Sunday, May 19, 2013

Peggy Noonan goes Krugman (Hendrik Hertzberg)

I rarely pay much attention to Peggy Noonan, the one-time White House speech-writer who is now a Wall Street Journal columnist and talk-show pundit.  In my (possibly fallible) opinion, her stuff is almost always fatuous blather, occasionally enlivened by a clever turn of phrase.  But some people apparently take her seriously, and I have occasionally been startled to hear otherwise intelligent individuals tell me that they find her columns plausible and illuminating.  Noonan clearly has a flair for churning out relentlessly partisan hack propaganda while making it sound moderate, reasonable, and even thoughtful.  That's a real skill.

If one takes the trouble to look carefully at the substance of her arguments (when they have substance, rather than consisting entirely of atmospherics), they often turn out to be factually inaccurate, logically fallacious, or both.  And it's not uncommon to see her make assertions that turn reality completely upside-down.  Rather than waste time wondering what is going through her mind when she does this or how she thinks she can get away with it—is she really that clueless, or is she being cleverly hypocritical?—we should begin with the fact that she generally does get away with it and consider what Noonan's inversions of reality might tell us, symptomatically, about current political discourse.  Perhaps they represent coded, or half-conscious, recognitions of politically inconvenient realities from the very heart of right-wing conventional wisdom?  If so, maybe they're significant signs of something?

That seems to be a hypothesis that Hendrik Hertzberg is toying with, at least, in his recent evisceration of a column by Noonan that went on and on with her standard anti-Obama rant and then, in the process, slipped in this startling admission:  "It’s not a debt and deficit crisis, it’s a jobs crisis."

Why is that a startling admission, why is Noonan's framing of this admission so misleading and hypocritical, and why might it nevertheless be significant?  Let Hertzberg explain:
[....] The column tries to disguise itself as yet another right-wing attack on the Journals default punching bag, President Obama. Under a pugnacious headline and subhead—
Just when America needs a boost, we’re stuck with Dr. Doom in the White House
—Noonan takes some mock-mournful jabs at the President (he’s “aloof,” his efforts are “cosmetic,” he “speaks constantly, endlessly, but always seems to be withholding his true thoughts and plans”), at what she calls “the mood of his governance” (“full of warnings, threats, cliffs and ceilings, full of words like suffering and punishment and sacrifice”), and at “the President’s people” (their “whole approach” is “stoke and scare—stoke resentment and scare the vulnerable”).

[JW: Coming from a Republican propagandist, this complaint about constant "warnings, threats, cliffs and ceilings" and a general atmosphere of scare-mongering and gratuitously manufactured crises is pretty rich.]

But her heresies are too big for such fig leaves, and they begin with her startling opening line:
It’s not a debt and deficit crisis, it’s a jobs crisis.
Say what? The biggest argument in Washington is about which is more urgent, the unemployment problem or the deficit and debt problem. Democrats say it’s unemployment and therefore advocate stimulus, which causes an increase in the deficit (though not necessarily in the long-term debt). Republicans say it’s the deficit/debt and therefore advocate austerity, which causes an increase in unemployment. (To be fair, Republicans are willing to swallow a bit of stimulus as long as it takes the dubious form of lowering taxes on the rich.)

Noonan, despite a quick “to be sure” aside in which she avers that things like deficits, regulations, and “the federal tax code” are “part of” the problem, is clear about which side she’s on:
But it’s a jobs crisis that’s the central thing. And you see it everywhere you look.
For Noonan, “everywhere you look” is a hotel she stayed at in Pittsburgh, which was so understaffed there was no bellhop to walk her up to her room in case a criminal was lurking. Nevertheless, about “the central thing,” she, like Paul Krugman, is right (i.e., left).

She’s also right about what Obama should have done about it:
He should have seen unemployment entering a crisis stage four years ago, and he did not. At that time I was certain he’d go for public-works projects, which could give training to the young and jobs to the experienced underemployed, would create jobs in the private sector and, in the end, yield up something needed—a bridge, a strengthened power grid. He instead gave his first term to health care.
Here’s where I started getting dizzy. Noonan is describing exactly what Obama did do. He did see a jobs crisis four years ago. As a major part of his eight-hundred-billion-dollar stimulus package (which he pursued in addition to, not instead of, health care), he did go for public-works projects, specifically including bridges and a strengthened power grid. The only opposition to all that bridge-building and grid-strengthening came from Noonan’s party. In the House, zero Republicans voted yes. In the Senate, three did. Afterwards, Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter jumped from the G.O.P. before he was pushed. (Repackaging himself as a Democrat did not keep him from landing with a splat.) Olympia Snowe, citing hyperpartisanship and legislative dysfunction, retired. Her Maine colleague Susan Collins, the last RINO in the Senate zoo, may or may not seek a fourth term.

[JW: And let us not forget—as Noonan and many other pundits seem to have completely forgotten—that in September 2011, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama once again proposed a serious and substantial jobs plan that included major spending on public works.  Predictably, this proposal ran into a stone wall of opposition from Congressional Republicans and went nowhere.]

From Peggy’s peroration:
Mr. Obama is making the same mistake he made four years ago. We are in a jobs crisis and he does not see it…. But the real question is whether the American people will be able to have jobs. Once they do, so much will follow—deficits go down a little as fewer need help, revenues go up as more pay taxes. Confidence and trust in the future will grow. People will be happier.
Noonan is with Obama, or Obama is with Noonan, on the substance of jobs vs. deficits. “We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt,” the President said last week in an interview on ABC, adding: “My goal is how do we grow the economy, put people back to work, and if we do that we’re going to be bringing in more revenue.” I guess she has to say it’s all Obama’s fault. It’s the Wall Street Journal. It’s Chinatown.
OK, Noonan is being deceptive and hypocritical. But as de Rouchefoucauld pointed out long ago, hypocrisy is often the homage that vice pays to virtue. So we should take what we can get and go on from there.

The policy recommendation that Noonan is offering here—and has intermittently alluded to over the past few years—is basically on-target, even if Noonan feels compelled to bury it in such a dishonest and misleading rhetorical package: "It’s not a debt and deficit crisis, it’s a jobs crisis." We should be taking serious measures to help pull the economy out of the Great Recession and to bring down unemployment—rather than following the contractionary economic policies pushed by the Republicans in the US and their counterparts in Europe, which have sabotaged the economic recovery and continue to do so. And one major element in a constructive program would be to employ (or re-employ) construction workers, engineers, and lots of other people to start rebuilding, repairing, updating, and otherwise strengthening our national infrastructure. Republicans, you heard it from Peggy Noonan!

—Jeff Weintraub