Snapshots from a banana republic/Joe Nocera edition: In this blog post and in today’s column, Paul Krugman explains why Standard and Poor’s is wrong in its basic conceptual framework. (From the blog post: “US solvency depends hardly at all on what happens in the near or even medium term: an extra trillion in debt adds only a fraction of a percent of GDP to future interest costs, so a couple of trillion more or less barely signifies in the long term.”)
Is S&P wrong in its basic framework? Until someone shows us he’s wrong, we defer to Krugman’s judgment in such policy areas. But within our banana republic culture, it’s rarely enough for an “expert” elite to be wrong in its basic understandings. Such elites also tend to showcase their incompetence through groaning technical errors. They rarely seem happy until they have done so. And so it was when the S&P gang constructed its latest report:
KRUGMAN (8/8/11): Before downgrading U.S. debt, S.& P. sent a preliminary draft of its press release to the U.S. Treasury. Officials there quickly spotted a $2 trillion error in S.& P.’s calculations. And the error was the kind of thing any budget expert should have gotten right. After discussion, S.& P. conceded that it was wrong—and downgraded America anyway, after removing some of the economic analysis from its report.
Oof. For a fuller description of this error, see this Krugman blog post.
It’s surprising to think that our expert elites can’t even get the basic math right. But for decades, we have observed the same phenomenon in the groaning technical efforts of our “educational expert” class. In a banana republic like ours, many groups of players are assigned the role of expert elites. But these people are really Potemkin elites. In reality, they exist to recite preferred story lines—and to give the public the false impression that experts are still in charge.
All around your banana republic, you see the work of Potemkin elites. The career liberal world rarely mentions this fact. For the most part, they’re also Potemkin.
Today, let’s review the recent work of a journalistic Potemkin—the New York Times’ Joe Nocera.
On Saturday, Nocera apologized for the “intemperate” language in his previous column. We don’t think Nocera was necessarily wrong to apologize; we thought he said foolish, counterproductive things in that earlier column. But people! In this three-step history of his recent work, Step One is by far most important:
Step One, April through July: Nocera says nothing at all, in any column, about the debt limit debate. He clarifies nothing; he explains nothing. He sits like a bump on a log.
Step Two, August 2: After the debt limit deal is done, Nocera explodes in anger. “The Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people,” he writes. He refers to them as “terrorists” who can “put aside their suicide vests” now that they have won; in his headline, he says that these people have conducted a “War on America.” He doesn’t name any such people; he doesn’t say who exactly he means. Does he refer to all Tea Party supporters, including Aunt Madge? Or does he refer to professional politicians? In his fury, and perhaps in his cowardice, Nocera doesn’t say.
Step Three, August 6: Nocera apologizes for his previous column. “The words I chose were intemperate and offensive to many, and I’ve been roundly criticized,” he writes. “I was a hypocrite, the critics said, for using such language when on other occasions I’ve called for a more civil politics.”
Whatever. In the comments to Nocera’s most recent column, long lists of liberals urge him on, saying he shouldn’t have retracted his insults. In our view, that reaction is dumb enough. (To see the way your fellow citizens reason, just look at comments 20-25.) But much more importantly, we haven’t seen a single person in those comments who asked Nocera an obvious question:
If you felt so strongly about the debt limit deal, why didn’t you write about it until after the deal was done?
No one asked Nocera that question. But then, we liberals have terrible intellectual leadership, just like our neighbors who watch Fox. Beyond that, we liberals aren’t especially smart, and we aren’t always especially principled. We do like to call the other team names, though we tend to cry real tears when the other team does it to us. (“I was a hypocrite, the critics said, for using such language when on other occasions I’ve called for a more civil politics.”)
It gets worse: We don’t understand the way these tribal divisions serve plutocrat interests! But then, our “intellectual leaders” are much more likely to urge us to hate than they are to explain such matters.
Now that Nocera has snapped awake, perhaps he’ll start explaining basic aspects of the whole debt limit matter, which will likely come center stage again. Other “journalists” are still drifting along in a dream state. Consider the gigantic front-page report in yesterday’s Washington Post.
The report runs almost 6000 words. It explains the way the GOP leadership framed its approach to the debt limit deal, starting back in 2010. But guess what? Despite all those words, the team of authors never explain what would have happened if the debt limit didn’t get raised. There were several obvious places to do so—but they never did.
Can we talk? This country is full of people who have never heard an explanation of what would have happened if the debt limit stayed where it was! As best we can tell, the Washington Post reported this matter once, in a July 15 front-page report; the New York Times never bothered. Our question: How are voters supposed to know such things if people like Nocera, and the Washington Post, are too clueless to tell them?
Also in yesterday’s Washington Post, Nicolle Wallace seemed to praise Michele Bachmann for saying she’ll never raise the debt limit. How are people supposed to know how crazy that stance really is? How are people supposed to know that the number two GOP White House candidate has adopted a ludicrous stance?
Within our banana republic culture, such basic matters rarely get explained. We liberals then name-call the rubes who don’t know squat from squadoodle, even as our own dumb bunnies keep misstating what S&P said. Meanwhile, Nocera is there to give the impression that experts are in charge—that they’re crafting a real public discourse.
