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KRUGMAN AND REID AND TEA PARTIES—OH MY! Krugman pens an important column—and fury surrounds Harry Reid: // link // print // previous // next //

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Krugman adds a log to the pile: Over the past thirty years, American politics has largely been driven by a pile of disingenuous, misleading sound-bites. In the past year, we’ve discussed some of the focus group-tested bites which have driven our (long-term) health care discussion. (We have the best health care in the world! National/socialized European-style health care has failed everywhere it’s ever been tried!)

These bites are repeated over and over, often without any real rebuttal from armies of slumbering liberals. People hear these claims again and again. They come to believe that they’re true.

This morning, in an important column, Paul Krugman adds another log to the pile. Old Europe’s an economic basket-case! Everyone has heard this claim. But right at the start of this morning’s column, Krugman says it ain’t so:

KRUGMAN (1/11/10): As health care reform nears the finish line, there is much wailing and rending of garments among conservatives. And I’m not just talking about the tea partiers. Even calmer conservatives have been issuing dire warnings that Obamacare will turn America into a European-style social democracy. And everyone knows that Europe has lost all its economic dynamism.

Strange to say, however, what everyone knows isn’t true. Europe has its economic troubles; who doesn’t? But the story you hear all the time—of a stagnant economy in which high taxes and generous social benefits have undermined incentives, stalling growth and innovation—bears little resemblance to the surprisingly positive facts.

Old Europe’s an economic disaster! People have heard this again and again. But it just isn’t true, Krugman says.

We strongly suggest that you read the whole column. But in the highlighted passage below, the rubber rips at the road:

KRUGMAN: It’s true that the U.S. economy has grown faster than that of Europe for the past generation. Since 1980—when our politics took a sharp turn to the right, while Europe’s didn’t—America’s real G.D.P. has grown, on average, 3 percent per year. Meanwhile, the E.U. 15—the bloc of 15 countries that were members of the European Union before it was enlarged to include a number of former Communist nations—has grown only 2.2 percent a year. America rules!

Or maybe not. All this really says is that we’ve had faster population growth. Since 1980, per capita real G.D.P.—which is what matters for living standards—has risen at about the same rate in America and in the E.U. 15: 1.95 percent a year here; 1.83 percent there.

1.95 percent is larger than 1.83 percent. But even allowing for the joy of compounding, it isn’t larger by much.

For our money, Krugman is a bit restrained when he explains why so many Americans think Europe’s an economic disaster. Here is the relevant passage:

KRUGMAN: The point isn’t that Europe is utopia. Like the United States, it’s having trouble grappling with the current financial crisis...But taking the longer view, the European economy works; it grows; it’s as dynamic, all in all, as our own.

So why do we get such a different picture from many pundits? Because according to the prevailing economic dogma in this country—and I’m talking here about many Democrats as well as essentially all Republicans—European-style social democracy should be an utter disaster. And people tend to see what they want to see.

Krugman engages in something resembling tautology here. Here’s our own translation of what he has said:

Why do we get such a gloomy picture of Europe from so many pundits? Because conservative spin-tanks invented this sound-bite (among many others)—and many “liberals” and “mainstream” figures have politely slumbered along.

This is a very important column. Even more important is a very basic question:

When will liberals develop the frameworks and institutions through which such dominant sound-bites get debunked, then dragged to the ground? When will liberals decide to tell average people (Ewww! We know!) that they’re being systematically played by the very capable hustlers who hand them this poll-tested blarney?

Race to the crossing: Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been stunned by the growing discussion of Harry Reid’s comment about Obama. For our money, Lani Guinier gets it right in this morning’s New York Times. (Mark Leibovich did the reporting.)

For the moment, ignore what Guinier says about Trent Lott’s famous, widely-discussed remark in 2002. Focus instead on what she says about Reid’s comment in 2007 or 2008:

LIEBOVICH (1/11/10): Supporters of Mr. Reid said the Reid and Lott situations were also different because of what they say is Mr. Reid's unimpeachable record on civil rights. They mentioned Mr. Reid's support from black leaders across the country as well as his efforts to integrate the Las Vegas strip and Nevada's gambling industry. Mr. Lott's record was more mixed, and included, among things, his previous opposition to making the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday and his vote against the Voting Right Act as a member of Congress.

