Liberal Heroes Miss the Mark in Today's Times Columns

New York Times columnist Charles Blow sure blew one this morning and, for good measure, so did Paul Krugman—our two most reliably liberal and intelligent columnists!

Blow’s subject was the do-nothing Congress. Ordinarily thoughtful and original, this time Blow fell into the media cliché of assigning symmetrical partisan blame for Congressional inaction, as if the two parties were equally culpable.

The piece was full of Blow’s signature: accurate statistics. This Congress has passed only 108 pieces of substantive legislation, the lowest in decades, he reports. It was in session an average of only 28 hours a week.

Citing the usual cause of “polarization,” Blow indignantly concluded: “Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress. Their full time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

Excuse me, but the problem is not “Congress.” One party—the Democratic Party— behaves quite normally, seeking to do the public’s business. The other party has become radically obstructionist, effectively demanding: Give us what we want or we shut down the government.

Today’s average Democratic legislator is actually a little more centrist ideologically than the Democrats of the eras of Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson. To report this as a symmetrical problem of institutional dysfunction is to miss the point and to mislead the reader.

Even Paul Krugman, a national treasure, got it wrong today. In addition to functioning as a truth squad on a whole range of economic issues, Krugman bends over backwards to find nice things to say about the Obama administration. That’s fine; Obama is getting pummeled and it’s kind of Krugman to be a good doobie.

Today, however, his subject was the administration’s financial reform,“derided by the right as anti-business,” he writes, “and by the left as hopelessly inadequate.” Uh-oh, another case of false symmetry. The fact that both sides criticize it doesn’t mean that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Krugman goes on to declare that “financial reform is working a lot better than anyone listening to the news media would imagine.” His two cases in point are the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and reform of too-big-to-fail banks.

Well, the CFPB is a great institution, but it only scratches the surface of the systemic ills that still afflict the financial system. And the last time I checked, too-big-to-fail banks were bigger, with more concentrated market share, than ever.

Contrary to Krugman’s assertions, it’s by no means clear that the government could avoid bailing out one of these behemoths if it went down. And that doesn’t even address all of the other unreformed abuses: high-speed trading that rips off ordinary investors and puts the system at risk, hedge funds and private equity firms exempt from the usual disclosures, derivatives that can evade regulations by being traded offshore, settlements of mortgage abuses that let big banks off far too easily and fail to help enough struggling underwater homeowners, a shadow banking system that still operates outside regulatory sunlight, bond-rating firms that were never called to account for their conflicts of interest, investment bankers who were still borrowing in short-term markets to underwrite risky bonds—and lots more.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform package supported by the administration was a start, but financial engineering still puts the real economy at risk. Hey, nobody’s perfect, and it’s August. But these heroes should know better.

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