You Wake Up on a Pile of Money You Earned Unethically   Leave a comment

You are, unfortunately, a centrist pundit.

You have your job because you provide a veneer of objectivity on the corporate agenda of the person that signs your checks.  It is a relaxing life, all told: no accountability, a base salary a few multiples of the median that’s supplemented by lucrative speaking fees, regular invitations to pseudo-intellectual wanking conferences in scenic spots like Aspen.  A charmed existence by any measure.

But everything’s not all peaches and cream.  Occasionally there’s a situation that demands comment, and whose facts on the ground are so skewed against the corporate vision of your employer that it takes remarkable feats of hackery to obscure them.

And it takes a toll.  When something like the Chicago Teachers Union strike comes along, there will be ulcers and sleepless nights.  “I have to comment on this but my God what am I going to say.  The only pay issue is the mayor requiring 20% more work for only 2% more pay, so I can’t hammer them for being greedy; the teachers are mainly striking over an evaluation system that would place 40% of the weight on high-stakes testing and the rest on layers of arbitrary judgment for which there will be no training and no oversight.  And the rest is more funding for smaller class size, for air conditioners and asbestos removal.   I can’t really defend a testing regime that is largely unproven, and with what evidence there is pointing to wild arbitrary swings in scores; I can’t defend giving administrators tremendous authority with arbitrary guidelines and no oversight; I can’t be pro-asbestos – yet – so what am I going to do?”

This is when you earn your paycheck.  This is when your skills are most needed.

A GOOD STRATEGY in any situation is to cherry-pick studies that are vaguely in the neighborhood of providing evidence against the entire idea of someone going against the corporate agenda.  Dylan Matthews is in fine form shrieking, “Won’t someone pleeeeeeaaaase think of the children!!!!” by providing studies from Belgium and Canada saying that the more time students miss in the classroom, the worse students do.  Pay no attention to the fact that most of these studies are capturing effects that have nothing to do with strikes, such as poor teaching or inconsistent student attendance. No one else will.

And by the time you get around to contrary evidence demonstrating strikes have no effect – in American schools, no less – don’t worry.  Your making up out of thin air a scenario in which the Chicago schools will be unlike those schools studied won’t be noticed.  People’s eyes glaze over when you invoke that many studies.  Who cares if your argument ultimately depends on making shit up.  No-one will notice.

OF COURSE, that can only work if you’re a low-level part of a rotating team, as Matthews is.  Most pieces are going to require a bit more rhetorical flourish to get people to read them.  Matt Yglesias provides a good primer for you on how to make bog-standard reactionary Econ 101 arguments sound like they are coming from a place that cares about progressive economic goals.

You can just go ahead and impugn the whole idea of public sector unions.  Don’t worry about pissing off your employer by covering your ass and saying you’re in favor of private sector unions; those ain’t coming back no matter what you say.  But your voice may have some effect on the power of public sector unions, so bash them mercilessly.  Say they inevitably mean a worse deal for the taxpayer.  You’ll have to be careful to stick with a simplistic conception of what public sector unions do, which means sticking solely to the idea that a dollar gained by unions is a dollar spent by taxpayers.  Just pay no attention to the fact that public sector unions are an important counterweight to massive corporate interests that want to gut their program, that they provide valuable insight about the on-the-ground running of the program, and that it’s more likely taxpayers will end up getting more value for their dollars if public sector unions have a prominent position at the negotiation table.  Just make the silly zero-sum argument and move on.

But Yggles really provides a valuable service to you by demonstrating what to do as a centrist pundit when someone calls you out on your bullshit.  Just double down!  For example, if someone says your broad simplistic analysis doesn’t apply, like for instance pointing out the teacher’s strike isn’t about money but about arbitrary and unfair teacher evaluations, just re-apply your old analysis in the context of the new point.

“There’s a zero-sum game here.  Public sector unions hurt the taxpayer.”

“This isn’t about money, it’s about insane evaluations.”

