Shoot your shot


Shea Serrano at the Ringer wrote a fun article called “The NBA Guide to Shooting Your Shot”. It’s essentially YOLO, but with a different catchphrase. Here’s the gist:

[While teaching middle school] I saw a boy I would classify as kind of dorky but mostly very sweet. He had with him — and I’m remembering this story from a long time ago so maybe the details aren’t 100 percent accurate — some chocolates, a stuffed animal, and a rose. He intended to give them to a girl he liked.

When the girl came walking down the hallway, he walked up to her, said something, and handed her the stuff. She said, “Oh, umm, no thanks,” and kept it moving. It was a pulverizing moment — or, at least I thought it’d been. I know I’d have been crushed by something like that. But the boy wasn’t. He turned around to leave, saw that I was staring right at him, then must’ve measured the hurt in my face because he took a second — and I will never forget this part for the rest of my life — he shrugged his shoulders, looked me right in my eyes, said, “Shooters shoot,” and then walked away…

That story is probably the best definition of “Shoot Your Shot” that I can give you. If you’re more interested in proper definitions, I suppose it’d be something like: SHOOT YOUR SHOT (v): To do a thing, or say a thing, or claim a thing possibly outside of your range of abilities, though not explicitly so. The kid in the story above, he shot his shot. He missed it, sure, but I respected him for trying, as I respect most shooters, because shooting your shot takes courage.

I try to incorporate elements of “shooting your shot” into my own life. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I’m writing this blog, even when half of me wants to take it down to avoid public scrutiny and criticism of my ideas. (To be honest, lazing on my couch and watching often seems much more appealing than documenting the latest right-wing atrocity.) In other words, I’m writing this blog not just to provide ammunition to liberals in arguments (perhaps) or to persuade Republicans to come to the light (not likely, but I can dream), but also just to shoot my shot: to do something I haven’t done before (blogging) and to occasionally fail (by making the wrong predictions that I ridicule others for).

Navel-gazing aside, I think everything should try to shoot their shot on a regular basis. Plus, it’s the new year, which is the best time for making such resolutions.

Now, all of this was an elaborate (or, more likely, horribly convoluted) segue into my real topic, which is a group of people who decidedly does not shoot their shot: Op-Ed columnists.

For those who don’t know, the job of an Op-Ed columnist is a sinecure: a well-paying, cushy job that requires minimal work – essentially just blogging, except lacking the declasse aspects associated with that activity – and involves almost zero chance of ever being fired. Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman have been Op-Ed writers with the Times since 1995; Paul Krugman since 2000; Nicholas Kristof since 2001; David Brooks since 2003; and Ross Douthat since 2009. Before that, William Safire was with the Times from 1973 to 2005. Being a NYT Op-Ed columnist is like being a tenured professor: either you die at your desk (I’m waiting, David Brooks!) or, more likely, you retire and are showered with praise. Here’s a quote from the publisher of the Times, Arthur Sulzberger, after Safire’s retirement:

The New York Times without Bill Safire is all but unimaginable, Bill’s provocative and insightful commentary has held our readers captive since he first graced our Op-Ed Page in 1973. Reaching for his column became a critical and enjoyable part of the day for our readers across the country and around the world. Whether you agreed with him or not was never the point, his writing is delightful, informed and engaging.

No doubt David Brooks and Thomas Friedman will be similarly eulogized upon their departure, whether voluntary or otherwise.

But why? My experience with Op-Ed writing, at least from “regular” columnists, has been that it’s horribly repetitive and formulaic, not “delightful” or “engaging”. That tends to be true even when I agree with it. My favorite example of this fact is that someone made a Thomas Friedman Op-Ed generator – and it’s halfway decent! Basically all of David Brooks’s columns are about the decay of the social fabric of America; the same with Ross Douthat and the war on religious conservatives; Paul Krugman and the unfair attacks on Hillary; Maureen Dowd and effeminate Democratic men and masculine Democratic women; Thomas Friedman and “world-flattening”, etc., etc., etc.

How about a new rule: Op-Ed columnists should retire when they no longer have the ability (or no longer care) to shoot their shot. Are any of these people trying anymore?

In 2008, Paul Krugman was a Hillary Clinton supporter in the Democratic primary. Why? In part because Obama’s health care plan failed to include a mandate, and Paul Krugman is a sucker for candidates who get the policy details right, no matter how uncharismatic they are. (In other words, Paul Krugman likes candidates who are like Paul Krugman.) Here’s what he foresaw:

Imagine this: It’s the summer of 2009, and President Barack Obama is about to unveil his plan for universal health care. But his health policy experts have done the math, and they’ve concluded that the plan really needs to include a requirement that everyone have health insurance — a so-called mandate.

Without a mandate, they find, the plan will fall far short of universal coverage. Worse yet, without a mandate health insurance will be much more expensive than it should be for those who do choose to buy it.

But Mr. Obama knows that if he tries to include a mandate in the plan, he’ll face a barrage of misleading attacks from conservatives who oppose universal health care in any form. And he’ll have trouble responding — because he made the very same misleading attacks on Hillary Clinton and John Edwards during the race for the Democratic nomination.

