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WHAT EZRA SAID! Bookstores offer titles “for dummies.” Our press corps should work the same way: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2010

A sanctified solon’s escape: Last week, we incomparably wondered if the mainstream press would ever address Saint McCain’s recent flips (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/10). This morning, we get our answer in a front-page report in the New York Times.

For our money, the Times has said no.

Jennifer Steinhauer wrote the piece. We’d say it’s rather soft on McCain, who is well known as the most honest man of at least the past fifty years. In a piece which runs 1200 words, this is the extent of Steinhauer’s exploration of the sanctified solon’s flips:

STEINHAUER (2/9/10): “Senator McCain takes every race seriously,” said Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the senator’s re-election campaign, “and is confident that the voters of Arizona will again return him to office as they have done in the past, and he is working hard to earn their continued support.”

Yet Mr. McCain now finds himself jammed, moving starkly—and often awkwardly—to the right, apparently in an effort to gain favor among the same voters whom Mr. Hayworth, a consistent voice for the far right, could pull toward him like taffy come summer.

Mr. McCain now sharply criticizes the bailout bill he voted for, pivoted from his earlier position that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility should be closed, offered only a muted response to the Supreme Court's decision undoing campaign finance laws and backed down from statements that gays in the military would be O.K. by him if the military brass were on board.

“John is undergoing a campaign conversion,” Mr. Hayworth said.

Headline in our hard-copy Times: “From Right of Radio Dial, a McCain Challenge.”

This isn’t the sort of fawning, super-flattering piece which was bestowed on this saint for so long. McCain is moving “awkwardly” to the right, we’re allowed to hear—and in the paragraph which follows, Steinhauer lists four examples of recent “pivots.” But in a 1200-word piece, that’s the extent of her examination of McCain’s many changes in stance. She makes no attempt to ask McCain, or his spokespeople, why this great saint has made these flips. She doesn’t even mention his most striking flip—his recent vote against a deficit-commission bill, a bill he himself had co-sponsored.

In fairness, we think Steinhauer overstates the degree of McCain’s alleged flip on gays in the military. But this article passes quickly and lightly over this sanctified saint’s many reversals, including flips on issues which have been central to his political profile. For our money, Steinhauer snarks more at J. D. Hayworth, Saint McCain’s overweight challenger—though here too, she fails to mention Hayworth’s continued clowning about such dreck as Obama’s place of birth.

(Hayworth played the fool on this topic just two weeks ago, as Chris Matthews rolled over and died. Steinhauer rolls over too. She interviewed Hayworth over lunch, but forgot to ask him about this.)

For many years, the mainstream press made a sanctified saint of McCain. Every quiver and twitch, no matter how pointless, proved the man’s vast moral greatness. They kept this up for year after year, showing their skill with a silly Group Novel. In a slightly different environment, their years of pimping for this greatest of men might have tipped the 2008 election.

This was, of course, the press corps’ fault, though McCain of course fed the beast. (More the most part, he fed them free donuts.)

For years, McCain was the world’s straightest-talking straight-shooter, a man of astonishing moral probity. This novelized tale never made any sense. Now, as the tale falls apart in plain sight, our scribes keep forgetting they told it.

Milbank wept: In this silly profile in Sunday’s Post, Dana Milbank weeps, boo-hoos, sniffles and cries about the loss of the man he so loved.

“I miss John McCain,” the silly-bill cries. Before long, he describes himself as “an original McCainiac.” (Did Milbank’s editors know that along the way? Were his readers warned of his status?) In the end, Milbank dares to imagine that the old McCain, the sanctified saint, “may yet rejoin the fight.” The suggestion that Milbank himself was engaged in some fight, if only by sympathy, is of course completely absurd. Right to the end, Milbank avoids the obvious truth: People like him got conned by McCain, a process they very much loved.

Special report: News for (us) dummies!

PART 1—WHAT EZRA SAID (permalink): What should the federal government do in the face of a recession? Most web liberals could answer that question, in perfectly reasonable ways. Two Sundays ago, in the time when there was still pavement, Ezra Klein explained the (familiar) idea in a front-page piece in the Washington Post’s “Business” section.

