Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Intellectual Vanguard of the Teabaggers

Is this a car salesman? An insurance salesman? A candidate for public office? Close enough. It is the spectacularly fitting visual accompanying the write-up of the Fresh Air podcast featuring blowhard David Walker, who churns out the following:

There are three key points with regard to spending. Spending more money than you make on a reoccurring basis is irresponsible. Irresponsibly spending someone else's money is unethical; and if you're a fiduciary, a fiduciary breach. And irresponsibly spending someone else's money when they're too young to vote and not born yet is immoral. And all three of those things are going on right now, and they threaten America's future.
Setting aside the substance momentarily, as a feat of rhetoric, every syllable of this is embarrassingly hackneyed: there are "key points with regard to spending" -- not important, salient, significant, noteworthy, relevant, pertinent (etc.) truths, realities, things (etc.) to consider, ponder, recognize, understand (etc.) about spending; not things I'd like to say about spending; not warnings I have come to deliver about spending; not things I've concluded, found, discovered (etc.) about spending; not important findings, truths, realities, facts (etc.) about spending; no, there are "key points with regard to spending."

Naturally there are three of these "key points," three being the expected number of items on any list drawn by ardent fans of cliches. Interestingly, there are actually four items, but the pull of the three-item cliche is so strong that the speaker willingly breaks the parallelism by tacking a secret third between the natural second and natural third.

The "three" items are carried along in refrains, with each refrain terminating on what's meant to be a dramatic rebuke: "irresponsible," "unethical," "fiduciary breach," "immoral." Then, just at the moment when we might hope to hear we're innocent of one or two of the rebukes, any hope of surprise vanishes (they're all going on now) and we are told the unspeakably grave consequences (they threaten America's future).

If you threw up in your mouth a little while reading that, there may be hope for you.

On substance, Walker's presentation was, if anything, more shallow. Gamely trying to draw something more than platitudes out of Walker, Terry Gross quoted James K. Galbraith:
To focus obsessively on cutting future deficits is a path that will obstruct, not assist, what we need to do to re-establish strong growth and high employment.

Private borrowers can and do default. They go bankrupt. With government, the risk of non-payment does not exist. Government spends money simply by typing numbers into a computer. Unlike private debtors, government does not need to have cash on hand. Public debt isn't a burden on future generations. It does not have to be repaid, and in practice, it will never be repaid.
Whatever the merits of Galbraith's statement, it's undeniably the kind of thinking that splashes a bleeding seal in the waters where sharks like David Walker swim. And yet this was Walker's direct reply -- maybe you can spot the part that's more thoughtful than nuh-uh!, because I can't:
I think he's out of touch with reality. You can't spend more money than you make, indefinitely, without having severe adverse consequences. Under our present path, within 12 years, without an increase in interest rates, the single largest line item in the federal budget is interest on the federal debt. If there is a two percent increase in prevailing interest costs, which many people believe is optimistic, its going to be worse than that. The only thing the federal government will be able to do in 2035 - which is only 25 years from now - based on historical tax levels, is to pay interest on the federal debt.
Walker has tossed in a lot of numbers and things that sound like definite metrics here -- 12 years, single largest item, two percent, 2035, 25 -- but he hasn't addressed what Galbraith has wrong: he hasn't said why the US federal government can't continue doing what it has done continuously since the late 1960s, and over many episodes before that, which is to function as though Galbraith is exactly right. This was Walker's opportunity to explain -- to a large audience of people not generally inclined to see things his way -- that, contrary to Galbraith and everyone else in the Keynesian school of economics, debts held by government should be understood on the same terms as debts held by private parties. Instead, Walker repeated, using slightly more specific terms, that public debts "threaten America's future." Neat.

Judging from this presentation from one of the titled experts of the debt histrionics movement, it's little wonder that non-experts come across as baffled, dishonest, or both when asked for details. The shark rots from the head.

Digby was similarly irked by Walker's presentation, enough to inspire this fine rebuttal and this one.


Ian McCullough said...

Walker is committing what I have come to think of as the "Half Hayek" (TM all rights reserved). In which Hayek's conclusion (that governmental social planning is wrong) is divorced from it's basis (that the numbers and predictions of social science are all poppycock). The Half Hayek practitioner bleats about "too much government" and then uses social science to prove their point. Sorry Walker and other Half Hayekians - if you use social science predictions you have to accept that maybe they can be used for social engineering as well.

larryniven said...

Sort of reminiscent of Colbert a night or two ago: "polls reveal that 44%, 28%, and two thirds of all American households." It's impossible to complete an unfinished thought.

Serah B. said...

88% of information is fabricated and then utilized so that 98% of at least 105.5 million American households have no idea what is being said by the other 2%.