Monday, December 13, 2021

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

by Neil H. Buchanan

To begin with a topic that is not directly related to this column, I should not fail to note the recent announcement that the debt ceiling issue has apparently been resolved until after the 2022 midterm elections. There might or might not be more to say about the specifics of that deal when the vote is finally taken, but this appears to be good news -- not only for the country and the world but for Professor Dorf and me, as we are now freed to write about other matters.

In any event, this column is the concluding half of a two-part essay that I began last Tuesday. There, I argued that there is a distinct problem on the left-leaning side of American media coverage, but it is different from the (much bigger) problem on the right. Whereas the Fox-iverse simply makes up lies about Democrats and anyone else who disagrees with them, the non-Trumpy media that can fairly be identified as "liberal" in the American sense -- mostly obviously MSNBC -- makes mistakes based on sloppiness or possibly laziness that end up undermining their own political druthers.

The example that I described in detail last Tuesday came from Joy Reid's MSNBC show, in which she lapsed into the all-too-tempting mode of calling Republicans the real deficit villains for passing their regressive 2017 tax law. That law was truly bad, but Reid's framing of the issue had the familiar effect of reinforcing the idea that deficits and debt are per se bad, an idea that can only hurt progressive causes.
Cheap, short-term rhetorical points are definitely not worth the cost of feeding public misconceptions about economic policy.  It would be worse, I suppose, if people like Reid knew what they were doing but honestly disagreed with me about the cost-benefit analysis, thinking that it is fine to feed anti-debt/deficit hysteria.  There is no evidence of that, however, as most Democratic pols and hangers-on, along with most left-ish media types, seem simply not to have bothered to think about or question the right-friendly premises of debt/deficit scaremongering.

That, however, is hardly the only example of the kind of unthinking error that I have in mind, where a person with a liberal/progressive agenda thinks, "Oh, here's something that makes conservatives look bad, so I'll use it.  What could go wrong?"  Here, I want to describe a much weirder example of that strategic error, which I again chalk up to sloppy/lazy journalism.  As we shall see, it is a jaw-dropper.

To be clear, and to emphasize a point I made last Tuesday, I do not present this contrast between right-wing media's gross dishonesty and left-leaning media's occasional silliness as any kind of equivalence. The two problems at issue are probably so different as to be incommensurable, but if they could be quantitatively compared, there is no question that what the left-ish media is doing is less bad than what is happening on the anti-vaxxing, insurrection-minimizing, climate-change-denying right.  Much less.

But the larger fact is that the non-right media does repeatedly commit many needless errors. For example, the non-viewpoint-based news coverage from sources like CNN and The New York Times is currently in a feeding frenzy about inflation, coverage that is both highly distorted and bad for President Biden and the Democrats. They also treat as fact highly contentious economic assertions, spread fear about Social Security, reinforce Republican talking points about the US's military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and on and on.

That is not my complaint here, however.  That is the old problem of avowedly neutral news sources lapsing into bad habits and skewed framing, mostly because they are so "worked" by the Republicans that they have come to believe that being neutral requires treating conservative presumptions as unexceptional and even normal.

What I related above from Reid's MSNBC show is clearly not the same thing.  She makes no claims to being neutral or somehow above politics.  She knows what she is doing -- criticizing Donald Trump and the Republican Party - and she does it rather well.  Similarly, I cannot imagine anyone at The New Republic (aka TNR) being bothered if someone were to call them "partisan" or "liberal."  And as it happens, that magazine is the source of my second example.
There has always been a problem on the earnest left with people who are willing to entertain "populist" arguments that are truly dangerous. During the Occupy protests a decade ago, for example, one could see dreadlocked White kids carrying signs reading: "End the Fed." There is a reason, after all, that Rand Paul's odd fusion of hyperlibertarianism and Trumpism made him an unexpectedly popular speaker on college campuses during the 2016 campaign.  The syllogism is simple: The Fed represents Wall Street; Wall Street is the bad guys; so we're all better off if we get rid of the Fed. Q.E.D. 
Two months ago, one of TNR's writers wrote a piece that represented this kind of abandonment of critical thinking that we see from well-meaning lefties who simply do not know enough to make a skeptical judgment.  There, the writer was excited about convincing people on the left to support the Platinum Coin gambit in response to Republicans' return to hostage-taking via the debt ceiling.  Frequent readers of Dorf on Law and Verdict know that Professor Dorf and I, mostly writing separately on this topic, both find that strategy to be wrong on its own terms as well as terrible policy and politics.