In this passage, Klein describes what the Obama Administration was trying to do with its stimulus package. The stimulus was “Keynesian economics in practice,” Ezra correctly said:

KLEIN (1/31/10): At its base, the stimulus is Keynesian economics in practice. A recession hits, and individuals and businesses become scared that they’re next on the chopping block, so they stop spending and start saving to protect themselves from the hard times to come. That drains demand from the economy, and without demand, the hard times get even harder. Government is the only player able to disrupt this vicious cycle. By sharply increasing its spending, it can generate demand, improving the economy until individuals and businesses are comfortable reentering the marketplace.

Key to this whole theory is that the government should act “counter-cyclically”: In good times, it should save and store, and in bad times, it should spend and borrow. The exact opposite holds true for businesses and individuals, which makes the whole project pretty unintuitive.

In a recession, individuals and businesses tend to stop spending. This produces a self-propelling downward spiral; to overcome this “vicious cycle,” government should step in and spend more. Almost everyone understands this theory—a theory which is generally referred to as “Keynesian.” Well—everyone understands it except the public, as Ezra quickly noted. In the process, he noted the way Obama bowed to widely-held, bad economic theory with his recent proposed spending freeze:

KLEIN (continuing directly): Students in macroeconomics classes learn all this in the first week of September. After a year of trying to explain it to an economically distressed nation, however, Obama basically gave up. Instead, he bowed before the entrenched, incorrect, conventional wisdom. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,” he said. “The federal government should do the same.”

Well, no. It shouldn't. The government should not tighten its belt until the people can loosen theirs. That's why the stimulus was a good idea, and why Obama is asking Congress for another stimulus, although this one's being called a "jobs bill." But the stimulus proved almost impossible to explain, and it was far too small, given the size of the recession. As a result, people are very worried about jobs, and they're very worried about deficits, and instead of trying to convince them that deficits make good sense until job growth is back to normal, the administration is trying to appease those fears so it can get on with the rest of its agenda.

According to Ezra, college students learn about counter-cyclical spending in the first week of September. But alas! Unless you’ve been taught about these ideas, counter-cyclical spending tends to be counter-intuitive, he says. (He uses the word “unintuitive.”) Result? When Obama approached the American public with his Keynesian theory, this counter-intuitive idea idea “proved almost impossible to explain.” Eventually, Obama rolled over and died, offering an intuition-friendly “tighten our belts” analogy which is, in truth, lousy economics.

For ourselves, we’d ten to disagree with Ezra about Obama’s efforts at explanation. Ezra make it sound like Obama struggled mightily, for a year, to explain this theory, then at last gave up. We haven’t gone back and studied the record, but we don’t think we’d likely second that assessment. But we were most struck, as we read this piece, by that image from college days.

College students learn about “Keynesian” counter-cyclical spending in the first week of class, Ezra says—even though the theory is counter-intuitive. But because this theory is counter-intuitive, the bulk of the public never really got the idea, all through the last brutal year. And earlier in his piece, Ezra described a second basic point on which the public never got clear. In essence, “the deficit problem is a function of health-care spending.” That statement is basically accurate too. But here too, Ezra says the public never quite got it.

In fact, we the people are almost always vastly un- and under-informed. Though newspapers tend to avoid this topic, every public information survey shows it: When it comes to basic facts and elementary theories, we the people rarely are rarely clear on what is going on.

Why are we constantly under-informed? We can think of many reasons. Most of us never went to college, so we never experience the glorious week in September Ezra recalls in his piece. Instead, people get and up and to work in the morning, where they aren’t handed much economic theory or news.

It continues: When we access mainstream news organs, we rarely encounter work which explains the basic things we simply don’t understand or know. And when we turn to partisan sources, we’re handed simple, pleasing stories which often happen to be untrue. For example: This country is currently full of people who “know” that Obama performed that freeze on domestic discretionary spending only after he had increased such spending by 84 percent. Presumably, this thing those people “know” is untrue. But they’ve have heard this story in many places—and it’s been contradicted nowhere.

College kids know it after a week. The bulk of us rubes never know it at all. As we read Ezra’s piece, we thought that construct was striking. It helps define the broken way our public discourse fails to work. All week long, we’ll discuss the problem Ezra discussed that piece.

In bookstores, we see lots of books written expressly for us “dummies.” Our view? We badly need a mainstream press—and a progressive politics—which approaches the news the same way.