KLEIN ON THE LAWN: Pretending to speak, analyze and explain!


Part 2—Without a thing to say: To what extent is youth being served at the new improved Washington Post?

Again, consider the remarkable way one young Postman describes himself at his eponymous blog.

“About Me,” this young scribe’s headline says. By conventional standards, the following profile borders on the insane:
About Me

Evan Soltas is the writer of Wonkbook, the morning email newsletter of Ezra Klein's Wonkblog at The Washington Post, and for Bloomberg View's "The Ticker" blog. A student at Princeton University, where he intends to major in economics, Evan blogs daily on economic news, policy, and research findings—and a variety of other topics, approaching the subject as a student and not as an expert.
In fact, Soltas is a freshman at Princeton; this explains why he only intends to major in economics. Having said that, please note the strange juxtaposition of claims found in that short profile:

On the one hand, Soltas approaches economics “as a student...not as an expert” when he blogs at his own site. On the other hand, he is also “the writer of Wonkbook, the morning email newsletter of Ezra Klein's Wonkblog at The Washington Post!”


Do the suits at the Washington Post know that a college freshman composed a major daily post at their brainiest site? (Supposedly, Wonkblog is the place where the Post still provides information. It’s called Wonkblog to make you think that the people who write it are smart.) Do they know that their college freshman writes as a student, not as an expert, at his own eponymous site?

In fairness, it’s always possible that some college freshman could do policy work on the level expected of the nation’s most famous political newspaper. Mozart played a mean piano when he was 5, after all.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that people this young would have the experience and the judgment to handle complex policy work. But increasingly, the Washington Post is giving the keys to the car to a string of under-aged players.

Ezra Klein is the most famous such figure. How strong is his work?

Last week, Klein composed a series of posts about the three new budget plans which emerged from Congress. In a word, his work was awful.

Klein’s work rarely made clear sense. It often seemed to be rushed, in the time-honored manner of college students who didn’t quite get around to reading the text.

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the blizzard of posts he offered about the budget proposal offered by Senate Democrats. Last Tuesday evening at 5 PM, he offered a full-length post on this new budget proposal. By Wednesday morning at 10:28, he was offering his third full-length post, apologizing for the “important way” in which he “shortchanged” this budget in his first two posts.

Everybody makes mistakes, but this pattern wasn’t impressive. That said, let’s look at how inept—Might we even say sophomoric?—his original post really was.

Klein’s first post about this budget appeared beneath a puzzling headline. Here you see his headline and his opening paragraphs, in which the wunderkind offered a familiar yet thoroughly vacuous framework:
KLEIN (3/13/13): The Senate Democrats’ vague, conservative budget

The surprise when comparing the House Republicans’ budget and the Senate Democrats’ budget is just how much more conservative the Democratic effort is. I don’t mean ideologically conservative, of course. I mean conservative in the sense that the dictionary defines it: “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”

There is little in the federal government Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) does not confidently propose to remake. Medicare becomes a voucher system in which we trust government regulators to keep private insurers in line. Medicaid and food stamps are handed over to the states. The tax code is flattened to two brackets. Ideologically speaking, these are very conservative decisions. But in the dictionary sense, they are anything but conservative decisions: Ryan’s budget is almost entirely about upending existing institutions, and his assumed savings reflect an extraordinary confidence that untested reforms will prove wildly successful.

Sen. Patty Murray’s budget, by contrast, is both a more liberal and a more traditionally conservative document. Where Ryan sees the deficit as an opportunity for historic change, Murray treats it as an economic problem that requires a modest set of spending cuts and tax increases to solve. Where Ryan’s proposed deficit-reduction path is fast and severe, Murray moves slowly and cautiously. Where Ryan wants to remake the state and balance the budget, Murray just wants to stabilize and reduce the debt.

But even given that difference in objective, Murray’s budget is deeply, even excessively, respectful of existing institutions. If the problem of Ryan’s budget is that it wants to do far too much, the problem with Murray’s budget is that it is almost entirely devoted to saying what it won’t do, and it gets very vague when the topic turns to what it will.
Klein is not a freshman in college; he just writes like he is. The foolishness starts with that grabber headline, in which he claims—Could this be true?—that the Senate Democrats had produced a “conservative” budget.

Could that really be true? Had Senate Democrats really produced a “conservative” budget? Once we’ve been conned into reading this drivel, Klein tells us what he means by that claim:

He means their budget is conservative “in the sense that the dictionary defines it.” In that sense, their budget is "much more conservative” than Congressman Ryan’s budget!

College freshmen have been inventing such frameworks since the dawn of time. Typically, they play these games when they have nothing of value to say about their subject. Through the use of such frameworks, they give the impression that something-or-other has been said.

Inexorably, they work their way toward their required word count.

In this case, nothing of value has been said; Klein’s framework is massively fatuous. According to Klein, the Democratic budget is “much more conservative” than Ryan’s budget in the dictionary sense of the term, in the sense that it desires “to limit change.”

Right in his opening sentence, our pipe-puffing poser refers to this contrast as surprising—but why would anyone be surprised by this distinction? “There is little in the federal government” that Ryan does not “propose to remake,” Klein writes. Stating the obvious, he also says that Ryan “wants to do far too much.”

Why then would it be a surprise if the Democratic budget left more existing institutions in place? In truth, it isn’t surprising at all—unless you’re a college freshman who has nothing else to say.

Go ahead! If punishment is your personal preference, plow your way through Klein’s first post about this budget proposal. In truth, the youngster had virtually nothing to say about the Senate Democratic proposal, but he seemed to feel that he was required to say it.

For that reason, you see a link at the end of this post: “What I got wrong about the Senate Democrats’ budget.” In fact, Klein got a lot wrong about that budget. As you will see if you read that third post, he didn’t even mention “the highest priority” which that budget clearly states.

So it goes when college kids with nothing to say hurry to meet their deadlines.

Klein is not a college kid. At age 28, he’s one of the greybeards of the press corps’ new youth movement. That said, he’s one of the most successful of this new brigade.

Based on his work in recent weeks, he’s also one of the most worthless. Last week, we read his various posts about the three new budgets which emerged from the Congress. His work was murky, pointless, confusing—basically worthless throughout.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at more of this blizzard of drivel. Before the week is done, we’ll even examine the work of others who serve in this youth brigade. But we liberals are being sold this drivel under the guise of Very Big Smarts.

Every morning, the Washington Post invites you to read the work of an unaccomplished college freshman! Go ahead—tell the truth:

On its face, does that seem smart?

Tomorrow: Drivel all the way down


  1. This anti-Ezra string of posts was ridiculous from the start. As noted in comments to previous posts, Dean Baker has praised Klein's work on recent budget proposals.

    And why shouldn't it be noted that House GOP proposals are untested, radical departures from current policy--in a highly unpopular direction for most voters? Why is the prominent mention of this extremism called "fatuous" or "drivel?"

    Perhaps TDH could provide a link to better real-time coverage of budget proposals? .....hmmm, didn't think so.

    And as far as the relevance of age, TJ wrote the Declaration when he about 33, Madison was struggling with the Constitution at, what, 32? Alan Simpson is well past 80 and still hasn't mastered the basics of Social Security, so what is this fixation all about?

    1. Sorry, I'm taking Bob's side on this.

      His first point, which I can understand why you skipped completely, is that Evan Soltas is a college freshman who openly admits to not being an expert on the topic about which he writes. For the Washington Post / Wonkblog.

      Regarding Ezra Klein, I've been reading his stuff since he was at Pandagon. His specialty was the details about health care policy, which he knows (or at least knew) very well, although he was not good at articulating what he knew. And he was hopeless when he ventured outside of health care facts and figures. Readers and other bloggers would burn him time and again when he'd stumble over facts regarding general economic policy and politics.

      Klein has a very specific, limited skill set, yet was placed into a very powerful position in journalism (which includes guest-hosting a nightly cable news program!) without the experience necessary to do it well. In nearly every other profession, experience related to your field is a must. Why not for political journalism?

      Dean Baker praised Klein's work because Baker already knows (and agrees with) what Klein is trying to say. But readers who haven't already bought into his premise are just going to throw roll their eyes -- his arguments are wishy-washy, and often incoherent. Hell, I stopped reading and I mostly agree with him!

      As for your anecdotes about our youngish Founding Fathers, Bob did allow for the possibility that these younger journalists have amazing natural talent (note his own anecdote about Mozart) but so far have not proven that they do.

    2. Thomas Jefferson in particular had a great deal of practical experience in both government and life as a landowner to go with his education, something Klein and Soltas lack. Jefferson didn't write about politics, he was a politician and viewed himself as a public servant. I think that is an important distinction.

    3. I would love to see the link to better real-time budget journalism...

      Why is TDH whining about the Dean-Baker-praised budget journalism being produced by young writers when there is nothing on offer from older writers that's better?

      Who is doing a better job than Klein on budget coeverage--let's name some names.

  2. IMHO Klein missed the forest for the trees. The two plans reflect a fundamental disagrement between the two sides. The Dems believe bigger governemnt and more government spending are good for the economy. The Reps believe the opposite.

  3. D in C.

    That's such utter trollery. You are probably right that it is an article of faith among Reps that smaller government and less spending are ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE good for the economy. I think it's undeniable that there exists a broader range of opinion on the other side of the aisle. I actually wish the Dems took a more united position on this issue, then at least we'd have a fair fight.

  4. Sorry, but there is no way Klein could have written that blog post. That is the kind of writing that could only come from the keyboard of a college freshman. Seriously. Don't we all recognize writing that bad, ideas that flimsy? We should, if we went to college and were college freshmen.

    I'm guessing Somerby knows Soltas wrote that blog post and is just not saying so, perhaps to protect the tender ego of an 18 year old.

  5. I'm totally with anonymous 5:04 on this one. Why don't we just go to the specific weaknesses of anyone's commentary rather than playing the age card first? Actually, there is no specific criticism by TDH -- none whatsoever that I can find -- of what Klein said or didn't say, only a bunch of general characterizations: "awful," "sophomoric," "writes like a college freshman," "nothing of value," that sort of thing. He also hides the fact that Klein appears to have been the one and only Big Media or mainstream commentator who did a piece featuring the valuable and sound budget proposal of the House Democrats' Progressive Caucus. That was what earned praise from Dean Baker, who knows a hell of a lot more about economics and budgets than TDH and is about as substantive a guy as you can find anywhere.

    This approach has become all too common with TDH: he attacks the person more than the deficiency itself. This suggests he could not have been a very good teacher, where the absolute first rule is to identify and correct the behavior rather than criticize the person. I've just identified the behavior: notwithstanding the highest quality of so much of his work on the press, the impact of which is actually being diminished by this running sore of personal attacks, it's time to correct it.

    1. "This approach has become all too common with TDH: he attacks the person more than the deficiency itself."

      Yes, and he indulges in lots of table-pounding, which is what he does when, like a lawyer who table-pounds, he wants to make up for having a weak argument (or no argument at all) by emitting chest-thumping brachiations of invective. Rather than stating something like "X is wrong and here's why", he instead says something like "X is a idiotic/sophomoric/awful twit" over and over again.

  6. Is EK a prodigy or not? Is there no one in the country that could do a better job? If you think he is doing the best job, is that a plus in his column or a gigantic minus for the entire system? Figure it out and get back to me. This is insane that Bob's relatively clear and obvious point is being treated as controversial in any way. At some point, EK will be 50 years old and will have had no experience whatsoever except playing at policy for 30 years. Will he be any better once there is no excuse from his age?

  7. Well I hope the government will do their job in figuring the best way to improve our economy and increase open jobs for jobless people.