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Whack-a-Hack

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

What can be more painful than having to read super-hacks* Thomas Friedman and David Brooks? How do they continue to be columnists at the country’s leading newspaper? Worse, how do the silly books they write become bestsellers? (Just two days ago, Friedman’s latest piffle entered the NYT bestseller list at #2. If it has to be that high, couldn’t it at least have done some good up there and taken the #1 spot away from the evil piece of —- whose name I won’t utter?)

Of course, no one has to read their columns, and so I don’t. But fortunately, the New Yorker’s Ric Hertzberg and the Center for Economic Policy and Research’s Dean Baker have been on the case, writing separate posts today on our two hacks’ latest columns.

On Sunday, Friedman was babbling yet again on the need for the two parties to compromise and strike a bargain. Hertzberg is so infuriated he can hardly contain himself. After stating that the column “damn near ruined my Sunday, Hertzberg goes through it in detail. I can’t do justice to Hertzberg’s analysis with a summary, excerpt, or “money quote.” It’s worth reading in full. Nonetheless, let me include a bit from near the end.

On the one hand, the Republicans are lunatics dedicated above all to destroying the Obama Presidency.

On the other hand, Obama didn’t endorse all the provisions of the Simpson-Bowles report.

See? They’re equally bad.

Which is another way of saying that they’re equally good. Which means that if they could just reason together in good faith, with a readiness to compromise their ideological preferences for the sake of the common good, all would be well.

Except that, as Friedman can’t help implicitly acknowledging, they’re not equally bad and equally good—not remotely. One side rationally understands (and fears) the consequences of inaction and is demonstrably willing to compromise. The other side irrationally dismisses (and might even welcome) those consequences and is demonstratively unwilling to compromise.

We don’t know whether, someday, “history” will hold Obama most responsible for what happens. What we do know—and on this point the “we” is everybody—is that, next year, voters will hold Obama most responsible. And we know that even among voters who think that Obama and the Republican leadership are both responsible but Obama less so, many will vote against him because he will be on the ballot everywhere. “The Republican leadership,” an abstraction both faceless and hydra-headed, won’t be.

The true, underlying, and presumably unconscious logic of Friedman’s analysis is that compromise between a side that is insane and unwilling to compromise and a side that is sane and willing to compromise is in fact impossible just now and will continue to be impossible for some time to come. For Obama, a Grand Bargain, which is to say a Grand Compromise, is not currently an option. His real choice is between a Grand Surrender and a Grand Fight.

I know which of the two I want him to choose. I hope Tom Friedman would have him make the same choice.

As for Brooks’ column today, Dean Baker (hat tip, Paul Krugman) gets to the heart of the matter regarding Brooks’ reasoning in his opening:

David Brooks is really upset, we may have a lost decade because he is sitting there being right, standing in the middle, and the two extremes who control public debate won’t agree with him. How do we know Brooks is right? Well, he is in the middle between the two extremes he just told you about, how could he not be right?

Baker focuses on Brooks’ criticism of the Obama stimulus plan as just another example of Democrats’ desire to increase government spending, doing the arithmetic to demonstrate that the stimulus was destined to be too small from the get go. This leads to the following comment.

So how is anything about stimulus disproved because a stimulus that could have been expected to create maybe 3 million jobs was not adequate in a downturn where we needed 10 million jobs? There are no tricks here, this is all arithmetic and it is all right there in black and white.

But, Brooks does not want to be bothered by arithmetic. He wants his readers to support his plans for tax reform, for cutting Social Security and Medicare. In other words he wants his readers’ support for doing all the the things that David Brooks always wanted to do, but he now says that we absolutely have to do because of an economic crisis caused by the incompetence of the people who always wanted to do these things.

Hacks. Just hacks.

*You might wish to review Alex Pareene’s list in Salon last November of the 30 leading hacks among political commentators. I mentioned it in a post at the time, giving special attention once again to Friedman and Brooks.

Categories: Journalism, Politics

The Affair

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

I mentioned at the beginning of the month that Lee Child’s 16th Jack Reacher novel would be coming out on September 27. That day has come. Janet Maslin did me no favors by writing a rave review of it in the NYT a full week ago. I was doing my best to get on with my life, keeping my anticipation under wraps, but after learning from her that this edition is something of a prequel, I have been desperate to plunge in.

Maslin notes that “some (like ’61 Hours,’ the 14th) are much better than others (‘Worth Dying For,’ the 15th),” an assessment I share, adding that whatever the quality, “they played by the same rules.” She then explains that “Mr. Child’s 16th book, ‘The Affair,’ shakes up the status quo by delivering the Reacher creation myth.” [Gotta love that NYT style, with the “Mr. Child”, no?] Have we not all hungered for the creation myth? This news was too much to bear.

And now, I am in possession of the book, but not time to read it.

Take tonight. There’s tomorrow’s NYT crossword to do. (I’m printing it right now.) There’s NCIS to watch. I got a new New York Review of Books in today’s mail that I’m eager to look at, plus the latest issues of the American Math Society’s Bulletin and Notices. Pasta by Design, which I wrote about just two nights ago, arrived today.

Tomorrow is no better. It’s the first day of classes, so I’ll be off first thing in the morning to teach. It’s the first monthly meeting of a board I’m on following a summer off, and I have remarks to prepare. And don’t forget, Rosh Hashanah starts tomorrow evening.

What’s a poor Jack Reacher fanatic to do?

By the way, my favorite Language Log linguist, Geoffrey Pullum, wrote a post today about Reacher. He points out, disappointingly, that some comments Lee Child puts in Reacher’s mouth in one of the novels are entirely wrong. But with regard to The Affair, Pullum writes:

Jack Reacher will really get you through a tedious flight. If you don’t mind reading a few descriptions of fairly brutal physical violence, that is: Child’s novels are testosterone-charged thrillers about a murderously tough yet ultimately morally-inclined drifter, Jack Reacher, formerly a special investigator in the US army’s military police, now a sort of lone ranger. The stories start with a bang and soon become unputdownable. I’m not exactly proud of reading these novels, but they are well crafted and exciting, and I will read more. Flying back to Edinburgh on Sunday night after a trip to Paris, with only a quarter of the current book to go, I barely noticed takeoff, and finished the last gripping page just as we began our approach over the Firth of Forth. Perfect trip.

Unputdownable. That’s exactly the problem. I don’t have time to read it straight through, but I know that once I start, I will want to. I differ with Pullum on one point. I’m a proud Reacher fan.

Categories: Books