Even so, the Platinum Coin idea is the kind of thing that appeals to a certain clever-kid personality type.  On the right, that kind of adolescent arrested development most often shows up in fanboy devotion to Ayn Rand's ridiculous novels and celebrations of extreme selfishness.  On the left, the closest thing to a similar group is the people who have over the past decade or so begun to congregate under the banner of something called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  Both groups are drawn to supposedly simple-yet-brilliant Theories of Everything, and neither group's theories withstand scrutiny.

I have already critiqued MMT at some length.  Although I am likely to do so again soon, I need not do so here, as it is only a sideshow.  I will, however, note the odd fact that even the bane of the MMT types, Paul Krugman, has actually adopted some MMT-motivated thinking as he has defends the Big Coin ploy.  That is, Krugman does not merely agree with MMT'ers about minting the trillion-dollar coin.  People can, after all, reach the same destination on a particular policy issue via very different paths.  No, Krugman openly relied upon the MMT claim that money is valuable as money because people can use it to pay taxes.
Again, I see no reason to digress here to explain why that is both wrong and unnecessary.  What I am saying is that Krugman seems to have opportunistically grabbed onto a theory that he otherwise actively derides, because doing so was useful to him in the moment.  Of all people, he would seem the least likely to make that mistake.  I guess if the most decorated economist of this or any generation can do it, a reporter at a minor (but good) lefty magazine like TNR might be forgiven, especially when she (unlike Krugman) so clearly did not realize what she was endorsing.

But that TNR piece was remarkable not merely because the writer was so exited about a theory that she misunderstood.  It moved into memorable and jaw-dropping when it included excerpts from an interview with an MMT enthusiast, presenting the following as if it were deep thought:
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has rejected calls to mint the coin, calling it an unserious “gimmick.” Around the same time, she said she would rather be discussing how to deal with the climate crisis instead of dealing with the debt ceiling. In fact, the two are intimately connected. “Austerity is killing us,” [an MMT believer] told me over the phone, “and this scarce-money fearmongering is getting in the way of getting to the real conversation about what our actual capacity constraints are and how we should be addressing them.” Asked about Yellen’s comments, he was blunt: “I don’t feel like being lectured on seriousness by the same people watching the heat death of the planet.”
Yes, that was certainly blunt, but ... Say what?  Not that it is worth spending more than a moment treating this as if it were a serious argument, but that insult is simply nonsensical on its own terms. Yellen is in fact trying to help pass Biden's agenda, which includes historic climate mitigation provisions.  Meanwhile, that heckler is doing what the rest of us are doing: watching the heat death of the planet.  His version of climate activism is getting the coin minted?  Without Biden's substantive agenda being passed, that will do nothing for the environment.
Yellen is the one who is not serious?  The illogical ad hominem move -- Q: "Yellen says X about Y.  What is your response?"  A: "Oh yeah?  Well, Yellen is not serious about Z." -- is (or ought to be) embarrassing to include in a news story, especially when it is quoted uncritically.
This is a reminder that the lefty activist/media space encompasses people who can be -- again, in a way that is clearly different from the Trumpist/Tea Party right, but not in every way -- enthusiastically gullible when someone selling snake oil comes along.  At least, that is, so long as the snake oil is packaged as an attack on "the elite," which most definitely includes a former Fed chair and current Treasury Secretary like Janet Yellen.
I hope that it is obvious that I am not saying that Yellen is above criticism.  Far from it.  The point is that it matters how those of us on the much-further-left-than-Bidenites part of the political spectrum attack the Democratic establishment's excessive caution on policy and infuriating political timidity.  This, however, is simply not such a case.  Yellen's rejection of the Big Coin idea was not only correct on the merits but was absolutely essential as political strategy.  Anyone, including a President Bernie Sanders, would have reason to say in advance that Congress must increase the debt ceiling and that there are no easy outs.

The broader point, then, is that reactive thinking -- My enemies are against this, so I'm for it, or This guy seems to think like me on the big stuff, so I'll buy whatever else he's selling -- is both naive and can lead to unforced errors.  And if we are to continue to hold onto any hope of avoiding the death of the American constitutional system, we most assuredly cannot afford unforced errors.