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THE YEAR(S) OF LIVING DYSFUNCTIONALLY! Gerson’s bungle helps flesh out the gloom of Krugman’s year-ender: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2010

The year(s) of living dysfunctionally: “Banana republic, here we come.”

So writes Paul Krugman, at the end of his year-ending column (click here). Indeed, it’s hard to doubt that we’re gaining that status, so moronic has America’s public discourse become.

That said, we will challenge Krugman’s implied future tense. Banana republic, here we come? Intending no disrespect to Krugman, that gong-show republic is already here. We’ve lived in it for a very long time—and the “liberal” world has helped create it.

How low is our nation’s public IQ? In today’s column, Krugman writes about nonsensical fiscal claims being advanced by major Republicans. With that in mind, let’s consider the scripted illiteracy put on display in Michael Gerson’s penultimate column of this benighted year.

Gerson was a major speech-writer for George W. Bush; in that role, he sat at the very top of American politics. As a columnist at the Washington Post, he now sits at the very top of our journalistic pig-pile. But does this highly-placed man understand even the basics of our most elementary budget debates? In Tuesday’s column, this is the way he explained the “elaborate accounting trick” which lies at the heart of the Social Security program:

GERSON (12/28/10): Obama's liberal base contends that the Social Security trust fund is not in immediate trouble. But this argument depends on an elaborate accounting trick. The trust fund is not filled with assets—gold bullion and Apple stock. It is filled with debt issued by the government to itself. The surpluses of the trust fund are in fact liabilities for the government as a whole. And these illusory surpluses are regularly used to subsidize the rest of the budget. The scheme begins to collapse in 2037, when promised benefits for Social Security recipients will suddenly drop by about 25 percent—unless the system is reformed.

It’s true: According to current projections, “promised benefits for Social Security recipients will suddenly drop by about 25 percent” around the year 2037, unless changes are made to the current system. (One such change could involve modest increases in the payroll tax.) But this projected problem has nothing to do with the demagogic claim that the trust fund is built on an “accounting trick,” resulting in “illusory surpluses;” that future shortfall is projected by those who treat the surpluses (and the trust fund) as what they are—as wholly valid entities. More specifically, Democrats and liberals project that shortfall, even as they treat the trust fund as a wholly valid entity. In short: In that puzzling paragraph, Gerson merges a set of demagogic claims with a wholly standard budget analysis—a budget analysis offered by those who don’t accept those claims.

Gerson has sat at the top of our discourse for years. But he doesn’t seem to understand the logic of this extremely basic issue. Nor does this apparent confusion matter, given the way our banana-shaped public discourse now works.

Gerson knows the words he’s supposed to sing. Those lyrics were ginned up decades ago, inside plutocrat-funded “think tanks;” these lyrics involve familiar claims about “accounting tricks” and “illusory surpluses.” But Gerson’s presentation doesn’t seem to make sense—he doesn’t seem to understand the basic logic of that bogus old song. But then, neither did his editors at the Post, who waved his fine mess into print.

Gerson’s bungled complaint comes at the end of a year of living dysfunctionally. In today’s column, Krugman complains about clownish budget claims being made by major Republicans—clownish new claims, of a type which haven’t been made in the past. Krugman describes a gruesome intellectual dysfunction, of a type which defines a banana republic. For ourselves, though, we’ll only say this: In this past year, we’ve despaired at the endless dysfunction displayed by the liberal world as well. For ourselves, this is the year we became convinced that America’s “liberal” world is itself too dysfunctional to create a winning discourse.

We’ll discuss that dysfunction in the year to come. But let’s close the old year with this:

Gerson offers a bungled version of a demagogic set of claims. Over the past several decades, these demagogic claims about Social Security have become part of the background music of American discourse. By now, these demagogic claims are so familiar that the Gersons don’t even have to get the overall song right. They merely have to include those lyrics about “accounting tricks” and “illusory surpluses.” People have heard these lyrics for so many years that no one notices when a man at the top of our discourse can’t even sing them correctly.

Gerson’s bungle helps us see the broken state of our cultural moment. The clownishness of that highlighted paragraph is part of the “banana republic” to which Krugman refers in today’s year-ender. But Gerson’s bungle has been enabled, for decades, by a feckless, inept, uninvolved “liberal” world. A public discourse can’t get this dumb without help from all major sectors.

That “banana republic” belongs to us too! That said, Krugman is wrong on only one score. Banana republic, here we come? That gruesome republic is already here—has been here, making us fools, for a very long time.