''They are not in the least bit comparable,'' said Lani Guinier, the Harvard Law School professor whose nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993 was pummeled by conservative groups and eventually withdrawn by President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Lott's remarks, Ms. Guinier said, seemed to be expressing nostalgia for the segregationist platform of Mr. Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, while Mr. Reid’s comments seemed to be addressing “an unfortunate truth about the present.” That truth, she said, is that Mr. Obama would have had a more difficult time getting elected if his skin were darker and if he spoke in a dialect more identifiable as “black.”

Duh. Reid’s language (“Negro dialect”) was largely archaic, and some have apparently found it insulting. But does anyone doubt that Reid’s remark did address lingering, “unfortunate truths” (or possible truths) about race in America, of the type Guinier describes? (With some trepidation, we note that Guinier is largely being paraphrased.) Does anyone doubt that skin color counts (or may count) when it comes to electing a black president? That Obama’s thoroughly “standard” speech patterns may make him more electable, as opposed to some other black candidate whose speech may seem more “accented?” (Or less “standard” in some other way?)

This discussion will continue all week, with every pundit rising to say how deeply and thoroughly he is appalled by the vile thing Harry Reid said. We’ll only note a few odd facts about this unfolding discussion:

We’ve rarely seen a discussion in which the outraged parties seemed to feel so little obligation to explain just what it is they’re outraged about. But several pundits, in the past two days, have seemed to suggest that they think the word “Negro” was an earlier racial slur—was, in effect, “the n-word.” That isn’t true, of course—although the black community, on the whole, eventually pushed to replace this traditional term with other descriptive terms. But was this traditional term a slur? In 1963, the moral genius of the last century closed the century’s best-known speech with this very famous passage:

DR. KING (8/28/63): Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Was Dr. King a closet racist? Beyond that, might he have been a sexist as well? (Because he spokes of “black men and white men?”)

Traditionally, “Negro” was the standard term, the conventional term of respect. We only note this point because we’ve seen some younger pundits, even this morning, who have seemed to suggest something different.

The term is rarely used now. But last Wednesday, Rachel Maddow discussed the fact that this largely-abandoned term will be employed on this year’s census form. When people are asked to identify their race, the term “Negro” will be part of the mix. For better or worse, here’s why:

MADDOW (1/6/10): As awesome as the Beatles and Get Smart and really narrow lapels were, there are things from the 60s that went away for good reason. Gone are such relics as cars that flip over because of how they were designed, unbridled nuclear proliferation. There’s also been evolution in the words we use, like for instance, words we use to describe various racial and ethnic groups of American people.

On the 2010 census form coming to a mailbox near you in mid- March, there is, however, something of a blast from the past. Question number nine asks what is person one’s race. Among the choices: White, American Indian or Alaska Native or, the second line there: “Black, African-American or Negro.”

And it’s not a mistake or an old form. The Census Bureau says having the word “Negro” on the 2010 census is intentional, that although the bureau believes the term is antiquated, testing revealed that use of the term would outweigh the potential negatives of not using it.

Another spokesman explaining, quote, "Many older African- Americans identified themselves that way. Many still do. Those who identify themselves as Negroes need to be included.”

Will use of this term improve the census? We have no idea—but it’s sure to generate a discussion. Maddow’s guest this night was David Wilson, managing editor and founder of TheGrio.com. Wilson believes that younger blacks will largely be negative about use of the term. (“This is not a word that we’re used to, my generation is used to seeing in an official document.”) In the course of the full program, these comments occurred:

MADDOW: There is a word that hasn’t really been used to describe African-Americans since about the Lyndon Johnson administration. So what is that word doing on U.S. government forms now? U.S. Government forms now, that every American is going to see this year? How the Census Bureau went all Mayberry RFD. It’s coming up. Stay tuned.

MADDOW: Still ahead, the census and the N-word— not that N-word, but still an eye-opener. That’s coming up.

WILSON: You know, this sort of brings back the memories of Bull Connor, the sort of the, you know, “whites and Negro only” sort of water fountains. So you know, I think a lot of people in my generation will say, "What are they getting at here? Where are they trying to go.”

Just a guess: Bull Connor didn’t say “Negro” a lot. Meanwhile, did it say “Negro only” on those water fountains? Maybe, but not all the time.

