Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 July 2011

Underestimating the Task and the President (or Krugman At It Again)

Does the difference between analytical and emotional intelligence confuse you? Then read Paul Krugman’s piece today. It explains perfectly, albeit inadvertently.

Entitled “Getting to Crazy,” it’s a column-long scold. It takes Republicans, Republican sympathizers, and even insufficiently proactive neutrals to task for allowing one of our two ruling parties to stray from reason and common sense.

As a matter of analysis and economics, the column is factual and accurate. It reiterates the “extraordinary concessions” in the President’s best debt-reduction offer—a deal “overwhelmingly of spending cuts, [with] draconian cuts in key social programs, up to and including a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility.” It describes this offer as “far to the right of what the average American voter prefers” and even “what the average Republican voter prefers.” Then it notes that “the modern G.O.P. fundamentally does not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic presidency—any Democratic presidency[,]” citing both the Clinton and Obama experiences.

Next Krugman’s piece notes that the GOP would have considered rejected Democratic offers on health care and Social Security a “conservative triumph” if pushed through by Republicans. Finally, it debunks, for the umpteenth time, Reagan’s supply-side voodoo economics (that tax cuts pay for themselves).

All these things are true, accurate and not without insight. They put Krugman’s high analytical intelligence on routine display.

But then comes the column’s tone. It epitomizes the frustrated professor wagging his finger in a slow student’s face.

Right in the title, Krugman calls the GOP crazy. He writes of the “culpability of those who are only now facing up to the G.O.P.’s craziness.” He chides Republicans for their “fanaticism.” And he concludes that, if “you’re surprised” by the general failure to pressure Republicans “to show any kind of responsibility . . . you were part of the problem.”

Now, imagine you are arguing with someone face to face. You desperately want to convince that person that his political ideology and/or lack of understanding is destroying the country you both love.

Do you start off by calling him crazy, a fanatic? Do you accuse him, willy nilly, of being responsible for what crazies did because he either (1) wasn’t smart enough or (2) didn’t pay enough attention?

I don’t think so. You don’t win an independent, free voter to your side by name-calling, blaming, and scolding.

That’s where emotional intelligence comes in. Krugman’s high analytical intelligence lets him see causes, effects and consequences that might escape others. But his apparent complete lack of emotional intelligence may explain why lesser minds than his (Summers and Geithner) ended up in charge of the Obama Administration’s economic policy.

In a recent essay, I called this low emotional intelligence Krugman’s “blind spot.” His piece today makes that a fair description, beyond cavil.

Why spend so much ink on a single pundit’s foibles? Three reasons. First, Krugman has a huge megaphone. With Bob Herbert and Frank Rich gone, he is the pre-eminent voice on the left in the mainstream media today. Second, with his Nobel Prize, he is, by far, the pundit most able to skewer economic lies and myths with panache and credibility.

The third point follows from the first two. Krugman’ tremendous influence over so many still-rational minds brings with it corresponding responsibility. His repeated failure to acknowledge the extraordinary difficulty of the President’s task and the President’s extraordinary emotional intelligence could deprive the President of the support he needs to bring our nation home.

The President’s task is not to show the right way, which Krugman has done brilliantly and many others (perhaps less so), time after time. The President’s task is to get people brainwashed to the wrong way to change their minds. He can’t do it with guns or force. We tried that once, and we are still fighting our Civil War 146 years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox.

Nor can the President (or Krugman) do it with scolding, berating and name-calling. If they worked, we’d be home already. Ever since the 2007-2008 primaries, both parties and their internal factions have had an orgy of such indulgences, with the GOP and its unprecedented propaganda machine leading the way. As Sarah Palin might ask, “How’s that scoldy, name-callin’ thing workin’ out for ya?”

It isn’t and it won’t. Analytically, Krugman is quite right in calling the GOP’s right wing “crazy” and “fanatical.” But saying the obvious won’t help. And saying it to the people who minds need changing will only hurt. Something real has to jar the true believers out of their spell and their complacency.

At the moment, there seem to be only two alternatives. Either the President’s brilliant but subtle exposure of the GOP plans as lies, extortion and misplaced priorities (making the rich richer) will change enough minds to change our politics. Or some catastrophe, such as an actual default or a double-dip, will have to do the job.

As an educator, Krugman should know this. It’s called “experiential learning.”

Thirty years of highly effective propaganda have convinced around a third of our people that government is the problem, not the solution. As I’ve pointed out, that calumny is contrary to most people’s own personal experience, certainly my own. But they just don’t see. If default comes and their pension, disability and health care stop cold, it may suddenly dawn on them that government is not the evil force they have been brainwashed to think it for thirty years. That’s experiential learning.

Whether it will take that or something less drastic remains to be seen. But only someone with the President’s off-the-scale emotional intelligence can make that call. Analytical intelligence simply won’t do the job, as Krugman’s column today amply (but inadvertently) demonstrates.

I would not trust myself to make the call, far less Krugman. If we try to teach the crazies the old-fashioned way, with daily lessons, scolding and finger-wagging, we will have become a banana republic long before the lessons have concluded. That’s why I will support the President even into the economic maelstrom of default. For as bad as that result will be (and I know exactly how bad), I cannot foresee it as worse than continuing to let one-third of our population worship false economic gods, including Grover Norquist, and block any sensible action of government.

Site Meter


  • At Fri Jul 15, 07:36:00 PM EDT, Anonymous cjcalgirl@att.net said…

    Dearest Jay, Thank you for 'bringing me down' from my anger and frustration. I HAVE been trying to bring reasoned arguments that try to appeal to at least SOME posters @ HP who at least seem approachable with logic. We are seeing the 'Two Santa Clauses' in action, and the 'Authoritarians' in full swing, and I find myself thoroughly frustrated AND depressed at the state of the debate!

  • At Sat Jul 16, 12:16:00 AM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear cjcalgirl,

    Good to hear from you again.

    I see your screen monicker is appropriate. HP must be going through lots of changes, too, trying to compete in the tablet market. I hope those changes are not adding to your political frustration. I also hope HP is smart enough to go for the business market and not to challenge Apple in the consumer market.

    You comment is a bit cryptic. By "Two Santa Clauses" do you mean the President and Boehner or Boehner and McConnell? I can't see McConnell in any Christmas role other than Grinch, so I'll go with the former.

    I don't think the President was playing Santa Claus with Social Security and Medicare. As a Grand Master at politics, I'm sure he knew his concessions would never sell, or that, if by some miracle they did, he would get credit for solving a problem the Republicans created and never seriously addressed.

    Right now, I think he's doing all he can do with such moronic and intransigent negotiating "partners": revealing their hypocrisy, intransigence and twisted priorities for everyone to see.

    It's easy to become depressed when morons blithely risk (and even badmouth) a perfect credit rating developed over a century, which they never worked a day to build or to preserve. But it's understandable when you see how badly they treat all the great legacy of this country, in an orgy of selfishness and ignorance of history and economics.

    Yes, it's best to be prepared for the worst. Gwen Ifill had an experienced crew on "Washington Week" tonight, and they all seemed to agree that something is different this time: there may be no deal at all. If you have your money in FDIC-insured bank accounts with profitable, reputable banks with strong balance sheets, you should be OK. Stock in strong companies (including HP?) is probably OK, too. But I would avoid bonds and even money-market funds for the next month or so, until things settle out.

    As for the nation, we'll survive. I'm slowly coming to believe, as said in the post above, that a default might actually help in the long run by waking our Fox zombies up. It's an ill wind . . .

    Whatever happens now, I think the President has enough substantive and stylistic ammunition to insure his re-election. The huge campaign war chest that he's already amassed---larger than all the Republicans' combined---did not come from "little folk" alone. Even sane business people are afraid of the Tea Mob now.



