The basic shortcoming of Creeping Kleinism!


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.

Here’s why:

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.

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.
A large amount of deficit reduction has been achieved, Ezra says. But all these three of these policies have been brain-dead, dumb.

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.

The result is "15 Ways to Rethink the Federal Budget," a 110-page guidebook on how to reduce the deficit.
Greenstone wanted policies which would reduce the deficit and produce “broader positive effects.” For example, the proposals might slow global warming.

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.


  1. Fine, incisive post.


    1. Yes, a refreshing reminder of why I've always checked this site first.

      It's simple - until we can "sell" the progressive case convincingly, the other side will win. They have more money and more microphones, and they know all about distraction and misdirection.

      All we can do is try.

  2. So no blogger should even think about discussing any issue until such a time when there aren't large swaths of the population opposed to it.

    Brilliant, Bob.

    1. I'm sorry, but that's not what he said. What he said was that characterizing these ideas as "smart" and "obvious" was unwise, given the fact that many people will have a knee-jerk reaction that is quite the opposite. And, when much of the knee-jerk reaction is based on the knee-jerkers' feeling that they are being treated condescendingly, "smart" and "obvious" become strong negatives.

    2. OK, I get it. It's not "smart" or "obvious" to bring up global warming until people like David in Cal (see below) are convinced through polite discussion, careful logic and reason.

      Yeah, that's going to happen.

  3. Gluons are bosons. But then, so are photons, W0, Z+ and Z-. I wonder why Bob specifically mentioned gluons, but not these other elementary bosons? I'm kind of partial to photons, myself.

    1. You've won the game: the quickest person to make an ass of themselves trying to look smart.

    2. That's pathetic, til. Photons are essential to climate change.

  4. Bob incorrectly writes, "large percentages of the public believe that human-caused global warming is some sort of hoax."

    What he should have written is, "large percentages of the public (and large numbers of scientists) believe that human-caused CATASTROPHIC global warming is UNPROVED."

    Furthermore, the real debate isn't over global warming, but over the supposed remedies. If the catastrophic GW models are correct, then things like Kyoto or Cap and Trade are too minor to save us. Why spend trillions of dollars on remedies that won't work to solve a problem that may not exist?

    1. Oh, I don't know, David. Perhaps because, even if you continue to deny global warming and want to pretend that there are "large numbers of scientists" who agree with you, it might still be a good idea to begin turning to renewable sources of energy that also happen to be cleaner instead of burning up large quantities of finite fossil fuels at an alarming rate?

    2. I agree. The threat of GW is being used to promote activity that's beneficial in and of itself. There are many good reasons not to burn so much fossil fuel. E.g., fossil fuel is very useful stuff to create plastics, etc.

      The trouble is, what happens if our government takes the doomsayers seriously? In order to actually reduce the level of atmospheric CO2, we'd have to take radical, crazy action. E.g., immediately build thousands of (possibly unsafe) nuclear plants all over the world. Solar and wind are fine, but nuclear is the only current source of large amounts of electrical energy.

      We might even have to use our nuclear weapons to destroy countries like China and India, which are producing rapidly increasing amounts of CO2.

      However, it's OK if we merely pay lip service to a belief in catastrophic GW and use that belief only to motivate good actions.

    3. How interesting that you characterize the overwhelming consensus of world's leading scientists as "doomsayers."

      And I'm sorry, but someone else will have to explain to me how it is even possible not to be condescending to an idiot who conjures up the notion of nuking India and China to save the world from global warming.

    4. David, the correct statement should be 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is man-caused, 2% aren't saying, and 1% disagree.

      The entire issue is that the energy industry wants to continue selling their products at a huge markup, and ANYTHING that might interfere with that is bad, bad, bad.

      That is why the energy industry only measures in dollars per kilowatt, or total cost over the life of an automobile, and NEVER in total cost to society in pollution, illness, sick days, and premature deaths, because society and the taxpayers pick up these costs.

      The green energy sources DO factor in the "intangibles", and when they do, they are far cheaper sources of energy.

      And, in case you didn't know, hydrogen bombs incur human cost on the survivors as well as the victims. The living will envy the dead.

    5. 97% of climate scientists believe global warming is man-caused, 2% aren't saying, and 1% disagree.

