The Magical Thinking of Liberals
posted at 12:23 pm on August 13, 2011 by Karl
Via James Taranto, a rather startling admission buried in a piece by TNR’s Jonathan Chait. After listening to NPR’s Diane Rehm, reading news analysis from The New York Times and a column by the NYT’s Tom Friedman, Chait concludes that “our political discourse is consumed by magical thinking” about the Great Recession and the debt bomb:
Conservative pundits, while usually slanting their account in highly partisan and often misleading terms, do a fairly good job of grasping and explaining the fact that the two parties fundamentally disagree on the causes of and solutions to the economic crisis and the long-term deficit. In this sense, a Rush Limbaugh listener may well be better informed about the causes of the impasse than listener of NPR or other mainstream organs. The former will have in his mind a wildly slanted version of the basic political landscape, while the latter’s head will be filled with magical thinking.
That is progress for Chait, who wrote on April 14, 2010:
[I]f you believe the mainstream media is an organ of the progressive movement and the functional liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, then yes, liberals do have epistemic closure. I think that,whatever you think about the liberal bias charge, the mainstream media is far more receptive to news and viewpoints that challenge liberalism than conservative outlets are to news and viewpoints that challenge conservatism.
Chait was demonstrably wrong then, but I salute Chait on his epiphany and hope he continues to examine the Magical Thinking of Liberals.
Given that his new piece is currently the most viewed at TNR, and he is more likely to be read by the establishment pundit class, I will suggest he could look at the tendency of his former colleagues in epistemic closure, e.g. Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, James Fallows, etc., to gush over wildly misleading charts about the debt problem that are chock full of magical thinking. He recently defended one of those charts, but in light of his current enlightenment, I appeal to his better nature. I ask him to ask himself whether charts about the debt which exclude entitlement spending, aside from the Bush-era Medicare drug benefit, are really helpful in creating the engaged discussion Chait apparently seeks. Indeed, on the Medicare drug benefit, as Chait concedes Bush probably endorsed it to outflank the Dems, he might also concede that the bill passed was estimated to cost $407 billion, while the plan pushed by House Democratic leadership was estimated to cost $800 billion to $900 billion over 10 years.
Similarly, Chait is forced to recognize our current income tax rates (a bane of the left when it comes to the debt) were passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by Pres. Obama. Chait nevertheless argues that Obama would not have cut tax rates, but once established, they would have required “immense political capital” to overturn. Perhaps the newly-enlightened Chait will recognize the flaws in this argument.
First, the Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire in 2010. The Democrats could have done nothing and they would have disappeared. No “overturning” was necessary.
Second, if Chait were to universally recognize his own argument, he would be forced to consider all pre-Bush entitlement policy, e.g., Medicare and Social Security, as part of the debt problem historically, not to mention going forward, as their mythical trust funds are depleted. Indeed, if we judged presidents by their preferred policies, rather than actual policy dictated by the political constraints of the moment, it would be fair to argue that Ronald Reagan would have reduced non-defense discretionary spending greatly, and that entitlement spending might have taken a far different trajectory under both Reagan and G.W. Bush (who would have greatly reformed Social Security).
Third, one need not stretch Chait’s own concession about the Medicare drug benefit (including the overwhelming margin of its passage) very much to suggest some collective responsibility for that part of the debt.
At a minimum, Chait ought to consider that charts which fail to recognize non-Bush entitlement spending as a main source of our medium-term debt bomb and which allocate all responsibility for our current tax rates to the Bush administration do not even recognize the debate about such things. Chait was at least willing to engage Megan McArdle on them (however flawed his engagement was). Many of Chait’s colleagues at establishment organs remain stuck in the magical thinking on the left he now seems to reject. Perhaps it will not take him 16 months to inform his readership of this.