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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, January 09, 2013

 
Chait takes on the centrist debt fetishists

by David Atkins

I admit to having a love/hate relationship with Jonathan Chait. His points of view can be infuriatingly obtuse concern trolling one week, and then brilliantly clarion the next. Here he gets it right:


Gerald Seib has a column in today’s Wall Street Journal about how sad and disappointing it is that the two parties cannot come together and solve problems. (“What's lacking is an attitude among the capital's politicians that, while acknowledging they have different views, they must agree that they need to solve problems despite differences.”) That is the same point of a recent column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, an editorial in The Economist, and vast swaths of commentary by the most respectable members of the mainstream media. It all runs together, day after day, an endless repetitive drone of elite sentiment.

The drone of right-thinking sentiment has certain distinct qualities. One is that it is, in almost the purest sense of the term, a meme — a way of looking at the world that individuals pass one to one another without a great deal of conscious thought, even though thoughtfulness, or the appearance of thoughtfulness, is one of the qualities the opinion imbues upon its proponents. They don’t engage with alternative analyses. They seem to have no idea that their own ideas even could be contested. They are merely performing the opinion journalism equivalent of wishing passersby a Merry Christmas.

All the analytic work lies instead in the unstated background assumptions — the most important of which is the premise that reducing the long-term budget deficit is the most urgent problem in American politics. Indeed, if you look closely at these columns, they uses phrases like “solve problems” and “reduce the deficit” almost interchangeably.

I consider the long-term deficit a problem worth solving, though I would argue that mass unemployment and, especially, climate change are more urgent problems. I would like to know the case to the contrary, but if there is an argument for elevating the deficit above those priorities, I am not aware of it. Overt argument is not the preferred style of respectable centrist pundits. It is too rude.

And so, when figures like Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are invited on to programs like Meet the Press, they are treated as disinterested wise men rather than political advocates. The host, David Gregory, asks them to hand down rulings on politicians. He does not question their own ideas. (Notably, the Sunday talk shows, a haven of right-thinking, deficit-obsessed centrism, have given over little attention to climate change in the last four years and have not quoted a single climate scientist during the entire span.)
After noting that the Democratic Party has essentially become the deficit-cutting centrist Party while Republicans show little real concern for it, Chait concludes:


Why, then, don’t they say this? Part of the answer is careerist. The elite centrist drone is emitted by people who deem non-partisanship an essential part of their job description. If they concede that one party is advocating their agenda, then you could flip the sentiment around and correctly conclude that they are advocating the agenda of a party; therefore, they would be partisan and have thus forfeited the entire basis of their claim to respectability.

I don’t believe that the centrist drones are so consciously cynical. This is where the dynamic of the meme usefully replaces overt thought. That the two parties must meet in the center and agree on a deficit plan is something that respectable people repeat to each other so often it becomes obviously, uncontroversially true. There is just so much partisanship these days. Whatever happened to the center? The two parties should come together and reduce the deficit. Merry Christmas.
Indeed. Greg Sargent has more:

Self-styled “centrist” columnists have a perennial problem on their hands. They have built reputations by calling for middle-of-the-road solutions to our problems. Yet they can’t acknowledge that Obama and Democrats are the ones who are offering solutions that are genuinely centrist, because that would constitute “taking sides.” This would imperil their “brand,” which rests heavily on transcending partisanship, and on their ongoing insistence that the future depends on following a middle ground between the parties.

These commentators have found several routes around this problem. One is to continually call for a third party without admitting that the solutions they themselves envision any third party advancing have a good deal in common with what Dems are offering. Another is to simply pretend that Obama and Dems have not offered the solutions they have, in fact, offered.

Insofar as deficit-obsessed centrism is a calculated political stance by Democrats to curry Beltway and voter favor, it's a failure. The Very Serious People they're trying to please refuse to call out the wildly irresponsible Republican Party, either because they themselves are in on the safety net shredding con or because maintaining a non-partisan facade is an intrinsic part of their oh-so-serious credibility.

And insofar as it is based on real policy concerns, that too is a fool's errand. Even if one ignores the obvious reality that austerity during a recession and weak recovery is a very bad idea that will actually increase the deficit (particularly when the cost of borrowing is cheap), any Grand Bargain that does manage to reduce the long-term deficit would be undone by the next Republican President who decides that with the "crisis" averted, the rich should be eligible to keep more of their money with another tax break.

The best thing Democrats can do is to ignore all the Sunday shows and all the Very Serious People. The poobahs will never be pleased because their entire shtick depends on calling out both sides as unreasonable. Far better to simply determine the best policy approach and stand tall in defense of it--especially when it widely outperforms the opposite side in the polls.


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