DAYS OF THE COIN: Kevin Drum on two forms of default!


Are we liberals making our case: Yesterday, Kevin Drum offered these thoughts about one part of our own award-winning post.

Our post concerned the impending debt limit and that highly unusual platinum coin. Once again, we asked the question we have asked all week:

Are we liberals successfully making our case concerning that approaching debt limit? Do we know how to talk pork to the people?

In his post, Drum explains the difference between two types of “default.” We think that was very valuable—but in some ways, we’re even less clear on this whole matter than we were before.

Remember our question: We’re asking how well the liberal world is explaining this matter to unaligned voters. (We know how to convince ourselves.) Are we helping people see why this impending budget crisis is more important than the three hundred other crises we’ve muddled through in recent years?

In our view, Paul Krugman made a cursory effort at explaining this point in yesterday’s column. We noted the highlighted passage:
KRUGMAN (1/11/13): [J]ust consider the vileness of that G.O.P. threat. If we were to hit the debt ceiling, the U.S. government would end up defaulting on many of its obligations. This would have disastrous effects on financial markets, the economy, and our standing in the world. Yet Republicans are threatening to trigger this disaster unless they get spending cuts that they weren’t able to enact through normal, Constitutional means.
Our question: If the federal government temporarily “defaulted on many of its obligations,” in what way would this “have disastrous effects on financial markets, the economy, and our standing in the world?” Krugman made little attempt to explain this point. In our view, neither did Drum.

Here’s our point: Voters have seen the federal government go through a succession of “budget crises” in recent years. Many can remember the "government shutdowns" of the Clinton years.

Liberals should be explaining why this impending “budget crisis” is so severe that it calls for a measure as strange as the minting of a $1 trillion coin. Are we rising to that challenge?

Krugman says the platinum coin proposal “may sound like a joke.” Absent the explanation we're seeking, this idea really will sound like a joke to wide swaths of the public.

So in what ways would a temporary Krugman-style default “have disastrous effects?” We’ve gone through so-called government shutdowns before. Why would this be disastrous?

For ourselves, we thought we understood part of the answer—until we read Krugman and Drum. On cable, citizens are constantly told that the federal government's credit rating was downgraded the last time we fooled with the debt limit.

We would have assumed that this is one of the disastrous effects we're toying with this time around. But Krugman didn’t mention this possibility. Neither did Drum.

How many liberals can explain why this budget crisis might have “disastrous effects?” We think Krugman rushed past that point on his way to a bit of name-calling. We don’t think Drum did much better, although he helpfully explained the difference between two kinds of "default."

(Oops. The type of default we're actually facing is the less serious kind.)

Do we liberals know how to talk pork to the people? Do we know how to explain our positions, except to ourselves? Have we ever established forums to which the public pays attention? Do we have public figures the public respects and trusts?

We were struck by some of the comments to Kevin’s post. One commenter made a perfectly sensible suggestion:
COMMENTER: No Drama Obama won't mint the coin—that kind of solution just isn't in his DNA. And since House Republicans are behaving like spoiled children, it's in his interest to appear as sober and adult as possible. This would include using the full force of the bully pulpit to call Republicans on their behavior and maybe making a case that the debt ceiling law itself is unconstitutional in that it forces the executive branch to disobey at least one law. He's counting on public and Wall Street pressure to force Republicans to back down without shooting the hostage.
Who knows? Obama may be counting on “Wall Street pressure” to make the GOP back down. But in the meantime, what are we in the liberal world doing to heighten the public’s awareness and understanding? Do we simply wait for Wall Street elites to bail us out in matters like these? Or do we know how to talk pork to the people?

Meanwhile, regarding that bully pulpit:

Obama hasn’t had much luck in the past using that famous pulpit to explain various topics. That said, we shouldn’t expect a sitting president to explain every issue all by himself. A robust political movement would have a wide array of trusted figures and organizations spreading its messages, outlooks and explanations.

Does the liberal world have any such entities? Do we conduct any forums to which the public pays attention? Does the liberal world have any figures whom the wider public respects and trusts?

A second commenter tried to stress the seriousness of this impending crisis. In our view, this is the very task on which the invaluable Krugman failed to deliver the goods:
COMMENTER: I don't think people realize how serious it is if we default. The whole world economy is riding on the U.S. as a safe asset—it is NOT an option to default just to punish the Republicans, because there is a serious risk (I'm not kidding) that there wouldn't be much of a country left in 2016.
“There wouldn't be much of a country left?” Why not? Could you answer that question for an unaligned voter? Have you seen liberals try?

Finally, we noted another sensible comment. It produced a response from a valuable commenter.

