Ok, Fine, a Point-By-Point Refutation of David Brooks’s Hateful and Idiotic Occupy Wall Street Column

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10/11/2011 1:05 PM |

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This morning I received an email: “You by any chance have time for/interest in a point-by-point refutation of this infuriating, intellectually dishonest David Brooks column from yesterday?” I didn’t, really, but I wrote one anyway because this column—”The Milquetoast Radicals,” the Times columnist’s pooh-poohing of Occupy Wall Street—is infuriating and intellectually dishonest, for reasons we’ll discover as we read on together:

The U.S. economy is probably going to stink for a few more years…

Well, sure, probably.

It is beset by short-term problems (low consumer demand, uncertain housing prices, too much debt) and long-term problems (wage stagnation, rising health care costs, eroding human capital). Realistically, not much is going to be done to address the short-term problems…

Does David Brooks’s version of Microsoft Word not flag the passive voice? Let’s reword. “Realistically, congressional Republicans will maintain a unified opposition to any prescriptive economic policy, an electorally motivated stance given the vaguest ideological cover with word-cloud callbacks to economic principles that are inexplicably fondly recalled despite their deep anti-populism and documented ineffectiveness.” See, now the sentence has a subject and an object.

…but we can at least use this winter of recuperation to address the country’s underlying structural ones. Do tax reform, fiscal reform, education reform and political reform so that when the economy finally does recover the prosperity is deep, broad and strong.

Let’s ignore for the moment that what he doubtless means by “education reform” is “break up the teachers union” and agree that, yes, shit is fucked on a fundamental and structural level.

Unfortunately, the country has been wasting this winter of recuperation. Nothing of consequence has been achieved over the past two years. Instead, there have been a series of trivial sideshows. It’s as if people can’t keep their minds focused on the big things. They get diverted by scuffles that are small, contentious and symbolic.

Passive voice again! But yes, that’s exactly right: our political process, and coverage thereof, is bogged down in distractions, like during the debt-ceiling debate, when congressional Republicans held the federal government, and its services, hostage in order to reinforce—with the help of a generally too-deferential-to-bullshit media—a narrative of federal profligacy which gives disingenuous cover to an economic policy designed to consolidate wealth in the hands of the wealthy, with the aide of magical thinkers in all income brackets; and in order to forestall any honest conversation about the expectations we have of our government, our shared stake in society, and our government’s financial obligations in that case! Tell me more!

Take the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Oh.

This uprising was sparked by the magazine Adbusters, previously best known for the 2004 essay, “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” — an investigative report that identified some of the most influential Jews in America and their nefarious grip on policy.

That is not what Adbusters is best known for.

If there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is that the virtuous 99 percent of society is being cheated by the richest and greediest 1 percent.

“If there is a core theme.” That “if”! So exquisite in its suggestive condescension! Yes, “if there is a core theme to the Occupy Wall Street movement,” it is most likely embodied in the the slogan that has appeared on hundreds of signs and been repeated across various social-media platforms and discussed in the mainstream and activist press.

This is a theme that allows the people in the 99 percent to think very highly of themselves.

Actually, this is a theme that allows an ideologically diverse spectrum of Americans to find common ground in recognition of the fundamental structural fucked-ness of the American system—just like David Brooks and I did above!

All their problems are caused by the nefarious elite.

A nice subtle jab at the populist left and right, there, but I call False Equivalency: this is not demonstrable morons calling out “coastal elites” as a solidarity ploy with the stubbornly ill-informed. Occupy Wall Street—which takes place on Wall Street—is a protest targeting the financial sector, who actually are elite inasmuch as they literally have control over the vast majority of new wealth created in this country, and they can, thanks to a conservative Supreme Court, use that wealth to literally buy elections.

Unfortunately, almost no problem can be productively conceived in this way. A group that divides the world between the pure 99 percent and the evil 1 percent will have nothing to say about education reform, Medicare reform, tax reform, wage stagnation or polarization.