  • At Sat Jul 16, 05:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger madtom said…

    I think this budget political theater has almost run its course and the GOP's actors need a hook to drag them offstage.

    Most things for which the government needs money (and will need to borrow that money) are mandated by Congress and the Constitution even more solidly than the debt limit, which is also a Congressional creation, and no more holy (actually a bit less) than most
    other things passed by Congress.

    When Congress passes contradictory legislation, Obama gets his choice
    from the cafeteria: "Let's see, which of these mutually contradictory Congressional directives do I want to follow - hmmm." It would be like having a line-item veto, retroactive and applicable to all programs requiring expenditure.

    As a Constitutional scholar, he will know this better than most. He
    can simply order the sale of more bonds, and see if anyone is stupid enough to take a complaint to the
    Supremes. If they do, there's not much doubt about the decision, and the debt limit will be dead with a big stake through its heart.

    And that's assuming that the Republicans let it go that far. They should realize that a backdown claimed to be a victory is far preferable to getting blamed for a panic and also giving Obama the opening to get such heavy creds as a strong and courageous leader, and strengthening the Presidency even further relative to Congress.

  • At Sun Jul 17, 10:06:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Dear madtom

    Good to hear from you, and I appreciate your optimism.

    I agree with your last paragraph, and I fervently hope you are right in your first. There is indeed a lot of jockeying for position and political theater going on.

    But whether it ends as a tragedy or a comedy is still up for grabs. Some GOP House members (and no doubt their constituents) are such true believers that they appear to relish the idea of a default. Whether enough of them feel that way to make a difference is still unknown.

    There is no doubt that enough of them felt that way to permanently torpedo any “grand bargain” for $4 trillion in debt reduction, to both the President’s and Boehner’s embarrassment. And they did that despite GOP apologist David Brooks’ unprecedented chiding.

    As for your middle three paragraphs, I'm afraid I disagree on legal, financial and political ground.

    Legally, the Constitution is crystal clear on who has the power to “pay the Debts . . . of the United States” and “borrow Money on the credit of the United States[.]” Those are among the powers explicitly granted to Congress in the first two clauses of Article I, Section 8.

    In the modern world, they are among Congress' most important powers. I doubt that any Court, least of all this conservative Court, would read out those powers, leaving Congress more of a hollow shell than it already is. (This, by the way, is one reason why Mitch’s Desperate Gambit was dead on arrival.)

    Financially, putting the question before the courts would be almost as bad as a default. Would you buy US bonds if their validity and the authority to issue them were in doubt? No bank would; to do so might violate its fiduciary duty to its shareholders. The global economy would probably collapse from uncertainty in the time if took the Court to make a decision, even an expedited one.

    Politically, the course you suggest would be a disaster for the President and Democrats. Ever since his election, the right wing and its propaganda machine have tried to portray this moderate and centrist president as an extremist and a tyrant. Through sheer repetition, they have managed to convince a large number of people (still a minority, thank God!) of those lies. An even larger number of people—even some without animosity to the President—believe that debt is one of our most critical problems. For the President to act lawlessly and without congressional authorization as you suggest would only play into these lies and myths, insure his defeat in 2012, and deprive the Democratic party of the chance to become a majority party next year.

    No, there is no easy solution to this problem of mass psychosis, deliberately induced by human history's most effective propaganda machine over thirty years. If you want convincing proof of that fact, just take a free trial subscription to the Wall Street Journal and spend a week or so reading the comments to any story about economics, politics or fossil fuels.

    There is no use in denying reality. The next few weeks will constitute one (perhaps of several) of the most critical tests in the history of our Republic. We must pass it in order merely to survive as we once were, let alone to thrive. No such test will be easy, and success is by no means assured. However scary that might be, that’s the hard reality of our times.



Post a Comment

<< Home