Wilson may well be right about the way younger blacks—men and women of his generation—will tend to respond to official use of this term. (On its face, we find it odd too.) For ourselves, we were struck by Maddow’s “Mayberry RFD” reference. The association seems fairly clear: “Negro” somehow brings southern whites (southern white crackers?) to mind. No, that doesn’t exactly make sense, except within the framework of a certain type of reflexive “liberalism.”

Was Harry Reid “wrong” in what he said? More dramatically, was his comment “racist,” as many are saying? Different people will think different things. We’ll only suggest a basic requirement: Public debates become more clear when complaining parties are asked to define the specific offense. Absent that simple requirement, a long string of fatuous pundits will posture about this comment all week, letting us gaze on their vast moral greatness. As we’ve watched some of these people in the past two days day, we’ve sometimes found ourselves wondering: Have they ever thought about race at any point in their lives? In fact, we thought this thought this very morning, watching Joe and Mika express their exceptionally high moral grandeur.

We think Guinier’s statement is basically sound. We also think Reid is seventy years old, like the small percentage of blacks the Census Bureau cited. And as in the Leibovich passage quoted above, Reid has an actual political history concerning actual matters of race. But people! That concerns real issues, real issues which affected real lives! Our pundits tend to find such things dull. They prefer to preen, exclaim, posture.

One more outlook: On Friday night, Melissa Harris-Lacewell discussed the census issue with Maddow. Harris-Lacewell largely disagreed with Wilson about the Census Bureau’s decision. When they post the Maddow transcripts, they’ll be posting them here.

Who’s at the party: We got an e-mail disagreeing with one part of last Friday’s HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/8/10). That New York Times letter-writer was right about tea party members, our e-mailer said:

E-MAIL (1/8/10): I think you did the letter writer to the New York Times (Moose Lake, MN) a real disservice. He has perfectly captured the mind of MOST Tea Party members that I have seen in the media and met.

How else do you describe a "movement" that complains about government intrusion into their lives that sat quiet, did nothing, even cheered him on, while a Republican president ignored and then destroyed the 4th amendment?

These people have no problem with the government listening in on their phone calls, intercepting their mail, performing "sneak & peek" searches of their homes, and declaring the power to detain American citizens indefinitely based upon the word of the (Republican) President alone, but when they are asked to join a national health cares system, All of a sudden, it's "Big Brother" and "socialism?”

Give me a break. They exist for one thing only—their hatred of Democrats and liberals. Sure, there are some reasonable people in the movement like the other letter writer mentioned in your piece, but you've seen coverage of their "rallies" on TV. You've seen reporters try to interview these people and get a cogent argument out them as to what they support or oppose and why. They don't have a clue.

Have you ever met one? I have. They hate Obama and they hate liberals. Period. George Bush expanded Medicare drug benefits (that's called "socialism" these days)—and where were they? He made American into a truly Orwellian state regarding domestic surveillance. Was there a grass roots movement to decry the creeping "Nanny State" then? Big Brother? Hardly. Hell, many of them benefitted from the expansion of Medicare and that was just fine with them.

I understand your point that liberals fail to win many arguments because of the presumptuous attitude they take towards people of the other party, but please explain to me how a liberal is supposed to approach someone who thinks:

  1. Obama is a socialist, racist and communist
  2. Obama was born in Kenya (over 50 percent of Republicans think so)
  3. That liberals are tearing the fabric of the country apart
  4. Liberals hate freedom in general
  5. And in general have no idea about the underlying facts surrounding any particular side of an issue that they have taken? (remember the poll that showed the more someone watched Fox the less likely they were to understand any particular issue from a factual basis? The opposite was true for that bastion of liberalism, NPR.)

C'mon. The first letter writer you mentioned was right. They hate Obama and liberals. That is one thing probably 99 percent of "Tea Party" members have in common. You just happened to highlight a letter written by someone who falls in the 1 percent who isn't a nut.

We understand this writer’s frustration, but disagree with his approach. That said, he asks a very good question. (“Please explain to me how a liberal is supposed to approach someone who thinks...”) More on these topics to follow this week.

How is a liberal supposed to approach? It’s a question we rarely discuss—a very important question.