On a mistake I made. (For Swampland regulars, this column is dedicated to implacable commenter Stuart Zechman). And Happy Thanksgiving!
My Continuing Education
No columnist nails every call. Here's one I got wrong—and why I should have known better.
Gosh, Mr. Klein must be right a great deal. He says so right there.
Columnists are paid to have opinions. Sometimes those opinions are wrong. Those two sentences are as obvious as a sunrise, but usually unspoken by my fellow opinionmongers. I can point you to many weeks of prescience and sheer genius in my work since I arrived at TIME in January 2003. But I think we'd learn more if we took a look at one of my goofs:
How modest is Mr. Klein! He could tell us tell us all the times he's right but instead he'll tell us about a time he was wrong. Not because he was forced to by Mr.Stuart Zechman, of course. He does it because he's eager to help others learn from his mistakes.
I supported George W. Bush's idea of partially privatizing Social Security, which he tried to enact after he was re-elected in 2004. This was a close call for me at the time; it seems positively idiotic now that we've experienced the Great Recession — and the idea of private investment has finally regained proper perspective. Investment is about risk; Social Security is about certainty. A fair amount of certainty is crucial when it comes to retirement. Why, you might ask, was I blind to this simple proposition at the time?
Because of his "[l]aziness, straight-shootin' obsession, late-'90s Gore/Bush pundit hysteria, boomerism, maverick-worship, warmongering"? And let's not forget Aimai's encounter with the usually-but-not-always-right Mr. Klein, so entertainly related on No More Mister Nice Guy. She saw Mr. Klein at a private event they both happened to attend and responded to something he was saying.
I was standing at the cookout minding my own business when Klein started pontificating for the rubes on how “surprising” and “shocking” it was that Grassley, of all people, should have come out and endorsed the “death panels” lie. I walked up and said “why are you surprised?” [edited to remove typo] to which he, in best pundit debater fashion (never allow yourself to admit you were just posing!), shot back “who says I'm surprised?” I said “well, you did. You just started your lecture saying “Its surprising.”” Its not surprising, the republicans have nothing left to lose and nothing left to gain at this point outside of pleasing the crazy base and attacking Obama and the dems.”
We were off and running. He then said that its true the fringe republicans were “crazy” but perhaps no crazier than the “crazy left” under Bush. I thought he meant the “truthers” so I said “name me one person in congress or the Senate who was as crazy on any topic as these Republican senators and Congressmen who sign on to the birther and deather stuff are now?” Evading this question he said “well, Glenn Greenwald is crazy—he's a civil liberties absolutist.” Now, me, I come from a long line of civil liberties absolutists so I said “I admire Glenn Greenwald's work immensley but it must be very embarrassing for you, of course,
because he's been eating your lunch for years.” (!) I think this must be something of a sore point for him. He began shrieking “Glenn Greenwald is EVIL! EVILl!..do you know what he did? He “sicced” his blog readers on my EDITOR and she was going through a DIVORCE at the time.” Really? I said, politely, that was very wrong, if it happened.
“We kept it very quiet” he said, backing off the claim of any real harm and, as a twofer, managing to imply that only those "in the know" had been kept informed.
There's a lot more funny but to be brief let's skip to the point:
As long as there is money to be made or friendships to be maintained on the right side of the aisle he will continue to write these “on the one hand/on the other hand” pieces so in six or seven years he can point to whichever part is more convenient to him. And woe betide the reader who takes what he writes seriously- we're just crazy, leftist, wikipedia reading hysterics.
Klein, like McArdle, cannot bear for others to point out his mistakes. They have a certain image of themselves that must be defended at all cost, no matter what humiliating contortions they must commit to ensure its continuation. When their self-esteem depends on this image, they cannot do anything else.
Well, two reasons. The first was a matter of courtesy and optimism: I always try to give a newly elected President the benefit of the doubt.
He is courteous, a courtly member of the Versailles Court. He is optimistic; this is, after all, the best of all possible worlds. Klein sits in judgement of the president but is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. One must be fair to those whom one favors with one's approval, or those from whom one withholds one's approval.
This is especially difficult — and all the more necessary — when it's a re-elected President whose policies seem misguided. I had written column after column about the bloody futility of Bush's war in Iraq — and don't get me started about the demonstrably foolish supply-side philosophy that spawned his tax cuts. Still, he was going to be my President for the next four years; my fellow citizens, and many of my readers, had voted him in. The partial privatization of Social Security was, he said, the top domestic priority for his second term. This seemed bold and politically risky.
