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Why David Brooks Really Is a Sap

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New York Times Columnist, David Brooks at the Disruptive Innovation Awards during the Tribeca Film Festival.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

For those of you not familiar with "Newspaper Op-Ed Writing 101," our industry's Bible of formulaic punditry, there is a technique called "Trick #19B" that goes like this:

1. Put a half-baked image or satirical "idea" in your topic sentence. It is best if the idea and/or the wording is not actually your own, but this isn't absolutely necessary. A good example might be something like this: "Dorothy, we're not in Kansas anymore."

2. Sit back and admire the sentence. You wrote this!

3. Connect your idea to a current news event. You can do this by taking the wire-service writeup of that news event and sandwiching it between two of your "images."  For instance, the following sentence...

"In a nationally-televised address yesterday, Barack Obama announced a new $447 billion jobs program yesterday that includes sweeping cuts in payroll taxes, $105 billion in public-works projects, and the renewal of $50 billion in benefits for 6 million workers."

...becomes:

"We knew we weren't in Kansas anymore when Barack Obama, speaking in a nationally-televised address, announced a new $447 billion jobs program yesterday that includes sweeping cuts in payroll taxes, $105 billion in public-works projects, and the renewal of $50 billion in benefits for 6 million workers. Lions and tigers and bears – oh my!"

4. Repeat the same process ten or fifteen times over the course of 700 words. Make absolutely sure to have your "conclusion" be the same as your "topic sentence." You learned this in elementary school! 

5. Repeat every three days.

6. Congratulations, you won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary!

Old friend David Brooks followed #19B guidelines religiously in yesterday's "Obama Rejects Obamaism," a masterpiece of the genre. He began and ended his piece with the construction, "I'm a sap," repeating the phrase nine times.

The premise of the piece was that he, Brooks, was a "sap" for believing Barack Obama when Obama pledged, after his election, to rise above partisanship and "move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country."

For Brooks, "rising above partisanship" always means "not criticizing the rich," so you can kind of guess where he's going with this article. He references the recent Obama speech that hinted at tax increases for the wealthy, always a no-no on planet Brooks, where such proposals are always interpreted as "class warfare" and "angry populism."

There's a lot in this piece that's objectionable, but the most galling thing is when Brooks angrily rejects the idea that the rich don't pay their fair share: "He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the IRS. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income, while the average worker pays 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office)."

I suspect that Brooks here is playing with the word "income," for while it might very well be true that the richest 1 percent pay an average of 31 percent of their "income," I seriously doubt that they pay that much of their earnings. 

No doubt people like Wall Street billionaires Stevie Cohen and George Soros and John Paulson do pay well over 30 percent on their "income," if they have any, from speaking engagements or whatever else they do in their spare time. But the vast majority of the billions in actual money that these hedge-fund guys make is not called "income" but "carried interest," and is therefore taxed at 15 percent. 

There's a similar exemption for capital gains income, but let's even leave that aside for now, since I can see someone like Brooks arguing that investors need a tax break, or else they'll stop investing and creating jobs. I don't agree, but let's stipulate it anyway – and simply ask why anyone should have to pay higher tax rates for teaching kids or putting out fires than a billionaire who makes his money placing bets for rich people. 

Even Brooks wouldn't dare come out and try to justify that. Everyone knows things like hedge-fund exemption are morally indefensible. But the top-1-percenters and their slobbering wannabe acolytes like Brooks defend them anyway by avoiding specifics and retreating into words like "fairness" and "centrism," while deriding any call for changes to the tax code as insurrectionary populism/socialism. 

This is ironic, because it's not just the poor who should be angered by all the loopholes for these Wall Street thieves – it's other rich people. People like me and David Brooks, for instance. 

I defy David Brooks to come out publicly and explain how it's fair that he should pay more than twice the tax rate that Paulson or George Soros pays. I think about this every April when I send my check off to the IRS, and it makes me want to go on a tri-state killing spree. But it apparently doesn't bother Brooks, who defends this system in the pages of the Times over and over again, showing everyone that he's actually not being sarcastic when he calls himself a sap. 

The sad thing is, I actually agree with one of Brooks's points. It is true that Obama is not believable when he starts talking about making these changes. In the 2008 campaign, he promised to end the Bush tax cuts and close loopholes like the notorious carried-interest exemption, but conspicuously did nothing once he got into office. If he starts using that language again, we'll know it's just campaign schlock.

Brooks knows this, which is why he doesn't sound terribly worried about these reforms actually happening. He just objects to the tone of the debate, and to the very idea that we should even ask if everyone is paying his fair share. Brooks has many allies in the punditry world, who voice similar objections, which should tell you a lot about the chances for actual reforms. If we can't even get rich pundits to object to being personally screwed by the system, if we can't even get those people to talk about it, it'll be a long time before we get around to seriously considering making changes. 

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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