Audit Notes: “Populism” (Argh), Bush-Era Regulation, Tom Friedman

Yves Smith has a good post on a longtime pet peeve of The Audit: Misuse of the word “populism.”

The first is a sharp uptick in criticism of “populism” or better yet, “populist anger”, which then serves as the basis for arguing that efforts to rein in the financial services industry are overdone. Now usually there is a wrapper around it, like “mistakes were made” or another not-very-convincing bit of crowd pleasing pablum to acknowledge that maybe some change might be warranted, but nothing approaching what those enraged savages want…

But let’s return to the “populism” attack, which sticks in my craw. It’s a not-very-subtle way of denying the legitimacy of the populace’s anger. The taxpayers have just been the victims of the greatest looting of the public purse, and the perps have the nerve to lecture them about their anger?

It sticks in my craw, too. Audit Silverite Dean Starkman a couple of years ago showed why, in a post headlined “Popular? ‘Must Be Populist’”:

What do reporters and editors mean by that term? Whatever it is, I know they do not use “populist” to mean “sophisticated,” “prudent,” “sound,” “responsible,” “growth-oriented,” or “investor friendly.”

Hmm. What associations, then, do we have with that particular word? How about “unsophisticated,” “appealing to the lowest common denominator,” and “popular but not necessarily wise.” I’d also throw in: “something-for-nothing giveaway,” “hair-brained,” “crude,” “charity hospitals,” and “free turkeys on Thanksgiving,” etc.

We criticized the Journal and FT for ignoring the Bush-era regulatory practices when discussing the BP/Transocean oil disaster unfolding in the Gulf. Paul Krugman shows why today:

For the troubles at Interior weren’t unique: they were part of a broader pattern that includes the failure of banking regulation and the transformation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a much-admired organization during the Clinton years, into a cruel joke. And the common theme in all these stories is the degradation of effective government by antigovernment ideology.

As a bonus, Krugman reminds us that the No. 2 at the Bush Department of Interior, which runs the Minerals Management Service that oversees oil drilling, was convicted in the Abramoff scandal:

Crucially, management of Interior was turned over to lobbyists, most notably J. Steven Griles, a coal-industry lobbyist who became deputy secretary and effectively ran the department. (In 2007 Mr. Griles pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to Jack Abramoff.)

— I’m no fan of Thomas Friedman (to put it nicely!) on a good day, but his column yesterday on “Root Canal Politics” was one of his lamest yet. This may be the worst lede I have ever seen:

DEATH NOTICE: The Tooth Fairy died last night of complications related to obesity. Born Jan. 1, 1946, the Tooth Fairy is survived by 400 million children living largely in North America and Western Europe, known collectively as “The Baby Boomers.” “We’ll certainly miss the Tooth Fairy,” one of them said following her death, which coincided with the 2010 British elections and rioting in Greece. The Tooth Fairy had only one surviving sibling who will now look after her offspring alone: Mr. Bond Market of Wall Street and the City of London.

Speaking of root canal…

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.