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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Erskine Bowles' Conflict of Interest -- Why Is the NYT's Tobin Harshaw Upset That People Mention It?

Erskine Bowles' Conflict of Interest -- Why Is the NYT's Tobin Harshaw Upset That People Mention It?

Friday, 12 November 2010 22:15

I have a general policy at BTP of not mentioning articles that directly refer to me or CEPR. I am making an exception here because I think there is a very important point that deserves attention.

In an NYT blogpost ("A Deficit of Respect") Tobin Harshaw discusses the response of liberals and progressives who attacked Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of President Obama's deficit commission. He concludes by criticizing those who:

"have begun the battle with ad hominem attacks on the commission’s chairmen as unserious, ill-intentioned, mentally unbalanced, avatars of the “money party.”

I would certainly fit as one of those who described at least one of the co-chairs (Erskine Bowles) as an avatar of the money party, even if I did not use exactly these words. The fact is that Mr. Bowles is a director of Morgan Stanley, one of the bailed out Wall Street banks. He gets $335,000 a year for his work with Morgan Stanley. This may be one of the reasons that the co-chairs report did not mention a financial speculation tax as a possible source of revenue, even though financial sector taxes have been widely advocated by policy analysts around the world, including even the I.M.F.

The exclusion of any new taxes on the financial sector is especially striking since Senator Simpson boasted at their joint press conference about having "harpooned every whale." The financial industry is a pretty big whale to overlook.

When I first came to Washington I worked at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that gets 20-25 percent of its funding from labor unions. Media outlets, including the New York Times, routinely felt the need to notify readers of this source of funding with the idea that it could have bearing on my work and that of my colleagues. Given this practice, it certainly would seem reasonable to note that Mr. Bowles is currently getting huge amounts of money directly from a major Wall Street bank. Readers can decide for themselves whether this money affects his views on the best way to deal with the budget deficit.

Since we are on the topic, given his behavior, it hardly seems out of line to describe the other co-chair, Alan Simpson, as "as unserious, ill-intentioned, mentally unbalanced." Mr. Simpson has sent several late night e-mails to his critics (I was one recipient), which displayed extraordinary ignorance of the finances of the Social Security program, contempt for its beneficiaries, as well as a serious misunderstanding of bovine anatomy. One e-mail was also openly sexist, implying that the head of a major national women's organization was too dumb to read a simple graph.

People can make their own judgment as to whether or not these e-mails and Mr. Simpson's other erratic actions (he once cursed out a reporter for asking him his views on Social Security) are evidence of being unserious, ill-intentioned or mentally unbalanced. However, it hardly seems inappropriate to raise the question.

Mr. Harshaw obviously approves of the thrust of the recommendations of the co-directors. That is fine and it would be good to have an open debate on the need for and merits of these recommendations. Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson and other wealthy supporters of the co-directors agenda are doing their best to stack the deck, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to push their agenda, to ensure that nothing resembling a fair debate occurs.

However, the questions raised by the critics of the co-directors, including issues about conflict of interest and erratic conduct, are typical of the sort of questions that the NYT and other media outlets routinely raise in their news reporting. Insofar as Harshaw objects to such questions being raised about Bowles and Simpson he is asking that they be granted special protection. That is a request that does not deserve to be treated seriously. 

Comments (17)Add Comment
written by Robert, November 12, 2010 10:50
The strangest thing about the report was all the small recommendations, like charging fees for the Smithsonian. These have almost no bearing on the deficit. The purpose is clearly to make people believe the country is to broke to afford any new programs, all while Wall Street is richer than ever. These point is to make people feel pain, because the commission likes sticking it to the middle class. A good slogan for progressives would be "Austerity for Wall Street."
I love your comments
written by RussAbbott, November 12, 2010 11:04
Not much more to say except to hope that you keep it up!
written by jerry, November 13, 2010 2:48
There wasn't a deficit of respect. There was excess respect given the piece of rubbish they submitted for a proposal. Health care is the biggest problem and they offered no specifics on how to address that issue. Amazing how someone clearly in the pocket of Wall Street represents the left on this bi-partisan commission.
About "special protection"
written by John H. McCloskey, November 13, 2010 4:52
More fun for me to write unSerious stuff like


than for anybody to read it. Oh, well!

Happy days.
The debate is the aim of the thing...
written by jehu, November 13, 2010 6:47
The report is supposed to generate controversy and debate. This debate is not aimed at clarifying things, but at muddying them. By giving any attention to this report, you aid the aim.

We move from a Muslim prayer center at ground zero, to illegal immigrants, to deficit commissions -- and, in each case, you silly progressives are so busy responding to the latest outrage that you never focus on your alternatives, the things you want to achieve.

You are bereft of ideas and adrift on a sea of hopium, rudderless, because you have no idea what you even stand for...

So long as you are a mere appendage of the Democrats, this situation will not change.
Share the Sacrifice: It's About Debt Reduction, Not Redistribution
written by izzatzo, November 13, 2010 7:19
"have begun the battle with ad hominem attacks on the commission’s chairmen as unserious, ill-intentioned, mentally unbalanced, avatars of the “money party.”

How true. Shooting the messenger just makes it worse, killing off geese that lay the golden eggs. People like Bowles and Simpson are American heros, contributing their valuable time as business experts from the private sector to perform what is essentially financial counseling for ignorant Americans who can't balance a budget, evident in the inability even to buy a private house within a private budget.

This is dirty and dangerous work, but someone like Bowles or Simpson can do it, however ungrateful those rescued may react. Taxing the financial sector is biting the hand that feeds you. The medicine may be bitter, but it must be swallowed. No one can live beyond their means, not Bowles, not Simpson, not any American, and taking from each other with socialist wefare programs just makes it worse.

Share the sacrifice. Do your part so everyone can survive. Stop the whining and name calling. Exercise the choices you have now. Stop riding in the welfare debt wagon, jump out and help push it instead. Together we can make America strong again. Those who pay together stay together.
I want to be clear about this...
written by jehu, November 13, 2010 7:40
For years progressives have tolerated corporate welfare and obscenely excessive military spending because of their allegiance to the democrats. If they were concerned about the deficit those would have been the places to start.

But, they didn't -- instead they just looked the other way and let the Dems off the hook. Now, the idea of shared sacrifice comes down to this knocklehead in the comment above: grandmother will "share" the sacrifice with Lockheed, Boeing and ADM. We survie by equally dividing the pain between the elderly and arms merchants!

This is the result of progressive timidity and cowardice -- their refusal to stand for something other than a democratic victory in the next election.
written by fuller schmidt, November 13, 2010 8:48
Is Izzatzo another lunatic or just a brilliant satirist? A big clue, I think, is Bowles and Erskine - hard-driving, government-bred lobbyists - as business experts.
Sorry - it should read
written by fuller schmidt, November 13, 2010 8:50
Bowles and Simpson as business experts.
written by skeptonomist, November 13, 2010 9:02
Serious economists should be as ad hominem as possible, in the sense of pointing out who benefits from any given policy, and who is paid by whom. The general population obviously can't follow complex economic arguments to separate real scientific reasoning from nonsense (which is what most statements about economics in the popular media are), but they can readily understand motivations and are generally skeptical about whether a speaker or writer is disinterested. A major part of conservative strategy is to advance spurious and complex economic arguments to hide the fact that their policies are designed to benefit certain sponsors or rich people in general. Rather than counter such arguments in detail it would probably be more effective just to dwell on why certain people want certain policies.

For example a major motivation for privatizing Social Security must be that stock prices would go up as soon as privatizing became certain, giving an instant windfall to the mostly-rich people who now own stocks. I have never seen this simple and obvious fact mentioned in the media.
written by skeptonomist, November 13, 2010 9:10
Maybe we should be questioning the sanity of President Obama and/or his advisors, for appointing Simpson and Bowles to the chairmanship. That was a bad political as well as economic move.
written by warpal, November 13, 2010 3:25
The youtube link is dead. copyright infringement.
written by warpal, November 13, 2010 3:38
I couldn't even find a bio of Tobin Harshaw on the internet.
written by Jeff Hoffman, November 16, 2010 12:37
Who will claim ownership to the doublesided copying idea? Absolutely brilliant! C'mon Alan, don't be bashful! Really got your eye on the ball, there. Is there a specific font to go with that?
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an, November 16, 2010 1:37 AM
Who will claim ownership to the doublesided copying idea? Absolutely brilliant! C'mon Alan, don't be bashful! Re

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.