Guess what? They’re doing no such thing! But we liberals, bright as we say we are, rarely seem to notice. We’re living in a banana republic, where ignorance—mixed with name-calling—seem to constitute bliss.
Special report: The discourse you rode in on!
EPILOG—NAMING BOB SCHIEFFER: Today, we have the naming of names. We’ll start with a big name: Bob Schieffer.
Last Friday, Schieffer appeared on the CBS Evening News. Presumably, he was there to offer analysis, though Scott Pelley didn’t say.
As he started the program, Pelley reported on the day’s very large drop in the Dow. (The S&P downgrade hadn’t yet happened.) Then he turned his attention to Schieffer. This was the first “Q”-and-“A:”
PELLEY (8/5/11): Bob Schieffer is our chief Washington correspondent and anchor of Face the Nation. Bob, the president says Republicans and Democrats have to work together.
SCHIEFFER: I don’t think you’ll get any argument on that. The question is how, Scott. Everybody says we have to build confidence in this economy, but this parade of partisan foolishness that we’ve been treated to in Washington in recent weeks did nothing to increase anyone’s confidence. I think if anything, it made all of us more doubtful that Congress and the White House can do anything together.
If the president has said it once, he has said it a hundred times—we’re going to focus on getting people back to work. But, you know, Washington seems to have lost its way. In the span of 18 months, we’ve gone from spending nearly a trillion dollars on a stimulus to cutting over a trillion from spending. But whatever they’ve tried, nothing seems to change.
I guess you can say things are getting back to normal in one way here, Scott—the president went off to a fundraiser the day after the debt crisis was resolved and Congress went on another vacation. So on that front, at least, it’s business as usual.
Pelley didn’t quite ask a question—and Schieffer didn’t quite give an answer. Indeed, in the course of his session with Pelley, Schieffer did something substantially different—he crafted a perfect example of the phenomenon Paul Krugman discussed in his July 29 column, the column we had discussed right here last Friday. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/5/11.
In that July 29 column, Krugman criticized a powerful cult; he called it the “cult of balance.” He described the work of this cult as “the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts.” In that first non-answer answer last Friday, Schieffer leaned in that direction. He said there had been a “parade of partisan foolishness in Washington in recent weeks,” but he gave no specific examples. He made no attempt to direct more blame to one party or to one person—though as he closed, he portrayed Obama and the Congress as equally feckless souls.
One was going to a fundraiser, the other was off on vacation! This was “business as usual,” Schieffer proclaimed, as he engaged in that business himself.
Schieffer hadn’t tried to dish differential blame—but then again, he hadn’t been asked to. But in his second exchange with Pelley, the liturgy of that powerful cult came through loud and clear.
Pelley lobbed another softball—and Schieffer squared around and bunted. In his imitation of an answer, he adopted the unmistakable stance of that useless, overpaid cult:
PELLEY (continuing directly): Do you see any of this changing, Bob?
SCHIEFFER: You know, frankly, I don’t. And I don’t think it will until both sides find some things they can work on together to make it better. But I’m still not sure either side is ready to put aside the politics and do that.
Yet, how bad is this? I mean, when people were saying today it’s good news that unemployment has gone from 9.2 to 9.1? That just tells you how deep this hole is where we find ourselves. It’s pretty bad when 9.1 percent unemployment is going on, and that’s hailed as glad tidings.
PELLEY: Thanks, Bob! Sunday on Face the Nation, Bob’s guests will be...
According to Schieffer, neither side was “ready to put aside the politics” and “find some things they can work on together.” This is exactly the type of “analysis” Krugman described in that column.
Who knows? That may really be the way Schieffer sees the current situation. He may really feel that the various parties and players were equally at fault in the debt limit fight. But plainly, this is precisely the type of punditry Krugman had critiqued in that column, just one week before. “And this is no laughing matter,” Krugman had said. “The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism.”
Go ahead—reread Krugman’s column. In Krugman’s opinion, it’s obvious that one side in the debt limit debate was much more ready to work with the other—that no one but a hackish cult member could possibly fail to see this. But when it came time to name the names of those who belong to this dangerous cult, Krugman failed to do so—again. Instead, he cited an unobjectionable AP report, written several weeks earlier.
Schieffer’s utterly worthless “commentary” hadn’t occurred at the time of that column. But big-name media players like Schieffer offer such piffle each night of the week. As they do, they give the public the reassuring impression that commentary and analysis are actually happening.
That impression is wrong; commentary and analysis really aren’t happening. That said, we’re long past the point where Krugman needs to get off his keister and name the names of the actual people who belong to this cult, which “has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster.” Either that, or it’s time to stop the shit where Krugman pretends to be giving us commentary. That AP report just isn’t what that column was really about.
Today, we have the naming of names. We’ll start with a very big name: Bob Schieffer. It’s possible to name big names while maintaining a tone of decorum. But Krugman’s readers deserve to know who he is talking about.
Today, we have the naming of names. But will he name names tomorrow?
As the poet had it: For Henry Reed’s deathless “Naming of parts,” go ahead—just click here.
According to Wikipedia, Reed “was forever being confused with the much better known Sir Herbert Read.” In much the same way, The Club for Growth is often confused with The Hair Club for Men.