Jon Stewart’s Unfortunate Clown Defense

Jon Stewart - Just a clown that holds political ralliesLast 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “Jon Stewart’s Unfortunate Clown Defense

  1. It isn’t as though Stewart and his staff were the one’s to even suggest such a stupid thing as minting a magic coin. They were making fun of the idea, not the plausibility or reality of it. I’m not an economist, but as an intelligent person I was able to discern the simplistic and ridiculous aspect of the "story" and it’s regurgitation. Despite what many believe, the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff really aren’t the most disturbing problems facing our country our the world. Greed and extortion are the disease. The cliff, the abyss, looming ceiling; only symptoms.

    Again, I’m not an economist, or even a pretend actual journalist, but I know when something isn’t worth making a big deal about.

    P.S. I’ve been drinking so there’s no reason to call me out on anything I just said.

  2. @Andrea – Okay. You are wrong, however. The debt ceiling really is important. People all over the world really will die if the Republicans make the government default. The platinum coin is a fanciful solution based on a loophole in the law that would stop the Republicans from using a different sort of loophole to do great harm to the world. All we are asking is that Stewart understand this. He has not even talked about the Debt Ceiling fiasco. Yet he makes fun of a silly, begin, and effective way of stopping the Republicans from killing people all over the world. This really is serious: trade will be effected; people in marginal areas really will die due to lack of food, medicine, and other necessary goods. They will die even in not so marginal areas.

    In the end, he wasn’t even funny. And do you know why: because there was no context. A fat man running down the street naked is funny. But it really isn’t if he’s running away from someone who’s shooting at him. That’s pretty much what we’re talking about with the platinum coin. Which, by the way, I’m against:

  3. Andrea — way to admit it. More than once (never here! never!) I’ve posted something a little the worse for wear. Beats drunk-dialing people.

    Stewart is great, just great, on the media. (I fell in love when TDS was the only program on TV mocking the buildup to our last Iraq war.) And Stewart’s great on silly media clips of ridiculous, pompous things politicians say. He’s never been strong on actual politics; he always seems to rein it in at the last moment. That’s just who he is; he’s never been one to bite the hand. I like him for what he does, but I’ll never hope for or expect much more.

  4. @JMF – I think there is a little too much Very Serious Person in Jon Stewart. I don’t consider him a liberal. He’s a centrist. He appears liberal only because the Republicans have gone off the deep end.

    But I run into this kind of thing all the time. People just know that our budget deficit is terrible. The funny thing is that that just knew this 20 years ago. And 30. And 40. It’s sad and it is hard to correct people without being rude. But fuck: China doesn’t own most of our debt!

  5. I’d forgotten it, but now I remember that TDS ran a foul parody of the Wisconsin anti-Walker rally. The pro-union, anti-Walker types had referenced Arab revolts as an inspiration (and people in the Arab Spring movement congratulated them for it), so TDS made a bad joke with a camel in Wisconsin. It was awful.

    I will still always love Stewart for the Iraq war stuff, and Colbert for his crazy-deadpan take on right-wing bloviators (the Xmas special is wonderful.) I think you’re right, though; both of them probably want to be taken more seriously than they deserve. Still, better satire than we usually get in America.

  6. @Frank Moraes – I never said that the fiscal cliff wasn’t real [i]or[/i] a really big deal. I said that people calling out JS for mocking the stupid, magic coin story was ridiculous. He wasn’t mocking the problem, just the absurd "solution" that someone else had tossed into the ring and that "real" journalists felt was worthy of national attention.

    I still feel that the underlying causes of our economic trouble need to be addressed. (But if we don’t fix this NOW people are going to DIE slow painful deaths!) We have faced economic calamities throughout our history. Some survive it, some don’t. Even when the economy is healthy, corporations/Republicans are exploiting the poor, allowing people to starve, and die from easily treated illnesses. They’re evil. That’s what evil does.

    As for JS "hiding" behind his jester mask, he isn’t. I think he and his staff are as accurate as they can be at any given moment, while having to put a humorous spin on some ugly truths. The fact that most people see them as "real" journalists is s testament to their (overall) diligent fact-finding/checking and the freedom they have to point out the impotence of our government and the unapologetic greed of our corporations. Maybe if his writing staff included Paul Krugman your hair wouldn’t go up in flames every time JS annoys you.

    My only real point was that the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff are not issues that keep me awake at night.

  7. @Andrea – As for Krugman, the truth is that if JS wanted to talk to him, I’m sure he could. I think the right thing to have done regarding the push back was to have Krugman on the show. (I think that’s how Colbert would have dealt with it.) But Krugman wasn’t the first to complain about the DS segment; he was just the most famous.

    I realize the debt ceiling doesn’t keep you up at night, but it does me. And it has been since long before the Fiscal Cliff. The problem with DS coverage is that they are making fun of a fanciful (but completely legitimate and harmless) idea. But they didn’t even [i]mention[/i] what it was supposed to fix. JS said it was to fix our debt problem. No.

    President Obama is in a double bind. He is required to spend the money Congress told him to. But then Congress is telling him he can’t borrow the money to do what they’ve told him to. He has to break the law regardless if they don’t raise the Debt Ceiling. That alone has comic potential.

    The DS has not even mentioned the Debt Ceiling. And yet they have time to cover the 4 words that Justice Thomas spoke? But I am expecting a big discussion of the Debt Ceiling soon, because privately, I think the writers are smarting about all of this because they [i]do[/i] think of themselves as knowing what the hell is going on.

    Finally, the platinum coin bit was unsophisticated comedy. One could make the same exact joke about the Federal Reserve, but no one does, because everyone’s used to it. Minting a platinum coin is no more ridiculous than most things involving finance.

    I agree with you about greedy people, but government policy really does matter. The government has set up a whole system to reward greed and make it ever easier to make money the more money you have. You don’t have to care about such policies, but that doesn’t mean that those of us who do are wrong.

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