Friday, January 25, 2002

MAY 11, 2006: Keep that date open. Ken Layne and Bitter Girl are enthusaistically looking forward to the fourth, long-overdue Indiana Jones movie. But I'm literally counting the days! 1565 to go...

SULLIVAN UNRAVELS (3): He won't let it go! Andrew Sullivan's latest beef is that Paul Krugman is morally suspect -- not for accepting a consulting fee from Entron per se, but for failing to insist that they knock it down from the original $50,000 to, say, a Sullivan-sized $7,500 or thereabouts.

Honestly, Andrew, do you really ever expect to convince an economist to apologize for his own market value?

I remember these arguments back when Johnny Carson started to wring record-breaking contracts out of NBC -- to which they gladly agreed, if it would keep his Tonight Show stint going for a few more years. In terms of what he actually contributed to society -- so the arguments went -- was Johnny Carson ever truly worth more than, say, the best teacher in the New York City public school system? Should Carson have humbly accepted a modest $100,000 annual salary, even though he could easily command $20 million? Is this really a serious argument, or just a space-filler?

Likewise, who begrudges top professional athletes their seven- and eight-figure deals? Or Rush Limbaugh's nine-figure deal? Granted, Limbaugh is not working for a transparently criminal enterprise -- but good grief, the Enron story is still unfolding! Perhaps Sullivan is ready to make a rush to judgment on pure instinct. I would call it gross journalistic negligence to declare, here and now, that Ken Lay and his cronies broke insider trading laws as early as 1999, the year Krugman did his very short stint as an Enron consultant. (Slate's Rob Walker takes pains to remind us that "...almost every reasonable story on the subject makes passing mention of the fact that we still don't actually know what went wrong." [italics mine.] )

Isn't the timetable at all relevant? Yes, it may be reprehensible that Enron used lawful tax shelter gimmmicks to "hide" corporate debt for years. But If Enron execs did nothing technically illegal until they massively cashed out their stock options in 2001, and Krugman had no "relationship" with them after 1999, then for what does Krugman really have to apologize -- other than having become a more valuable commodity than Andrew Sullivan?

Or to put it another way: Is it okay to eat California lettuce yet? Can I ever buy Bayer aspirin or a Volkswagen Beetle with a clear conscience?

Come on, Sully. What's really bugging you?

UPDATE: Paul Krugman's New York Times non-apology salient point: "The muck stops here."

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan joins the $50,000 club and comes clean here.

UPDATE: Later in the day, Sullivan adds: "Shouldn’t Krugman and Noonan and Kudlow and Stelzer and Kristol now recuse themselves from any further Enron commentary?" To which I reply, Why isn't it enough that they have disclosed? Can't their ideas still stand or fall on their own merits? Doesn't the scrutiny and vocal criticism of their readers act as a break on any uncharacteristically loopy notions these EnroPundits may put forth in the future?

UPDATE: Word comes this afternoon that former Enron Vice Chairman Clifford Baxter has taken the easy way out and fallen on his sword. Baxter reportedly made $35 million on the sale of his Enron stock options -- and lucky for him, that's just about exactly what he'll need to pay the boatman.

Will the vast right-wing conspiracy find a way to pin this murder on Hillary? Stay tuned...

Reader Glenn Cordua thinks Enron bought the proverbial pig in a poke when they donated the entirety of my great-aunt Zelda's 401k retirement fund to the RNC:

Actually, in terms of the policies implemented and recommended by the Bush administration, I would score this one as a clean and complete wipeout for ENRON. From the rejection of Kyoto, to the strong recommendation to open ANWR, to the removal of Hebert as FERC chair, to the proctological examination of ENRON, DYNEGY, and all the other Californicating energy traders since late last spring under the direction of Pat Wood at the FERC (still under way), and many other details too numerous to list. To those of us in Houston, and familiar with the energy industry, the sweep of ENRON's skunking by the Bush administration in 01 was breathtaking.

Not to promote any conspiracy theories, mind you -- but I'm beginning to form the impression that the Bushies made an intentionally brilliant tactical decision, very early on, to stiff Ken Lay in order to avoid the appearance of ever having been in his pocket.

Perhaps Enron's largesse ultimately bought them nothing of value, but the next obvious question is: Who was the SECOND-largest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee? Who was the THIRD-largest? Who was the FOURTH and FIFTH largest? And are THEY licking their wounds today -- or licking their chops?

If I'm imagining phantom conspirators in dark places, feel free to fact-check my ass. That's what this whole exercise is about.

RANDOM KITTEN SERVER! They're soooooo cuuuuute!

Thursday, January 24, 2002

SULLIVAN UNRAVELS (2): Amidst all the verbiage that spewed from and about him over past week, Andrew Sullivan did say -- and I have to take him at his word -- that "l'affaire Krugman" has nothing to do with ideology, and that his "...criticisms would apply to anyone of any politics on the take from Enron and not disclosing fully, including the fee."

Fine. But then, let's just take one more minute to put things in perspective. Which is the more troubling turn of events that should warrant so much blogging energy?

