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Why Some Elites Never Have to Say They're Sorry

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about some of the manifestations of corruption in our countries' policy-making processes, focusing particularly on the impact of corruption on the prospects for health care reform.

There is another kind of corruption I've been thinking about the past few days -- a corrupted political discourse -- prompted by a spate of quasi apologies and recantations recently from some high-profile public figures and opinion-makers.

Three examples of note:

1. Lawrence Summers. President Obama's chief economic adviser was the subject, recently, of a largely fawning New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza. The article described Summers' professional history but focused especially on his role in the White House's policy-making process and defended his positions on the size and shape of the February stimulus package, the bank bailout and other major initiatives carried out in response to last year's financial crisis.

Dean Baker, among others, was unmoved by Lizza's arguments on Summers' behalf:

There are other striking sins of omission/commission in this piece. We get no mention of the stock bubble when the piece extols the wonders of the economy in the Clinton years. Nor do we get any mention of the over-valued dollar, a direct outcome of the Rubin-Summers management of the East Asian financial crisis. The collapse of the stock bubble in 2000-2002, coupled with the over-valuation of the dollar, created the serious downturn from which the housing bubble arose. Summers role in ignoring financial bubbles and touting financial deregulation gives him a good share of the credit for the current crisis.

Finally, we are told in conclusion that: "So far, none of the worst fears of those who believed that the stimulus was too small or that nationalization was the only option or that taking over car companies would destroy the fabric of capitalism have materialized."

Sorry, but this is wrong, big time. The worst fears of some of us who said that the stimulus was too small were that we would be sitting around with 10 percent unemployment for a long period of time and that stimulus would be discredited. That pretty well describes the world we live in, even that may not be the case in New Yorker land.

In terms of the bank bailout, some of us were worried that we were effectively taxing the whole country to support the rich bastards that put the economy in the toilet. Bank profits now stand at a record share of GDP and the bonuses at Goldman are as big as ever. What did the critics get wrong?

(Lizza's profile also neglected to mention Summers' role in a significant and under-reported scandal in the late 1990s involving the Harvard Institute for International Development and Russia's disastrous economic reform efforts during that time).

The article did include this mea culpa of sorts from Summers, concerning his views on financial regulation, particularly of new-fangled sorts of derivatives, during his time as Treasury Secretary in the late 1990s:

"If we had known that derivatives markets would mushroom the way they did and that regulators would remain spectators, we would have acted. With hindsight, all of us with involvement in financial policy wish we had done more to forestall problems."

The implication, of course, is that nobody could have known at the time, which is why I'd classify this as a sort-of apology. And, of course, there were people who, at the time, were very concerned about derivatives and their potential for destabilizing financial markets in the long run. It just happens that people like Summers ignored them.

2. Washington Press Corps. Recent weeks have witnessed some high-profile journalists let out the big news that, as it turns out, those Clinton scandals of the 1990s were basically garbage. Joe Conason provides some of the details:

At this late date, it is scarcely radical to suggest that Whitewater and all the other "scandals" deployed by the Washington press corps to besiege the Clinton White House (before the Lewinsky affair) were without substance. In the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, which created and promoted those stories, even such media mandarins as Thomas Friedman and Evan Thomas now casually assure us that they were overblown, even "bogus."

Let us start with Friedman, who wrote a column on Sept. 30 bemoaning the diseased condition of political discourse in America and tracing the dangerous pathology back to its origin. "The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater 'scandal,'" he wrote. Presumably he used those scare quotes to suggest just how fraudulent the whole business was, as if "bogus" didn't quite do it -- and true enough, as far as it goes.

But it doesn't go far enough, because as Friedman knows very well, the right was not alone in hounding the Clintons -- and wouldn't have achieved traction without the journalistic assistance and moral support provided by the Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, the New Republic and the rest of Washington's press establishment, followed slavishly by their intellectual imitators on network and cable television.

...

Still, it is bracing to see that pithy epithet applied to the works of Kenneth Starr and the journalists who served as his lackeys in the Times' own pages. By comparison, Evan Thomas sounded squishy in his own recent belittling of the scandals, when he reviewed "The Clinton Tapes" for the Washington Post -- but then he has considerably more to answer for than Friedman.

Although he was trying no doubt to sound magisterial rather than mealy-mouthed, Thomas was unable to discuss past disgraces in any but the most indirect and evasive terms. Consider this passage, which follows a flip reference to Clinton's moaning and ranting in self-pity as he coped with the hostile press corps:

"Today, when the mainstream media seems so weakened, we forget how powerful -- and arrogant -- the New York Times and The Washington Post, along with the networks and news magazines, seemed to be in the early and mid-1990s. They were part of a giant scandal machine that dominated official Washington in the first few years after the Cold War. The endless string of special prosecutors and the media's obsession with Whitewater seem excessive in retrospect."

