For sale to Pete Peterson?

I’m surprised that my post, “Bribes Work: How Peterson, the Enemy of Social Security, Bought the Roosevelt Name” has created a bit of a firestorm within what passes for the left wing political blogosphere. It has elicited responses from Andy Rich of the Roosevelt InstituteRoosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal, as well as two groups only mentioned in passing in the piece, the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

They all illustrate the famed Upton Sinclair quote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” And so it is not surprising that all of them engaged in straw man attacks and failed to engage the simple point of the post: if you have a clear purpose and vision, you do not engage in activities that represent the polar opposite of what you stand for.

These “the lady doth protest too much” reactions reveal how naked careerism has eroded what little remains of the liberal cause in the US. Despite the fact that the left, as does the right, has a moral stance underlying its political positions, operatives on the left have been willing to sell out, not just to make the occasional compromise, but on bedrock principles. Here the fish has rotted from the head; this posture reflects the corporatist-in-sheep’s-clothing stance of Obama filtering through the Democratic party infrastructure.

What has happened with Roosevelt, and to a lesser degree with EPI and the CBPP, is blindingly obvious to those who are paying attention. For instance, Randy Wray wrote on the Roosevelt site:

Sorry but Pete Peterson has NEVER funded any open discussion of deficit issues. He has ALWAYS stacked the deck. While some months ago New Deal 2.0 did allow a modicum of dissent from the deficit hysteria, it has closed ranks with the conventional wisdom, made conventional by the massive funding provided by Pete Peterson’s billions of dollars.

The notion that students who rely on Peterson’s billions will come up with a reasoned position on the deficit, while all anti-Peterson discussion is sidelined from New Deal 2.0 is–shall we say–”quaint”.

If you look at the comments on the Roosevelt post, or the ones by the CBPP, the EPI, and Konczal, you’ll see considerable opposition. That’s a reflection of the frustration of the gap between the policy elites and those they purport to represent. And notice how common it has suddenly become acceptable to use the word “elites”. If you had talked about “elites” even as recently as three years ago, you would have been seen as a wingnut, whether of the Marxist or Alex Jones variety. Why the shift? The man-behind-the-curtains apparatus has become more visible as the concentration of wealth has increased and the corruption purchase of influence has become more open.

Let’s try flipping the right/left wing associations to make what happened crystal clear. Let’s say that George Soros sponsored a high profile conference on how to fund abortions. His organizers call the Catholic Church and say they’d like to hear views of young Catholic officials from across the nation and will pay any such group handsomely to attend the conference and present a paper.

Do you think in an nanosecond they’d be takers?

This comparison isn’t even adequate, since Soros has spread his donations across a broad spectrum of liberal causes, while Peterson has concentrated his considerable spending on a very few pet issues, with eviscerating Social Security and Medicare top of his list. But you get the drift.

Left wing operatives seem unable to grasp what outsiders see clearly: that what advances their resume is often inconsistent with what is in the best interest of the causes they say they believe in. Some face this tradeoff more on an institutional rather than individual level. The EPI and CFPB were both created to counter the right supply side phantasmagoria with fact based analysis. They’ve been truer to the left wing principles than the Hamilton Project infested Center for American Progress. But they depend on Democratic party infrastructure for much of their fundraising. As a consequence, they are often asked to take dives, such as the stance we highlighted in our post, that of supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. The payoff was not explicit as in the Roosevelt case, but maintaining good relationships with money sources is as important as grant funding.

The “you need to have a seat at the table” crowd misses how best to steer a path in complex systems. As John Kay points out in his new book Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, one does better by sticking with principles, since it is beyond our capabilities to map a straight path. He compares the performance of companies within a number of different industries who set out to maximize profits against those that set higher and more complex objectives. The ones that had the richer, more aspirational aims did better in financial terms. Apple is a classic example.

And if you put values first, you need to be willing to incur costs, another issue lost on the careerists. The Roosevelt Institute has only recently evolved into a think tank that would promote and defend New Deal principles. One big step forward was getting Elizabeth Warren involved, since she had done landmark research on how middle class families were losing out in the financialization of the economy.

One can debate whether Warren was wise to join the Administration as an advisor, but she is taking an extraordinary amount of punishment to defend what she believes is right. Pretty much anyone else would have taken the hint and announced a date certain for leaving her post as de facto head of the CFPB; Brooksley Born took far less abuse before beating a retreat. But the spectacle of Warren refusing to fold in the face of a Congressional and media onslaught has galvanized the public around her. This is what leadership is supposed to look like and the country is desperate for someone, anyone who isn’t a sellout.

Often the betrayal isn’t even done with bad intent but falling back on habits that might make sense if elite institutions had some concern for the public interest.  Let’s look at the Mike Konczal post as an illustration. It’s an odd mix of misdirection, rationalization, and coded ad hominem.  His opening sentence depicts me as “unhappy”, thus tagging me as being emotional rather than having a reasoned critique.  It also characterizes the critic as someone who doesn’t see the system as legitimate, and thus cannot be trusted as a credible system-supportive messenger.

