In a blog post today at his perch over at the New York Times.
Krugman’s post concerns once again finding ourselves in the baffling circumstance of having the Democratic President we voted for sounding almost indistinguishable from the Republicans, this time on the issue of the deficit and debt limit. To stave off in advance one of the most common, shopworn ripostes to any criticism of Obama from the left, I’ll readily admit Obama didn’t pretend to be an ultra-lefty on the campaign trail in 2008 on most issues. Nevertheless, he did get elected from the Democratic party — you know, the party generally opposed to most Republican ideas and values.
I’ll get to the specifics of Krugman’s critique of the economic logic of Obama’s recent arguments in a moment, but it was the following paragraph that really struck me in a more general way:
To those defending Obama on the grounds that he’s saying what he has to politically, I have two answers. First, words matter — as people who rallied around Obama in the first place because of his eloquence should know. Yes, he has to make compromises on policy grounds — but that doesn’t mean he has to adopt the right’s rhetoric and arguments. The effect of his intellectual capitulation is that we now have only one side in the national argument. (emphasis mine)
That’s exactly right, and it crystallizes something I’d not previously been quite able to put into words in nearly such a coherent and easily-understandable form: the notion that, while of course politics is the art of the possible (and virtually always the art of compromise as well), a well-struck political compromise is something one does AFTER one has fought as hard as one can to try to get 100% of one’s own goals met. You go in working to get as much of your agenda as possible; compromise is the real-time quid-pro-quo at the end, where something of value is given up by both parties if both parties are required for progress to be made. It’s not – or at least it should not be – the case that what gets labeled a “compromise” in reality is a situation where one party gets most of what they want, and the other party actually helps them argue their case along the way. There is indeed a word for such a scenario, but it’s not compromise, it’s capitulation.
Actually, I can’t say I’m confident any longer that the reason for the repeated occurrence of Obama seemingly endless willingness to meet the GOP far more than halfway on issues that strike me as touching on pretty core Democratic principles is a result of poor negotiating skills and a predilection for capitulation, or whether in some (or all) of those cases it would be nearer to the truth to say that Obama actually agrees with the GOP arguments being advanced. Obviously, however, if the outcome is the same, then it hardly matters which of those things is true.
Obama defenders would again argue here that perhaps Obama is neither a poor negotiator, nor prone to capitulation borne of fear or ineptness. Nor does Obama actually agree with the GOP on their insane austerity measures. Instead, I’ve heard Obama supporters suggest, he knows better but is simply going along with the GOP talking points and demands because he doesn’t have the votes to get what we all – including Obama – would prefer. In that case, I agree heartily with Krugman’s observation:
…since Obama keeps talking nonsense about economics, at what point do we stop giving him credit for actually knowing better? Maybe at some point we have to accept that he believes what he’s saying.
In the current example, as Dr. Krugman notes, President Obama appears to have begun to settle on a “grand bargain” with the Republicans on the national deficit and the debt ceiling which will include something on the order of 85% tax cuts and only slightly over 13% revenue increases. Dr. Krugman highlighted Obama flat-out asserting in a radio address on Tuesday devoted to the topic, that:
Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.
Those two sentences have more falsehoods and poor reasoning in them than anything I’ve seen since George W. Bush left office — and they’re on perhaps the most important issue of Obama’s Presidency. Or, perhaps I should say, they’re on the issue which is most important in tangible terms to the greatest number of Americans during Obama’s Presidency; it might be a mistake to conclude from Obama’s own words on the subject that he considers this the most important issue of his Presidency.
First, the government-budgets-are-the-same-as-family-budgets meme is a dangerous canard. Government does NOT have the same constraints upon its finances that the average family does; its ability to juggle is much greater than all but the very wealthiest families. The government-family false equivalence was dreamed up by newly-minted deficit hawks who enthusiastically cheered (and voted for) every unfunded spending program of the Bush years, as a clever way to relate the incredibly complex federal budget to something the average person can understand. I’m all for simplifying needlessly-technical language and for making important but possibly complicated or opaque issues comprehensible to ordinary people, but not when it comes at the expense of an accurate comparison. And that goes double when the false equivalency is intentionally propagated because it undeservedly predisposes some people to favor the arguments of the people doing the propagating.
Next is the issue that Krugman has taken to calling “the confidence fairy.” If you’ve been following the economic arguments over the past six months or so, you’ve probably heard it, even if you don’t read Krugman regularly. How would you have heard it? From the mouths of the GOP. They don’t call it “the confidence fairy,” of course, but they’re the ones who’ve been front and center (and were the first) to push this meme: the notion that despite sitting on unprecedented, mile-high stacks of reserve cash, businesses are not hiring and banks are not lending because they are not confident in the economy…because of the deficit. An adjunct or sometimes alternate form of this argument is that the lack of confidence is due to the speculation that Obama – despite keeping taxes at 50-year historic lows – might soon hit the rich and or businesses with huge tax increases.
Some of my friends on the left are fond of calling certain forms of speculation about the future of various political actions which are taken (or not taken) “magical thinking.” The idea of magical thinking is that it’s essentially pure speculation – and likely unfounded, to boot – at least in the opinion of the person doing the scoffing. Yet rarely has a better example of magical thinking been seen than the GOP argument – for that is what it has been, almost exclusively (with the exception of virtually all the beltway media, as well, sadly), a GOP argument – that if we’ll only implement draconian spending cuts (almost exclusively to social programs, natch) during this fragile (some would say stalling) recovery, with unemployment still above 9%, we’d see an explosion of business investment and hiring and bank lending, which would more than offset/compensate for the reduction in spending. This, Republicans have been claiming for months, is the only way to fix the economy, loosen the floodgates of private capital into business investment, and thereby grease the skids of the greater economic engine most people are a part of in some way.
This argument sounds familiar, because – like I said – Republicans have been sticking to that talking point for months, despite the fact there’s simply no evidence that it’s true. The question is: why is Obama using it? I can’t answer that question, and apparently, neither can Krugman (he offers a self-described “unprofessional speculation” that “maybe it’s personal. Maybe the president just doesn’t like the kind of people who tell him counterintuitive things, who say that the government is not like a family…”).
In a best-case scenario (the one frequently referenced by Obama apologists), Obama is Zen chess-master, recognizing when he cannot win, and working in ways which are inscrutable to most men towards the twin goals of getting the best deal he can in the current situation while using leverage gained from seeming to agree with Republicans as a way to leverage future wins in other areas. But when he’s giving the GOP 85 percent of what they want, and echoing their soundbites to boot in the process of doing so, it begins to feel like not such a great “best case” scenario after all. And the options get less pleasant from there: either Obama actually agrees with this GOP nonsense, or he’s just getting played, either of which would be truly a shame. But it’s a shame that reflexive Obama-apologists had better start wrapping their minds around, tout-de-suite, because a great number of the people in this country need real economic solutions, like, say, another round of stimulus or a proactive jobs program.
In sharp contrast to that, those same people need a professional, reflexive Obama cheering-section like they need a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Maybe Robert Gibbs had it wrong all those months ago when he lashed out at people who were criticizing Obama from his left, calling them “the professional left.” Maybe the only real “professional” lefties in the debate are the same hooked-up party apparatchiks and Democratic machine people who’ve always been around…and the people who’ve bought their shtick.