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Daily Howler: Pursuit of buttered brain may not equip you for taking on Paul Krugman's work
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CHURLS IN CHARGE (PART 2)! Pursuit of buttered brain may not equip you for taking on Paul Krugman’s work: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1, 2005

WHEN FOPS ATTACK: Okrent v Krugman? Just like that, it has all been posted, on the Times public editor’s site. First, Paul Krugman replies to the nasty attacks in Dan Okrent’s final column. Okrent then responds to Krugman; finally, Krugman makes a brief closing post. And what has come from this exchange? Incredibly, Okrent’s specific complaints against Krugman are even more daft than we would have expected. As we’ll see below, Okrent has to struggle hard to come up with any complaints at all; indeed, to build his total up to five, he has to cut-and-paste something Krugman brought up in his initial reply! Meanwhile, how inane are the mighty Okrent’s objections? Here is one of his five complaints, with an explanation by Brad DeLong:
COMPLAINT BY OKRENT: [Krugman’s] 2/3/04 assertion that tax proposals offered by Democrats would help the 77 percent of taxpayers in the 15 percent bracket or less. The most recent generally accepted figures available at the time indicated that the number was actually 64 percent.

EXPLANATION BY DELONG: I believe that 77% of all taxpayers are in the 15% bracket or less; 64% of those who pay income taxes to the Treasury are in the 15% bracket or less; there are a bunch of people who pay taxes but not income taxes.

In short, Krugman’s assertion from 2/3/04 was perfectly accurate, as you can see if you link to his column. (Note that Okrent has to search back sixteen months to come up with even this bungled complaint.) Krugman himself says this, in his brief final post: “I could explain why 77 percent, not 64 percent, is the right number, but does it really matter? The only significant example was his claim that I blended household and establishment survey data on jobs, in an attempt to score political points. But as I showed in the previous note, I didn't and in the column itself I pointed readers to the correct data.” Krugman’s demolition of this, Okrent’s “only significant example,” is at the public editor’s site.

Yep! Except for that one demolished complaint, “[e]verything else is picking nits,” Krugman writes. Indeed, Okrent’s complaints are the work of a fop—of a self-involved Manhattan dilettante, the same inane schoolboy who informed the world that the New York Times doesn’t ID Bill Moyers when the world’s simplest fact-check would have shown that this well-scripted claim was just false (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/05). But this is the type of dunderhead work that results when a certain social class takes control of the mainstream press corps. Okrent’s a classic Manhattan Fop, as we’ll examine in detail below. Did Okrent really belong in the key post he held? Yes, he did! Okrent belonged there the way we belong at the head of the space shuttle program.

For the record, this has been one of the nastiest episodes in recent Times history, and that takes in a lot ground. Let’s review the paper’s grand foppistry. First, editors allowed Okrent to print a sweeping attack in his final column—a nasty, sweeping attack against Krugman for which Okrent provided no evidence. Then, when Krugman wrote the Times to complain, the paper buried their columnist’s letter beneath a stack of a dozen others, all of which informed Times readers that Okrent is the world’s leading genius. Have you ever seen a letters column gimmicked in so clownish a way? Finally, Okrent’s specific complaints appeared—and they turned out to be the work of a cosmic dilettante. But then, much of Okrent’s political analysis was like this, starting with his hopelessly ill-reasoned “liberal newspaper” column—the column which other Manhattan high-rollers now praise as his most brilliant work. Okrent’s cheap-shot attack was deeply unprincipled. The New York Times should hang its head for allowing such a thing to occur. (Final note: The attack occurred in the Sunday newspaper. The resulting debate occurs on-line, where a smidgeon of readers will see it.)

But let’s get back to Drum’s key question, the question about liberal pundits. No, Okrent didn’t serve as a “liberal pundit” in his role as public editor; as such, his work doesn’t speak directly to Drum’s question. (“Why do liberals argue so poorly?”) But Okrent did say that he was a Democrat—a Democrat who voted for Kerry. As such, his absurd performance does cast light on the important question Drum raised. That in mind, we’ll look at Okrent’s High Foppistry below, in Part 2 of our Special Report. Tomorrow, we’ll move down the coast; we’ll examine “liberal pundits” more directly in their Washington preserve.

