Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness

William SaletanTwo weeks ago, Paul Krugman blasted William Saletan for his adoring love letter to Paul Ryan. Now, Saletan wants his letter back. He was blinded by his (typical) desire to find that mythical beast, the Reasonable Republican—just as Krugman said. And now that Saletan is repudiating his love, Krugman is the first—likely of many—to congratulate him for finally seeing the light. I’m afraid that Krugman may be falling for Saletan himself who claims to be another mythical beast, the Centrist Pundit.

William Saletan claims to be a liberal Republican. I’m somewhat impressed by this. Most such people call themselves centrists. Although I think “liberal Republican” is a misnomer, it has at least some information content. But I can see the problem with this naming thing. Whether Saletan or Friedman or any other Serious Moderate, they must grapple with the fact that they are socially liberal and economically conservative. This is what defines almost all of the Washington pundit class. And it is what allows them to claim that they are centrists or—even more perniciously—independents. They are no such thing. In fact, they are often extremists in both categories.

What most people find annoying about centrist pundits is the arrogance of their supposed objectivity. A quick look at their almost comically stereotyped views within the social and economic areas shows this clearly. Saletan’s social views are typically liberal: pro gay rights; pro abortion rights. I’ll bet he even believes in evolution! But his economic views are typically conservative: pro free trade; vaguely anti-union. Would you believe he’s very concerned about the deficit?!

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

It is no accident that professional moderates like Saletan so often skew socially liberal and economically conservative. It is in their own best interests. And I don’t blame them. But I do blame the system itself, which selects for exactly this kind of thinking. It does it in the name of objectivity or “even handedness.” When accused of liberal bias, they can trot out conservative economic bona fides. When accused of conservative bias (Rarely!) they can trot out their liberal social bona fides. But these pundits are not objective or even handed. They are on the extremes in a very predictable way.

No one has written more about the supposed liberal bias of the mainstream media than Eric Alterman. When it comes to most issues, he shows that such claims are ridiculous; the media are generally moderate to conservative. But Alterman notes in What Liberal Media? the case on social issues is far from clear—reporters tend to skew liberal on these. But whereas reporters have responded to this kind of bias, pundits seem to have been blind to them.

Here is a typical example of Saletan using the social liberal/economic conservative combination to falsely imply his reasonableness:

I winced every time you [Paul Ryan] talked about your hard-line position on abortion, but I told my friends that voting records are misleading, that what a politician chooses to work on is more important, that social issues aren’t your thing, that your real interest is the budget.

Although this kind of belief combination is better than that of the modern wackos of conservatism, it is nothing like reasonable. It is self-serving and utterly subjective. We need to stop pretending that it is objective or centrist.

Greed and Debt: The Mitt Romney Story

Matt Taibbi has written a cover story for Rolling Stone called, Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital. You really ought to read it. It is filled with wonderfully truthful and snarky passages like this one:

[Mitt Romney has] been right with [the other banksters] on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let’s-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let’s-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDOs and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of “creative destruction,” and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America’s rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.

My assumption is that Taibbi is an asshole. But I’ll take a thousand assholes like him rather than one “nice guy” like Paul Ryan.

Update (29 August 2012 5:46 pm)

Taibbi has written a follow-up article where he responds to a correspondent who emailed:

You’ve completely misunderstood what private equity does and ignored the many success stories in the industry. There is a reason why many of PE’s biggest investors are unions and pension funds . . . who have benefitted more than once from private equity deals.

It amazes me that anyone would respond to his original article with this statement. No one—certainly not Taibbi himself—is arguing that private equity companies don’t make money for their investors. As Taibbi points on in the original, they don’t actually perform any better than the stock market itself, and if it weren’t for the tax law favoring them, they would do much worse. But the argument that Taibbi is making is that in the process of making their mediocre profits, PE firms are destroying our economy and society. What’s more (and Taibbi doesn’t make this case here), those union members who are making money from investments in PE are by definition not the people who have lost their jobs through PE takeovers of companies.

Again, you should really check out this article. It is a bit long (8,000 words), but it is worth it. In fact, I’d say it provides the best portrait of Romney I’ve yet read. Disturbing but enlightening.

Interest Not Debt Matters

In reference to the wonderful debt graph that Ezra Klein presented yesterday, Dean Baker presents an even better graph. This one is not on debt, because as Baker notes, the issue is not debt; it is interest on the debt. He notes sarcastically, “We don’t get back to the same devastating interest burdens we faced in the early 90s until 2019”:

Interest on Debt as Percentage of GDP
Am I pulling a fast one here by switching from debt to interest payments? Not at all. Suppose we issue $4 trillion in 30-year bonds in 2012 at 2.75 percent interest (roughly the going yield). Suppose the economy recovers, as CBO predicts, and the interest rate is up around 6.0 percent in 4-5 years. The federal government would be able to buy back the $4 trillion in bonds it had issued for roughly $2 trillion, immediately eliminating $2 trillion of its debt. This will make those who fixate on the debt hysterically happy, but will not affect the government’s finances in the least. It will still face the same interest obligation.

A Late Night Babble

I’ve been experimenting for months, trying to create videos that don’t totally suck. And I am making progress. I still don’t feel comfortable releasing anything I’ve worked hard on. But I’ve decided to start releasing videos that I just throw together. It’s typical internet stuff, except that they deal with stuff I’m interested in. This time it is Graham Greene’s excellent Monsignor Quixote. I have a lot to say about the book, but I don’t have time right now to write about it. So I offer you “A Late Night Babble”: