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

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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.