(1) Paul Krugman reveals the size of his usual consulting fee -- and, yes, the size of his ego -- but in no way can be shown to have compromised the logic of his arguments or diminished the accuracy of his reportage of Bush's smoke-and-mirrors economic / energy policies?


(2) Even at this late date, the White House still refuses to release the names of that cabal of Republican donors and industry advisors who last year met with Dick Cheney and carved out a national energy policy that was virtually Enron's wish-list on a silver platter?

SULLIVAN UNRAVELS (1): By the time I finally had a chance to collect my thoughts, volumes enough had already been written about Andrew Sullivan's eagerness to discover (or imagine) ethical lapses on the part of Paul Krugman, for taking money from Enron before he was hired by the New York Times. Nevertheless, I am still compelled to weigh in, even at this late date.

Despite much head-shaking and tsk-tsking by the usually-sensible Virginia Postrel (you still need to provide an easy way to link to specific entries, dollink!), Glenn Reynolds and others, it now seems apparent to me that Sullivan was either being wholly disingenuous or atypically naive in leveling such damning accusations at Krugman. Otherwise, what exactly was the point of this exercise?

The facts: Krugman did some consulting work for Enron and wrote a puff piece about them for Fortune Magazine in 1999, shortly before becoming a Times columnist. In the course of things, he disclosed this fact in his Times column a year ago. More recently, he disclosed the amount of money he was paid. Fifty grand. Nice work if you can get it!

Okay, that's not exactly walking-around money. But what, exactly, was Sullivan trying to argue? That Krugman should have taken only a Sullivan-sized ($7,500) honorarium to avoid the stench of corruption? That he should have been fired from the Times for having written endlessly about Enron's troubling ethical lapses despite being fairly well-paid for his short consulting stint with them? We should all be so conflicted!

In other words -- as best as I can figure it -- Krugman merely failed to repeat his previous disclosures ad nauseam, and his editors elected to not make explicit a couple of little details which were, by any standard, either self-evident or largely irrelevant. I'm shocked. Shocked.

Where, exactly, is the conflict of interest? Where, even, is the appearance of conflict? If Sullivan could have cited a single instance in which Times columnist Krugman appeared to be unduly generous to his former employer, he certainly managed to keep that scoop under wraps. Should Krugman be disqualified from writing for the Times in perpetuity, solely because he was an admitted Rent-An-Economist in an earlier life? Is there no statute of limitations on the corrupting influence of monies earned prior to becoming a journalist?

The worst fault James Taranto could find was the appearance of defensiveness: "Krugman does look quite silly thumping his chest about "crony capitalism" when he himself has benefited from it and was cheering for today's villains less than three years ago." (Krugman himself remarks that the piece "looks a bit naive now, but it's a love letter to markets, not to Enron.") But Taranto concedes that Krugman "does seem to have complied with the rules of journalistic ethics," and that his failure to disclose the amount of his consulting fee "seems an exceedingly picayune point."

As Times readers well know, Krugman has a long history of railing against the cozy relationship between the entire Bush cabinet and administration senior officials, and various large corporate donors to the Republican party -- including, obviously, Enron. So in what way, then, does Sullivan imagine that cashing Enron's check has permanently corrupted Krugman? Being their paid crony, must Krugman have known -- and failed to warn his readers with sufficient vigor, before the scandals broke wide open -- that Enron would shortly be run into the ground by crooks and scoundrels? Gosh, did Sullivan's portfolio take a pounding in the wake of Enron's bankruptcy? I can only speculate.

Which, in the end, is all that Sullivan has done here: Speculate. I mean, really -- what's his beef? What's eatin' him? What was this tirade about -- if not merely to crap on a liberal-leaning anti-Bush Times columnist for the sheer joy of it?

Andrew Sullivan may well feel that his website is the only outlet where he can really kick back and say what's on his mind, free of editorial constraints -- and no question about it, shrill personal vendettas are loads of fun to read -- but this exercise has added little of value to the public discourse. Sullivan is arguably one of the three or four the most visible (and unarguably one of the most literate and persuasive) representatives of the online punditry community. As such, I would humbly suggest that he has a greater responsibility to temper his opinions with facts -- all available facts, not just the most convenient or spectacular-sounding ones.

(If you happen to read this, Andrew: Rather than merely dissing or casually dismissing him, how about debating Krugman's actual, specific beefs with Bush's economic policy sometime? Isn't that where your real grievances lie?)

Mark Steyn bashes Krugman here.
Jack Shafer of Slate trashes Sullivan here.
Josh Marshall mildly supports Krugman here.
Stromata hammers Krugman (and amplifies many of Sullivan's false accusations) here.
Virginia Postrel -- who originally wrote that "...Sullivan's research will be fatal to Krugman's NYT career" gradually offers Krugman the benefit of her earlier doubt here. (scroll through the entire past week for several relevant entries).
Kevin Deenihan explains what's really wrong with Krugman's columns here.
Andrew Sullivan continues to insist here that, disclosure or no disclosure, he takes it as an article of faith that -- as long as the cash remains in his pocket -- Krugman is permanently tainted by Enron's three-year-old bribe, even without a single concrete example of this taint manifesting itself in Krugman's writings.
Andrew Sullivan's readers weigh in here.
Paul Krugman answers his critics here, here and here.