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Come Saturday Morning: “Serious” and “Incurious” Are Not Synonyms

The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, who is sounding more and more like Thomas Friedman with each passing day, links favorably to a softball creampuff interview of Pete Peterson at The Daily Beast. Peterson, you may recall, is the billionaire Wall Streeter who wants to put the vast majority of us on catfood in our old age so he doesn’t have to pay taxes, and gee gosh golly gollwhickers Ezra apparently thinks he’s just the most charming guy, charming enough for Mr. Klein to overlook the decades-long evidence of the former Nixon Cabinet member’s paper trail in favor of doing a “balanced” report the way all the nice serious big-boy pundits like David Broder do. (Though really, I shouldn’t be too hard on Ezra: Peterson’s so slick, he’s rolled even actual journalistic legend Bill Moyers — or perhaps the CPB just kept Moyers on a short leash here.)

Interestingly enough, Klein’s employer, the WaPo, relies on Peterson’s new right-wing propaganda rag, the Fiscal Times, to provide it with cheap content — content that (surprise, surprise!) pushes the Peterson agenda with regard to slashing social programs in the name of deficit hawkery. (And of course the fact that it reinforces the message that neocon Fred Hiatt, the top dog at the Post, wants to see in print doesn’t hurt, either.) And Peterson has a long history of more-or-less successfully trying to charm, if not outright buy, the press, as this 1997 FAIR story shows:

Peterson denounces the “mad, drunken bash” of the Reagan years. That would be the time when the top income-tax rate was cut from 70 percent to 28 percent, military spending went sky-high, and trillions were made (and lost) on savings and loans and takeovers financed by junk bonds. He was himself, of course, making out like a bandit, hustling for his share of the action, and contributing his bit to Republican campaign funds. He also led a chorus of corporate executives who keened about the exploding federal deficit. His contribution was a key series of articles in the New York Review of Books in 1982 (12/2/82, 12/16/82) that prepared the intellectual climate for the 1983 Social Security “rescue,” which raised payroll taxes and lowered benefits.

The series purported to prove with mathematical certainty that the entitlements of the elderly were snatching food from babies and driving the nation toward bankruptcy. George Will called it “the most important journalism of 1982.” (Washington Post, 12/19/82). Its charts persuaded such liberals as Tom Wicker and Anthony Lewis. Leslie Stahl of ABC said Peterson “really began to educate me.” (She has since repaid the favor with appearances by her mentor on 60 Minutes.)

All the journalists he met seemed impressed by his expertise, and by his generosity in offering to surrender his own entitlements. It does not seem to have occurred to any of his interviewers that a rise of 1 percentage point in his income tax rate would cost him perhaps twice as much as his Social Security and Medicare benefits combined. Nor have any observed how policies he has supported have transferred the tax burden from the wealthy to the wage earner. Indeed, in Facing Up, Peterson remarks with pleased surprise that nobody had clamored for a cut in the Social Security payroll tax to match cuts in benefits.

Even though Peterson has pretty much owned the self-styled Serious People for many years now, the rise of the internet — the very medium through which Ezra Klein first made his mark — allowed less-wealthy but more-truthful entities a chance to counter his solid-gold bullhorn with solid facts debunking his Concord-Coalition fantasies.

One would think that, being a guy who came up as part of the reality-based community, Mr. Klein would know all of this. But I guess the lure of the cocktail weenies and the heady whiff of “access” to the rich and powerful has had a corrosive effect on his memory banks, in the classic manner first described by Upton Sinclair a century ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

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