In the meantime, marvel at Okrent’s cosmic inanity. It shows you what happens when manifest fops are asked to play key roles in our discourse. As we’ll note below, Okrent is surely a classic fop, of the High Manhattan Variety. And yes, his vapid cohort plays a key role in the dramas of today’s press corps. Tomorrow, we’ll move several hundred miles south, looking at a related class—the “liberal spokesmen” of Washington’s press corps, the type of people whose hopeless performance had Drum so puzzled last week. In effect, Manhattan’s press fops and your fiery “liberal spokesmen” are members of the same high class. As Drum suggests, their weak performance keeps dooming your interests. It’s time that we flushed them all out.

CHAIT SPEECH: “It’s truly pathetic,” Jonathan Chait says, speaking of Okrent’s delayed critique. For Chait’s reaction to Okrent’s clowning, you know what to do—just click here.

Special report: Churls in charge!

PART 2—OKRENT’S INNARDS: Once again we’re forced to ask: Where on earth did the New York Times ever come up with Dan Okrent? His loudmouth complaints about Paul Krugman are even more inane than expected, as we have noted above. But let’s put Okrent’s specific complaints to the side; where on earth did they find a guy with such a truckload of attitude? Here’s the first of five numbered “points” in which he responds to the Krug:

OKRENT: I offered [Krugman] only three examples of “shaping, slicing and selectively citing” (for some reason, he’s left one out of his rebuttal) because I was at home when he began bombarding me with outraged demands for retraction and apology; I’d completed my tenure as public editor the preceding week, and did not have any files with me. When I had the chance to consult some of my reader mail later in the week, some of his greatest mis-hits immediately came to the fore. I’ll get to a few of those in point No. 5, below.
Where do you go to find that kind of attitude? In his final column as public editor, Okrent trashed Krugman with a parting cheap shot, calling him every name in the book but forgetting to provide examples of Krugman’s alleged misconduct. And when Krugman complained and asked for some evidence, Okrent copped a Big Major Attitude, mocking Krugman for “bombarding me with outraged demands for retraction and apology.” Where do you get a brain that small—or a pair of grapefruit that large? Meanwhile, why was Okrent so slow to respond when Krugman asked for specific complaints? As usual, the snoring fellow was off on vacation; “I’d completed my tenure as public editor the preceding week, and did not have any files with me,” he sleepily writes. But that, of course, is precisely the problem; Okrent “completed his tenure” with a nasty attack—a shot that would inevitably call for explanation—then he went home (perhaps to the Cape), where he complained about Krugman’s outrageous “demands” for the courtesy of some specifics. But then, as always, Okrent’s reply is deeply inane. Why didn’t he lodge his specific complaints in real time, while he was still the public editor? Try to believe what Okrent writes in Point 2 of his response:
OKRENT: I laid off for so long because I also believe that columnists are entitled by their mandate to engage in the unfair use of statistics, the misleading representation of opposing positions, and the conscious withholding of contrary data. But because they’re entitled doesn’t mean I or you have to like it, or think it’s good for the newspaper.
Say what? Okrent believes that columnists are entitled to “engage in the unfair use of statistics?” To offer “misleading representations of opposing positions?” To “consciously withhold” relevant data? Good Lord! Does anyone on earth except Dan Okrent hold to such bizarre beliefs? Where on earth did the New York Times go to come up with this oddest of creatures?

But to that, of course, there’s an obvious answer; the Times went straight to the Bureau of Fops, a well-stocked Manhattan fish pond. Yes, Okrent’s complaints against Vile Krugman turn out to be completely absurd; as noted, just to come up with five complaints, he has to borrow a point of trivia from Krugman’s very own post. (“Believe me—I could go on,” he then boasts. Did anyone not laugh out loud?) But why should anyone be surprised to see Okrent revealed in this way? After all, his whole career screams out that he’s a High Fop—the kind of fellow who makes a joke of our disabled public debate.

