One of the things that has been driving me crazy about MSM coverage of the latest public demands for tougher reforms of Wall Street is that they typically engage in subtle or not-so-subtle demonization of the critics. It is a blatant effort to put the shoe on the wrong foot. No, it isn’t that the financiers managed to drive their own firms over the cliff and take the global economy with it, yet come out even more profitable than before by skillfully looting the public purse. Heavens no, can’t look at the facts at hand. No, the fact that a normally complacent public has woken up to the fact that its was had is turned on its head. How often have you read that the reason for renewed reforms headfakes is that the public is “angry”? Obviously, by implication, anyone who is emotional must not have sound judgment. so the anger by implication is not warranted or at best overdone.
The more sophisticated version of this meme is to brand calls for reform as populist, again implying that it is great unwashed (and thus of course uninformed) masses that want reform, that if they really understood how things worked, they’d be delighted with this Best of All Possible Worlds that we inhabit.
Matt Taibbi (hat tip Marshall Auerback), and does his usual brutally effective job of shredding this sort of argument. The entire post is very much worth reading, and I particularly liked this part. Taibbi starts with an excerpt from :
Politics, some believe, is the organization of hatreds. The people who try to divide society on the basis of ethnicity we call racists…The people who try to divide it on the basis of social class we call either populists or elitists…
Both attitudes will always be with us, but these days populism is in vogue. The Republicans have their populists…Since the defeat in Massachusetts, many Democrats have apparently decided that their party has to mimic the rhetoric of John Edwards’s presidential campaign. They’ve taken to dividing the country into two supposedly separate groups — real Americans who live on Main Street and the insidious interests of Wall Street.
Now, there’s bullshit all up and down this lede. The first lie he tells involves describing everyone who is a critic of Wall Street as a populist. It’s sort of a syllogism he’s getting into here:
All people who criticize Wall Street are populists.
All populists think of themselves as enlightened and pure, and are primarily interested in dividing society, the same way racists do.
Therefore, all people who criticize Wall Street are primarily interested in dividing society, just like racists.
This is obnoxious on so many levels it’s almost difficult to know where to start. As for the populism label, let me quote the Alison Porchnik character from Annie Hall (Woody’s first wife, in the movie): “I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”
Brooks here is trying to say that by criticizing, say, Goldman Sachs for mass thievery — criticizing a bank for selling billions of dollars worth of worthless subprime mortgage-backed securities mismarked as investment grade deals, for getting the taxpayer to pay them 100 cents on the dollar for their billions in crap investments with AIG, for forcing hundreds of millions of people to pay inflated gas and food prices when they manipulated the commodities market and helped push oil to a preposterous $149 a barrel, and for paying massive bonuses after receiving billions upon billions in public support even beyond the TARP — that in criticizing the bank for doing these things, people like me are primarily interested in being divisive and “organizing hatreds.”
Taibbi is right. This is a perverse effort to demonize the victims of the biggest theft from the public in history for having woken up, realizing what was done to them, and being less than happy about it. Focusing on the completely justified reaction conveniently takes the spotlight off the fact that this was looting and predation, pure and simple. And it isn’t just little guys who are unhappy, either. Most of the hedge fund managers I know are every bit as upset about the subsidies to Wall Street as the man in the street.
This comes back to one of my pet issues. Controlling the use of terms, sadly, is often key to framing these debates. We all need to watch this Orwellian creep and shift the focus back to where it belong, to the perpetrators of this chicanery and the mechanisms by which they fleeced their customers and ultimately, taxpayers.