Two 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:
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.