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Two Cheers for John Tierney

Two Cheers for John Tierney

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September 7, 2010

February 2002 -- Why is the New York Times better on Tuesdays and Fridays than it is on any other day? Because on those days the paper's Metro Section prints "The Big City," written by the libertarian columnist John Tierney.

Consider these headlines from just the past year: "Politicians Stand in the Way of Harlem," "Catholic Schools' Success Teaches Lessons Money Can't Buy," "Scalping Law May be Ready for Execution," and "Is a U.S. Force the Safest Bet for Airports?" Nothing out of the ordinary—if Tierney wrote for the Cato Institute. Exciting—if he wrote for the Orange County Register. But in the New York Times?

WHO IS THIS GUY?

Tierney graduated from Yale University in 1976 and spent four years working as a newspaper reporter, first at the Bergen Record in New Jersey and then at the Washington Star. Beginning in 1980, he worked for ten years in magazine journalism, publishing in the Atlantic Monthly, Discover, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, the Washington Monthly, and elsewhere. He joined the Times in 1990 as a general assignment reporter with the Metro Section, though he also covered the 1992 presidential election. From 1995 to 1998, he was a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and published in that venue one of his best-known articles, a much-reprinted piece describing a wager between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich. For the last several years, Tierney has been writing a twice-weekly column for the Metro Section and bringing his pro-Enlightenment—pro-capitalist, pro-freedom, pro-technology—perspective to bear on urban issues.

Last fall, the left-liberal American Prospect published a critical article about Tierney, not surprisingly given his philosophy and prominent platform. But the writer of the article, Chris Mooney, seemed to have a hard time being critical. Tierney, he said, "is clearly a talented and innovative writer." He continued: "He seldom seems at a loss for unconventional ways of promoting his ideas." Consequently, "you often get a hearty dose of libertarianism without really noticing it." About the worst thing Mooney revealed, in this writer's eyes, is that Tierney formerly dated the catty New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. (Tierney is now married to Dana Tierney, who is also a writer, and they live in New York with their son, Luke.)

TIERNEY ON RENT CONTROL

In vindication of Mooney's assessment, consider a column that Tierney wrote last summer. The subject, at bottom, was Manhattan's absurd system of rent control, and any good libertarian could have cranked out a column making a telling economic argument against it. Tierney, by contrast, approached the subject through the seemingly pathetic case of Joan E. Mazzola, aged 70 and beset by emphysema and heart ailments. Her landlord was seeking to evict her! Mazzola pleaded, "I don't know what I would do. I have no place to go."

But why was Mazzola in danger of being evicted? Tierney wanted to know. Well, her large two-bedroom apartment at Park Avenue and East 84th Street would rent at a free-market price of $10,000 per month, according to her own estimates. She was paying $1,847.77. So, somewhere along the line, she had come up with the bright idea of renting out the second bedroom for $2,200. In other words, her "roommate" was paying more for his share of the apartment than she was paying for the whole apartment, netting her a nice little profit of $4,225 a year, plus rent-free housing on Park Avenue. This was in contravention of a law, presumably designed for such situations, that forbids charging a roommate more than his proportional share of the rent. Mazzola pleaded that she was ignorant of these laws limiting rent charges, but that, Tierney remarked, "is not the easiest case to make when you're paying $8,000 below market price."

Still, whatever her economic sins and crimes, would Tierney have her forced out into the cold, cruel world? "What about the place you own in Westport, Conn.? The house your landlord says is on nearly two acres, has an estimated value between $490,000 and $640,000, and yields $33,000 annually in rental income?" "'Oh, maybe there's almost two acres, but the house itself is tiny,' she replied. She didn't care to discuss the financial details. She did, however, volunteer that her landlord was a 'cutthroat, horrible person' who wanted her out of the apartment so he could make more money. 'To him, it's just business,' she said. But then, Mrs. Mazzola herself was pretty businesslike about that second bedroom."

TIERNEY ON THE INVISIBLE HAND

Early in January 2001, following a blizzard that dumped a couple feet of snow on New York, Tierney used the occasion to show how the powerful forces of self-interest keep our world turning. Tierney reported that, at the height of the blizzard, he had gone out to stock up on food and was returning home with bread and milk when he saw a neighbor. He asked whether she too was out on some urgent errand.

"'No,' she said casually. 'I have a hair appointment.'

"A hair appointment? I knew city officials had been promising to maintain essential services, but I had a feeling that the snow-emergency vehicles were not being used to ferry hairdressers to their posts." Two hours later the woman returned with shorter hair. Tierney then made his point by quoting Adam Smith: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." And he went on to say: "The holiday season is filled with acts of benevolence not motivated by self-interest. . . . But when the holidays are ending, when you're not dealing with friends or family, when the blizzard starts blowing, then you can begin to appreciate Adam Smith's practicality. This weekend, whether you were looking for bread or a haircut or entertainment for a child with cabin fever, you could find someone to provide it for a price."

Imagine: Twice a week one can read columns like that, throw away the rest of theTimes, and still get one's money's worth.

TIERNEY'S NEXT STEP

So what is the problem? Why two cheers?

The answer is contained in the title of Tierney's blizzard column: "Good? No, But Greed Is Useful." That expresses Tierney's Platonic view perfectly. Benevolence, generosity, the holiday season, kindness to strangers, and acts not motivated by self-interest are good. Greed is not good, but it works. Conclusion: What works is the not-good, the lower, the base.

The same theme reappeared in Tierney's column on "Capitalism Day," an event that had been billed as a "global rally in more than 100 cities." O.K., it was a silly event. But note, again, the title of Tierney's piece: "Better Leave the Marching to Marxists." Why? "Whatever the power of capitalists, they can't compete with moralists and politicians when it comes to public protests." But the marchers were not capitalists in the sense of being bankers, bondholders, and financiers. They were moralists, ardent moralists. But Tierney couldn't see that. So he pointed to Fifth Avenue shoppers, whose views probably ranged from liberal leftward, and declared that they were "doing their own walk for capitalism." Conclusion: Capitalism can be defended only as a useful practice, not as a moral ideal.

None of this is meant to impugn the powerful insights that Tierney provides twice weekly. On the contrary, both cheers are meant to cheer him on toward further insights. For instance, having acknowledged the usefulness of capitalism, he might want to consider that fact in light of a saying put forward even before Adam Smith's time: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

This article was originally published in the February 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.