I’m worried I might be getting old. My 30th birthday is fast approaching,
and I’ve recently been reminded of that old canard about how if you’re
not a socialist when you’re young you don’t have a heart, and if you’re
still a socialist when you’re old you don’t have a brain.
I think I’m still as left-wing as I always was, but I have noticed
in myself an increased tolerance – even admiration – for
right-wing pundits of late. A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email
circulating a column
by Mark Steyn; and recently I’ve been finding myself reading andrewsullivan.com
more than once a day.
I think I can explain away the Steyn column by saying that it’s appealingly
contrarian, at least to a lefty like me. We liberals are far more
reluctant to question the motives behind statements from NGOs than
we are to wonder why the average Republican (or even Democrat) politician
is saying something. Jeremy Paxman once said that the question he
always had in the front of his mind when interviewing politicians
was "why is this liar lying to me?"; and somehow I can’t
imagine even him thinking the same kind of thing when interviewing
the head of the UNHCR.
But charity officials are people too, as anybody who’s ever worked
in a non-profit will attest. And when you stop to think about it,
it’s easy to see how UNICEF might exaggerate and spin just as much
as any politician: after all, they know they’re on the side of the
angels. (I’m reminded of that line from William S Burroughs: "If
you’re doing business with a religious sonofabitch, Get It In Writing.")
In general, charities are much less accountable than governments,
or even large corporations. And a lack of accountability inevitably
leads to a dangerous sense of infallibility.
There are pundits I love, all on the left: Kinsley, Krugman, Hitchens.
Whenever I see one of those bylines, I get very excited and drop whatever
I’m doing to read whatever it is they’ve written. Most of the time,
I’m extremely impressed, although Kinsley does sometimes give the
impression that he’s been a little bit short on inspiration that week,
and Krugman is a lot less impressive when he’s writing about the one
subject I know a lot about, Argentina.
Sullivan is in many ways very similar to Kinsley: they share a fondness
for carefully-constructed arguments laced with sarcasm. Most of the
time I disagree with what he’s saying, but his arguments are cogent
enough that at least I can see that he has a respectable point of
view. (Other right-wing
pundits generally just drive me batty with their wrongheadedness.)
He also likes to spend a lot of time commenting on other commentators,
rather than just on the news. Today, for instance, he’s taking a swipe
at Paul Krugman.
Sullivan’s first posting came at 1:15am, just after Krugman’s column
hit the web. Finding nothing to argue with in the article itself,
Sullivan instead lambastes Krugman for his failure to tell us that
he was paid $50,000 by Enron in 1999 to sit on "an advisory panel
that had no function that I was aware of," in Krugman’s own words
elsewhere in the paper. Personally, I would have slapped Krugman for
his rather gratuitous swipe at the Bush Administration at the end
of his column: if the present Administration "doesn’t get it,"
in Krugman’s words, then the Clinton Administration certainly didn’t.
The worst charge that Krugman can find against the present lot is
that the new chairman of the SEC wants auditor independence; that
hardly compares to, say, Al D’Amato’s abolition of Glass-Steagal just
so that Travelers could merge with Citibank.
Fast forward to 12:46pm, and after a good night’s sleep, Sullilvan
is back, pointing out Krugman’s disingenuousness in a column last
year when he said that he did serve on the advisory panel, but wasn’t
really sure why. Now, of course, it’s obvious: the small matter of
$50,000, which Krugman saw no need to disclose at the time. Sullivan
follows this good point up with a piece of disingenuousness of his
own, however: he proposes Krugman "follow many others’ example,"
and donate the $50,000 to charities set up for the benefit of employee-shareholders
whose pension funds have been wiped out. The examples cited, however,
it transpires upon following Sullivan’s link, are all donations to
politicians or political parties: none of them involve remuneration.
By 2:38pm, Sulllivan’s obviously on a roll. He’s now found an article
Krugman wrote in 1999, in which he lauds the free-wheeling entrepeneurial
structure of Enron. Asks Sullivan: "Now tell me if I’m wrong,
but isn’t this structure, which enabled Enron to hide all sorts
of shenanigans, exactly what Krugman is now bemoaning?"
Actually, Andrew, it isn’t. Krugman is bemoaning the shenanigans,
and not the structure which enabled Enron to hide them. After all,
there are many investment banks out there who make quite a lot of
money doing what Enron did: trading energy. The fact that they’re
out there doing that helps to make the energy market more efficient,
and benefits society. What Krugman is bemoaning is the fact that Enron
used its political connections to push through various bits of legislation
designed to give it an advantage over the banks. Enron, uniquely among
energy traders, was pretty much exempt from regulatory oversight.
That‘s what caused the shenanigans, not Enron’s "post-corporate
Just like charities, companies suffer if they’re not held accountable
for their actions. Enron hid lots of nasty balance-sheet nuclear waste
where Wall Street couldn’t see it, and saw its stock soar as a consequence.
Give me "hundreds of casually dressed men and women staring at
computer screens and barking into telephones" any day: just ensure
that I know when they’re making money and when they’re losing it.
For the ironic thing about Enron was that it wan’t the off-balance-sheet
losses which brought it down. Those were large, but still relatively
small in relation to the size of the company as a whole. What caused
the collapse of Enron was that no one would trade with it any more
when the losses were made public. No trading entity can make money
unless it has rock-solid counterparty risk, and when Enron’s secretiveness
came to light, no one had any faith in that any more. It wasn’t a
loss of money which killed Enron, it was a loss of trust.