Ignoring this bit’s curious condescending simplification of the moral language we use when we’re talking about inequality, let’s say that: The fascinating thing about dividing up America along the lines of the wealthiest one percent and everybody else is that America is, in very real ways, unhealthily divided between an extremely wealthy sliver of the population and everyone else. And, you know, I’m pretty sure that a pretty vast majority of Americans on the wrong side of the widening income gap do, in fact, have something coherent to say about “tax reform [and] wage stagnation”. There may not be unanimity on individual elements of the tax code, but we’re not trying to order fucking pizzas here, we’re trying to demonstrate popular support for ideals of progressive governance.

They will have nothing to say about the way Americans have overconsumed and overborrowed. These are problems that implicate a much broader swath of society than the top 1 percent.

Well yeah but the preferred politicians of the financial sector are the ones blocking the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau set up by the Democratic president and his party with the idea of combatting the predatory loan procedures which generated (and continue to generate!) handsome profits for the financial sector and contributed in no small way to America’s ballooning levels of household debt, choad.

They will have no realistic proposal to reduce the debt or sustain the welfare state. Even if you tax away 50 percent of the income of those making between $1 million and $10 million, you only reduce the national debt by 1 percent, according to the Tax Foundation. If you confiscate all the income of those making more than $10 million, you reduce the debt by 2 percent. You would still be nibbling only meekly around the edges.

Dude, I read Ezra Klein. I’ve seen the charts. The progressive position is not that the addition of higher tax brackets is the cure-all to America’s long-term financial woes (although the fact that all income above $250,000 is taxed at the same rate, and the fact that such political risk is perceived to be associated with arguing for an upgrade, reflects rather harrowingly upon the way in which our political rhetoric short-circuits improved financial literacy, aided by a media which refuses to wield objectivity even in matters of arithmetic). The idea—and this is basic JM Keynes shit—is that increased revenue from the class which prospers most from a prosperous America (and has remained laughably immune from the recession into which it drove the rest of us) will cover the short-term economic solutions (extended unemployment benefits, infrastructure spending) which will stimulate consumer spending, and thus demand, and thus reduce unemployment, which will increase the tax base and do much to close the budget gap, along with decreasing healthcare costs thanks to a reform bill which invests in preventive care and efficiency innovations, and a drawdown in our foreign military commitments (something everyone at OWS has been angrily advocating for years, how strange of Brooks not to mention it).

The 99-versus-1 frame is also extremely self-limiting. If you think all problems flow from a small sliver of American society, then all your solutions are going to be small, too. The policy proposals that have been floating around the Occupy Wall Street movement — a financial transfer tax, forgiveness for student loans — are marginal.

A Republican opinion columnist is now arguing that a financial transfer tax and student-loan forgiveness—two great policy ideas with no political traction whatsoever a month ago—don’t go far enough. Is this actually a column about how effective OWS has been at altering the complexion of the national discourse? Ha ha, no, that would require the author to not default to a position of contempt when contemplating unshaven progressive social-protest movements.

The Occupy Wall Street movement may look radical, but its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club. Its members may hate capitalism. A third believe the U.S. is no better than Al Qaeda, according to a New York magazine survey, but since the left no longer believes in the nationalization of industry, these “radicals” really have no systemic reforms to fall back on.

Finally, some scare quotes. Was worried he wasn’t going to break them out. Now, I’m having a really hard time how a slight rewording of a super-scientific poll of 100 people has anything to do with the complete dissolution of the American Left, which is news to me. (As a tangent, most people—especially in the red states—actually believe in strong, centralized price and salary controls. If you don’t believe me, just ask your dad about the salaries of professional athletes sometime. We don’t really talk about politics in this country in a way that’s conducive to thoughtfully working out which policies best represent our ideals.)

They are not the only small thinkers. President Obama promises not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent. The Occupy-types celebrate the bottom 99 percent. Republicans promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 100 percent. Through these and other pledges, leaders of all three movements are hedging themselves in. They are severely limiting the scope of their proposed solutions.

The whole “everybody’s at fault” argument is a dodge. “Nobody’s right (so let’s not do anything)!” The particular point of OWS identifying with 99 percent of the country is not to preclude broader solutions by making a very large “us” and a very small “them.” It’s to persuade people to identify with a very broad “us” and to support policy in recognition of the spirit of a vast and profoundly interconnected country.

The thing about the current moment is that the moderates in suits are much more radical than the pierced anarchists camping out on Wall Street or the Tea Party-types.

