6.24.2013

On the phony naïveté of Ezra Klein and the "shrill" truth-telling of Paul Krugman

I enjoy reading Ezra Klein's Wonkblog. It's lucid and informative and it provides useful insight into major domestic policy developments. Ezra seems like an extraordinarily intelligent and unfailingly nice guy, with a serious dedication to his work, and he deserves all the success he's seen over the past few years.

However, it is increasingly clear that this niche that Ezra has carefully created and owned - that of the Most Reasonable Liberal in the Room - is one that ultimately undermines progressive politics and aids and abets the extreme right.

On Tuesday, Ezra posted a column about Senator Jeff Sessions' position on immigration reform, titled "It's almost as if Jeff Sessions' opposition to immigration reform isn't about the poor at all." This particular piece is noteworthy because it's classic Klein: meticulously examining the posturing of a proven liar and thug like Jeff Sessions and cautiously - to the point of parody - concluding that perhaps Sessions is not being entirely truthful when he claims to oppose immigration reform on the grounds that it will hurt the poor.

The only appropriate response to hearing that a Republican senator opposes policy X because it will hurt the poor is laughter, followed, perhaps, by, "You gotta be fucking kidding me." Waging a brutal class war against the poor, of course, has been the official policy of the party for decades. Nevertheless, not a day goes by without some Republican claiming that he supports or opposes this or that policy because he cannot, in good conscience, inflict such substantial economic harm on the poor. It's entirely predictable and entirely meaningless. This is the party that - with the help of Bill Clinton - gutted the New Deal welfare regime on the grounds that it would help the poor if we provided them with less money and food.

Ezra, though, is apparently profesionally obligated to take every single Republican claim at face value. He researches Sessions' past votes on legislation that would help the poor, and finds that, shockingly enough, Sessions has actually voted against the interests of the poor on virtually every issue! What a conundrum. In response, Sessions' office sent Ezra some hilariously narrow and inconsequential examples of legislation on which the good senator has sided with the poor, which Ezra boldly denounced as not "entirely satisfying." He notes how odd it is that Sessions is allegedly basing his opposition to immigration reform on "progressive populism" when the evidence seems to indicate that this ultra-right-wing Republican senator does not, in fact, have a "progressive populist" record, before bravely concluding that "it's almost as if [Sessions'] opposition to the bill isn't really about poor Americans at all."

Nearly 800 words explaining why a Republican senator is lying when he says that he's simply out to defend the poor. This is why they pay Ezra the big bucks.

Let's have a look at another piece by Ezra, this one posted on Friday, titled "How Republicans learned to stop worrying and love big government." Of course, anyone who even cursorily follows American politics knows that alleged Republican support for "small government" is fraudulent and redundantly discredited by the party's actions over the past thirty years. Ezra, though, one of the smartest and most astute observers of American politics, is ostensibly just now experiencing the revelation that Republicans love big government when it suits their ideological needs. Consider this amazing graf:
Here’s what I don’t understand: How can Republicans who think themselves skeptical of the federal government also believe it capable of predicting the path of the economy 30 years into the future while locking down the border and picking through all electronic communications?
"I don't understand." So innocent, so naïve. Gee whiz, this sure doesn't seem to add up, these Republicans who claim to be skeptical of government but also support massive government activism when it comports with right-wing policy goals. WHAT GIVES?

Citing all kinds of empirical evidence, Ezra earnestly attempts to get to the bottom of this inexplicable cognitive dissonance on the part of Republicans, before concluding with a question:
The question is how Republicans who think the government farsighted enough to peer 30 years into our economic future, competent enough to lock down 2,000 miles of sand and brush and trustworthy enough to oversee a massive domestic surveillance program can keep alive the fiction that they are truly skeptical of the government. Or are they just skeptical of government when it’s doing things they don’t like?
Once again, this brilliant analyst of American politics pretends to be struggling to recognize something that is known to virtually every tolerably astute undergraduate student of political science, namely, that the Republican "skepticism of government" is transparent bullshit.

By pretending the Republicans have serious policy arguments, by taking everything they say at face value, by writing as though deep research is required to know that Jeff Sessions is not a staunch ally of the poor, Ezra not only lends undeserved credibility to a radical and dangerous political party, but also insults his readers' intelligence.