“There’s a zero-sum game here.  Public sector unions will make it as difficult to fire people as possible.”

You don’t have to refer to the actual specifics of the arbitrary and unfair evaluation system at all!  That’s why Yggles is on such a meteoric rise.

FOR MORE ADVANCED TRAINING, though, you have to look to the old hands, the veterans.  They produce symphonies of obfuscatory bullshit when the times are tough.  That’s why they’re on top.

Nicholas Kristof, for example.  Been in the game a long time.  He knows you don’t have to be coherent.  Within the space of a few sentences you can make completely contradictory claims, such as “of course teachers deserve to be well-compensated” and “Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to extend teacher hours by 20% without reciprocal compensation should be applauded”.  You don’t even have to mention the teachers were strongly in favor of the increase in hours.  Just go ahead and make it seem like Rahm pushed it over their opposition.

You can also pepper your piece with unsubstantiated snipes like, “Some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn’t be held accountable until poverty is solved.”  You don’t have to back this up with anything.  Silly goose.

And when it comes time to discuss the actual meat of the disagreement?  The arbitrary and unfair teacher evaluation scheme?  Just spend forty-five words talking about “challenges” and to insist “testing is getting better” as a diagnostic tool.  Can’t disagree with that!

And don’t feel bad making moralistic claims based on incoherence.  Happens all the time!  If you want to say that the proposal to put teachers who are fired due to spending cuts in the front of the line for being hired in new positions is an “insult to students” because those teachers are actually “often fired for being ineffective”, go ahead.  Who really reads the entirety of a sentence anymore, these days, and judges it based on how coherent a logical preposition it makes from beginning to end.

BUT OF COURSE, to be a true master at these things you can’t stop yourself at making incoherent claims in each sentence.  You have to build entire worlds of bullshit, each paragraph more incoherent and bizarre than the last, until you have an entire theory of the economy which justifies the exact opposite of the plain reading of the facts on the ground.

You have to be David Brooks, in other words.

You can do it with narrow facts.  If you can keep things broad enough, you can cite the inefficiency of our private health care market in an argument condemning the inefficiency of government programs.  If you keep things vague enough, you can tut-tut over the increased amount of education spending between 1960 and today and just ignore the explosion of technology in the classrooms and the numbers of poor, immigrant, and special-needs children that are now a part of that system that weren’t there fifty years ago.  If you think your audience is nodding off, you can slip a fast one in there and try comparing teacher’s salaries  – requiring a master’s degree – to the average salary.

You can do it by unsympathetic summaries of positions.  Republicans have “plans” to “fix” these situations and “save” these programs, and Democrats and their teachers unions do not.  Never mind the Republican “plans” involve destroying the programs, and Democrats in general and teachers unions specifically in fact have detailed plans to keep the existing programs while lowering their costs.  If need be, you can just assert that testing “needs to be a part of any evaluation regime” and ignore that the teachers union position is to allow testing to be 25% of the evaluation process.

But most of all, you can do it with your insane theory of political action, which every centrist pundit needs to demonstrate competency in before he gets his license.  Democrats are bad because they are allowing their narrow special interests to dictate the terms of their political positions; Republicans are good because they are not.  You do not need to mention that the corporate takeover of education is much more economically beneficial to Republican special interests than holding it at bay is for Democratic ones; that the actual on-the-ground reality will be much better for millions of people under Democratic proposals than Republican ones; or that faulting a political party for acting on the political interests of its members is like faulting a watch for keeping accurate time, for working like it’s supposed to.

No, always keep this in mind: there are narrow economic interests your employer wants to pursue, and it’s up to you to make the political climate palatable to those interests.  A corporate takeover of education is worth hundreds of billions of dollars, if handled correctly, and you are part of that effort.  Don’t fuck it up.  But don’t worry: you’ve got a lot of role models to give you guidance.

Posted September 18, 2012 by Ben in Uncategorized

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