Griping that Occupy Wall Street, despite having nose piercings, isn’t an ideologically rigorous socialist vanguard, seems… disingenuous, maybe? Like, would Brooks really be praising OWS if was full-blooded Leninism? Again, this column is predicated on a willful misconception about the function of social protest movements, which he finds smelly and disrespectful. The point is to inspire more citizens to be politically active and inquisitive, and to make them feel enfranchised. (Also: to gain visibility in a too frequently passive political media.) There is a coherent and convincing progressive platform (and even an anarchist one). But big movements also cohere around an emotional theme.

Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.

Yes, the management consultants suggesting further decentralization of the healthcare industry are the true radicals.

Other economists, for example, have revived the USA Tax, first introduced in 1995 by Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici. This would replace the personal income and business tax regime with a code that allows unlimited deduction for personal savings and business investment. It’s a consumption tax through the back door, which would clean out loopholes and weaken lobbyists.

Centrist flat-tax fantasies are more radical than a symbolic occupation? Brooks’s thesis, expressed most clearly in his column’s nose-tweaking title, is “These little twerps don’t know nearly enough about the tax code to really advocate for systemic change.” Which is plainly bullshit. Does Occupy Wall Street really have nothing to say beyond “soak the rich”? Does anybody really think that a protest against wealth-hoarding in no way reflects support for a systemic political outlook that includes an understanding of social programs and the collective spirit? A concern about the forever-rising influence of corporate money in politics?

Don’t be fooled by the clichés of protest movements past. The most radical people today are the ones that look the most boring. It’s not about declaring war on some nefarious elite. It’s about changing behavior from top to bottom. Let’s occupy ourselves.

Second use of the unconvincing “nefarious elite.” Who edits this? And I have a real strong suspicion, given his talk of “overborrowing” and the like, that “occupy ourselves” actually means “we should blame the poor, too.”

15 Comment

  • Why would Microsoft Word flag the passive voice? Are you under the impression that it is grammatically incorrect?

  • @yo yo pa
    Golly, yes.

  • In that case you are mistaken.

  • Jesus fucking christ. Grammarcheck always flags the passive voice. This always struck me as annoying, but at the same time I’ve come to recognize the passive voice as a great strategy for not assigning responsibility. (“Mistakes were made,” while the truth, is not the whole truth, for instance.) Can we talk about something else?

  • @Mark
    No. I was hoping to see how long we could go on chatting with yo yo pa about jokes and grammar and stuff.

  • @yo yo pa
    You’re either deeply thick or deeply unfunny. Or, rather, there are some comments in this thread that might be interpreted as being indicative of a humorless, willfully obtuse commenter.

  • @Jonny – I am deeply unfunny because I deflected your snide response? Not sure what you were expecting there. Guess you’ll have to yuck it up with somebody else.

    Why anyone would use grammar check is beyond me, given how poorly it functions. Not being a user, I made the reasonable assumption that it flags only errors in grammar. But Brooks clearly uses the passive voice for a reason, as Mark belated acknowledges.

  • I am definitely going to have to yuck it up with somebody else.

    I believe Mark was employing a rhetorical device to highlight Brooks’ infuriating use of the passive voice. I suppose we should start noting rhetorical devices with squiggly green lines (this is a reference to Microsoft Word’s grammar check).

  • “Now is the autumn of our discontent, made glorious summer by this protest in New York”

  • There’s no need to note rhetorical devices using squiggly green lines. It would be much easier and simple just to avoid rhetorical devices intelligible only to those few masochists who use Microsoft Word’s grammar check for advice on style.

  • @yo yo pa
    We’re very sorry you didn’t get it. I will leave the last word to you.

  • If not getting it is later qualified as not not getting it,
    then has it not all become passive,
    has it not all become rhetoric?

    Romans, let us yuck.

  • Apology accepted. I’ll gladly take the last word. Just try not to let it happen again – Top Commenters like me don’t grow on trees.

  • @yo yo pa @Jonny Diamond: You two both need to learn how to spell “yuk”. And I know wiktionary offers “yuck it up” as a variant of “yuk it up”, but that’s only because dipshits like yourselves are out there being lazy.

  • @ConscientiousSpeller
    Eat a dick.