A Fish Called Ryan

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-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan
In the classic comedy film "A Fish Called Wanda," a character named Otto (played perfectly by Kevin Kline) ostentatiously reads books and makes a very big deal about his knowledge of philosophy. He is, however, actually a dimwit, and quite defensive about it. At one point, Otto says to Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis): "Don't call me stupid."

Wanda: "Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?"

Otto: "Apes don't read philosophy."

Wanda: "Yes, they do, Otto. They just don't understand it."

Paul Ryan is no ape. He seems to understand (at least at a basic level) the limited amount of philosophy that he has actually read, and he has spent his political career -- which is to say, his entire adult life -- trying to figure out how to implement policies consistent with his understanding of what he has read (or, at least, the parts that he likes. Ayn Rand's views on abortion? Not interested.)

In my new Verdict column, published today, I take some pains to point out that Ryan is not a stupid man. Making the obvious comparisons to Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle, I note that Ryan is clearly their intellectual superior, that he "is someone who knows the language of Washington policy discussions, and that he does not embarrass himself by trying to discuss actual policy questions."  [Note that my wording in the Verdict column was imprecise.  I should have written "that he does not embarrass himself when he tries to discuss actual policy questions," which would have made it clearer that he does try to do so -- in fact, that is his stock in trade -- and that doing so does not end up making him look like a fool.]

Why damn Ryan so completely with such faint praise? Because the bar has been moved so low in Beltway discussions about Republican politicians that it is necessary to distinguish between the genuine fools and merely those middle-weights with unsupportable pretensions to intellectualism. In today's column, therefore, I compare the Ryan Bubble with Newt Gingrich's run as the DC commentariat's "ideas guy." Long-time readers of Dorf on Law know that I have long been fascinated by the Cult of Newt. (See my most recent post on that subject here, the first paragraph of which contains links to previous posts.)

Neither Ryan nor Gingrich is a fool. In part, they set themselves up for ridicule simply by puffing themselves up to be something that they are not. They are like merely competent college quarterbacks who think they are Joe Montana and Tom Brady.

The problem, however, goes beyond that simple matter of not living up to the hype. Not only do they not have any new, innovative, or deep ideas, but the ideas of others that they do espouse are awful -- based on nothing more than encrusted ideology (government bad, business good), guaranteed to make the economic situation worse, and directly aimed at harming everyone but the most comfortable people in our society.

The bulk of my Verdict column is not, however, devoted to explaining what is wrong with Ryan's policies. (That was the subject of my previous Verdict column.) Today's column said, in essence: "Given that Ryan doesn't deserve his reputation as an honest, idea-driven, brilliant policy analyst on a quest to reduce deficits, where did that mythology come from?" My basic answer came in two parts. The first was that the deficit-obsessed triangulators in the Democratic Party (including, of course, President Obama) wanted to have a Republican budget-cutter to use in their own quest to satisfy the demands of fiscal orthodoxy.

My second hypothesis was that there is an asymmetry in how "smart guys" are anointed in the Beltway press, an asymmetry that mirrors the key difference in the two major parties: Republicans have a unified ideology, and Democrats do not. The punditocracy, however, conflates the recitation of ideological cant as "having ideas," whereas genuinely centrist pragmatism of the sort practiced by all Democrats and liberals in this country cannot easily be grouped into something that sounds grand and pretentious. (As I noted earlier this year, when Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are "the left" in one's universe -- to say nothing of Elizabeth Warren or, for that matter, academics like me -- then you are in a very right-oriented universe.)

If this hypothesis is true, that would mean that the press treats even the smartest Democrats as non-intellectuals simply because they are not ideologues. It apparently sounds smart to invoke grand-sounding philosophical absolutes, even if the speaker is merely reciting a partial version of the Cliff's Notes, whereas the Washington press corps is unimpressed when someone says, "There are no absolutes. Here are some ways to think about the real world of incomplete knowledge and uncertain outcomes."

