Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Serious" Culpability on the Debt Ceiling Hostage Situation

The American national media's main failing during the recent debt ceiling hostage situation was its frequent refusal to describe it accurately, instead insisting that 'both sides are equally to blame.' However, some supposedly sober, responsible "serious" journalists and political players not only failed to halt the madness – they joined the far-right and urged it on.

Jonathan Chait identifies some of the culprits in "The Debt Ceiling Crisis And The Failure Of The Establishment" (7/29/11). The "pro-hostage-taking" crowd included the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the Concord Coalition, and The Washington Post editorial board. Head over to Chait's post for the evidence and links. As he observes (my emphasis):

The basic problem [with Megan McArdle's analysis] is that Wall Street has massively underestimated the loony determination of the Republican right. McArdle's description reminded me of Ellis, the financial hot shot in "Die Hard" who thinks he can deal with the terrorists the way he deals with corporate takeovers in his regular work…

The failure to understand the crisis we were entering was widely shared among centrist types. When Republicans first proposed tying a debt ceiling hike to a measure to reduce the deficit, President Obama instead proposed a traditional, clean debt ceiling hike. He found this position politically untenable for many reasons, one of them being that deficit scolds insisted that using the debt ceiling to force a fiscal adjustment was a terrific idea, and that connecting the deficit debate to a potentially cataclysmic financial event was the mark of seriousness.

The political assumptions here turned out to be badly wrong. The main problem is that the Republican Party does not actually care very much about the deficit. It cares about, in order: Low taxes for high-income earners; reducing social spending, especially for the poor; protecting the defense budget; and low deficits. The Obama administration and many Democrats actually do care about the deficit and are willing to sacrifice their priorities in order to achieve it, a desire that was on full display during the health care reform debate. Republicans care about deficit reduction only to the extent that it can be undertaken without impeding upon other, higher priorities. Primarily "deficit reduction" is a framing device for their opposition to social spending, as opposed to a genuine belief that revenue and outlays ought to bear some relationship to each other.

The Post has since published a series of increasingly terrified-sounding editorials pleading for a debt ceiling hike backing away from its bold hopes that the debt ceiling would produce a bipartisan compromise. In retrospect, they now see what should have been obvious: Increasing the political leverage of the Republican Party made a Grand Bargain less, not more, likely. Moreover, the deficit hawks who represent the center of Washington establishment thought badly underestimated the danger entailed by tying high stakes negotiations involving the Republican Party to a cataclysmic event. Happy visions of Bob Dole and Tip O'Neill danced in their heads, oblivious to the reality of what they were facing.

Paul Krugman comments on the piece and the mindset of the Very Serious People (VSPs):

This was terrible policy, even if it had worked: now is not the time for fiscal austerity, and the way the VSPs have shifted the whole conversation away from jobs and toward deficits is a major reason we’re stuck in the Lesser Depression.

But it also showed awesome political naivete. As Chait says, the first thing you need to understand is that modern Republicans don’t care about deficits. They only pretend to care when they believe that deficit hawkery can be used to dismantle social programs; as soon as the conversation turns to taxes, or anything else that would require them and their friends to make even the smallest sacrifice, deficits don’t matter at all.

I can’t help but notice that Chait’s list of chumps is basically the same as the list of people who puffed up Paul Ryan and gave him an award for fiscal responsibility. Enough said.

What’s really awesome here is the blindness. Anyone reading the newspapers with an open mind had a pretty good idea of what would happen in the debt fight; only Washington insiders managed to fool themselves.

But they’re Very Serious.

Let's recap. These Very Serious People somehow completely ignored the lessons of the Great Depression, one of the seminal events of the 20th Century, and they don't understand the Keynesian economic principles that drove America's recovery. They're hardly alone in that, with austerity being all the rage these days (for the lower classes only, of course). However, it's further proof that the Beltway Conventional Wisdom is often pretty dumb, and the chattering class just does not know or care much about policy – even if that policy is absolutely crucial. They actually thought (and still think) that cutting government spending in a recession is a great idea.

These Very Serious People also thought that taking a routine but vital action, raising the debt ceiling, and holding it hostage, was a good idea. Seriously. They thought threatening the very functioning of the government and the American economy was a good idea.

The Very Serious People also thought, somehow, against a mountain of evidence, that the Republican Party was at its heart reasonable, and would never actually go all the way through with their threat – a threat the VSPs were cheering on. Even though many of these people are paid to cover politics, they completely misread GOP inflexibility and insanity, which is nothing but, oh, the major political development of the past 10-30 years.

Lastly, the Very Serious People refused to report the debt ceiling situation accurately, continually insisting that "both sides are equally to blame." This made the situation even worse. Needless to say, they also ignored their own culpability in egging it on.

In rough stupid-evil-crazy terms, that would be a whole mess of stupidity, followed by astounding recklessness and irresponsibility, followed by are-you-fucking-kidding-me stupidity, followed by gutlessness and dishonesty.

Unfortunately, this is a recurring pattern, in general terms, at least. Most glaringly, consider media conduct leading up to the Iraq War and afterward. The chattering class does not value policy. That would take time. Plus, as a privileged class, most policies that hurt the middle class will not after the political class much. This means they've both unable and unwilling to make fact-based, qualitative judgments about most political issues. Others will suffer, not them.

Meanwhile, even if they're not right-wing, or don't identify themselves as such, they are often simpatico with the right-wing's goals. At the very least, they are strangely indulgent of, oh, threatening the government's basic ability to function, cutting tax cuts further for the rich and calling war skeptics traitors.

Finally, they whitewash their own role in creating these messes. How many Iraq War cheerleaders have truly repented, and detailed how they were wrong? I can think of a handful, but not many. Many reporters offered unduly rosy accounts of Iraq years after the invasion, I suspect because they thought it would somehow vindicate their colossally poor judgment. They were likewise subservient in the coverage of the Bush administration's torture regime. Similarly, even now, many reporters are reluctant to point out exactly how disastrous the Bush administration was economically.

So, how many supposedly "serious" and "objective" cheerleaders for the debt ceiling hostage situation – an inexcusably irresponsible move – have owned up to their role in manufacturing that crisis? I'm guessing that number is about nil.

It's a Herculean struggle to get accurate media coverage due to journalists' dishonest, shallow, continual insistence that "both sides are equally to blame." But what makes that struggle downright Sisyphean at times is that very often, the media is also to blame for creating the mess itself. If there's one thing harder to say for a pundit to say than "conservatives deserve the overwhelming share of the blame on this," it's "I was completely, utterly wrong." The conservative base is mean, crazy and dumb, while the chattering class is mostly dumb, decadent, craven and vain. They view themselves as savvy, worldly and smart, of course. Upton Sinclair said that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it." That's true, and it's also true that it's hard to get someone to admit error, even (or especially) a glaring one, when that will shatter their entire self-image.

(Related posts: "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism is a Vice" and "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit.")

Addendum: Chait's piece isn't the whole story. Digby points out that Obama wanted to make a "grand bargain" cutting programs to at least some degree, and wasn't forced as much as Chait portrays. David Dayen adds more to the picture, exploring how conservative "blue dog" Dems played a key role in introducing the horribly irresponsible notion of a debt ceiling standoff. Meanwhile, driftglass takes Chait to task for his "magical thinking" in a related post. I find Chait to be a mixed bag (and perhaps that's fodder for another post) but it's certainly possible for someone to write well on some subjects but not on others, or to make both good and poor points in the same piece. Hey, give credit where and when it's due, critique with what's sincerely offered but inaccurate, and challenge the outright bullshit.

No comments: