Tuesday, April 5, 2011

seriousness and honesty are only conditionally virtues

I'm not going to say much about the Ryan budget, as it isn't my jam, but I want to point something out.

Ross Douthat, putting his most Very Serious hat on:
George W. Bush touched the third rail of American politics with his Social Security gambit, and lived to regret it. With their proposal to transform Medicare from an open-ended entitlement to a system that provides support for seniors’ premiums, Ryan and the Republicans are reaching out and grabbing it with both hands. In the process, they are being brutally honest with the American people, in ways that the Obama White House has repeatedly refused to be, about the scale of the deficit challenge and the scope of the reforms needed to address it.
Be prepared to hear tons like this in the coming weeks. This is a narrative that the mainstream media goes orgasmic over: talk of "toughness," "courage," "honesty," etc, in someone making a proposal that will anger a favored political constituency-- never mind that the people who Paul Ryan is getting tough on here are poor people, who are actually powerless. (The media particularly likes these getting tough measures when, as is the case for Ross Douthat and the political class writ large, they will not actually be asked to suffer at all, given their elevated economic station.)

But here's what you must remember, amid all of the inevitable talk about toughness and moxy and courage and gusto and whatever else: courage, honesty, seriousness, and assorted other pieces of vague praise are meaningless when married to bad policy. Being honest and being tough about your priorities are the opposite of virtues when those priorities are bad for the country and the majority of its people. It's the absolute worst kind of politico bullshit to act as though honesty qua honesty or toughness qua toughness matter when they are addressing a terrible policy.

I'll invite you to read Matt Yglesias or TAPPED's posts from the past day to get a good handle on the fundamental issues with Ryan's budget, as those folks are far better at writing about domestic policy than I am. What we absolutely have to insist on when discussing this budget moving forward is to point out what it represents: it is yet another attempt by conservatives and Republicans to speed even more resources towards the rich and away from the poor. Period, full stop, thanks for playing, enjoy the home game. Now, you might rightly wonder why someone would draft this immense document for achieving such a purpose, because at the behest of the conservative movement, we have done exactly that-- robbed from the middle class and poor to pay the rich-- for 30 years. Paul Ryan's budget hurts the poor in order to make things better for the rich. That's what it does. That's what it's intended to do. How could Ross Douthat support such a thing, when we have been traveling that road for decades?

I will quote Kevin Drum:
Years ago I remember a lot of moderate liberals talking about how the Bush era radicalized them. For me, it was the economic collapse of 2008 that did it. The financial industry almost literally came within a hair's breadth of destroying the world, but even so it took only a few short months for them to close ranks with Republicans and the rich to prevent anything serious being done to rein them in. Profits are back up, new regulations are barely more than window dressing, nothing was done to help underwater homeowners, bonuses are as obscene as ever, unemployment remains sky high, and the public has somehow been convinced that this was all their own fault — or perhaps the fault of big government, or big deficits, or something. But the finance industry has escaped almost entirely unscathed. It's mind boggling. If this doesn't change your view of who really runs the world, I don't know what would.
You'll note that this is merely one of the more recent and more damning examples, our total inability or refusal to discipline the financial sector being merely the razor's edge of our insane, endless push to better the wealthiest at the expense of everyone else. Decades of policy attend to the same goal. What I would ask Paul Ryan if I didn't know that he is a shameless fraud or Ross Douthat if I could reach him is, where is the limit? Is there truly no end to our efforts to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted? When does shame finally set in?

Douthat says, "Whatever you think of what the House Republicans are proposing, it’s the antithesis of politics as usual." No, Ross. It's the epitome of the politics as usual; it's an attack on those with no agency to defend themselves, celebrated for bullshit DC-insider code words like "tough" and "courageous" that mean nothing compared to the actual effects of the policy. Only someone looking down from the rarefied air of the NYT op/ed page-- financially secure, in possession of good health insurance, disconnected, unaffected by the proposed policy, and as deep in the bubble as one can go-- could call it anything else than politics as usual.

Update: To wit.


  1. I think the wider problem is the "demographic crunch," i.e. there will be too many people with too many entitlements that can't be covered by just taxing the shit out of the top 1%.

  2. There's a lot to confront there. But you'll recognize the incongruity: we just cut taxes on the richest! Amid all this talk of deficits and austerity.

  3. I really don't know what to think here.

    On the one hand, I'd like to read Douthat charitably (and maybe even Ryan, though I am less inclined in that case -- Grand New Party struck me as a really helpful direction for conservativism, and I tend to view Douthat's commentary through the lens of "one of the guys who wrote GNP") and note that the deficit is a real problem for the future of our economy (which means that it is a real problem for the future of the people who live in this economy). In that sense, concern for the deficit -- even if it means entitlement cuts -- can be real concern for the broad welfare of the citizenry.