Yet another possibility, which I did not mention in my column today, is that reporters and pundits are simply working from the presumption that Democrats are smarter than Republicans -- a presumption that makes it remarkable when Republicans seem to be smart, and that makes it necessary to be "balanced" by celebrating even middling minds like Ryan's.

Where would such a background presumption come from? I recall the annual skit show when I was a first-year graduate student in economics, where a group of guys performed cover versions of Beatles songs (with painfully bad econ-oriented lyrics substituted for the real thing). When they introduced themselves, the guy portraying George Harrison said, "I'm the intellectual, so I guess that makes me a Marxist." In a room filled with very smart, centrist people who had aggressively marginalized the only actual post-Marxist in their ranks, this line still drew a big laugh. Why? Because of the deeply-held presumption that the real intellectuals have always been revolutionaries, whereas the people who support the status quo are lesser lights currying favor with the rich and powerful.

Without a real Left in the U.S., the very centrist Democrats (who only do the bidding of "the 1%" two-thirds of the time) are then thought to be the anti-establishment intellectuals. The Republicans' constant attacks on colleges and universities reinforce this notion, with even natural scientists now strongly supporting Democrats over Republicans (quite understandably, given the Republicans' increasing rejection of science).

This is all also a bit paradoxical, because the label "smart guy" is thought to be good when applied to Republicans like Ryan and Gingrich, but equivalent to "out-of-touch intellectual" when applied to Democrats. The Democrats end up running away from whatever intellectual claims they might have, while even the biggest poseurs among Republicans get a free pass.

One final point. In my column, I wrote that "Mr. Ryan is turning out to be an unprincipled politician who is willing to shade his positions opportunistically." I considered providing links to articles demonstrating the all-too-obvious truth of that statement, but I decided that there were just too many examples from which to choose. (His speech at the Republican convention last night, of course, removed all doubt.) After the column was put to bed, however, Paul Krugman's blog linked to a column by a pundit who had initially embraced Ryan but who had just written "Dear Paul: Why I'm breaking up with Paul Ryan" in Slate.

As a statement of disillusionment with Ryan -- admitting that the author had believed the hype, but that he now sees that Ryan is a fraud -- the column was a bill of particulars beyond compare. In only two weeks, it had become clear to the author that the received wisdom on Ryan was nonsense.

Beyond the satisfaction of seeing a believer in "fiscal responsibility" who would like to see "a movement of young people to control runaway spending" lose faith in his idol, however, I found the column deeply depressing. This guy is, after all, part of the DC commentariat that the Democrats have been trying so assiduously to win over. And why is he disillusioned with Ryan? Because he "didn’t like your vote against the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan." Uh oh. There is much more, but his peroration really captures what is wrong with the conversation in Washington: "I still see promise in you, Paul. I love it when you challenge the rhetoric of public 'investment.' I admire your fixation on the Grim Reaper of debt. I’m sympathetic to your argument that student loans and insurance subsidies distort markets. I swoon when you crusade against the generational greed and fiscally hollow promises of the entitlement state."

Could there be a clearer example of the kind of arrogant ignorance that counts for fiscal insight among DC pundits? Scare quotes around the word investment, when it is engaged in by the government? Why notice things like education, highways, the internet, or basic scientific research when you just know that government is bad? Student loans distort markets? Wow. I did not know that anyone believed that there are no positive externalities to higher education. Apparently, the market for higher education would be efficient if only so many people did not have access to it. And let us not even get into the whole "generational greed" thing again.

My point is that this is one of the guys who contributes to the "serious conversation" in Washington. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people like him, working from a set of presumptions that simply reject the idea that anything the government does can be good. They make The New York Times's Thomas Friedman look deep. And this is who Obama and the Democrats are trying to please (or at least mollify). Trying to please those who can never be pleased is a sure path to disaster. It is a fool's errand, and Obama must break out of this trap.