those who are hurt by its downsides. (The point of Democratic policy has always been to strengthen our economy while not gutting the source of its energy which is a skilled and well-paid workforce, citizens who can afford to buy the products they manufacture. FDR's rich friends called him a traitor to his class for siding with working people. I'd call that patriotism.)

But, politically, this aggressive tactic has worked. (Americans are lied to a lot by FoxNews and talk radio, but at the end of the day they are not stupid.) It has shifted the focus of the race from being about big government, which Obama represents, (a government big enough to serve a big country and stand up to huge transnational corporations...and by the way, Obama has increased spending less than any president since Truman––look it up) to being about (predatory or vulture) capitalism, which Romney represents.

Just as Republicans spent years promising voters that they could have tax cuts forever (and never pay for anything again), now the Democrats are promising voters that they can have all the benefits of capitalism without the downsides (as their parents and grandparents had in the bad old days of Truman and Eisenhower and JFK, before corporations were people in all respects but personal responsibilities), like plant closures, rich C.E.O.’s and outsourcing. (Funny how productivity gains don't count unless they are paid upward to the people in the executive suite. Workers are greedy if they demand benefits like healthcare but CEOs are shrewd if they demand free dry cleaning, free limos and courtside tickets for life) Just as Republicans used to force Democrats into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to have high taxes if you want your programs) (Historically, Republicans only wanted the streets paved to their homes, their country clubs, their factory, and, as Leona Helmsley said, thought taxes were for little people), now Democrats are casting Republicans into the eat-your-spinach posture (you need to accept outsourcing and the pains of creative destruction if you want your prosperity). (Creative destruction is what the mob called burning the factory to collect on the insurance.)

The Romney campaign doesn’t seem to know how to respond. (There is no plausible response. Maybe they know this.) For centuries, business leaders have been inept when writers, intellectuals and politicians attacked capitalism (which is why the billionaire class have spent billions buying writers, economists, academics, inviting creative people to their beach homes, creating “think tanks” and buying ad talent and mass-purchasing their dreadfully bad political books onto the bestseller list. It's called bribery.), and, so far, the Romney campaign is continuing that streak. (But how many billionaires can Romney loyalists fit into one 60,000 square foot Hamptons “cottage” for a fundraiser?)

One thing is for sure. As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute (see "billionaire funded right wing think tank", above) has said again and again (to appreciative monied audiences who pay for his airfare), it’s not enough to say that capitalism will make you money. You can’t fight what is essentially a moral critique with economics. (Since when has money made you immune to moral considerations? I think Jesus had a few things to say about the morality of the rich. Adam Smith naively assumed the rich would submit to honest, fair regulation.)

Romney is going to have to define a vision of modern capitalism. (As a Bush Jr. advisor once said “We create our own reality.” In the new Republican universe reality can be bought, usually without inconveniencing rich friends with a tax bill.) He’s going to have to separate his vision from the scandals and excesses we’ve seen over the last few years. (Let's walk that back a couple of years and stipulate that the scandals were the most scandalous during the regime of your man George W. Bush. The Obama years have been about uncovering them and re-installing the regulations against scandalous behavior. Over fierce Republican objections.) He needs to define the kind of capitalist he is and why the country needs his virtues. (Assuming you don't mean the “virtues” of firing people and paying those wages to yourself and your fellow investors for your skill at firing people. Firing isn't the best word here. “Firing” assumes cause. Most of the people Romney fired were laid off for the “crime” of earning a living, for making things at a wage American companies used to pay when America's economy got its strength from workers who could afford to be consumers.)

Let’s face it, he’s not a heroic entrepreneur (except in his autobiography, his stump speeches, his reports to shareholders and his statements to the SEC). He’s an efficiency expert. (A CEO tends to define “efficiency” by how little he can pay his workers to work longer and harder and faster.) It has been the business of his life to take companies that were mediocre and sclerotic (or paid a fair wage for good work) and try to make them efficient (make them pay less for more work, by hiring Asian children if need be; slashing benefits) and dynamic (a word possibly adopted by McKinsey to project a robust image onto a company without it actually meaning anything). It has been his job to be the corporate version of a personal trainer: take people who are puffy and self-indulgent and whip them into shape. (Here's where David begins to sound like he's writing a brochure for the Hitler Youth. I don't think that is his intention.)

That’s his selling point: rigor (forcing other people to be rail-thin and rigorous translates into his fat monthly paycheck) and productivity (again, other people's hard work and productivity can be paid directly to him for demanding it. This, if you can avoid throwing up, is called a “business model”.) If he can build a capitalist vision around that, he’ll thrive. (HE will thrive. Other people, not so much.) If not, he’s a punching bag. (Commence punching.)

Oh, heck...Bill Maher said it better than I can:

“America's rich aren't giving you money, they're taking your money. Between the years 1980 and 2005 80% of all new income generated in this country went to the richest 1%. Let me put that in terms that even you fatass teabaggers, I'm sorry, can understand.

“Say 100 Americans get together and order a 100 slice pizza. The pizza arrives and the first guy takes 80 slices. And if someone suggests, why don't you just take 79 slices, that's socialism! I know, I know. I know, I know, it's just a TV show. But it does reinforce the stupid idea people have that rich people would love us and share with us if only they got to walk a mile in our cheap plastic shoes.

“But they're the reason the shoe factory moved to China. We have this fantasy that our interests and the interests of the super rich are the same. Like somehow the rich will eventually get so full that they'll explode. And the candy will rain down on the rest of us.

“Like there's some kind of pinata of benevolence. But here's the thing about a pinata. It doesn't open on its own. You have to beat it with a stick.”

Eat that, David Brooks. Maybe they should hand his column to Bill Maher.

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