But that’s precisely the point – my priority is not sustaining a corrupt order, while that is exactly what he is doing.  I feel no allegiance to the powerful officials and interests who made decisions, and I believe they owe the public an accounting for the deeply destabilizing and immoral two-tiered system of justice they have foisted on all of us.  He is keen to marginalize those who demand answers from our self-appointed guardians of discourse. For instance, his peculiar emphasis on word count is to suggest that people like me are tiresome and irrelevant.

His post is not even an argument, it’s a tribal signal to the insider class that, though he may have liberal sympathies, he can be trusted at crunch time.

The fact that Konczal is in theory aligned with the pinko cause only makes him more valuable to Peterson, not less.  If the legitimacy of the system was not at stake, Konczal might be a competent technocrat.  But at this moment, at this time, the lack of a moral sensibility is deeply disturbing and potentially dangerous.  It is the opposite of Elizabeth Warren, the opposite of valor.  It is in fact an argument against moral courage.

Indeed, this extract suggests that Konczal thinks you can somehow be progressive and support Peterson, and he does that by trying to claim I’m not making a moral argument:

There’s an argument to be made that even if the Campus Network could make a strong, progressive budget for the summit it is a moral wrong to participate in this summit. This is usually predicated on the idea to never mention a long-term deficit problem and implicitly on the idea that the budget right now, with all its waste in health care and military spending, is at a progressive optimum. I think this argument is insane because we are not at a progressive optimum, but either way it is not the argument Smith puts forth, and not what I will respond to.

So get this:

1. He accepts the Peterson notion is a long-term deficit problem. That’s explicit. All there is to discuss is the “progressive optimum” in the solution space defined by Peterson and the deficit hawks (and notice the use of the technocrat “optimum”)

2. Konczal is saying I did NOT make a moral critique. I’m not certain how he could have missed that, the post had “bribes” as the first word in the headline and the post proper.

As NC contributor Doug Smith pointed out via e-mail:

Because he either missed that you were speaking about a moral position or because he’s just slick, he goes on to offer a refutation of the moral argument that is a straw man — even to the point of being silly.

Pretty amazing in terms of what this reveals. To Konczal it seems all that exists is Washington DC back room dealing. It’s all about negotiating positions and transactions, and very little about morality. The consequentialist position he accuses you of is of a piece with this. He says, in effect, your critique was grounded solely on proposition that had student network been corrupted it would be seen in their end product. He then goes on to extol their end product as progressive. Hence, arguing that the end product (their budget) was not corrupt, therefore their taking money from Peterson Institute was not corrupting.

He reveals either a stunning lack of insight about human affairs and morality — or a cynical winking of the eye.

Konczal similarly chooses to ignore that Roosevelt could have found a way to engage in this debate without taking the Peterson money or accepting their framing. For instance the students could have protested the Peterson confab; that would likely have gotten more media play than they did by tagging along for his ride. Or Roosevelt and other progressive groups could have had their own forum on budget priorities, as a way to argue that the budget hysteria was wrongheaded but still provided an opportunity for a much more radical rethink of national priorities. By contrast, there’s a tacit, and erroneous either/or in his piece: you either take the Peterson “sweet gig” or you are irrelevant.

But the reality is that the Roosevelt participation was utterly irrelevant save for its PR value to Peterson. It’s simply an ornament that allows Peterson to claim millennial support for his toxic game plan. No one cares what the student paper says; the only reason I bothered dealing with it substantively was to show I had indeed read it and point out how it failed to build on or even acknowledge prior (better) Roosevelt work.

The technocrats are kidding themselves if they think they can optimize anything in system under as much stress as ours. The Mark Buchanan book Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen describes how complex systems are not just unpredictable but also subject to upheaval. Interestingly, you cannot tell what event, like the self immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, will unleash disruptive change, nor can you predict what direction it will take.

But you can tell when a system has reached a supercritical state, when small events have the potential to produce massive shifts. The escalating efforts of the powers that be to extend their web of control suggests they sense the potential for radical change. But the irony is efforts to prevent small disruptions, like the now-discarcded American forest management policy of preventing small fires, can increase the odds of raging conflagrations when they do occur. And it is impossible to foresee what disruptive actions might cascade into bigger changes. As Johann Hari wrote in the Independent:

A small group of women from Iowa lost their sons early in the Vietnam war, and they decided to set up an organization of mothers opposing the assault on the country. They called a protest of all mothers of serving soldiers outside the White House – and six turned up in the snow. Even though later in the war they became nationally important voices, they always remembered that protest as an embarrassment and a humiliation.

Until, that is, one day in the 1990s, one of them read the autobiography of Benjamin Spock, the much-loved and trusted celebrity doctor, who was the Oprah of his day. When he came out against the war in 1968, it was a major turning point in American public opinion. And he explained why he did it. One day, he had been called to a meeting at the White House to be told how well the war in Vietnam was going, and he saw six women standing in the snow with placards, alone, chanting. It troubled his conscience and his dreams for years. If these women were brave enough to protest, he asked himself, why aren’t I? It was because of them that he could eventually find the courage to take his stand – and that in turn changed the minds of millions, and ended the war sooner. An event that they thought was a humiliation actually turned the course of history.

And that’s why it’s important not to sell out. You can’t know what small action will have broader ripple effects. And in the end, even if you do not succeed in changing the terms of engagement, you have at least stood up for your dignity.