Last Thursday, The Daily Show did a segment on the trillion dollar coin. It wasn’t very good. Saturday, Paul Krugman—a big booster for the idea—wrote an article, Lazy Jon Stewart. I was glad. The truth is that Stewart usually does a good job of explaining what is going on in the world of politics while still managing to be anywhere from slightly amusing to hilarious. But in that sequence, there was no actual content. The joke was just, “Trillion dollar coin! Te he!”
Krugman wasn’t the only person to complain. Jonathan Chait wrote, Jon Stewart Flunks Econ. He said, “It’s hard to say exactly what Jon Stewart and his writers think about economic policy, but there is some odd vein of Hooverism that pops up from time to time.” This is correct. The one area where The Daily Show really falls down is economic and especially monetary policy. And this is really sad, because this is the area that people are most confused about. This is the area where people naturally fall into the thinking of Herbert Hoover, and all the incorrect thinking that made the Great Crash into the Great Depression.
Similarly, Ryan Cooper of Washington Monthly put it really bluntly, “Jon Stewart took a look at the platinum coin option on his show last night, and it really sucked.” Forgive me for doing this, but I think an extended quote from Cooper’s excellent article is called for:
Stewart, in quite possibly the laziest and most irresponsible segment I’ve ever seen on The Daily Show
, doesn’t mention any of that background; in fact he gives a grossly misleading context. “America’s got a bit of a cash flow problem these days,” he says. “We have a 16 trillion dollar debt, our credit rating was downgraded for the first time last year. I think we can all agree it’s time to get serious and figure out a way to restore the world’s respect for the soundness of our currency.” This is just utterly wrong. There is no worry whatsoever in the markets about the soundness of the dollar. Again, demand for US debt is so strong that people are literally paying us to take their money—inflation-adjusted yields for 10-year Treasury bonds are below zero
Then he quotes a news segment saying “a $1 trillion platinum coin could be minted, and the government could use that to pay the debt.” Again wrong. This is about paying the government’s current financial obligations, not paying down the debt.
Stewart continues: “I’m not an economist, but I say go big or go home. How about a $20 trillion coin?” He later quotes a slightly better explanation of the actual mechanics of the coin option, but only to make fun of the guy’s name. After some more jokes, he wraps up with “we don’t need a trillion-dollar coin gimmick, we need a way to make the world take the US dollar seriously again.”
Not once during the segment does he mention the actual reason for the coin proposal—the debt ceiling—neither does he correctly explain how it would work or why. It would have been okay for Stewart to dismiss the proposal, but to be blithely scornful of it while providing a terribly inaccurate explanation is infuriating.
Last night, Stewart was back and he did not fail to take the bait. He referenced Krugman’s article. And then did something else that I find annoying: Stewart gives the “I’m just a clown!” defense. Well he isn’t just a clown. And what’s worse Stewart knows this. He expects to be taken seriously. He held a political rally for God’s sake! And given everything we know about the show, we reasonably expect that Stewart will at least get the facts right. But when he doesn’t—like now—we get this tired refrain, “I’m just a clown! Pay no attention to me!” This isn’t right.
What’s worse is that The Daily Show is usually at its best putting news items into context. This can be serious or funny as hell, as when they show the total hypocrisy of Fox News. But in the case of the trillion dollar coin, there was no context. Indeed, both The Daily Show and Colbert Report have been strangely silent on what I think is the most important national story: the debt ceiling. And I have no doubt that these two shows could make the issue clear and humorous.
Update (15 January 2012 2:06 pm)
Jonathan Chait is always stealing my ideas:
But the issue is the premise. Pretending that the plan is to mint a coin and pay off the national debt is just flat out false. The premise is the true part of the story, before the punch line. And when the premise is wrong, you’re just cheating. That’s what Jon Stewart did. It’s easy to make jokes if you can pretend the butt of the joke said something ridiculous even if he didn’t. You could make fun of Gretchen Carlson every single day if you’re willing to doctor her quotes to make them sound more absurd than they are.
Also, I’m out all day. I’ll have some things up this evening.