Now I Remember Why I Never Read the Daily Beast: LLoyd Grove/”Elites” (sic) edition
Here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to get my head around an email inbox of more than 1700 items, and procrastination takes me to this gem by Lloyd Grove.
There, according to the teaser, we will learn that
Even the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of the country’s brightest lights, isn’t Obama country anymore.
And what, exactly is the evidence that, Obama is suffering from “the waning support of the intelligentsia?”
This: Harvard cheerleader of empire Niall Ferguson doesn’t like Obama, and nor does real estate gazillionaire and sometime magazine mogul Mort Zuckerman. There’s someone Grove identifies as a “Silicon Valley guru” who is actually Applied Materials chief and (former Intel exec) Michael Splinter, and Huffington Post founder (and woo-provider) Arianna Huffington.
And? You ask.
Oh — and Grove quotes one other luminary, Barbara Streisand, who described Ferguson’s presentation as “breathtaking” and “wonderful.”
In other words, what you have here is a bit o’ feckless conventional-wisdom mongering. This isn’t some new trend. None of those he cites are making points different from what they have been arguing for some time. There is no change here; these are figures with well-known positions restating them. Intelligentsia or no, this isn’t an example of a “waning” of support, this is a repackaged statement of pre-existing opposition.
Not to mention, there is the stupidity of what is being said: I know Grove gets to transcribe at will, but it is depressing to read a report about an “Ideas Festival” that does not put any of the self-styled ideas to the test.
For example. Groves uses Ferguson as his major voice. Ferguson, of course is a well known historian, perhaps best known as a controversialist both in the form and the content of his historical writing.*
But to the point of this post, Ferguson was an early informal source for John McCain’s campaign, an early supporter of the Iraq fiasco (a stance he has tried to cloak with mouthings to the effect he never would have stood with Bush if he’d known that the affair would be so badly run. To which I reply that if he did not understand the fecklessness with which that administration approached war, he wasn’t paying attention. But I digress).
And he is someone who has for some time argued that deficits are a greater problem than short term stimulus, all the while making what appear to me, whose opinion is not worth much, and to others, who do know better, the elementary mistake of seeking to contract demand in the middle of a recession.*
The point of all this in the context of Grove’s attempt at a trend piece, is that while what Ferguson said at Aspen was poorly argued, and marked by a willful refusal to engage actual data, it is in no way a signal that the intelligentsia has given up on Obama. Ferguson has, certainly — but he had a long time ago.
And so it goes with the rest of the luminaries. Mort Zuckerman has been saying the same stuff about Obama for the better part of the year. He, at least, is historically pro-Obama, but what he said at Aspen does not represent some kind of new departure for him. (I disagree with Zuckerman on his analysis of health care in the link above, as do most of those, including the CBO who’ve actually run the numbers, and I think he drastically underestimates the ability of any US administration to get stuff through Congress, but I can’t say I dissent from his desire to spend more stimulus money more quickly. But I would say that he might want to reserve some of his rage for a GOP that has made good on its promise to but party before country in its desire to make sure that the economy remains broken long enough for them to steal back into power.
Again — irrelevant bile there; but sufficient for this screed to note that Zuckerman is not some newly regretful supporter turning more in sorrow than in anger from his President.
Next there’s Splinter, cast by Grove as complaining that it’s Obama’s fault that the US tax code isn’t supportive enough of business. No less than that socialist rag the Wall St. Journal calls the bullshit there: in an op-ed by two Cato Institute writers, we find that the US corporate tax code is the product of several decades of bad design, with choices made under Bush that exacerbate its inefficiency. Again: Splinter isn’t so much a convert from Obama worship as he is one more figure seeking redress for a particular problem in his own industry. Nothing wrong with that — and I would strongly favor a corporate tax system that was simpler, flatter, and more universally applied.** But once more, in a “trend” piece, where is the evidence of an actual change in opinion over time?
(The way Grove wrote the piece, it’s not absolutely clear that Splinter himself blames Obama for the tax issue itself, as opposed to some broader dissatisfaction with economic results over the last year or so. But Grove presents Splinter’s views as if he did say that. So either Splinter was making an argument that ignores the actual history of his problem, or Grove is playing a particularly slimy bit of sleight of hand here. Either way, we’re still looking for this alleged waning of support, as distinct from disagreement or complaint.)
And last, there’s Arianna Huffington. Again, I don’t think she’s wrong in saying that Obama’s administration has dropped the ball on jobs and unemployment. But did Grove just discover this view?
Enough. I’ve done my usual, letting off a howitzer at a gnat of crappy reporting.
But if you’ll forgive one last bit of bile…this kind of work is acid, eating away at public discourse; it’s a parody of actual journalism, and its easy, lazy, pig-ignorant reliance on the argument from authority makes real discussion of real issues increasingly difficult. Niall Ferguson says Obama’s wrong — and so he is, and so this one intellectual (sort of) demonstrates that all thinking folk are getting ready to abandon ship. That this is a blatant misrepresentation of the implications of what Groves actually documents should not be allowed to get in the way of a tale that fits the pre-existing conclusion…
…from which I conclude that friends don’t let friends bother with The Daily Beast. (Or perhaps better: Trust that rag? “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”)
*That is, in cartoon version: fresh water economists and useful idiots hold that public spending cannot produce lasting economic growth because for every federal dollar spent, one private one won’t be. There’s much more to the argument, of course, having to do with expectations of future taxes to be levied to pay off present spending, but this is a cartoon, remember. Salt water economists and much experience of the real world says, no: when you spend at a time of reduced demand and available capacity within the economy — factories that aren’t being used, people who aren’t working — the stimulative effect of public money spent exceeds the long term cost of repaying the sums borrowed for the purpose. Ferguson very publicly had this argument with Paul Krugman, who is, unlike Ferguson, an actual economist. Krugman won, both in the judgment of those competent to make such appraisals, and by the imperfect measure of the market’s judgment of the appropriate price for US government obligations
All this to the point: Ferguson has been arguing for years what he restates at the Aspen Institute: high deficits are the engine of imperial decline.** We therefore should be spending less. He also says that unemployment insurance is a bad idea, as it encourages sloth. He has, it seems to me a typical and callow fear among British Tories of an age to remember Maggie Thatcher, but not much before: that somehow Michael Foote will rise again and eke 270 electoral votes sometime soon. To avoid the risk of a social welfare state that no one has proposed, he would rather the unemployed learn the consequences of their feckless refusal to work at jobs that do not exist than to pump needed cash into the economy and on the way preserve just a bit of a shot for millions at a better future.
**He is a proponent of “counterfactual” history — as in one of his best known works, The Pity of War, in which he argues that the world would have been better off if only the British Empire had had the good sense to stand aside and allow that non-belligerent power, Imperial Germany, to win its war in 1914 or 15. My own research for Einstein in Berlin suggests otherwise, but that’s why they allow printing presses to spit out more than one book. So that’s an example of controvesial content. The technique though? I find the counterfactual stuff to be a crutch for lazy thought. It can be fun, and it can be suggestive — but that’s it. It is a proof of nothing — and if you already have an axe to grind it becomes a distorting lens, coloring your ability to assess each and every fragment of actual fact your research may uncover.
***If you want to see the nonsense that is the corporate tax system, google this title: “2006 Statistics of Income,” published by the IRS. Be prepared for several hundred pages of enlightening tables. You will find that the notional high corporate tax rates are that high for a minority of firms…but access to the deductions and credits used to lower bills are highly imperfectly distributed across different sectors and scales of corporate activity. No way to run a railroad.)
Images: Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.
Richard Jack, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge” (loading a 4.5in howitzer), 1918.