Part 4—We’re still not allowed to tell: Paul Krugman’s new column is an important rebuttal to some very bad spin that has been going around.
In one way, his column is also frustrating. Here’s how the column ends:
KRUGMAN (11/4/11): But why does this growing concentration of income and wealth in a few hands matter? Part of the answer is that rising inequality has meant a nation in which most families don’t share fully in economic growth...Krugman’s column is a very important discussion of the true shape of our inequality. Sad fact: Among those at the top of the upper-class press corps, this very important column could only have come from him.
The larger answer, however, is that extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy. Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger?
Some pundits are still trying to dismiss concerns about rising inequality as somehow foolish. But the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake.
But there’s a large point of frustration here too. At several points in this column, Krugman tells us that “some pundits”—“the obfuscators,” “the usual suspects”—are throwing gorilla dust around, trying to keep us from understanding the nature of this societal problem. In these, his opening paragraphs, he pushes this theme very hard:
KRUGMAN: Inequality is back in the news, largely thanks to Occupy Wall Street, but with an assist from the Congressional Budget Office. And you know what that means: It’s time to roll out the obfuscators!That is a very strong indictment, of motives and execution. But drat! Krugman never names the names of the think tanks and pundits (plural) who are “trying to bring back the blur” by “obscuring the stark reality.”
Anyone who has tracked this issue over time knows what I mean. Whenever growing income disparities threaten to come into focus, a reliable set of defenders tries to bring back the blur. Think tanks put out reports claiming that inequality isn’t really rising, or that it doesn’t matter. Pundits try to put a more benign face on the phenomenon, claiming that it’s not really the wealthy few versus the rest, it’s the educated versus the less educated.
So what you need to know is that all of these claims are basically attempts to obscure the stark reality...
To all appearances, these people are doing a very bad thing. Their names are never mentioned.
Who is Krugman talking about? Rather plainly, one of the pundits is David Brooks, who wrote this sad, self-pitying column in Tuesday morning’s Times. It’s understandable that Krugman observes a convention which keeps him from naming a fellow Timesman—understandable, though frustrating and counterproductive in the larger scheme of things. But which other “pundits” does Krugman mean? Which other pundits are "trying to put a more benign face" on this very important phenomenon?
Let us advance a nominee: Does Krugman mean Nicholas Kristof? In this recent column, Kristof executed the same peculiar sleight of hand observed in Brooks’ column; as a general matter, it’s the same sleight of hand about which Krugman complains today. Rather weirdly, Kristof seemed to say that the real inequality doesn’t involve the tyranny of that top (one-tenth of the top) one percent. The real inequality, Kristof said, involves the way low-income kids are kept from the middle class.
At the time, we noted the oddness of this framework (click here). Is Kristof one of the pundits to whom Krugman refers? We have no idea. Krugman doesn't say.
In fairness, the convention which keeps Krugman from naming names does, in fact, make a type of good sense. But it’s one of the many courtesies which make life easier for the high pseudo-journalistic class at the expense of the comprehension of the 99 percent down below.
That said, Brooks and Kristof both performed the sleight-of-hand about which Krugman complains. Does that mean they’re trying to “obfuscate,” as Krugman plainly implies? Not necessarily, no. When Kristof returns from his self-glorying excursions into the third world, he tends to work from mimeographed hand-out sheets given to him by the High Expert Class—a class to which Krugman refers indirectly. In Krugman’s lingo, think tanks—and, by extension, their alleged experts—issue reports claiming “that inequality isn’t really rising, or that it doesn’t matter.” Globe-trotting pundits may use these sheets as an easy way to frame a column—and as a way to maintain one’s good faith with the high moneyed class.
Kristof routinely writes uninformed education columns in which he lives off the kindness of experts—“experts” who are often in the pay, and in the thrall, of society’s activist billionaires. As he does, he shows his contempt for the low-income children about whom he sheds self-glorying tears. Does Krugman have Kristof in mind today? No idea! Thanks to the rule about naming the names of malefactors, we the rubes—the 99 percent—are once again kept in the dark.
Did we mention the fact that Krugman’s column is very, very important? And by the way: Did you notice that no one else said Word the First about the peculiar sleight of hand in that Kristof column? That’s because the “intellectual leaders” in our “career liberal world” just aren’t very smart.
News flash: Despite the praise we heap on ouselves, we liberals just aren’t very smart. Shakespeare knew little Latin and less Greek; we liberals note little and care about less. Just let us throw our R-bombs around and we are we able to retire happily of an evening. That’s how we’ve reached the point where Lori Montgomery could offer this political porn atop the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post. Thirty years into a war of disinformation, we’re still handed disinformative frameworks like these:
MONTGOMERY (10/30/11): Social Security adding billions to U.S. budget woesIs Montgomery acting in bad faith? We’ve never gotten that impression as we've read her work. But this nation’s discussion of Social Security operates inside a hall of mirrors created by decades of disinformation.
Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went "cash negative."
For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.
Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation's budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.
Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.
Skillful players have, with great skill, created a giant ball of confusion. On our own pathetic side, established players have been too lazy—and too unintelligent—to straighten out this confusion. Have you ever seen E. J. Dionne discuss this relentless disinformation? Name the names of the high players who spread this disinformation around? List their familiar talking-points? Explain the way these familiar points mislead average citizens?
Darlings, please! It isn’t done! Think of the blow to comity inside the high walls of Versailles!
Krugman himself is very wonky when he addresses this topic. For that reason, the explanation he offered in response to Montgomery was essentially useless (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/3/11). And in the modern career liberal world, if Krugman hasn’t straightened it out, it remains a big ball of confusion. Up there at the top of the "press corps," he is our only actual player. If the liberal world were a baseball team, he would be forced to sell the tickets, take care of the field, then go out and pitch all nine innings.
