Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Gullibility on the Left vs. Dishonesty on the Right, Part 1 of 2

by Neil H. Buchanan

Buried within a (very necessary and welcome) recent response to Republicans' attempt to overstate consumer price increases and to blame them all on President Biden, one of MSNBC's hosts (Joy Reid) offered this: "Republicans are seizing on inflation and blaming Joe Biden for it personally, which is a fun twist after Republicans and Trump maxed out the national credit card on tax cuts for the super-rich and a partial wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for."
When I emailed that link to myself, I added this memo: "Another dippy lefty media type just grabbing onto something random that sounds useful in the moment."  I will explore this further below, but my overall point in this column is a larger one.  Attacking the media for supposedly having a leftist bias is a favorite pastime on the American right, as it has been for decades.  Complaining about media sloppiness and laziness, as well calling them out for being easy marks for Republicans who want to "work the refs," is where people like me on the left come in.  Even though both left and right are complaining about the same group of people, there is nothing symmetric about the situation.
Here, however, the issue is not the bad decisions made by mainstream media mavens who insist that they are (or try to be) scrupulously unbiased.  My focus today is on the utter silliness that can sometimes come from the left side of the TV/print and pundit universe.  And the problem is not only in opinion pieces, because we often see the mindless acceptance of whatever seems useful at the moment even in pieces that purport to be pure reporting from the left.

This is bad for the country and the world, because people who genuinely want to do good in opposing the Trump/Republican neo-fascist (or at least fascist-y) movement should not make unforced errors.  Even when the errors are sins of gullibility -- listening to a crank economist or a charlatan populist, because the reporters are attracted to the anti-Trump bottom line -- it can make matters worse.
To put it simply -- so simply as to expose the trivially obvious error being made -- my point is this: The enemy of thine enemy is not necessarily thy friend.  The details matter.

I should clarify here that when I use the terms left and right, I am myself lazily relying on a shorthand that is at best skewed.  There is no Left in the United States, and this has been true for a long time.  Republicans have stopped bothering to pretend that they are not red-baiting everything the Democrats do, so they now unthinkingly label everything to their left (including the very right-wing presidencies of Ronald Reagan and both Georges Bush) as socialist and communist.  Their persistence in using and degrading those words does not make their claims true.

Having spent the most recent semester in the UK, with a short side trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, I was reminded that the US "left" is essentially center-right or at most centrist in every country to which we normally compare ourselves.  There is simply nothing on the wish list of The Squad or any liberal/progressive group with any influence that would count as "left" anywhere else.  Even setting aside what should be truly nonpartisan matters like opposing voter suppression and gerrymandering (and having nonpartisans count and certify votes), raising the minimum wage to $15, imposing higher income or wealth taxes on the ultrarich, providing affordable health care, family leave and child care policies, and so on are not wacky socialist ideas.  They are popular here (and uncontroversial elsewhere), and they are easy to justify even on technocratic, neoliberal grounds.

Moreover, within the non-Trump world (all of which we are tempted to describe as the left, because it is not The Right), there are plenty of people who can be truly awful.  The infamous Larry Summers, the economist who was fired from the Harvard presidency and who continues to be given a frequent platform by the supposedly liberal Washington Post, does occasionally say useful things (such as his recent argument that the Congressional Budget Office underestimated the revenue that can be gained from increasing IRS funding), but mostly he is a glib anti-liberal troll.
For example, he offered a completely made-up argument against Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax proposal in 2019.  He later admitted that his own revenue estimate was not truly a revenue estimate.  More recently, Summers has decided to play with the culture warriors by attacking the Federal Reserve for ... wokeness.  Yes, your eyes do not deceive you.  Summers is an inflation hawk, which is at the very most semi-defensible on its own terms, but he decided to deride the Fed for being "socially concerned" (horrors!) and indeed wrote that "we have a generation of central bankers who are defining themselves by their wokeness."  And yes, that is a stupid thing for him to have said.

So the issue here is not that there are people who sometimes say left-leaning things who then end up saying crazy right-wing things, and then flip back and forth again.  Summers cannot seriously be on anyone's list of Left people, even by US standards.  When he says politically damaging things, he does so deliberately.

And that brings me back to the quote from Joy Reid's show in the first paragraph of this column, which is a different matter entirely.  To be fair to Reid, reflexive anti-deficit nonsense is endemic to the left.  Ever since the dot-com bubble juiced tax revenues just as Bill Clinton was capitulating to Newt Gingrich's anti-deficit rhetoric, which created an annual budget surplus for a couple of years, unthinking Democrats have not been able to resist jumping into any conversation about the federal budget by saying, "Oh yeah, well it was Democrats who most recently balanced the budget, not Republicans!"

Reid's comment, by the way, was accompanied by a screen shot of a headline from a Post op-ed by deficit hawk Allan Sloan: "Trump’s most enduring legacy could be the historic rise in the national debt."  As it happens, I had bookmarked that piece when it ran in January of this year as a particularly prime example of baseless deficit fearmongering.  Why was Reid giving that argument oxygen?

Well, on one level, she is not exactly wrong.  "Republicans and Trump maxed out the national credit card on tax cuts for the super-rich," she said.  While it is an egregious rhetorical error to describe the debt situation as maxing out the national credit card, it is true that even deficit doves like me decry "bad debt."  That is, no one is saying that a country can borrow money to spend on anything it wants, and the 2017 Trump/Republican tax bill was a spectacularly regressive bill that did not trickle down on the rest of us.

So someone who makes Reid's move could defend that strategy by saying something like this: All I did was to say that increasing debt to give money to the ultrarich was bad.  What's the problem?  The problem is that now is an especially terrible time to be sending the message that deficits are bad.  Forget the nuance that there are bad reasons to run up debts, because the public (including other pundits) does not do nuance.  This is a destructive message that inadvertently feeds the Joe Manchins of the world.

What makes it worse is that Reid herself drew a connection between inflation and debt that the Republicans themselves had not made.  She could have said that it is "a fun twist" for Republicans to complain about inflation under Biden after they said nothing when inflation doubled in Trump's first two years in office.  That would have been problematic in other ways, but at least it would have been on point.  And adding in the comment about spending money on the border wall must have felt good, but the amount of money involved is utterly de minimis in the context of this "historic rise in the national debt."

Again, my point here is not about the details of fiscal policy but to say that shows like Reid's have no business going there in the first place.  If they want to argue that Republicans have no business critiquing Biden for (name your issue), then they should make that argument.  Reaching for a truly bad argument -- and especially one that directly undermines liberal/progressive policy positions -- is evidence of some combination of laziness and ignorance.
To return to the title of this column, "Gullibility on the Left vs. Dishonesty on the Right," I want to emphasize that this is nothing like the clips we can all see from Fox News and other far-right outlets simply making things up about Dr. Anthony Fauci or deliberately distorting economic reality.  The problem on what counts as the American left is that they will sometimes grab onto something that sounds useful in the moment and run with it, even though they do not understand it and make matters worse by using it.  I will expand on this further in Part 2 of this column, to be published on Thursday of this week [next Monday].