In this exchange, the first commenter also wants Obama to use the bully pulpit. In response, the second commenter mentioned a famous name:
COMMENTER: Obama needs to go on prime time from the Oval Office, speak directly to the camera and spell out his plan for spending if the debt limit is reached. Assuming he would prioritize the debt, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the military (as everyone seems to think), there will be precious little left of that $200 billion per month. He needs to make it clear that this isn't just shutting down the parks and monuments—it's stopping all federal public works projects, ending federal aid to states, (possibly including education), shuttering most of the ATF, DEA, FBI and Bureau of Prisons, shutting down the federal courts, etc., and furloughing every single non-essential employee of those agencies. Tens of thousands of people out of work and public safety threatened in innumerable ways—the public will finally understand the real impact of default and crucify the GOP if they allow it to happen.

RESPONSE: Agreed. This is one of those times one longs for Bill Clinton's ability to frame and then explain this stuff to the public.
The first commenter pictures Obama making a worthwhile presentation. That said, why aren’t trusted liberals making that presentation now?

Krugman didn’t explain that point—he hurried on to some name-calling and to a proposal which “sounds like a joke.” Meanwhile, we were struck by the perfectly sensible way that second commenter called for Bill Clinton.


Is Clinton the only person in our tribe who knows how to talk to the public? Sometimes it seems to be so.

Why is that? Below, we’ll offer a guess. In the meantime, the GOP is threatening to do a very reckless thing. Is anybody on our team explaining this to the public? Does it even occur to us liberals to talk to the people at all?

Why do people trust Clinton: At the Democratic convention, Clinton was praised for his clear explanations of an array of topics.

In fact, he was explaining some of the simplest matters in the world. Why is Clinton the only one who knows how to talk to the people?

We’ll guess it involves his ability to respect, even admire, those with whom he may not agree. In his book, My Life, Clinton describes his admiration for Arkansas Pentecostals.

They may not vote my way, Clinton said. But they’re admirable people:
CLINTON (page 251-252): Far more important than what I saw the Pentecostals do were the friendships I made among them. I liked and admired them because they lived their faith. They are strictly anti-abortion, but unlike some others, they will make sure that any unwanted baby, regardless of race or disability, has a loving home. They disagreed with me on abortion and gay rights, but they still followed Christ’s admonition to love their neighbors.


Knowing the Pentecostals has enriched and changed my life. Whatever your religious views, or lack of them, seeing people live their faith in a spirit of love toward all people, not just your own, is beautiful to behold. If you ever get a chance to go to a Pentecostal service, don’t miss it.
Clinton knows how to “like and admire” people who may not see things his way. The rest of us are eager to tell such people that they’re racists and authoritarians—that they belong to the neo-Confederacy, that their limbic brains don’t work right.

We think that tends to be wrong on the merits. Politically, how well does it work?

At times, Clinton seems to be the only Dem who knows how to talk to the people. For more on that fascinating part of his book, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/18/04.


  1. What does Bob think a "liberal" is? I aspire to be a liberal according to the first definition in my dictionary: someone who is open-minded and progressive. At least for me, being open-minded means not subscribing to rigid ideology, and not belonging to a party or other group which enforces conformity. People like this are not going to be big on "party-lines" such as there are in extremism at both ends of the spectrum, so we should not expect liberals to be good at producing unified messages. Also, enforcing uniformity of opinion is easier if you have a lot of money; there is usually a uniform message on Fox News not because all wingnuts are alike, but because Murdoch pays them to put out a particular message.

    Expecting agreement on the debt-ceiling issue is pretty crazy in itself, since there are several alternatives and nobody really knows what could happen if any of them is followed. Even if some single person really understood all the ramifications, anyone else would have tuned out by the time he got done with the explanation. What actually happens is that individual pundits decide they like one alternative and can tell you the advantages of that choice, but not so much its disadvantages or aspects of other possible courses. There is no way that a given politician, let alone the general public, can reach a rational opinion about this matter; it is just too complex. We have to hope that all the largely random choices add up to something that makes sense, or that the system is robust enough to survive a bad choice.

  2. Paul Krugman has gone coin nutty. Today he is ripping into Jon Stewart about the platinum coin, because Stewart evidently thinks the idea is funny. Duh.


    1. Stewart was utterly wrong about the issues involved and showed total ignorance of economics ...

      ... but hey, at least he knows how to talk to people, right?

  3. There are many knowledgeable, articulate liberals who could reach a broad public, but they lack venues for reaching that broad public (since the internet just leads people who use it to where they're already inclined to go, and most people don't use the internet that much for analyzing the news) . Why is that?

    Why do journalists and pundits who shape the public discourse ignore the many resources on the internet and in academia, which provide (or could provide, if anyone contacted them --and every college, university, and think-tank provides contact information) knowledgeable, articulate discussions?

    Why do dem politicians have a tin ear, even when they truly want to reach that broad public? Why do so few dem politicians really want to reach that public?

    It doesn't pay, the politicians, journalists, or pundits. Period.