The rest of the article is also quite bad, including this gem — “I’d add, however, a further concern: the debate over mandates has reinforced the uncomfortable sense among some health reformers that Mr. Obama just isn’t that serious about achieving universal care — that he introduced a plan because he had to, but that every time there’s a hard choice to be made he comes down on the side of doing less.” —, but let’s stop here.

I mostly love Krugman, but his theories of politics have always seemed hokey to me. Apparently, politicians never do things for which they’ve previously criticized others, for fear of being called hypocrites?

Here’s the thing: the charge of hypocrisy only goes so far in politics, and it typically only affects candidates who are seen as weak in the first place (like John Kerry). Of course, here’s how Krugman’s imaginary scenario actually ended: Obama realized or was convinced that the mandate was integral to the Affordable Care Act, he said so in his major policy address on healthcare reform, Democrats ignored his hypocrisy, Republicans pointed it out, but only feebly — I seem to recall “death panels” and “government run healthcare” being their major attacks, not “hypocrite!” —, and voters couldn’t really remember what happened in the heat of the Democratic primary battle four years ago.

That’s politics. When campaigning, you craft policies that reflect your core vision for running the country. When governing, you think more carefully about the details of those policies and refine them (in conjunction with Congress and lobbyists) to make them politically and practically workable. If there’s a disconnect between what you say when campaigning and what you do when governing, that’s not ideal, but it’s not devastating either: if voters believe that you have their interests at heart, they’ll generally trust you with the implementational details of legislation. That’s certainly how I felt about Obama and healthcare, even if I would have liked single-payer instead. And the disconnect I referred to is generally not a huge political liability: the opposition’s attacks will focus on the entire vision, not whether you’ve changed your mind on one or two of the details.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2016. It’s yet another heated Democratic primary battle, yet again involving Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders has been accused of being weak on economic policy by the wonks at Vox and similar institutions. Enter Paul Krugman:

From the beginning, many and probably most liberal policy wonks were skeptical about Bernie Sanders. On many major issues — including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform — he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic.

[G]oing on about big banks is pretty much all Mr. Sanders has done. On the rare occasions on which he was asked for more detail, he didn’t seem to have anything more to offer. And this absence of substance beyond the slogans seems to be true of his positions across the board.

You could argue that policy details are unimportant as long as a politician has the right values and character. As it happens, I don’t agree.

The post-script to the article, written 7 months later, reads “…And, with all of the liberal policy wonks on her side, Clinton persuaded the heartland that her plan for financial reform was the most rigorous of them all and everyone lived happily ever after.” Oh, wait.

I mean, good lord, Paul. Did you learn nothing from the last 8 years? (The line that kills me is when Krugman talks about how Sanders’ political theories are “utterly unrealistic.”) For once, maybe try writing an article about Democratic politics that isn’t cloying Clinton homerism. In other words, shoot your fucking shot.

The analogy between tenured professors and OpEd columnists that I discussed above is surprisingly apt. (In fact, my Ph.D. advisor was a huge fan of David Brooks.) Professors often get tenure by writing dozens of articles that are variations on a single idea. (From Krugman’s own Wikipedia entry, “In 1978, Krugman presented a number of ideas to [his advisor Rudi] Dornbusch, who flagged as interesting the idea of a monopolistically competitive trade model. Encouraged, Krugman worked on it and later wrote, “[I] knew within a few hours that I had the key to my whole career in hand””) OpEd columnists do the same, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances.

Here’s David Brooks’s latest, entitled, “The Home Buying Decision”. (I swear, I’ve stopped reading the Times, except occasionally for the lulz.)

The article is his usual mediocrity: the occasional infelicitious coinage (“Cupid’s housing arrow has a tendency to strike you unawares”), the tired preaching about the social fabric of America (“People move close to people just like themselves. Every town becomes a cultural ghetto while Americans become strangers to one another and the civic fabric lies in ruins. People feel more comfortable in their insular neighborhoods, but self-segregation is damaging to one’s own open-mindedness and to the country at large”), and the half-hearted attempts to insert inanities from self-help books (“Choosing a house is also difficult psychologically. The whole process forces you to separate what you think you want from what you really want”).

But here’s what really grinds my gears. He’s writing this article in 2017. Homeownership rates among the newest generation are at their lowest levels in a very long time. That’s because many millennials are still mired in student debt, housing prices are too damn high, and today’s jobs aren’t paying enough to purchase the “beautiful and exotic objects” Brooks imagines will populate homes, let alone the homes themselves.

For all of Brooks’s fellating of the “heartland” (including the infamous “Applebee’s salad bar” comment), at heart he’s still a rich intellectual who doesn’t have a clue about what the average American is facing. His columns are written by a millionaire D.C. suburbanite, for Upper East Siders. So here’s my New Year’s resolution for David Brooks. You talked about how you spend “large chunks of [your] life in the bourgeois strata,” and about how you need to escape the bubble. So do it. Figure out what’s really on the minds of Trump voters or poor millennials or Hispanic immigrants or whatever. Shoot your shot. Or, if you can’t bring yourself to do that, just quit. At least people won’t have to read the same damn garbage you’ve been cranking out for eons. And at least students won’t have to hear from their Ph.D. advisors about the latest great David Brooks column that just came out.


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