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Thursday, May 15, 2003

mediawatch

A (Half-Hearted) Cheer for The New York Times, and Endless Hurrahs for Paul Krugman


Like most citizens of this metropolis to the left of Charlie Rose (despite urban legend, we’re a pretty innocuous and increasingly diminishing and insignificant bunch), I don’t read The New York Times because I really want to but because I don’t have much choice nowadays. I’m old enough to remember a different journalistic dispensation, if not quite of PM — Hemingway, I. F. Stone ante-Weekly, Margaret Bourke-White, and Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee) — at least of a Herald Tribune where writers were not only writers, but slightly “off” (Breslin, Wolfe, Schapp, etc.), and of a pre-Murdoch Post whose pages, and our minds, were graced (and steeled) by the intellectual and moral virtù of a philosopher-journalist called Murray Kempton. Talk about the good old days. It hurts just to think about it.

Under the circumstances, I’ve considered it an act of lunatic faith for many years now to trust the global hegemon’s newspaper of record. So, just to fill in its gaps, correct its distortions, and actually get the news that’s unfit for it to print, I’ve jerry-rigged my own information flow. It’s clumsy, but it works for me: the Financial Times every morning before even opening up my other Times, as well as the daily online English editions of, in alphabetical order, the Daily Star, El País, Ha’aretz, JoongAng Ilbo, and Kathimerini, and then The Economist every week, along with weekly roundups from Corriere della Sera and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Le monde diplomatique (English edition) every month (in addition, of course, to any number of other periodicals from Harper’s to The London Review of Books that are becoming increasingly important in filling in the analytical black holes that America’s “working press” creates every day just by its sheer mental inertia). It’s a tough slog, but empire’s a hard taskmaster. Besides, what good is globalization if you can’t connect with the imperial outposts? In this case, I’m thankful there’s still some residual resistance in the provinces or I’d be as intellectually — and politically — fried as the next useful idiot of the United States of the Willing.

It’s the economy, stupid!
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that I was astounded when the Gray Lady announced Paul Krugman’s appointment as a columnist in 1999 — but I quickly decided that it was just a temporary gig, as I assumed he’d be heading for Washington as Al Gore’s treasury secretary once the 2000 elections were over. Still, it was unprecedented for American journalism’s dowager empress to hire a non-journalist, and an academic economist at that, who, in addition to his other achievements, was a John Bates Clark Medalwinner (awarded biannually to the person considered to be the most important American economist under 40), which meant, not at all coincidentally, that he was also a presumptive Nobel laureate. Credentials-wise, this was a bit rich even for Times columnists. It was in fact a coup for the paper, and one about which it rightly preened. I suspect that what nobody expected — who could have? — was what followed.

Even with all my fiftysomething experience and, consequently, left-wing skepticism of actually existing democracy in America, I never thought I’d live to see such a grossly stolen election as the last one — especially after 1960. Even more shocking to me was the “consensus” that was immediately confected (Marx called it ideology) to validate the transparent fraud. (I was actually in Cuba with Stelios Vasilakis when the ontology of the hanging chad became CNN’s daily TV lesson in moral philosophy. Watching this singularly edifying spectacle of democracy in action in “the world’s oldest democracy” — to echo Colin Powell’s later sermon to the Old Europeans — from the Caribbean hub of the evil axis was a particularly pure form of cognitive dissonance.) To his credit, and certainly to my shock as a left-of-center New York Times reader of almost 40 years, Krugman was one of the very few members of America’s punditocratic elite who refused to lie down and play dead (as opposed to the constitutional larceny’s worst victim, Al Gore himself). Quite the opposite, long before Dubya’s annunciation as messiah-in-mufti by the Supreme Court, and to this day, Krugman has done what he is trained to do as an economist and scholar, namely, to contend with and analyze reality (as much as it is possible) and, having done so, to present the empirical evidence — in other words, to call a spade a spade.

He’s done so with remarkable consistency and clarity, and with an intellectual honesty that is rare indeed in this scoundrel time. I obviously can’t quote from his columns of the last four years. I can, however, give the flavor of a scholar who knows that he knows certain things exceedingly well and that all the pap coming out of Ari Fleischer’s mouth can’t alter the earth’s revolution around the sun. As a result, Krugman doesn’t mince his words. Here are some arbitrarily chosen excerpts from his columns of the last couple of months. (The reader has to take my word that I haven’t distorted his arguments by citing them out of context; in any case, one can go back to the columns, and verify both the context and my intentions.)

…[I]nvestors still can’t believe that the leaders of the United States are acting like the rulers of a banana republic. But I’ve done the math, and reached my own conclusions…. (“A Fiscal Train Wreck,” March 11)

So now the administration knows that it can make unsubstantiated claims, without paying a price when those claims prove false, and that saber rattling gains it votes and silences opposition….I can’t help worrying that in domestic politics, this [Iraq] war will turn out to have been the shape of things to come. (“Things to Come,” March 18)

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but a good guess is that we’re now seeing the next stage in the evolution of a new American oligarchy. (“Channels of Influence,” March 25)

For the overwhelming political lesson of the last year is that war works….The public rallies around the flag, which means the president and his party, and the public’s attention is diverted from other issues.

…[I]t just so happens that the “Bush doctrine”…offers the possibility of a series of wars against nasty regimes with weak armies.

Someday the public will figure all this out. But it may be a very long wait. (“Behind Our Backs,” April 15)

…[W]hat happens when unilateralists encounter problems that clearly require the cooperation of other countries…? Right now the answer is simply to deny the existence of these problems….

Eventually, of course…this attempt to deny reality will fail. While we’ve been watching the Iraq show, many past achievements of U.S. foreign policy have been disintegrating…. (“Rejecting the World,” April 18)

Did you know that President Bush’s economic plan will create 1.4 million jobs? Oh, and did I mention that the plan will create 1.4 million jobs? And don’t forget, the plan will create 1.4 million jobs.

Republican politicians are obviously under instructions to push that job number. On the Sunday talk shows some of them said “1.4 million jobs” so often it sounded like an embarrassing nervous tic.

Of course, there’s no reason to take that number seriously. Basically, the job-creation estimate came from the same place where Joseph McCarthy learned that there were 57 card-carrying Communists in the State Department…. (“Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” April 22)

“We were not lying,” a Bush administration official told ABC News. “But it was just a matter of emphasis.” The official was referring to the way the administration hyped the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. According to the ABC report, the real reason for the war was that the administration “wanted to make a statement.”…

Does it matter that we were misled into war? Some people say that it doesn’t: we won, and the Iraqi people have been freed….

Now it’s true that the war removed an evil tyrant. But a democracy’s decisions, right or wrong, are supposed to take place with the informed consent of its citizens. That didn’t happen this time. And we are a democracy — aren’t we? (“Matters of Emphasis,” April 29)

Last summer it seemed, briefly, as if the torrent of [corporate] scandals — and the revelations about how closely some of our politicians were tied to scandal-ridden companies — would bring about a public backlash against corporate malfeasance. But then the topic largely vanished from the news, driven out by reports about Iraq’s nuclear weapons program and all that…. (“The Acid Test,” May 2)

I know you get the idea, but I want to close the critical circle with a couple of longer excerpts from two recent Krugman columns:

…Has “man on horseback” politics come to America?

Some background: the Constitution declares the president commander in chief of the armed forces to make it clear that civilians, not the military, hold ultimate authority. That’s why American presidents traditionally make a point of avoiding military affectations….

Given that history, George Bush’s “Top Gun” act aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln — c’mon, guys, it wasn’t about honoring the troops, it was about showing the president in a flight suit — was as scary as it was funny.

Mind you, it was funny….

A U.S.-based British journalist told me that he and his colleagues laughed through the whole scene. If Tony Blair had tried such a stunt, he said, the press would have demanded to know how many hospital beds could have been provided for the cost of the jet fuel.

But U.S. television coverage ranged from respectful to gushing….

Anyway, it was quite a show….

There was a time when patriotic Americans from both parties would have denounced any president who tried to take political advantage of his role as commander in chief. But that, it seems, was another country. (“Man on Horseback,” May 6)

Chutzpah, according to the classic definition, is when you murder your parents, then ask for sympathy because you’re an orphan. But what do we call it if after you are placed with foster parents, you try the same thing all over again?

I ask this question in light of the tax-cut package the House is expected to pass today — a package that relies on exactly the same bait-and-switch tactics used to sell the 2001 tax cut. Since the scam involved in the 2001 tax cut remains one of the wonders of political economy, it is a measure of our leaders’ contempt for the intelligence of the public — or maybe for the press — that they think they can use the same tricks a second time….

The new tax cut plan echoes the 2001 scam in other ways. In 2001 a tax cut that delivered about 40 percent of its benefits to the richest 1 percent of families was marketed as a tax break for ordinary folks. The same is true this time. In fact, the extent to which the House bill favors the rich is breathtaking: the typical family would get a tax break of only $217 next year, but families with incomes above $1 million would get an average of $93,500 each. The [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities] estimates that over the next decade, 27 percent of the tax cut — about the share that goes to the bottom 90 percent of the population — would go to these very high-income families, who comprise a mere 0.13 percent of the population….

And bear in mind that Bush-style tax cuts now have a track record. Of the 2.1 million jobs lost over the past two years, 1.7 million vanished after the passage of the 2001 tax cut.

