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JON KYL ENTERS BABEL! Jon Kyl engaged in some clownish old cant. In part, the fault lies in us: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JULY 14, 2010

What does Dwight Michael Frazee know and why the heck doesn’t he know it: In yesterday’s Washington Post, Michael Fletcher offered a front-page report about unemployed workers whose benefits have expired. He focused on Dwight Michael Frazee, a 50-year-old New Jersey man who has been unemployed for the past several years.

In the following passage, Fletcher describes Frazee’s work situation, and his state of high stress. He then quotes Frazee semi-explaining why he has been “abandoned:”

FLETCHER (7/13/10): While searching for work, he lived on $585 a week in unemployment payments. But the checks were cut off in May when he reached 99 weeks. Now Frazee, who is married and has a 5-year-old daughter, is in a financial free fall with no safety net.

"My life has been total stress. I sleep maybe four hours a night, worrying about money," he said. “I understood the president and Congress had to stabilize the banks, get Wall Street going. I figured something would be done for middle-class Americans, that they couldn't abandon us. But I was wrong.”

As Jonathan Chait notes in this intriguing post, Frazee seems unclear about the reason for his loss of unemployment benefits (which he describes as being “abandoned”). In the passage posted above, Frazee seems to blame Obama, along with the Congress, for his loss of benefits. This seems even more clear in the passage below:

FLETCHER: The growing backlash against unemployment insurance has left the 99ers [the long-term unemployed] with few political advocates. President Obama, buffeted by GOP criticism of his economic policies as unemployment rates hover at their highest levels in 28 years, has been struggling to win support for renewing the extended jobless benefits. Consequently, any help for the 99ers is off the table, at least for now—leaving them angry at their political leaders.

“President Obama talks a lot about making the victims of the gulf disaster whole, but what about the victims of this economic disaster?" Frazee said. "Nowadays, he seems mostly concerned with image. Now, he doesn't want to be seen as a big spender. But people need help.”

Who does Frazee “blame” for his loss of benefits? Fletcher never makes this fully clear. But the quoted statements would seem to suggest that Frazee blames Obama. “Frazee does not seem to realize that Obama and almost all the Democrats favor an extension of unemployment benefits, and Republicans oppose it,” Chait writes. “He just knows that Obama is in charge and Obama is not giving him what he wants.”

Does Frazee understand that “Obama and almost all the Democrats favor an extension of unemployment benefits?” Fletcher doesn’t seem to have asked. By the way: If Frazee reads Fletcher’s piece, as he presumably will, will he then understand the politics of this situation? How clearly does Fletcher explain this situation? There’s no “right” answer to that question—but Fletcher’s second paragraph seems to say that no one is trying to extend benefits for people like Frazee. We see other points of confusion as we peruse the piece.

Could you explain this ongoing situation? We’re not completely sure we could—and we’re not sure how much Fletcher helps.

Of one thing we can be certain—some will rush to condemn the unwashed. Chait’s second commenter complains about Frazee’s “ignorance.” “Anyone who pays attention to the news at all should be able to understand who is responsible for ending unemployment benefits,” this high-minded observer says.

But what if Frazee “pays attention” by listening to talk radio, or by watching Fox? What if he reads every news report at the Post? Will he understand even then?

For example: In this June 26 news report, Lori Montogomery described the senate’s failure, one day before, to extend emergency jobless benefits. If Frazee read this report, would he understand then?

JON KYL VISITS BABEL (permalink): Do we humans ever understand anything that gets said? Yesterday, we semi-wondered, as we read Salon’s slightly odd treatment of Jesse Jackson’s recent remarks.

Jackson hammered Dan Gilbert, Cleveland Cavaliers owner, for the way he trashed LeBron James after James decamped for Miami. Gilbert trashed James remarkably hard—and Jackson was soon PUSHing back. “He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers," Jackson said in a press release. "His feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner employee relationship—between business partners—and LeBron honored his contract.”