No one would be in the infield or outfield. The bullpen would be empty.
What’s wrong with those highlighted claims in Montgomery’s report? Let’s not bother with that again. Instead, let us suggest three basic points that should be folded into the liberal world’s response to this ball of confusion, should our gang of hopeless Potemkins ever try to fashion a comprehensible account of the way this program works:
The Reagan rules are in place here: In our view, liberals should always say this first when discussing Social Security: The system is working exactly the way Reagan planned it! (Along with Greenspan and Tip O’Neill.) Conservatives have been massively conned about the alleged looting of Social Security. It helps if they are instantly told that Montgomery’s “treacherous milestone,” “deterioration,” and “sucking of money” are all occurring in precisely the way their patron saint planned for the system to work. This is closely related to a second key point:
Congress has worked no subsequent scam: “The government has borrowed every cent” of that $2.6 trillion, Montgomery shrieks—probably in complete good faith. This makes it sound like “the government”—i.e., Congress—has done something very bad wrong. This notion is extremely widespread, among liberals and conservatives alike; in comment threads, liberals routinely recite alarmist right-wing talking-points about what Congress has done with the trust fund. (Montgomery used the word “borrowed;” alarmists more often use the word “spent.” Just yesterday, we heard a very smart radio host with very left politics complain about the way the Congress has spent all that money.) Of course, Congress did borrow and spend all that money—but under existing law, that’s all they’re allowed to do with that money! That is exactly the way Reagan/Greenspan/O’Neill designed the system. Despite all the alarmist mouthings you’ve heard down through all these years, no one stepped in after Reagan and pulled some sort of scam.
By the way: If Congress had somehow saved all that money, it would have had to borrow $2.6 trillion more from somebody else. We'd owe the same amount of money. And we'd have to pay it all back.
Happy families are all alike—so is all our borrowing: Congress has borrowed a lot of money from the Social Security trustees. But Congress has borrowed a lot of money from a lot of sources in the past forty years. Congress borrows from the trustees—and also from those big Chinese banks, and from an array of other investors, big small and medium-sized. You may not like the extent of the borrowing, but all that money gets paid back. There’s nothing about the borrowing from the trustees which somehow makes it unique or different from all the rest. And yet, by the rules of the disinformation campaign, the talking-point which Montgomery pimps is only applied to the money which has been borrowed from the trustees. Let’s read her carefully-scipted ball of confusion once again:
MONTGOMERY: Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.To its very minor credit, that alarmist highlighted statement is factually accurate. Congress has “borrowed every cent” of that $2.6 trillion—exactly as Reagan directed. And now that Congress has started to pay back that swag, Congress “must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow [anew]” to do so. But that is true of all the money Congress borrows, from whatever source. In order to pay back those Chinese banks, Congress has to “raise taxes, cut spending or borrow [anew].” This is the process which obtains with all the money Congress borrows. But in line with a disinformation campaign which has changed the American landscape, this point of concern is only raised in the case of the money borrowed from the trustees. People like Montgomery raise this point with regard to this borrowing, as if there’s something unique involved here. But there isn’t. That is what Congress does every day of the week as it pays back all sorts of cash.
It’s very unlikely that the liberal world will ever devise an easy-to-follow rebuttal to the disinformation campaign which rules our discussion of Social Security. Simply put, we aren’t that smart or that energetic—and our "intellectual leaders" simply aren’t that honest. By light years, Krugman is our smartest, most forthright player in the upper-end press corps. But even he labors within a convention which keeps him from naming the names of the pundits he says are scamming the game.
Do you mind if we name one pundit? Let’s name Matt Ygelsias! A few months ago, we noted his confusing attempt to explain the way Social Security works—an explanation which was praised for its clarity by Steve Benen. (To read our post, just click here.)
Yglesias has had all the advantages—grew up in Tinseltown, moved on to Harvard. But alas! After thirty years of disinformation, he couldn’t pen a clear explanation of the way Social Security works. In turn, Benen was so confused that he praised Yglesias' big ball of murk for its incredible clarity!
Our children just aren’t very smart. (Who knows? Maybe we gave them too many advantages!) At any rate, go back and review what we wrote about Yglesias' big pile of murk. In particular, note this point of conceptual misery: For unknown reasons, Yglesias used the same disinformative talking-point Montgomery employed in Sunday’s report—the one in which Congress will have to raise taxes, cut spending or borrow anew to keep this big turkey afloat.
It isn’t that this claim is false. The problem here is different—the claim is vastly deceptive in the selective way it gets applied. Yglesias was too confused to see that he had marbled a Grover Norquist talking-point into his murky explanation. Benen was so confused that he believed the resultant explanation was just stunningly clear!
This is the way your side keeps losing. This is the way your side gets beat by smarter, savvier players, even as we praise ourselves for being amazingly smart. For the record, we know Grover a tiny tad. We'll guess he just laughs at this sh*t!
For thirty years, we have been under assault. The “think tanks” in question know how to craft spin; they’re operated by skillful players. Their spin-points are very easy-to-process—and they’re grossly deceptive. Major pundits take the cheat sheets their think tanks hand out and use them to craft easy columns.
This morning, Krugman describes this process—but who the heck is he talking about? Is he talking about Kristof?
Amazing, isn’t it? Thirty years into a war we’re losing, our most important progressive journalists still aren’t allowed to tell!
Darlings! It isn't polite to name names!
It's all part of the culture of dumb.