Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Not Exactly Fools, But . . .

In my "Obeying Our Overlords" post on Monday, I mentioned in passing that the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof had recently been a panelist on a public affairs show, a show on which he discussed inter alia some questions about international economic policy. In a particularly uncharitable moment (even for me), I then noted that Kristof was "completely unqualified to speak on the subject." This suggests a related question: On what subject, if anything, is Nicholas Kristof qualified to speak or write? Which, in turn, raises the question of what qualifies any op-ed columnist for his or her job. In honor of "fools' day," I thought it worthwhile to consider the nature of the newspaper op-ed and its practitioners, particularly at the highly influential New York Times.

I should say that I am a bit uncomfortable in going down this path, not because of the obvious hypocrisy of a blogger opining about other people's rights to opine. That comes with the territory, and I am happy to embrace the paradox. Instead, what concerns me is that it is just too easy to take shots at the Times' lineup of op-ed writers -- so easy, in fact, that zillions of blogs seem to be devoted to little else. Right-wing "truth squads" try to debunk everything Paul Krugman says, for example; and William Kristol's misbegotten stint on the Times' roster created a feeding frenzy of appropriately critical commentary. Having been in the blogging game for a couple of years, I have tried mightily to avoid falling into the pattern of waking up, reading the op-ed page, and then blogging about something with which I disagree. If I weren't a vegan, I would liken that blogging strategy to shooting ducks in a barrel.

Two things have changed my mind. First, Mike recently demonstrated that one can occasionally take a really good shot at someone on the Times' roster (in his case, Thomas Friedman) in the service of a larger point. Second, because of the current economic crisis, the content of the Times op-eds has become much more oriented toward economic issues. The low quality of the commentary about a subject for which I am actually qualified to speak has made it impossible to ignore this low-hanging fruit any longer.

Therefore, my post this Friday will address some of the more silly comments about economics that some of the Times op-ed writers have offered recently, the larger purpose being to show that the quality of debate about economic issues is surely degraded by having these people weigh in with their uninformed views.

Since I am taking the leap into this void, however, I am hereby indulging my long-held desire to critique this crowd individually and as a group. The group in question is composed of David Brooks, Gail Collins, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, Nicholas Kristof, Paul Krugman, and Frank Rich. (I know that Charles Blow and Roger Cohen should be included as well; but they are relatively new and thus far unremarkable.)

Many others have pointed out that this roster includes 7 liberals and one conservative who sometimes sounds non-conservative. Given my strongly liberal views, this should make me happy. Would that it were so! Politics aside, my most frequent reaction to Times op-eds is that they are simply shallow. This is not inherent to the enterprise, because Krugman's columns demonstrate repeatedly that 750 words are sufficient to make an intelligent and deep argument. (Even those who disagree with Krugman's views must surely find his arguments non-shallow.)

I am thus tempted to attribute the difference to Krugman's academic training, since he is an economics professor at Princeton whereas (so far as I know) none of the other columnists have any advanced academic training. This, however, fails to explain Frank Rich, whose political commentary single-handedly makes the Sunday Times worth its price but whose background is in film criticism. Advanced academic training is thus not necessary (and op-eds from guest economists prove beyond doubt that it is also not sufficient).

Each of the other five liberals -- Collins, Dowd, Friedman, Herbert, and Kristof -- has developed a unique voice. Dowd, for example, seems happiest when she can make snarky and unfalsifiable comments about someone on a personal level (such as her repeated claims that Hillary Clinton "got inside Obama's head"). Kristof seems intent on proving what a great humanitarian he is. (He actually does some wonderfully humanitarian things, but he somehow always manages to make it seem to be all about him.) Friedman spends his time thinking up catchy phrases (the world is flat; after the IT revolution will be the ET -- environmental technology -- revolution). Collins and Herbert seem to have their hearts in the right place, but their columns too frequently add up to nothing.

My overwhelmingly negative reaction to David Brooks has not been based (at least as a first-order matter) on his conservative views. I actually play a game when I read his columns, seeing how far I can get into each column before he says something so preposterous that I have to stop reading. (One example: Discussing something about Bush's foreign policy a few years ago, Brooks wrote: "Bush, ever the visionary . . ." I had so much coffee coming out of my nose that I couldn't breathe normally for a week.) I occasionally finish his columns, but not often. His pattern is to return to two themes: (1) pompous literary references, and (2) agreeing with the Right's negative views of "elites." The self-hatred obvious in the interactions of those two themes should keep a good psychologist employed for years.

Given this parade of lightweights (with the two notable exceptions), it would be tempting to dismiss the whole enterprise and instead spend more time reading things that are actually well-reasoned. The problem is that these people help to set the agenda and define the meta-narrative of politics in this country. When the biggest issues facing the world are Congressional page scandals and wardrobe malfunctions, the damage from this system is minimal. When our leaders are trying to figure out how to end wars and avoid global economic depression, though, it is more than a bit worrisome that our political discourse is set by people whose greatest claim to expertise is that they have always claimed to have expertise.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan