Yesterday the progressive think tank Demos fired Matt Bruenig for his repeated ‘attack mode’ on Twitter. Also, economist Robert Frank has a new book on the luck and the myth of meritocracy. (More)

“We hope that Matt embraces a better way”

You may have missed the ugly insults that Matt Bruenig flung at Joan Walsh and Neera Tanden on Twitter. But Bruenig’s editors at Demos didn’t, and he will no longer be writing for them:

Today, we are taking a harder look at how our staff, fellows and independent contractors engage on social media – and unfortunately, we are finding that we have not met our own standards of vigilance to ensure that nobody associated with Demos is crossing an important line. After our tweet apologizing for Matt’s personal attacks including the term “scumbag,” we received emails from multiple individuals who made it clear that we were not aware of the extent to which Matt has been at the center of controversies surrounding online harassment of people with whom he disagrees.

It was evidence of a pattern of behavior that is far out of line with our code of conduct. After multiple conversations, Matt Bruenig and Demos have agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter. We part ways on the effectiveness of these kinds of personalized, online fights and so we are parting ways as colleagues today. And just as we did with Matt three years ago when he first joined our blog, Demos will continue to find and amplify the voices of lesser-known progressive policy commentators to make for a more inclusive public sphere.
At Demos, we’re taking seriously the opportunity that social media provides, and the risks that it entails. We are particularly concerned about the well-documented claims of hostile environments for women and people of color in a public realm that is just now being democratized through tech – but which will never be truly inclusive if we allow vitriol to be the tool of not just our worst anonymous bullies but some of our best policy minds. We hope that Matt embraces a better way, and commit as an organization to using our platforms to create the discourse that our democracy deserves.

Bruenig’s ire seems to exploded after Walsh published an article at The Nation that described Bernie Sanders as “the messiah of an angry, heavily white, and male cult,” adding:

First of all, I don’t accept the presumption of moral and ideological superiority from a coalition that is dominated by white men, trying to overturn the will of black, brown, and female voters or somehow deem it fraudulent.

He began firing off angry tweets, calling Walsh both geriatric and ageist, with no apparent sense of irony. When Center of American Progress president Neera Tanden tweeted sympathy to Walsh, Bruenig turned his fire called her “Scumbag Neera” and said she “uses welfare when she needs it then takes away from others when they need it” and “tried to starve me and my mother because she wanted to be in Democratic politics.”

Those accusations are false. Tanden was in law school when welfare reform was debated in the 1990s. She neither advocated for it then nor has endorsed it since, as StudentActivism blogger and Sanders-backer Angus Johnston explains:

The one bit of evidence he’s offered for it is a quote from a podcast in which Tanden told Ezra Klein that “welfare reform is really about ensuring every child has opportunity.” But here’s the context for that quote – Tanden had just finished (at 7:26) telling Klein how important public assistance had been to her and her mother when she was growing up, and that led to this exchange:

[Transcript elided]

It strikes me as absolutely clear that Tanden is here using the term “welfare reform” to refer to the principles that should guide welfare policy, not in reference to welfare as it exists, and that the rest of her remarks are an explicit criticism of the ways in which welfare policy has changed since she was a child. Welfare, she says, should be a mechanism for helping kids, not punishing parents for bad choices, and to “disadvantage kids because of the decisions their parents make … doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Johnston concludes:

To call someone “geriatric” in the same breath in which you accuse them of ageism is obtuse and unhelpful. But to accuse someone of enacting policies they had no involvement with, and to do so on the basis of a statement that explicitly repudiates the position you accuse them of holding?

That’s just lying. And it’s fundamentally incompatible with either serious political debate or good-faith movement building.

It can also be also fundamentally incompatible with keeping your job. Bruenig has a history of angry Twitter tirades, especially against women and people of color, and Demos editors had apparently spoken with him about it before. He refused to rein it in, and they fired him.

And as night follows day, The One True Progressive Who Is Glenn Greenwald jumped in to accuse Demos of being in the tank for Hillary Clinton:

The progressive movement’s leading voices are increasingly women and people of color, and a handful of otherwise-progressive white men like Bruenig and Jonathan Chait seem to resent that. So do many Sanders backers, as Sally Kohn explained:

The Bernie Bros are real. I’ve been the target of Bernie Bros on social media, and when I endorsed Sen. Sanders at a Brooklyn rally in front of more than 30,000 people, a not insignificant portion of the audience booed me for praising Clinton in my remarks. Forget the plainly self-defeating results of that behavior in terms of trying to recruit would-be Hillary supporters to Bernie’s column. It was disturbing from a visceral, human level.

It’s also too easy to suggest that Sanders’ supporters are a different kind of angry than Trump’s. Are we entirely sure about that? The populist right may be more inclined toward misogyny and xenophobia, but the populist left is not immune from these afflictions. And as I’ve written before, when you see progressive white men – many of whom enthusiastically supported Barack Obama’s candidacy – hate Clinton with every fiber of their being despite the fact that she’s a carbon copy of Obama’s ideology (or in fact now running slightly to his left), it’s hard to find any other explanation than sexism. Either way, the brutish, boorish behavior of Bernie Bros (and their female compatriots, too) was a huge reason I was reluctant to seemingly side with them in endorsing Sanders – and has been the only reason I have ever questioned my decision to do so since.

Bruenig and Chait’s insistence that white male progressives should remain the leading voices advocating for women and people of color is … well … the very white male privilege they claim to argue against.


“Try to engage your successful friends in discussions about their experiences with luck”

And economist Robert Frank has written a new book titled Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. I haven’t read it yet, but he described his thesis in a column for the New York Times:

Chance events play a much larger role in life than many people once imagined.

Most of us have no difficulty recognizing luck when it’s on conspicuous display, as when someone wins the lottery. But randomness often plays out in subtle ways, and it’s easy to construct narratives that portray success as having been inevitable. Those stories are almost invariably misleading, however, a simple fact that has surprising implications for public policy.

As an example, Frank notes studies finding that children whose birthdates make them the oldest in their classes are more likely to be chosen for leadership positions throughout school, and on into adulthood. Similarly, economists whose last names begin with early letters in the alphabet are more likely to achieve tenure, in part because economic journals list authors alphabetically. So if a study was researched and written by Adam Adamson, Mary Meriwether, and Walt Walters, it will typically be cited as “Adamson” or “Adamson, et. al.” … even if Meriwether or Walters were the primary research designers and analysts.

Frank agrees most successful people have talent and work hard, and cautions:

But talent and effort are not enough. Luck also matters. Even the most able, industrious people in South Sudan have little chance at success. Success is not guaranteed for deserving people in wealthy countries with highly developed legal and educational institutions and other infrastructure, but it’s substantially more likely.

He concludes:

Happily, there is a simple remedy: Merely prompting people to reflect on their good fortune tends to make them more willing to contribute to the common good, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Emotion. So try to engage your successful friends in discussions about their experiences with luck. In the process, you may increase their willingness to support the kinds of public investments that will enhance the next generation’s odds of success. And you will almost surely hear some interesting stories.

It looks like a fascinating book, and I may pester the resident faculty to buy it so I can read it….


Photo Credit: Economic Opportunity Institute


Good day and good nuts