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by Brien Jackson

Matt Taibbi’s latest polemic in Rolling Stone has been the topic of the weekend, and since I’ve weighed in on it in comment sections elsewhere, I might as well add it to my own neglected blog. Kevin Drum, Digby, Matt Yglesias, Tim Fernholz, Ezra Klein, and Brad Delong have, in my opinion, the best responses, and you should read all of them. I’m not at all a fan of this article, and more generally I’m not a fan of Taibbi’s, but I suspect that’s as much because I’m not a fan of polemics in general more than anything else. I do, however, think this article does a good job exposing the genre’s weaknesses.

First of all, yes, there are factual errors, and no, they’re not really that important. Confusing various James Rubins and so on is embarrassing, but it’s not a mortal sin. I will give Taibbi that. The bigger problems come in the somewhat vague interpretation of “facts” and the interpretation thereof. For example, did Michael Froman have a large role in the transition process? Yes. Does that mean he “hired” Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury? Of course not. Presidents-elect don’t outsource selections for top tier cabinet positions. It’s ridiculous. But it’s not technically wrong since it’s not technically a fact, it’s just a transparently absurd interpretation of events. And of course there’s the rather central notion that the corruption is represented by various officials’ connections to Robert Rubin, which is likewise completely ridiculous. Robert Rubin spent 2 years as the chairman of the National Economic Council under President Clinton and another 4 years as Treasury Secretary, meaning that you could pretty much connect anyone who worked on economic policy during the Clinton administration to Rubin. Does anyone expect that the Obama administration wouldn’t or shouldn’t have people who worked in the last Democratic administration in it? That facing a tough economic situation the administration should only be staffed with people who have never been around the job before? That seems, well, ridiculous doesn’t it?

More damning, I think, is the way Taibbi chooses to characterize the people he casts as the good guys, for lack of a better term. The stalwarts of the campaign who have supposedly been vanquished now that Obama no longer needs them to fool the lefties, namely Austan Goolsbee and Karen Kornbluh. Here’s how he introduced them:

In order to grasp the full horror of what took place, however, one needs to go back a few weeks before the actual bailout — to November 5th, 2008, the day after Obama’s election.That was the day the jubilant Obama campaign announced its transition team. Though many of the names were familiar — former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett — the list was most notable for who was not on it, especially on the economic side. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who had served as one of Obama’s chief advisers during the campaign, didn’t make the cut. Neither did Karen Kornbluh, who had served as Obama’s policy director and was instrumental in crafting the Democratic Party’s platform. Both had emphasized populist themes during the campaign: Kornbluh was known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class, while Goolsbee was an aggressive critic of Wall Street, declaring that AIG executives should receive “a Nobel Prize — for evil.”

Well that’s great and all, but it isn’t anywhere near the full story. Goolsbee has never been a populist hero before Taibbi’s article painted him that way, at least that I’m aware of, and prior to this he was best known as being the guy who assured the Canadian government that candidate Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric in Ohio shouldn’t be taken seriously. His description of Kornbluh isn’t inaccurate in its own right, but as Ezra points out, Taibbi conveniently neglects to mention that Kornbluh served in the Treasury Department under Clinton as deputy chief of staff to…Robert Rubin! Indeed as Ezra points out, it’s easy to imagine that had Kornbluh gotten a more prominent role in the administration, she’d be on Taibbi’s list of nefarious Rubinites. Unfair conjecture you say? Well, look at the treatment Taibbi gives Jason Furman:

Just below Summers is Jason Furman, who worked for Rubin in the Clinton White House and was one of the first directors of Rubin’s Hamilton Project. The appointment of Furman — a persistent advocate of free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the author of droolingly pro-globalization reports with titles like “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story” — provided one of the first clues that Obama had only been posturing when he promised crowds of struggling Midwesterners during the campaign that he would renegotiate NAFTA, which facilitated the flight of blue-collar jobs to other countries. “NAFTA’s shortcomings were evident when signed, and we must now amend the agreement to fix them,” Obama declared. A few months after hiring Furman to help shape its economic policy, however, the White House quietly quashed any talk of renegotiating the trade deal.

Now we could quibble with this all day if we really wanted to, but I’ll skip all that for the purpose of noting that whether you like Furman or not, he was a top economic adviser to the Obama campaign in 2008. So the larger takeaway here is that whether or not you agree with Taibbi on how bad the financial industry is, what he’s unquestionably doing is grossly misstating the nature of the Obama campaign. Which is what makes Drum’s defense of the article rather bizarre:

But look: this is all just nitpicky bullshit.  Taibbi’s piece is basically about how the finance industry owns Congress and the Obama administration, and that’s basically true.  In fact, I have a piece coming out in a week or so in the print magazine that makes pretty much the same point.  My approach is different, and my language is all PG-rated, but my conclusions are pretty much the same.  The finance industry, through both standard lobbying and what Simon Johnson calls “intellectual capture,” has, over the decades since Reagan was elected, convinced nearly everyone that what’s good for Wall Street is good for America, and that what’s bad for Wall Street would be catastrophic for America.  Everything else follows from that.

Well look, that’s all great, but that isn’t really the point of  Taibbi’s article. Hell, that would be a pretty boring polemic. After all, who needs Matt Taibbi to tell them that the banks own Washington, especially Congress? We all know that! What people need Matt Taibbi to do is spin entertaining stories of personal malfeasance. And Taibbi delivers in spades, but he isn’t writing about “intellectual capture,” his narrative is that Obama “sold out.” That’s a very specific charge that’s very different than simply claiming the Obama administration has too much affinity for the banking industry. It’s also entirely untrue, as evidenced by the fact that Taibbi had to a) reinvent Austan Goolsbee as a raging populist, b) ignore Karen Kornbluh’s rather direct ties to the dreaded Robert Rubin and, c) ignore Jason Furman’s role in the Obama campaign.

Now maybe this doesn’t bother you, but it should. For one thing, if it’s wrong for Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity etc. to feed their audience bullshit and conspiracy theories to validate their emotion based beliefs about politics and policy, then it should be wrong when someone “on the left” does it too. More importantly, painting an inaccurate picture of Obama the candidate’s views on economics and finance doesn’t really help anyone who’s actually interested in the problems with intellectual capture or Washington’s closeness to Wall Street. If anything, examining how much candidate Obama was in line with mainstream Washington/Wall Street during the campaign and why no one cared about it at the time would be a much more helpful piece of journalism. But it wouldn’t have been very entertaining, definitely wouldn’t have been as controversial as this piece has been (links baby links!), and wouldn’t have stoked the victim role a large segment of the netroots needs to survive. So that’s not the piece Taibbi delivers. Which is really a shame because the problem of Wall Street capture of Congress is a problem that really could use a good tongue lashing from a writer as talented as Taibbi.

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