How big a fop is the great Okrent—this man who wanted to tell the world about what a fake Krugman is? Okrent is a classic fop—a man who sat out every battle of his generation, and now wants to air his ill-informed gripes against someone who stood up and fought them. Yes, Okrent achieved his fame the old-fashioned way—as the inventor of rotisserie baseball. For background, here’s a capsule bio from a profile by the Boston Globe’s Mark Jurkowitz:

JURKOWITZ (12/4/03): A native of Detroit, he has a resume highlighted by a Time Inc. career that included four years as managing editor of Life magazine and three years as the company's editor of new media. (His one miss: being passed over for the top editorial job at Sports Illustrated.) During the 1980s, he was the founding editor of New England Monthly, a sharp-edged and literate magazine based in Western Massachusetts that was highly regarded but lacked enough advertisers to sustain it. Meanwhile, he is still perhaps best known as the founder of Rotisserie League Baseball, the forerunner of today's plethora of "fantasy" sports leagues. (For the record, he's still a baseball fan, but it's the Cubs, not the Yankees.) By 2001, Okrent had retired from Time Inc. and was working on a proposal for his fifth non-fiction book in the isolated Wellfleet home that he and his wife, Rebecca, enjoy. The couple's two children, both now in their 20s, were out of the house, and the call of the Times was irresistible. "I wouldn't have done it for any other paper," he says of his career decision, "and I doubt that I would have done it if it were not for the fact that I was the first one to do it.”
Lordy, no—a genius like Okrent wouldn’t leave Wellfleet, except for a newspaper that was the greatest! Later, Jurkowitz tells a bit more about that Cape Cod hideaway:
JURKOWITZ: Okrent's backbone was tested in January 2000 when he was chosen to write the Time magazine story about his company's massive merger with America Online. Walter Isaacson, then Time's managing editor, says Okrent was selected because "he had a devil-may-care attitude that would keep him straight and honest. He was amused by all situations."

Okrent has a different recollection, saying everyone knew he was leaving the company and "you can't hurt a condemned man." (Okrent will not detail how the merger affected his personal wealth. But the house he built in Wellfleet a few years ago is called "Casa Case," after former AOL chairman Steve Case).

No, there’s nothing wrong with having a couple of bucks, but as Okrent lounges near the swells at “Casa Case,” we begin to get a glimpse of his place in the big-bucks Manhattan press cohort. But despite the gentleman’s long, high access, he left his mark on no major issue; indeed, he sat out every fight of his time (like so many of our fiery “liberal spokesmen”). Okrent wrote his first two books about baseball, and was still nose-deep in the subject as American politics was turned on its head during the middle- to late-1990s. Where was Okrent when Clinton was impeached? He was selecting the greatest team in baseball history. (“The Greatest Team Ever—But with a Big Asterisk,” Time, 11/2/98.) Where was he when the War Against Gore got its start? Analyzing Walt Dropo’s rookie year for the ’50 Red Sox. (“The Dropo Drop-off; A hot rookie year doesn't ensure a brilliant career,” Sports Illustrated, 5/17/99.) Where was he just before the Bush-Gore election? (“Say It Ain't So, Joe; Was the off-diamond DiMaggio a vain, venal jerk?” Sports Illustrated, 11/6/00.) As the Florida run-off started? (“To All The Girls I've Loved Before; The best cabaret singers can flirt shamelessly, pose elegantly, and break your heart—all in the same song,” Fortune, 11/13/00.) Yes, music is a passion too, as Jurkowitz explained in that profile:
JURKOWITZ: For the last few years, Okrent, who also has a Manhattan residence, has kept track of his frequent cultural and social outings on a computer. He used to have a database cross-referencing his extensive jazz collection by various criteria until he decided to erase it one day. Guests at his 50th birthday bash at the Rainbow Grill were each given a button with a number on it. That number matched the number of years the guest had known the birthday boy. Passionate about music—particularly classical—Okrent alerts his friends when the Carnegie Hall schedule is announced so he can arrange the bulk ticket purchases. Or as Waggoner puts it: "He organizes people's social lives."
If that ain’t High Foppistry, nothing much is. No, there’s nothing wrong with writing about baseball, or about music. (Baseball writers do it constantly.) But what made Okrent or the Times think that this uninvolved, foppish fellow was equipped to pass judgment on a man like Krugman—a man who had actually stood on his feet and fought the big fights of his time? After all, what exactly had Okrent been doing while men like Krugman were fightin’ the fight? He’d engaged in other “doctrinal arguments,” as Jurkowitz drolly explained:
JURKOWITZ: One other passion is more offbeat. As chronicled in a 1999 New Yorker article, Okrent is part of a group called "The Innard Circle," which indulges in the culinary thrill of dining in restaurants that feature the internal organs—such as kidneys or hearts—of some animals. "We have to eat organs, [but] there was a doctrinal argument. Is it organ meat or variety meat" such as ears and tongue, says Okrent, who explains that the group leans toward the looser "variety meat" standard.
There’s nothing wrong with a passion for octopus kidneys, but we’re not sure how well this pursuit equips you for analysis of Paul Krugman’s work. For the record, here’s a bit of that New Yorker item, written by Robert Boynton. Not that there’s anything wrong with it!
BOYNTON (7/26/99): On a recent warm evening, five New York food lovers convened in the Kensington section of Brooklyn to sample something called "jiz-biz."

