David Brooks has been a great columnist for The New York Times because he has always conducted himself like a decent guy. Intelligent, prudent, even-handed, he spends a lot of time giving the other fellow his due, in the obvious belief that he ought to behav in an earnest, high-minded, intelligent way because that is how good people act, and we all owe it to society to hold up our end of the deal.
Which is why it was at once frightening and hilarious to see in this morning’s column Brooks’ world view explode. All it took was the publication of Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner to stand Brooks’s world on its ear. Reckless Endangerment is about the Fannie Mae scandal, and how this company’s scandalously loose and self-rewarding financial practices underwrote the irresponsible behavior of Wall Street, cost taxpayers $153 billion so far, and brought about the terrible financial problems of the last several years.
Brooks points to two people who are “egregiously immoral” for their roles in creating and protecting the Fannie Mae mess–longtime Democratic stalwart Jim Johnson and Rep. Barney Frank–but he identifies other establishment stalwarts–Bill Daley, Tom Donilan, Joseph Stiglitz, Dianne Feinstein, Kit Bond, Franklin Raines, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Ken Starr–who acted to protect Fannie Mae’s misdeeds. Brooks, a conservative who believes with all his heart in the collective morality of the establishment, is shocked by their behavior. He writes:
The scandal has sent the message that the leadership class is fundamentally self-dealing. Leaders on the center-right and center-left are always trying to create public-private partnerships to spark socially productive activity. But the biggest public-private partnership to date led to shameless self-enrichment and disastrous results. It has sent the message that we have hit the moment of demosclerosis. Washington is home to a vertiginous tangle of industry associations, activist groups, think tanks and communications shops. These forces have overwhelmed the government that was originally conceived by the founders. The final message is that members of the leadership class have done nothing to police themselves. The Wall Street-Industry-Regulator-Lobbyist tangle is even more deeply enmeshed.”
Well said, Mr. Brooks! Hear, hear! Let us twitter his words across the length and breadth of this great land. But Dave baby, let me ask you a question: Has it not always been this? Malanowski’s First Iron law of politics is that the rich and powerful will always act in their own self interest. Malanowski’s Second Iron law is that the rich and powerful will then get the rest of us to act in their interest as well, usually by making us believe that we’ll be acting in our own interests, or at least the common good. (Over the weekend I’ll be working on Malanowski’s Third Iron Law, which is that the rest of us figure out ways to act in our own self-interests, the rich and powerful are likely to outlaw whatever we’ve come up with. Eh, Wisconsin?)
I know what you’re thinking: Always? Always? Okay, maybe not always. But it’s always the way to bet.
Poor Brooks. He seems utterly shocked to discover that gambling has been going on in the casino.“ Fannie Mae co-opted relevant activist groups. . . ginned up Astroturf lobbying campaigns. . . lavished campaign contributions on members of Congress. . . .ginned up academic studies. . . .spent enormous amounts of time and money capturing the regulators who were supposed to police them.” Yeah, well, duh. Come on, Brooks, buy yourself a Woody Guthrie album? (Or do us both a favor and buy And the War Came, and see how self-serving slaveholders lied, cheated, manipulated and muscled ther countrymen into secession just to protect their right to own slaves.)
“People may not like Michele Bachmann,” writes Brooks, “but when they finish Reckless Endangerment they will understand why there is a market for politicians like her. They’ll realize that if the existing leadership class doesn’t redefine “normal” behavior, some pungent and colorful movement will sweep in and do it for them.” When that happens, it will be interesting to see if Brooks have joined the pungent and colorful, or if he remains among the respectable.
[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]