Tag Archives: populism

Constructive Populism

By James Kwak

I don’t expect to get a holiday card from Tim Geithner this winter. Nor do I expect one from Larry Summers. Or even Michael Barr, despite everything I’ve written in favor of consumer protection. (I probably will get one from Barack Obama, since I donated money to his campaign.) But they might want to consider putting me on their lists.

“Populist” has mainly been used as a smear over the past year and a half, to connote irresponsible pandering to . . . well, to the people, actually. Simon and I have been written off by many people as populists, as if that alone were enough to settle the argument. But if and when financial reform does finally get passed by both houses of Congress, the administration will owe a major debt to the recent resurgence of anti-Wall Street sentiment, which can only be called populist.

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What’s a Populist?

By James Kwak

As Simon has previously discussed, “populist” has become a smear, epitomized by David Brooks’s frankly offensive attempt to classify populism as an “organization of hatreds” akin to racism and sectarianism. Brooks asserts, without support, that populism amounts to “simply bashing the rich and the powerful,” “class war,” “random attacks on enterprise and capital,” and a “zero-sum mentality” — proving that ideologies are easy to bash when you assume their properties.

“Populism” has been rolled out repeatedly over the last year to marginalize people who criticize Wall Street and the financial oligarchy as angry, know-nothing, Luddite, Trotskyist, ungrateful, envy-filled people who don’t understand the modern world and would return us to a barter economy. A search for “Krugman populist” returns 1.7 million hits. (“‘Simon Johnson’ populist” returns 180,000. ) So I was pleased to read Louis Uchitelle’s New York Times article that begins with this clever introduction:

“Put aside for a moment the populist pressure to regulate banking and trading. Ask the elder statesmen of these industries — giants like George Soros, Nicholas F. Brady, John S. Reed, William H. Donaldson and John C. Bogle — where they stand on regulation, and they will bowl you over with their populism.”

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“Populism”

Amidst otherwise strong coverage of the growing debate around the nature of finance and the power of big banks, a surprisingly high number of journalists continue to misuse the word “populism”.

For example, in an article on criticism of bankers at Davos, the Wall Street on Saturday morning reported that President Sarkozy of France delivered a “populist broadside” when he said,

“That those who create jobs and wealth may earn a lot of money is not shocking.  But that those who contribute to destroying jobs and wealth also earn a lot of money is morally indefensible.”

The implication, of course, is that some politicians are pandering to “the people” vs. “the elites” – part of a long-standing theme in some interpretations of democratic political conflict.  While elites invest and engage in productive activities, the argument goes, plebians from time to time demand excessive income redistribution or punitive taxation or other measures that would undermine productivity and prosperity.

Or, as President Obama said in March 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

Such language reveals a complete misunderstanding of our current situation.  (Matt Taibbi has this right, but doesn’t go far enough.) Continue reading