Risky, yes. Bold, no. The middle class can't afford to support their parents. They sure as hell can't afford their parents' health care. We look towards Medicare as the finish line of a life-long sprint, hoping we'll last long enough to get the same sort of health care as the rest of the world. It's cruel to withhold it from young families and middle-aged people, but why only torture strangers when you can torture your neighbors as well?
Scaring the elderly about cuts in their retirement benefits is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but Bush truly believed that if people could invest retirement savings in the market, they would end up with larger pensions.
There's no way of knowing if this is true. Bush would never tell the truth, unless by accident.
And so did I, albeit with a truckload of caveats. I came to this belief the hard way, by overreading 30 years of experience as a journalist.
Here is where the lying begins. As soon as the pundit reveals he ignored reality in favor of fantasy we know the only thing he can do is lie. He can't tell the truth--he believed what he wanted to believe; he believed whatever satisfied his needs and wants. He believed whatever assuaged his insecurities and reinforced his prejudices.
Let the excuses begin!
Much of that time had been spent on urban issues, especially the failure of traditional liberal social programs to alleviate poverty.
As if liberal social programs could end economic inequality! It's an amazingly insulting statement. Let the rich do what they want, and when the middle class tries to help the poor, blame them for the continuation of poverty. The man deserves a round of applause for that contortion.
Indeed, welfare — Aid to Families with Dependent Children — as it was then constituted seemed a system of perverse rewards that intensified poverty, encouraging poor women not to marry, not to work, not to make sure their kids showed up at school and so forth. Their children were making and having babies prematurely, with no sense of responsibility. A discrete culture of poverty — in which people didn't look for work even when the economy surged — had taken hold. An essential feature of this culture, it seemed to me, was passivity.
I guess that racism problem was all cleared up then? And what we have now is a group of people with high illegitimacy rate--meaning Black--who are passive, lazy, irresponsible, immoral, and bad mothers and citizens. These people are unlike white people, who inherited the Judeo-Christian work ethic and morality and therefore are much better than certain other people whom we will not name to spare then the embarrassment.
One possible answer to the problem of passivity was choice: if parents were given the choice of which school their child could attend, for example, they might bestir themselves to take a more active role in their kids' education. I first saw this principle at work in East Harlem in the early 1980s, where parents were offered an array of schools with different curriculums for their children. The results were mixed, but it was lovely to see beaten-down people taking action, taking control of at least one public aspect of their lives for the first time.
Gooooo down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt-land!
Tellll ole Pharaoh
To let my people goooooooo!
I'm sorry, where were we?
I became besotted with the notion of choice, which was another way of saying I became besotted with the idea of markets. If you gave people a choice, the best public products — schools, job-training programs, health care services and, yes, retirement plans — would rise to the top, and average folks would be empowered to become more active, and therefore better, citizens. I still think it's a pretty good principle.
So if you give poor people a choice between being milked by a corporation or by spreading the cost so everyone can have better services, getting milked is the better choice? Evidently Klein believes that all corporations want to do is provide the best goods or services at the lowest price. Either Klein has the intellect of a kindergartner or he's trying to bullshit the entire planet, including himself. And failing.
But there are limits. Social-service markets have to be strictly regulated. Even in Chile's groundbreaking social-security privatization plan, which I looked at on a visit, individuals were only allowed to invest their retirement savings in a handful of very cautious government-approved plans. There was never any talk of that kind of regulation in Bush's scheme, which was one of my caveats. I missed the biggest problem of all, though, because — like most Americans — I was raised in good times. Markets could tank. Retirement savings could be wiped out. The function of Social Security was — like food stamps — to provide a floor. It needed to be recession-proof.
Over and over, our pundits confess that it doesn't even occur to them to look at the potential downside of a situation they are supposed to be analyzing. And they still keep their jobs.
And so, belatedly, I've realized that there are two types of social programs: those that are designed to raise people out of poverty ... and those, like Social Security, that provide, yes, a safety net when the bottom falls out. The programs that seek to raise the poor often work better when people are given a choice; those that provide a net need to be as simple and reliable as possible. In this case, the name said it all: Social ... Security. It was an essential lesson in the continuing education of a political columnist.
In other words, Klein thinks that except for that one exception, the time he forgot to consider whether or not the stock market could go down, he was right, while the liberals were wrong about poverty and social justice. Which makes everything even and Mr. Joe Klein just a little bit wiser than he was before.