    On the other hand, conclusions such as yours are rather inescapable when every attempt to solve the deficit problem aims to do so on the backs of those who can least afford it. I'd be a lot more inclined to view arguments in favor of entitlement cuts (can we call them that instead of reform?), or about the imminent necessity of budget-cutting as serious if they didn't come in the context of continual tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Calls for shared sacrifice are not particularly appealing when they demand the most sacrifice from those who have the least to give.

  4. Yeah. I really can't square support for extending the Bush tax cuts with attempts at long term deficit reform. I like Douthat and I enjoyed GNP, but when you celebrate being courageous and serious and honest when what you're talking about is policy that yet again hurts the poorest and cuts taxes on the richest, it's just sophistry.

  5. I find it weird to characterize this as targeting people with no means to defend themselves when actually there are very powerful entities – the Democratic Party, the progressive movement, the President of the United States, and the AARP, for example – who oppose Paul Ryan's plan.

  6. While I'd agree on the rest, I don't think honesty is a conditional virtue. As a general rule, honestly presenting a policy gives ammunition to opponents and the worse the policy the more the adversaries are boosted.

    I don't think that Ryan's budget is being honest in any absolute sense. Last I heard, the numbers haven't been evaluated by the CBO and the underlying unemployment assumptions are ludicrous. However, it is still comparatively more honest than such flim-flam as balanced budget rules, super-majority requirements for raising taxes, and any number of other approaches to wreck government spending.

    That comparative honesty opens up avenues of attack, much as the relatively straightforward social security privatization attempt did. Thus, I think honesty is a true virtue, to the extent that it is present in this budget.

  7. A couple of points: First, to call extending the Bush tax cuts, which have been in place for 10 years now, "cutting taxes" is simply disingenuous, as in not accurate or honest or particularly intelligent. It is, however, irresistible for many. The extension of current tax rates may have been good policy or bad policy, but it was not a "tax cut for the rich." It was a maintenance of the status quo in the midst of a very weak recovery--again, perhaps a mistake. But not a tax cut, by any proper understanding of English.

    Second, those who argue that the Ryan plan is going to be terrible for the poor have to offer some detailed alternative that would be good for the poor. Debt crisis, I think we can all agree, will not be good for the poor. But neither the President's Commission nor the Ryan plan have spurred the self-proclaimed advocates of the poor to offer what is truly in the interests of the poor--a path to fiscal sanity for the country.

  8. A couple of points: First, to call extending the Bush tax cuts, which have been in place for 10 years now, "cutting taxes" is simply disingenuous, as in not accurate or honest or particularly intelligent. It is, however, irresistible for many. The extension of current tax rates may have been good policy or bad policy, but it was not a "tax cut for the rich." It was a maintenance of the status quo in the midst of a very weak recovery--again, perhaps a mistake. But not a tax cut, by any proper understanding of English.


  9. "Sophistry."

    Strong. Tell me, if T1 is the time just before the Bush Tax cuts were to expire and T2 is the period after tax rates were extended, "cut" in your view, whose taxes were lower at T2 than at T1?

    Follow-up: If my tax rates are the same at T2 as at T1, were my taxes cut?

  10. If I have signed a lease which stipulates a rent of $1000/month for the first two years and $1200/month for the second two years, and on the first month of the second two years, my rent for those coming two years is reduced to $1000/month, then my rent has been cut, regardless of what it was for the first two years.

    Taxation is not exactly the same, being not bound from year-to-year in that way and instead subject to constant revision, but given that the Bush tax cuts included a stipulation that they would expire (and budget predictions were based on them), it seems close enough for the analogy to explain why, even though "extending a tax cut" is not the same thing as "legislating a new tax cut", it is still within the same class of things ("tax cuts") by at least some (if not all) "proper understanding[s] of English".

  11. Yes, between spending seven hundred billion dollars on defense each year, tens of billions more in agriculture subsidies, and a tax code that raises less revenue from corporations than pretty much any developed nation while extending supposedly temporary tax cuts for the wealthy into infinity, clearly the only way to deal with the deficit is denying medical care to poor children.

  12. We live in a new era of political entrepreneurialism whereby those who are part of the asset holding class can deploy their capital in a political marketplace and reap immediate returns. For thirty years as this market has developed its winners have funded "economists" to produce studies that prove that selling politics has no deleterious effects. We are in the process of demonstrating otherwise. I wrote this on this subject several weeks ago:


  13. For the record, I'm all for cuts in defense and in principle have no opposition to Clinton-era tax rates. I think the GOP intransigence on both issues is indefensible. But I have yet to see a detailed plan from the President or Congressional Democrats that takes the long-term fiscal picture seriously, and the Congressional D's are worse than the WH on that score.

    Note that the stingy Ryan plan still adds 6 trillion dollars to the national debt.


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