Politics & Policy

Fostering Brooks

A talented columnist goes to Krugmanland. He better watch his back.

I spoke Tuesday to David Brooks. He’s the conservative columnist for the Weekly Standard and a talking head on PBS’s News Hour, and he’ll become an op-ed columnist for the New York Times next month.

Brooks claimed that no current op-ed columnist at the Times will leave the paper to make room for his new twice-a-week column. That shatters the hopes of many of us who had visions of Paul Krugman being invited to spend more time with his Princeton students. The conservative Brooks also said he isn’t coming into W. 43rd Street gunning for America’s most dangerous liberal pundit — a.k.a. Krugman. Brooks told me, “I don’t tend to hate people I disagree with. I tend to like them. Some of my best friends are people I don’t get along with politically, like [liberal Washington Post columnist] E. J. Dionne Jr.”

Brooks even praised Krugman’s latest column for the Times, which posited that a logistical quagmire in Iraq has arisen due to the Bush administration’s corporate cronyism and penny-pinching ways.

Brooks told me, “I disagree with Krugman on some things, but he actually wrote a column on the infrastructure of the military which I thought was a good column. He taught me something. He was probably correct.”

Wow, Brooks really is a nice guy. I’d say too nice a guy. We’ll see if that lasts once he’s been at the Gray Lady for a little while. In the meantime, lets see if the Truth Squad can show Brooks something about the real Paul Krugman.

Krugman blamed the Bush administration’s alleged penny-pinching as the reason “why U.S. troops in Iraq are suffering such a high rate of noncombat deaths.” Krugman Truth Squad member David Hogberg noted on Cornfield Commentary,

First of all, let’s look at the numbers. There have been 256 military deaths in Iraq. Excluding helicopter crashes, which I consider to be death in action, there have been 67 noncombat deaths so far. That’s about 26% of the total deaths. I have no clue if that is high relative to other wars. I’ll bet Krugman has no clue either. Of those 67, more than half — 36 — were vehicle related accidents. At the website I visited, not all of the other 31 deaths had a specific explanation of the cause of death. Of the ones that did, 7 died from an accidental discharge of a weapon, 4 died from accidental explosions, 4 drowned, 1 fell off of a roof, and 1 was killed by a bullet fired by someone involved in a local Iraqi celebration.

Krugman quoted several soldiers stationed in Iraq complaining about hardships supposedly inflicted on them by the Bush administration’s supposed incompetence. Krugman clamed to have spoken to a soldier just back from Iraq (wait a second … Krugman said just last week that “we’re stuck in Iraq indefinitely” … what’s this guy doing back home hob-nobbing with economics professors?). Supposedly this soldier hated the bad Army MREs — “meals ready to eat” — and complained that the Italian soldiers are much better fed in Iraq (wait a second … Krugman complained that the war on Iraq was unilateral … what are all these Italians with great food doing in the desert?).

According to Phil Carter, a new Krugman Truth Squad member writing on his military-focused Intel Dump,

This should bring a smile to any veteran’s face, because it’s a time-honored tradition in the Army to gripe about food. In fact, they taught us as new lieutenants that your soldiers probably had a real problem if they weren’t griping about their food, and that such gripes about Army chow were a sign of good morale. Frankly, I’m not a fan of eating MREs for 4 weeks straight, let alone 4 months. But I’m not too concerned when I see this gripe in the news … in the pantheon of Army b*tching, it’s pretty low.

Krugman went on to quote a soldier whose remarks he found on the website of Colonel David Hackworth — a charismatic gung-ho type whose love for the U.S. military is often matched by his contempt for the U.S. military. I cannot imagine a stranger bedfellow for Paul Krugman. Krugman said the soldier on Hackworth’s site complained that “‘each soldier is limited to two 1.5-liter bottles a day,’ and that inadequate water rations were leading to ‘heat casualties.’”

Carter rebutted,

This is a flat-out false statement. The truth is, according to Sergeant Major of the Army Jack Tilley during a recent press conference in Iraq, that soldiers are being issued two 1.5 liter plastic bottles of water today in addition to their regular water supply, which is provided in 500-gallon “water buffaloes” and other means. In fact, the planning factor for a soldier in a desert environment is something like 10 gallons of water per day … The physiology of this is obvious. If soldiers in Iraq were being forced to live on 3 liters/day, they would die.