You may think that statement makes sense—or not. You may think the statement is wise—or not. But it’s fairly clear what Jackson was saying, presumably in a metaphorical sense. He was saying that Gilbert sees James as a runaway slave—not that he, Jackson, thinks pro athletes are like slaves in some way. In effect, he was saying that Gilbert wouldn’t have trashed a white superstar in a comparable way.

Would Gilbert have trashed a white LeBron James in this same remarkable way? We have no idea. (In the wake of Gilbert’s letter, many sports pundits said that Gilbert is routinely a big giant blowhard.) At Salon, Joan Walsh expressed her view of Jackson’s statement, then invited ten other people to comment. But many of these writers seemed to think that Jackson had said that he himself saw James as some sort of slave. The third guest writer, Professor Blair LM Kelley, ended her post like this:

KELLEY (7/12/10): There was certainly an ugly tone in Gilbert’s letter, and such a tone should be condemned.

However, it was just a tone; slavery was an all-encompassing, constitutionally enforced system. LeBron James is a free man. He freely chose to determine where he would work, where he and his family will live and the best way to carve out his own future. None of this has anything to do with slavery.

“LeBron James is a free man,” we were told. Did Jackson say anything different? Two posts later, author Dan Gilbert says that “slavery is an inappropriate and ahistorical metaphor to describe the current state of labor relations in professional sports.” Is that what Jackson was doing?

We were struck by the lack of clarity which ribboned through that piece at Salon, in part because the disintegration of American discourse has been so blindingly clear this week. For example, consider Senator Jon Kyl’s remarkable statement about budget deficits. Beyond that, consider liberal objections to Kyl’s statement—and consider the role this statement will play in our mainstream press dialogue.

Kyl’s foolishness started on Fox News Sunday. Chris Wallace asked a good question about the Bush tax cuts for high earners, which Kyl would like to extend:

WALLACE (7/11/10): Senator, let me just break in because I want to pick up on exactly the point that you just brought up, particularly the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. That is part of the big Republican growth agenda—let's keep, not let expire, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The fact is, those would cost $678 billion over 10 years. At a time when Republicans are saying that they can't extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me—how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

Kyl went off on several tangents, but Wallace kept restating his question. On Wallace’s third attempt, Kyl relented, and finally answered:

WALLACE: But sir, how are you going to—because we are running out of time— How are you going to pay the $678 billion just on the tax cuts for people making more than $200,000 a year?

KYL: You should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes. Surely, Congress has the authority, and it would be right, if we decide we want to cut taxes to spur the economy, not to have to raise taxes in order to offset those costs. You do need to offset the cost of increased spending, and that's what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.

This “answer” was thoroughly foolish. Congress can offset a tax cut by raising some other tax. But duh! Congress can also offset a tax cut by cutting spending. And of course, that’s something Republicans like Kyl constantly say they want to do.

On Monday, TPM’s Brian Beutler spoke with Kyl about his statement to Wallace, and the foolishness continued. We have to rely on paraphrase in part of the following passage, and Kyl’s quoted statement doesn’t seem to make sense. (Did Kyl mean to say “reduced spending?”) But note the oddness of what Kyl seems to have said to Beutler:

BEUTLER (7/12/10): [Kyl] claimed candidly that the very existence of unemployment insurance is a "necessary evil," while tax cuts ought not be paid for by increases in order to make it easier to shrink the size of government.

"My view, and I think most of the people in my party don't believe that you should ever have to offset a tax cut," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. "That clearly reduced savings is a better way to offset increased spending than a tax increase is."

The rationale, Kyl said, goes back to the ultimate conservative goal of shrinking the size of government. If tax cuts are offset by tax increases in other area, then the government can only grow.

According to Beutler, Kyl said that tax cuts “make it easier to shrink the size of the government.” This is standard conservative policy—but the way you “shrink the size of the government” is of course by reducing spending! Why then can’t Kyl simply say which spending cuts he would recommend? Beutler doesn’t seem to have asked.

