It’s right there in today’s Post: The basic problem with Ezra Kleinism is on display in this morning’s Post.
It’s on display in Klein's page 2 column. The headline says this, and the key word is “smart:”
“Some smart alternatives to brain-dead sequestration.”
Plainly, Klein is routinely presented as part of journalism’s Smart New Breed. On The One True Liberal Channel, viewers are often fed this hook, along with the pledge that his highly intelligent segments won’t last more than two minutes.
At the Washington Post, Klein and his underbloggers post each day at his site, which is called WonkBlog. This is a familiar, self-flattering part of modern pseudo-liberalism: We present ourselves as the wonks, the nerds, the very smart people. On the TV machine thingy, Rachel Maddow executes his humblebrag with great skill.
Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with presenting material which is smart. But is today’s column by Klein really smart? On balance, we’d have to say it isn’t.
Ezra’s basic premise is simple: Deficit reduction of the past few years has been uniformly dumb:
KLEIN (3/2/13): What sequestration proves is that the U.S. government is dumb. There have been three major deficit-reduction packages in the past three years. The first passed in 2011 and set limits on discretionary spending over the next decade. Next came the tax increases in January's "fiscal cliff" deal, by which part of the tax code reverted to its state before the administration of President George W. Bush. Now we have sequestration, with automatic, across-the-board cuts.A large amount of deficit reduction has been achieved, Ezra says. But all these three of these policies have been brain-dead, dumb.
The total deficit reduction in these three policies is well over $3 trillion, which gets close to stabilizing our debt-to-gross- domestic-product ratio for the next decade (although not thereafter). What all these policies have in common is that they're brain-dead ways to reduce the deficit.
To show us what smart reduction looks like, Ezra discusses a recent project. Fifteen “experts” were asked for policy proposals which would reduce future deficits. These experts accepted this Greenstone Challenge.
As Ezra describes this smart-sounding project, a gigantic problem already looms, although he doesn’t say so:
KLEIN (continuing directly): Michael Greenstone, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Hamilton Project, anticipated that. So about six months ago, he approached 15 experts and asked them for their best policy proposals, which had to meet two conditions. First, they had to reduce the budget deficit. Second, they had to have "broader positive effects," such as helping the economy, increasing government efficiency, slowing global warming—that sort of thing. "The point is we can do good for the budget and do good for the longer-run American economy," Greenstone said.Greenstone wanted policies which would reduce the deficit and produce “broader positive effects.” For example, the proposals might slow global warming.
The result is "15 Ways to Rethink the Federal Budget," a 110-page guidebook on how to reduce the deficit.
Can you spot the problem that’s lurking there? There’s no sign that Ezra does.
What’s the problem with this contest? For whatever reason, global warming is a gigantic rally-killer within our current politics. Policies designed to reduce global warming run smack-dab into our tribal political culture, in which large percentages of the public believe that human-caused global warming is some sort of hoax.
Here at THE HOWLER, we might think it’s “smart” to find ways to slow future warming. But when politicians propose such a goal, our politics quickly breaks down.
Ezra’s readers aren’t warned about that. In his next six paragraphs, Ezra describes six of the “smart” proposals which emerged from The Greenstone Challenge; this burns roughly half his column.
You can peruse those proposals yourself. You may well regard those proposals as “smart.” But this is the way this part of Ezra's column starts:
“Perhaps the best and most obvious idea is a carbon tax.”
This may seem like the best idea to you, to me or to Ezra. But within our current tribal politics, this is one of the “best and most obvious” ways to craft a proposal which simply can’t pass. Meanwhile, we’ll ask you to notice something else about five of the six smart proposals:
According to Ezra, those five proposals, all together, would produce about $360 billion of deficit reduction. How “smart” is it to compare these ideas to the allegedly dumber policies which have produced almost ten times as much reduction?
Absent further explanation, that doesn’t strike us as especially smart. Meanwhile, here is the one proposal which does produce a large amount of reduction:
KLEIN: Diane Lim, the chief economist at the Pew Charitable Trusts, proposes converting the various deductions in the tax code to 15 percent, nonrefundable tax credits. The resulting tax code would be simpler and much more progressive. Oh, and it would raise $2.7 trillion, much of which we could use to lower marginal tax rates.Most Post readers won’t understand the term “15 percent, nonrefundable tax credits.” But the larger problem lies is a different phrase: “much more progressive.”
If Lim’s proposal were explained more fully, we might think it’s a good idea. But then, we are inclined to think that income inequality is massively out of whack in our current society.
We might think that Lim’s proposal is “smart” in that one basic sense. But within our political system, proposals for a “much more progressive” tax code will run headfirst into screaming fang-toothed opposition. Plutocrat forces will swing into action; a wide array of zombie facts will march onto the field of battle. Confusion, misdirection and intellectual chaos will soon be observed all aound.
People reading Klein’s new column may think they’re reading something that’s smart. In a limited sense, that is true.
But in a much larger sense, they are being completely shielded from the way our politics works. Anyone can generate “smart” ideas if they are allowed to imagine a world where they are their friends are king.
For better or for worse, we don’t live in that world. Meanwhile, Ezra’s column completely avoids the fundamental problem with our political culture—the real set of problems which must be addressed before we can get any “smarter.”
What is the problem that Ezra skips past? He skips past the basic building-blocks of the American discourse. According to the physicists, the elementary particles of matter include quarks, leptons, bosons and gluons.
Somewhat similarly, the building blocks of our public discourse are novels, tribalized stories and scripts, along with two basic kinds of facts—zombie and forbidden. Those building blocks shape all our discussions. They powerfully undermine many things you or we might regard as “smart.”
The "experts" at Pew don't dirty their hands, or risk their good names, discussing our broken political culture or the actual shape of our ludicrous discourse. Meanwhile, in today’s column, Ezra piddles around in a sandbox where those elementary forces and building-blocks haven’t yet been discovered.
We sometimes wonder why people read WonkBlog. To the extent that its information is accurate, it will typically lie disconnected from the actual world. Out in that unfortunate realm, tribal fright tales and zombie facts make our discourse astoundingly dumb—and the fifteen giants Greenstone challenged have never said one word about this.
The imperfect minds of our warring tribes are clogged with disinformation. Beyond that, we have very few forums through which members of our tribe can speak to members of theirs. (On The One True Channel, they’re constantly building very high walls to keep the two tribes apart.) Our economic “experts” have rarely made any attempt to address this blindingly obvious cultural problem. Neither have the nation’s “logicians,” whose offices can be found in the Philosophy buildings.
In fairness, these professors may not have time to attempt such tasks, since they’re on vacation in France.
Klein’s column may seem very smart; it certainly poses as same. In our view, it will only seem smart if Post readers are too dumb to understand the shape of our world.
How smart are the folk at the Washington Post: To read Klein’s column, just click here. For unknown reasons, that is the only version of the column we can find on-line. As of 11 this morning, it was pretty much MIA at the on-line Washington Post.
In the hard-copy Post, it topped page 2. On-line, it's missing in action. In fairness, the Post did link us to this report, a rumination on the way Obama confused Star Trek with Star Wars.
The “experts” avoid discussing the culture which persistently hands us such crap. But that culture, the culture the experts avoid, makes this “smart” column quite pointless.