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The Progressive

David Brooks Hacks Away at Wisconsin

He’s never been my favorite columnist. A poor man’s sociologist, he’s made a handsome living making vapid generalizations about the way we conduct our lives. He doesn’t know jack about economics. And he traffics on appearing to be the most reasonable Republican in the country. But at bottom, he’s a hack.

Take today’s column in the Times, “The Debt Indulgence,” where he pretends to know something about what’s going on in Wisconsin on this crucial day of the recall.

He begins by making sweeping claims about how people’s tolerance for debt led to the “mortgage-finance bubble” and the “fiscal bubble.” Those bubbles, in his view, are largely the people’s fault, not the fault of Wall Street manipulators.

He says voters for years have wanted government debt to mount and mount, though he doesn’t substantiate that claim with any evidence or poll data.

Only then, after half a column of throat-clearing, does he turn to Wisconsin and the recall vote on Scott Walker today.

“I’m not a complete fan of the way Walker went about reducing debt,” he said, with his customary hedging. (He’s got more hedges than Versailles.) But, he said, in an end-justifies-the-means way: “Walker did at least take on entrenched interest groups.”

I love the way Republicans refer to “entrenched interest groups.” By this term, they never mean the huge corporations that dominate our politics, here in Wisconsin and in Washington. No, they only mean labor unions, which have far inferior resources than the corporations and the super rich. (Not for nothing that Scott Walker outraised Tom Barrett 10 to 1.)

Brooks said that a vote for Walker is “a vote against any special interest that seeks to preserve exorbitant middle class benefits at the expense of the public good.” Exorbitant? State workers in Wisconsin have had their wages frozen for years now; they hadn’t been living high off the hog. They had decent health and pension benefits, which everyone should have. But Brooks and Walker want the middle class to race to the bottom.

Brooks also conveniently neglects to mention that the “special interest” that he so despises actually agreed to take the cuts in health benefits and pensions that Walker demanded, but Walker wouldn’t take yes for an answer. Instead, he insisted on crushing the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

Brooks praises Walker for “turning a $3.6 billion deficit into a $150 million surplus.” But every governor in Wisconsin has to balance the budget. The question isn’t whether it’s balanced, but how it’s balanced, and Walker balanced it by gouging state workers and slashing $1.6 billion from public education. So it was astonishing also to read that Brooks says Walker’s policies helped school districts spend more on students.

He makes the further outlandish claim that if Walker loses, “it will remove any hope this country might have of avoiding a fiscal catastrophe.” Talk about scare tactics! But as Brooks’s fellow columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out, we’re more likely to head toward economic catastrophe if the federal government is obsessed about debt and keeps cutting back on spending right now. Krugman, by the way, has a Nobel Prize in economics.

In any event, the vote in Wisconsin has nothing to do with saving the country from fiscal catastrophe.

It has everything to do with whether Walker can get away with destroying a fundamental human right: the right to collectively bargain.

It has everything to do with whether he can get away governing in a ruthless and underhanded way.

And it has everything to do with whether he can continue to shred every bit of Wisconsin’s progressive tradition, one item at a time, until the state is no longer recognizable.

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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