Eventually, Mitch McConnell saved the day for the Republican side. Beutler spoke with the Republican senate leader about the various things Kyl had said—and McConnell restated a famous old bromide. If we extend the Bush tax cuts, there’s no need to “pay for” these tax cuts, he said. You see, when we cut tax rates, we increase federal revenue!

Yes, it’s true—that’s perfect cant. But so McConnell seems to have said:

BEUTLER (7/13/10): "That's been the majority Republican view for some time," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told TPMDC this afternoon after the weekly GOP press conference. “That there's no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”

Kyl hadn’t offered this famous old bromide when he spoke with Wallace, of course. But apparently, McConnell told Beutler that we don’t have to “pay for” tax cuts for a famous old reason—tax cuts pay for themselves.

Truly, McConnell made a remarkable statement. No serious analyst could truly believe that tax cuts typically “pay for themselves.” (For Jonathan Chait’s rebuttal, complete with graph, click this.) But conservative talkers have pushed this ludicrous sound-bite for decades, and many voters have come to believe it. McConnell used this hoary old claim to rescue Kyl.

In this post, Steve Benen summarizes this whole episode, then asks a reasonable question: “What's to be done when an entire political party buys a first class ticket to Bizarro World?”

Benen’s question is perfectly apt. But it ain’t easy to answer.

Does anyone ever understand anything in our American discourse? Increasingly, the answer tends toward “no.” Conservative talkers like Rush and Sean have been pushing this tax cut nonsense for decades. But tell us this: When has the liberal world ever tried to form a large-scale rebuttal? When has the liberal world ever tried to find a way to approach conservative voters (and others), telling them they’re being disinformed when they hear this claim? The answer is simple: The liberal world has never done this, not in any serious way, and it shows little inclination now. Meanwhile, the mainstream press will address this nonsense about the time Hell hardens.

Does anyone ever understand anything in our devolving political discourse? The answer is no, and much of the fault lies with us liberals. Here is a short capsule history of recent American discourse:

In the 1950s and 1960s, the public discourse was defined by a small elite. David Brinkley turned out to be fairly conservative; Walter Cronkite turned out to be fairly liberal. But neither of these men was a nut. Neither man would have told you something as silly as this: If we lower tax rates, we increase federal revenues.

At some point in the past several decades, we began to “democratize” media. Idiots got to join the club. Stern got a show, then Imus followed. After that, we got Rush, and Sean, and Drudge. Some of these people were open dissemblers—willing to do and say anything. As this lunacy spread through the culture, the liberal world slept in the woods.

We now have our own loud talkers. Their response to most events? You’re just a bunch of racists! In this world, Babel hardens.

In this very significant post, Benen notes the way Carly Fiorina is parading this same ridiculous notion—Tax cuts pay for themselves!—in her run for governor of California. Justifiably tearing his hair, Steve makes this half-false statement:

BENEN (7/13/10): Thirty years ago, this raving stupidity had a name: "voodoo economics." More recently, it's come to be known as belief in the “Tax Fairy.”

The first part of that statement is true. In 1980, Candidate Bush 41 referred to this general sort of claim as “voodoo economics.” But Candidate Bush then flipped, becoming Candidate Reagan’s running mate—and the liberal world went to sleep in the woods. As a result, this raving stupidity has not come to be known “as belief in the Tax Fairy,” or as anything else at all; most voters have never heard this nonsense addressed in any manner. In part, McConnell was free to use this nonsense as an escape hatch because our side has done such a poor job critiquing this claim through the years.

Our public discourse is currently Babel, and Babel will be hard to fix. The mainstream press corps will let this latest nonsense go, as it has done for the past several decades. Once again, voters won’t hear that they’re being misled—that they’re being played for fools. In a remarkable array of ways, “raving stupidity” now defines our public discourse.

The fault in this lies not in the stars. It lies in Rush, in Sean, in Beck—and in part, it lies in us. The liberal world has helped create Babel. The Tax Fairy is alive and well—and she has fed off us.