There is a question that is always floating around the minds of liberals: why don’t perfectly respectable progressive policy ideas get any media attention while wacky conservative ideas get promoted like journalists are being paid by marketing companies? Earlier today, Paul Krugman posted a really great, if short, article that gives an example of this—contrasting what is considered “serious” versus what is not. Raising the Capital Gains and Estate taxes is not serious. Raising the age of eligibility for Medicare is Very Serious indeed.
But here’s the thing. Krugman looks at the total in new revenue that Obama is suggesting: $1.6 trillion over the next ten years. Raising the Medicare eligibility age would save $0.113 trillion over the next ten years. That means that the unserious Obama proposal would raise almost 15 times as much money as the Serious Republican proposal would save.
What’s going on here? Krugman says that a proposal is only considered serious if it is painful for the poor and middle classes. But I think he’s just being glib—although certainly not completely wrong. I do think there is a common mindset in America that the only way a proposal can be effective is if it is painful. This is the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. And I am with Krugman in that this is part of the story. But there is a much more important part.
The most important issue here is that the media are just too cynical to accept that any plan that makes demands of the rich is politically viable. Like everyone else, they are so used to a system that is overwhelmingly tilted toward the rich, that they can’t imagine that things could be any other way. Thus, when presented with a budget proposal that would do much good but demands sacrifice from the rich, it is labeled a non-starter. (See, for example, the People’s Budget.) But a budget proposal that does little good while harming the poorer classes? They’ve seen that before! They know that’s definitely a possibility.
Of course, the media have been completely corrupted. Conservatives have been so successful playing the media, that they no longer even need to call foul—the media will do it for them. And this is what we get from even smart pundits like Ezra Klein who claimed that Obama’s proposal wasn’t serious. C.A. Rotwang in Cliff Notes, offers up what a truly progressive budget proposal would look like. What Obama offered is what would be called a moderate (centrist) proposal in any other developed nation. Here of course, it “unserious” and a “non-starter.”
This is the legacy of our media: only slightly less infatuated with power than fearful of being called “liberal.” The right has done an amazing job with the mainstream media. There are dictators all around the world who dream of such a “free” press. And this is perhaps the biggest reason that Washington continues to pass laws that are more conservative than what the vast majority of the voters want.