Nonetheless, the odds are that this scam, like the scam of 2001, will succeed. The tax cut will be passed, and the budget will plunge even deeper into the red. And one day we’ll realize that international investors are treating us like a banana republic — and they won’t finance our trade deficit unless they are paid very high rates of interest (have I mentioned that the dollar has just fallen to a four-year low against the euro?) — and everyone will wonder why. (“Into the Sunset,” May 9)

Telling it like it is
What is extraordinary about Krugman is, as I said above, his intellectual honesty: “banana republic”; “the shape of things to come”; “a new American oligarchy”; “the Iraq show”; “the job-creation estimate came from the same place [as]…McCarthy[’s]…57 card-carrying Communists”; “misled into war”; “we are a democracy — aren’t we?”; “Iraq’s nuclear weapons program and all that”; “that, it seems, was another country”; “the scam of 2001.” This is the undisguised and rightly brutal language we expect from Noam Chomsky, not from a New York Times columnist. In the infinitely euphemizing mediacracy in which we live, Krugman’s intellectual frankness and moral directness is genuine manna for the mind.

More to the point, as one of the most important American economists of his generation, Krugman has recovered the concept of political economy as a popular intellectual and social tool of the left. For the last quarter of a century, it’s been the (extreme) right (the disciples of Friedman and, even more so, Hayek) who’ve transformed political economy into the intellectual and functional platform from which to radically restructure (deconstruct?) civil society and the notions of political and social liberty. It’s actually been quite a brilliant appropriation. One of the most compelling aspects of Krugman’s role as a (truly) public intellectual is his refusal to shrink from a fight; quite the contrary, he’s clearly willing to go teeth and claw, not only rhetorically but substantively, in the battle for the hearts and minds of what has increasingly become a painfully disoriented and deeply dispirited body politic.

That’s why his stare is unrelenting. I suspect that he suspects that we don’t have much time left. Last October, Krugman wrote an unusually acid article for the Times Sunday magazine, entitled “For Richer,” in which he essentially foresaw a neo-Gatsbian plutocracy in the U.S. that would, in the near future, essentially put paid to any viable notion of a middle-class society. As it is, Krugman warned, the 13,000 richest families in America had about as much income as the 20 million families at the bottom of the scale. Fundamentally, Krugman was — and is — talking about a twenty-first-century US version of the society of “the 200 families” that divided France in the Thirties. (The French, of course, fought back with the Popular Front; unfortunately, there’s no Leon Blum today on the American political horizon.)

It’s a bleak and unforgiving vision; it is also increasingly, according to Krugman, the economic “shape of things to come.” Which is also why Krugman is one of the very few members of the media elite in this country (actually the only one I can think of) who’s had the courage to point out that when Republicans pervert the tax code into a manifestly plutocratic “scam” — as he caustically puts it — it is called “freedom,” but when (a handful of) Democrats talk about rebalancing the fiscal structure by returning some basic economic equity to it, it is called “class war.” In fact, the real, and sinister, class war that’s been raging for a generation now has been by the obscenely entitled against the rest of us.

Even the Gray Lady can burn red with rage
In this politically stifling time, it is vaguely encouraging (if nothing else) to know that there are a few powerful voices out there against the social deceit that is the new constitutional order. Because let’s face it: George Bush might not read Krugman, but most everybody else in the West Wing does. That’s the point to this commentary. I’m not an admirer of the Times. Quite the opposite, I think it has, more often than not, abdicated its journalistic and civic responsibilities (and Jayson Blair is the least of its problems). On the other hand, I admit to my prejudices: I believe that “objectivity” in journalism is not only a patent fraud but a strategic one. The only thing that any conscientious journalist should (and can) strive for is scrupulous fairness (and, oh yes, professional probity).

That’s why I think that the politically engaged model of the “quality” European press is, in the end, actually more objective — or at least more accountable — than the specious model taught in American j-schools. Le Monde, El País, The Independent, La Stampa, Die Zeit, do not hide their intentions behind a screen of (mythical and quasi-mystical) objectivity. Quite the opposite, you know that they know that you know that they have a viewpoint — and so feel compelled to convince you despite it, not because of it (which is, of course, where the scrupulous fairness comes in). That’s why I trust Paul Krugman implicitly but, for example, find it impossible to read Thomas Friedman. (It’s become clear that the Pulitzer Prizes are becoming more like the Oscars every day.) Friedman glories in his (pathetically inept) propaganda whereas Krugman just wants to give you the facts. (And since I’m on the subject, no, I haven’t forgotten the Times’s savage, and savagely lucid, Maureen Dowd, but I’ll get to this wickedly wonderful writer, who combines Dorothy Parker with Martha Gellhorn, another time — I promise.)

So, although I’m a frequent Times-basher (it is truly amazing how often the newspaper of record is inexcusably dreadful), it’s important for its readers to support those who, because of their intellectual resistance, still make it the only newspaper one has to read in these United States. Finally, one other reason for this article, specific to greekworks.com: foreign governments — hint, hint, Messrs. Simitis and Papandreou — need to stop toadying to the “the man on horseback.” They have an obligation to their countries (not to mention to the wider world) to establish autonomous identities and policies, knowing that there are still many Americans — some of them very prominent indeed — who will support them in their efforts. That said, if Paul Krugman stops writing for the Times, all bets are off.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of greekworks.com.
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