The reason this is so maddening is because it strains credulity to accept that someone as smart as Ezra is truly clueless and naïve about the nature of the Republican party and movement conservatism. Following this blueprint, though, has brought him enormous success, influence, and access, and he obviously has little incentive to change anything about how he writes.

In a classic 1969 debate with William F. Buckley on Firing Line, Buckley's show, Noam Chomsky confessed to Buckley that he felt that by even consenting to debate the Vietnam question, he was "degrading himself" and "losing his humanity." Chomsky said Vietnam had long ceased to be a legitimate "intellectual argument" and continued participation in debate over it had begun to cause him a feeling of "moral and emotional falseness." He compared it to "debating" Auschwitz. The point is that, sometimes, a line must be drawn. We don't need charts and statistics to tell us that the attack on Vietnam constituted a war crime that was colossal in scale, or that Auschwitz represented a kind of genocidal lunacy that has not been seen before or since. And we don't need charts, graphs, and voting records to know that the Republicans are not allies of the poor and don't care about fatuous slogans like "small" or "big" government.

When Ezra claims to be "excited" to talk to a raving lunatic like Tom Coburn (someone who supports executing "abortionists"), or devotes countless columns and interviews and graphs to pointing out that the annual budgets of sociopathic Randroid Paul Ryan will tend to help the rich and hurt the poor, he advances the idea that the Republicans are a respected political party with honest policy disagreements with the Democrats. This is inexcusable.

I am aware that Ezra writes about policy for a respected national newspaper and I am not suggesting that every post of his should read "The Republicans are lying. The end." However, there is one other person who also writes about policy for a respected national newspaper, but addresses the intellectual bankruptcy of his political opponents with a radically different style: Paul Krugman. One recent episode perfectly illustrates the difference in the respective approaches of Klein and Krugman and why, in my view, it's the relentless truth-telling of Krugman that represents the best path for right-thinking people in the face of this deranged conservative movement.

Avik Roy, considered a conservative intellectual and health policy wonk, recently attacked Obamacare on grounds that were "completely fraudulent," according to Krugman. Klein responded to Roy's mendacity by writing a long, characteristically sober column, explaining why Roy was mistaken in his analysis. Krugman, on the other hand, wrote a short, blistering post, arguing that Roy "has to know that he's making an essentially fraudulent argument" but "does it anyway," before closing with this:
I know that a lot of people wish we lived in a country where debates about things like health care policy were serious, honest discussions of debatable points. I like to hope that by the time I retire I’ll actually live in a country like that. But right now, and surely for years to come, it’s basically facts versus fraud.
Facts versus fraud, indeed.

It's instructive to compare the recent career trajectories of Klein and Krugman. Klein has become a rockstar. He is tremendously influential and seems to be very well-connected to the Obama administration, perhaps more so than any other journalist. Krugman, though, as Glenn Greenwald documents, has become something of a pariah among Villagers, derided for his "polemicism" and unnecessary "demonization" of those with whom he disagrees. When Krugman goes on the warpath against a Beltway favorite like Paul Ryan, ultimately dismissing him as a liar and a fraud, the Nobel Prize-winning economist incurs the wrath of media elites and his influence wanes. When Klein conducts respectful interviews with Ryan and posts dozens of columns and charts explaining why his budget is, perhaps, not ideal policy, Villagers approve of this "civil" approach, which is far preferable to that of the perpetually "shrill" Krugman.

By presenting evidence that the Republicans are frauds and liars, and then calling them frauds and liars, Krugman is providing an invaluable public service. When Klein insists on playing dumb about the true nature of the GOP, and refuses to ever budge from his maddeningly respectful posture, he's providing this party, which wants to shred the safety net and roll back virtually every bit of social progress made in recent decades, a wholly undeserved seat at the table of mainstream respectability.

In 2008, before he had fully mastered his current brand, Ezra tweeted, "Fuck Tim Russert. Fuck him with a spicy acid-tipped dick." Can we bring back that Ezra Klein, at least once in a while, perhaps when Paul Ryan releases his next budget?