      Really, gravymeister? Do you have a cite to prove this? I'm looking for a real proof of this assertion -- actual data, not just somebody else claiming that this is the case.

    6. David in CA: Part of the ongoing contempt that comes your way in these comments isn't so much that you hold ludicrous positions, but that you never attempt to challenge them for yourself. Ten seconds on the intertubes using the google finds this:'_views_on_climate_change

      Sure, it's wikipedia, but the neat thing is that this article, like many, cites primary sources that you can check. Well, not you, but someone interested in basing his opinions on facts.

    7. Deadrat, I see no survey at that link which supports gravymeister's precise claim, although some are similar. The poll by Anderegg, Prall, Harold, and Schneider comes close to supporting the claim, but it's not a survey of climate scientists, but rather of "climate researchers most actively publishing in the field." The more recent poll by Farnsworth and Lichter shows "84% agreed that "human-induced greenhouse warming" is now occurring."

      Note also the ambiguity in gravymeister's assertion. He says GW is "man caused." Does that mean it's entirely man-caused? Does that mean that man's impact is causing catastrophic GW? Does that mean that expensive remedies such as carbon tax should be implemented? You would get different answers depending on which exact question was asked.

    8. Again, Mr. Somerby, note the obstinance and the incredibly transparent games those people you call "the other tribe" cling to in order to defy FACTS.

      Do you truly think people like David in Cal can be reasoned with, and until they are convinced, that we avoid discussing climate change lest we offend their tender sensibilities?

      These people are treated with condescension because that is more than they deserve. Every second spent trying to convince the willfully ignorant can never be recovered.

      But I do recall the words of the late, great George Carlin: Don't worry about the planet as we continue to pump billions of tons of carbon dioxide when people like David pretend it has no consequence. The planet will be here, and we have done enough to it, it will shake us off like a dog shakes off a bad case of fleas.

      Instead, worry about us when that happens.

  5. Why waste another moment on Klein's silly, idealistic fantasies?

    You can read McArdle's savvy, non-mandarin essay on why USA health care costs cannot be reduced by going here:

    While Klein is tossing around his swell ideas, McArdle is hard at work defending the highest health care costs in the world. Can anyone imagine why she might try to marginalize other bloggers?

  6. Bob, since you seem to have such insight into the process, let us know when the Republicans give Ezra Klein permission to discuss the opinions of experts on how to address our problems. Thanks much.

  7. I think Bob and David should go into conclave together to pick a pope.

    1. They would fight tooth and nail over the candidacy of Al Gore.

  8. Mark my words, carbon tax may be one boring way to save the environment but there must be 100 smart wonks like Ezra who can get creative with their imaginations and figure out 100 ways to present something like a carbon tax with a catchy new frame that might end up igniting some controversy and a few new fans. Stay positive, Bob!

  9. Oh, lighten up. Klein promised smart answers, not politically doable answers. Some of us are still interested in what grownups think, regardless of whether it's politically realistic.

  10. Somerby needs some self-reflection. He should apply some of his ideas regarding effective communication to his own work. As valuable as this site sometimes is, the overall effect is just tiresome. Half the time he just comes off as an angry old man railing at the clouds.

    Lakoff does a much better job indicating how the Liberal Media is ineffective and how they could go about pulling some percentage of the Other Tribe over into alignment with progressives. Moreover, Lakoff does it with a tone of dispassionate analysis of facts and theories. With Somerby, there's always this feeling that it's personal in some way. It's as if the important thing is not that the Liberal Media is ineffective, but that they've gotten under his skin in some way.

    And he plays favorites. Well, he has one positve favorite, Krugman, and a whole bunch of negative favorites, mostly hosts and guests on the One True Liberal Channel. It's apparently OK for Krugman to repeatedly state facts and positions that will be ignored or opposed by the Other Tribe, but not for Ezra Klein.

    The clearest example of a favorite target is Rachel Maddow. While many of Somerby's criticisms of Maddow are valid, is it tenable to hold that the overall effect of her show is negative? Regardless, is his continual harping on it worthwhile? It just comes off as the airing of a personal peeve.

    Also, why is he so stingy with his praise? Chris Hayes's show on weekend mornings has what are arguably the best political discussions on TV. The panel Hayes assembles typically includes one, and sometimes two, participants from the business or conservative communities. How about some well-deserved props?

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