The tone of Krugman’s column made it sound as though Iraq is an utter logistical failure — yet the only examples he provided are that the food is bad (so what else is new?) and that the water is short (no, actually it’s not). On this weak evidence, Krugman condemned what he called the Bush administration’s “test” of “privatization” — the outsourcing of various military-related support functions to private companies. Krugman wrote,

Military privatization, like military penny-pinching, is part of a pattern. Both for ideological reasons and, one suspects, because of the patronage involved, the people now running the country seem determined to have public services provided by private corporations, no matter what the circumstances.

As I asked on my blog, The Conspiracy to Keep You Poor and Stupid, don’t you just love that “one suspects” stuff? Who is the one he’s talking about? Doesn’t he really mean “I suspect”. Why then can’t he just say that?

And, natch, he managed to work in the fact that among the contractors is Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton. Say no more … nudge nudge wink wink. But Halliburton, as we know, is the company in which Vice President Cheney has no financial interest except some leftover deferred comp through 2005, and whose stock has lost half its value since the Bush administration took office. This is the company whose employee perished in Iraq in the line of privatized duty two weeks ago. That Halliburton.

And as to the “ideological reasons,” isn’t it peculiar that an economist would as reflexively mistrust private economic action as Krugman does? It’s rather like a veterinarian who doesn’t much like puppies. But, of course, the “ideological reasons” here are Krugman’s — he doesn’t like privatization simply because its George W. Bush who’s doing the privatizing. What would he have said about privatization under the first President Bush, or under President Clinton? Phil Carter noted,

First, Krugman’s wrong that this is the first major performance by contractors in a battle zone. Civilian contractors played an enormous role in the first Gulf War, sparking a great deal of argument in the policy and academic sector over the wisdom of privatization. (Legal scholars also debated the Geneva Convention implications of this trend.) Second, contractors like Kellogg Brown & Root have followed the U.S. military for some time, such as to places like Bosnia and Kosovo. They’ve done a good job in those places …

It’s especially peculiar that Krugman would condemn privatization considering that he himself has written about how over-stretched our military is and has called for a larger post-war commitment to stabilizing Iraq.

Krugman Truth Squad member Robert Musil pointed out on Man Without Qualities that

incredibly, Paul Krugman writes in today’s column that in his opinion American military forces in Iraq aren’t being given enough to do. It is not enough that soldiers do soldiering; Herr Doktorprofessor thinks they should be doing more reconstruction, rebuilding, engineering — in short, more of all of the things that private American corporations are now doing.

So, if there aren’t enough soldiers, and if, as Krugman said, privatization has “failed,” and if it’s all payola, then what to do? Krugman wrote, “In Iraq, reports The Baltimore Sun, ‘the Bush administration continues to use American corporations to perform work that United Nations agencies and nonprofit aid groups can do more cheaply.’”

But of course! The United Nations is the answer to all difficult problems. And besides, no one can question the Baltimore Sun’s international reputation as an expert assessor of the cost-effectiveness of various military logistical options. Still, Musil checked out the Sun’s story, and he wasn’t entirely surprised to find that it wasn’t quite what Krugman represented it to be. Here’s what else the Sun said:

The administration is paying hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. corporations not only for major infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, but also for harbor dredging, repairs to electrical systems and buildings, and health services. The smaller jobs are all tasks that the United Nations and nonprofit groups have broad experience performing in Iraq and other nations recovering from wars. In fact, they are performing some of them, funded by the international community, alongside U.S. contractors in Iraq. “The private sector will always be capable of responding more rapidly” and offers “easier decision-making,” said [Frederick] Schieck, whose [U.S. Agency for International Development] has a leading role in rebuilding Iraq. The United Nations’ bureaucracy is “frequently slow to move,” he said.

So, David Brooks, what do you say now? Do you still think Krugman “was probably correct”? All I can say, my friend, is that you’ve got your work cut out for you. Just watch your back. And if things don’t work out on W. 43rd Street, we can always make room for you here at the Krugman Truth Squad.


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