Of course, neither Friedman nor Thomas is offering a real apology. As Conason notes about Thomas:

What is remarkable now, however, is how smoothly he attempts to dissociate himself from the relentless scandal machine that he actually helped to operate. (Among his signed pieces, Thomas himself once wrote a fawning apology to Paula Jones that looks even sillier today than at the time he published it.) To put it bluntly, he served as a top editor at Newsweek when that periodical was Kenneth Starr's most favored outlet.

3. Andrew Sullivan. The very popular blogger and Obama devotee recently apologized for a story that ran in the New Republic in 1994 under his editorship. That story, "No Exit," introduced Betsy McCaughey to the world, and had a significant impact on the debate about health care legislation at the time, providing important fodder for the forces opposed to Clinton reform efforts. The story won a National Magazine award and, on his bio page at the Atlantic Monthly, Sullivan still boasts that the story was a:

controversial essay that was widely credited with helping to torpedo the Clinton administration's plans for universal health coverage.

McCaughey, of course, is a fraud (though that hasn't stopped her from meriting repeated high-profile bookings on various news shows to promote blatant falsehoods about current reform efforts), and the 1994 piece has been completely discredited.

Back to Sullivan. He now thinks he goofed (much as he now acknowledges that his patriot-baiting after 9/11 was misplaced).

Here's part of his apology about the McCaughey piece:

I take full responsibility for being the editor of the magazine that published the piece. I accepted an award for it. I stood behind it. In my view, it had many interesting points and as an intellectual exercize (sic) in contemplating the full possible consequences of Hillary Clinton's proposal, it was provocative and well worth running. But its premise that these potential consequences were indisputably in the bill in that kind of detail was simply wrong; and I failed to correct that, although all I can say is that I tried. One key paragraph - critical to framing the piece so it was not a declaration of fact but an assertion of what might happen if worst came to worst - became a battlefield with her for days; and all I can say is, I lost. I guess I could have quit. Maybe I should have. I decided I would run the piece but follow it with as much dissent and criticism as possible. I did discover that she was completely resistant to rational give-and-take. It was her way or the highway.

...

Again I take full responsibility.

As with the other sort-of apologies on this list, Sullivan's is dodgy. Jamison Foser, at Media Matters, explains in detail how.

So what do all of these apologies have in common? Among other things, that they bring in their wake no consequences. Sullivan is an extremely popular blogger. His traitor-baiting of the early post 9/11 period is a distant memory - he's now a reconstructed Obama devotee. As for McCaughey - oops, so maybe 45,000 people die every year due to lack of health insurance, a reality that the McCaugheys (and Sullivans) of the world are partly responsible for (which, as noted above, Sullivan still brags about, when he's not playing down the impact of "No Exit.") But rest assured - Sully's health care needs are well taken care of.

Tom Friedman, of course, was famously and disastrously wrong in his insistent drumming for war prior to our invasion of Iraq in 2003. And one can still see the spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth as he lustily told Charlie Rose in 2003 that the invasion was justified because we needed to tell people in that part of the world to "suck on this." But - happily for him - he's continued to churn out best-selling books, consequence-free op-ed pieces, all while living in his cozy 8,000-square foot home with his billionaire heiress wife.

Evan Thomas continues to occupy a high-profile position in journalism and to share his insights with journalism students at Princeton University.

And Summers -- well, you know the drill by now -- you preside over a monumental and high-profile fuck-up, like the formative stages of the economic catastrophe from which we will be digging out for years to come, and you can expect rewards commensurate with such a failure -- responsibility for over-seeing our response to the crisis, and fawning profiles in places like the New Yorker. After all, as Summers' defenders like to point out - he did apologize for having gotten it wrong. Really, what more could one ask for?

We're a country that talks alot about personal responsibility and responsibility for the consequences of ones actions. And that's all well and good -- so long as we understand that our elites are not be held to the standards those exhortations.

As Ezra Klein wrote a couple of years ago about Sullivan:

It's a peculiar quirk of Washington that repeatedly being wrong doesn't harm your reputation for accuracy or prescience. Indeed, if you leverage your poor predictive abilities correctly, and always stay in a safe mainstream, they can even do something more important: Make you seem courageously honest.

It's the also the sign of a corrupt political/intellectual culture that being wrong in highly consequential ways appears to have no bearing on your implicit moral standing to propound in weighty terms on the crucial issues of the day.

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