The group, who call themselves the Innard Circle, met at Nostalgia, one of the few restaurants in the city which serve this Azerbaijani lamb delicacy, consisting of French fries tossed with liver, heart, and kidneys. After the group was seated, Melissa Easton, an industrial designer, explained that the Innard Circle—also known among group members as the Organ Meat Society or the Offal Truth—was born at a dinner party when she spied Marisa Bowe, the editor of the online magazine Word, eagerly devouring a piece of beef tendon. "You just don't meet many women who eat stuff like that: Easton said. "I knew I'd found a kindred spirit." Bowe and Easton agreed to meet once a month to indulge their passion for what is sometimes called "the fifth quarter of the cow”—and they invited some of their more intrepid friends. Robert Sietsema, a Village Voice food critic; Becky Okrent, a food writer; and Becky's husband, Dan, an editor-at-large at Time Inc.

Because most New York diners are on the timid side, restaurant menus often indicate organ-meat dishes with euphemisms ("variety meats" is the favorite circumlocution) or leave them off entirely, forcing adventurous eaters to get aggressive. For the Innard Circle's previous meeting, at La Lunchonette, a French bistro just north of the meat-packing district, Easton called in advance to request a special menu slices of foie-gras [unreadable], sweetbreads in a creamy vinaigrette with lemon and capers, calf's liver in red-wine sauce, and the house specialty, brains in black butter.

There’s nothing wrong with buttered brains, although the cautions above still apply. As he continued, Boynton chronicled more of our public ed’s tripe-lovin’ life-style:
BOYNTON: So far that week, Bowe had already eaten tripe soup twice and brains (at Cafe Loup) once—which wouldn't be notable except for the fact that it was only Wednesday. Okrent, who had just returned from a health spa, said that he tried to be a little more temperate. "Organ meat is sort of like organ music. Great at first, but too much of it will probably kill you," he said.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Everyone enjoyed a good solid laugh at their well-toned friend’s brainy riposte.

No, there’s nothing wrong with making big bucks, or with gulping down tripe, or with cross-referencing your jazz collection as your nation’s political wars are unfolding. But only a fop would then believe that he was equipped to discuss Paul Krugman—a man who developed his manifest talents, then fought his generation’s current wars. Plainly, Okrent wasn’t up to the task. But overpaid, over-praised Manhattan fops are never quite able to see that.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Why do “liberals” argue so poorly? High foppistry, Washington-style!

KNOWN FOR CURRIED BRAINS: Let’s be fair. There’s nothing wrong with following jazz, adoring baseball, or greedily eating your way through piles of the very freshest rhinoceros livers. But such pursuits may not equip us for the highest life of the mind. As the end of Boynton’s piece, we see what happens when a skewered chicken heart lover begins to court sweet reason:

BOYNTON: After polishing off heaping plates of jiz-biz (the name, unlike the ingredients, remained a mystery), the group decided to end the evening at Bukhara, a twenty-four-hour Pakistani restaurant on Coney Island Avenue which is known for its curried brains. While nibbling at the dish, which looks like scrambled eggs in a light tomato-and-chili masala, they tossed around possible venues for their next meeting. The St. Andrews for haggis? A Uruguayan barbecue joint that specializes in blood sausage? A churrascaria in Corona that serves skewered chicken hearts the size of marbles?

As the plates were cleared, the group puzzled over the paradox that brought the Innard Circle together in the first place. Why do so many people find this delicious food so unappetizing? "Most Americans want meat that has no resemblance to the animal it comes from," Sietsema suggested. "A steak doesn't look like a cow, but a kidney looks a lot like a kidney."

You’re right. Sietsema’s analogy doesn’t make sense. But then, try Okrent’s columns.