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Against “Authenticity”: Zombie-Eyed Granny Starving Edition

[ 75 ] April 30, 2012 |

Jon Chait’s dissection of Paul Ryan is essential reading. Before getting to the heart of the article, there’s another point I’d like to emphasize. You remember James Stewart — using the same legendary reporting skills that caused him to accuse Hillary Clinton of committing a felony based on a tax form he failed to turn over — praising Ryan for being open to increased capital gains taxes when in fact Ryan favors eliminating them altogether? Well, Chait talked to him, and the results are pure (if depressing) gold:

After Obama assailed Ryan’s budget, Stewart wrote a second column insisting that Ryan’s plans were just the sort of goals liberals shared. He quoted Ryan as writing, in his manifesto, “The social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens.” Stewart is flabbergasted that Democrats could be so partisan as to attack a figure who believes something so uncontroversial. “Does anyone,” Stewart wrote in his follow-up, “Democrat or Republican, seriously disagree?”

The disagreement, I suggested to Stewart, is that Ryan believes the social safety net is failing society’s most vulnerable citizens by spending too much money on them. As Ryan has said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”—which is to say, plying the poor with such inducements as food stamps and health insurance for their children has sapped their desire to achieve, a problem Ryan proposes to solve by targeting them for the lion’s share of deficit reduction. Stewart waves away the distinction. “I was pointing out that, at least rhetorically, you can find some common ground,” he says. Stewart, explaining his evaluation of Ryan to me, repeatedly cited the missing details in his plan as a hopeful sign of Ryan’s accommodating aims. “He seems very straightforward,” he tells me. “He doesn’t seem cunning. He seems very genuine.”

Stewart’s responses in defense of Ryan are an object lesson in why 99.9% of theater critic analysis of politicians is useless. First of all, once a reporter has a narrative of authenticity or genuineness about a political figure, anything can be neatly wedged in to fit. Including, amazingly enough, citing Ryan’s failure to take responsibility for the specific spending cuts his broader policy framework would require on behalf of his honesty and moderation.

But, more importantly, even when it’s less implausible or tautological the problem with this kind of evaluation is that it’s worthless on its face. As Chait says, looked at from the right angle Ryan’s assertions that he doesn’t believe the safety net is working for the poor are perfectly “genuine” — he thinks it’s not working and therefore we should pretty much eliminate it at the federal level. But this “rhetorical overlap” is only relevant to claims that he’s a moderate fiscal conservative who liberals can work with if there’s any substantive overlap with people who believe that the United States’ already tattered safety net should be strengthened — which there isn’t. But as I’ll also discuss this week with respect to Robert Caro, there’s a certain kind of centrist or even liberal journalist who’s always a sucker for arch-reactionary politics presented in the form of superficially genteel personalities.

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  1. sleepyirv says:

    I have only seen moments of Dave while channel surfing. But when it comes up in opinion columns, it’s always used to justify Bonapartist centrist pipe dreaming (Hell, just read Bill Simmons Dave take on the NBA strike if you can stomach it.). Is the movie actually charming or dangerous man on horseback nonsense?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      It’s terrible (as a political message.) The basic premise is that unemployment could be ended if the president just wanted to transcend Our Partisan Divides and do it.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        As I recall it’s rather more…convoluted? sophisticated?

        The job bill never gets passed and there’s no particular partisen battle. The tension is between realistish machiavellian status quo and idealistic naiveish (but reasonably machiavellian) reformer. There is a bit of “president as awesome dude” going on, but it doesn’t translate into direct or immediate power. Indeed, part of the move is to fake a singular event (i.e., the pres collapsing during a joint address), but even then the outcome isn’t clear.

        I think it can only be coopted by centrists in that the budget cutting scheme (and the jobs bill) don’t face any interesting tradeoffs. So there’s the implication that major issues are easily solvable with a straightforward technocratic attitude. Which, for a lot of things, is true! (Cf, deficits if we do nothing.)

        It’s also a fun flick (with the right does of suspension of disbelief).

  2. DrDick says:

    Paul Ryan is legitimately an authentic libertarian sociopath who wants the poor, the elderly, and everyone who is not a rich, white, conservative male to starve to death,

    • LoriK says:

      This is not strictly true. I think he’s also OK with rich, white, consevative women not starving to death. Especially if they’re rich by virtue of being married to, and having children with, a rich, white, conservative man.

      The rest of us can die in the gutter though.

    • David Hunt says:

      I’d say that’s incorrect. I think that after those non-peoples are beaten, robbed, stripped naked, and sold into slavery, he has no desire one way or the other on whether they should starve to death. This is sign of his poor intelligence. After these people have been turned into valuable slave-property, it’s in the interest of their owners to keep them from starving (at least as long as they’re productive).

      In my more charitable moments my view of his opinion of the proles is akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine of Peter Lorre’s Signor Ugarte in Casablanca. Ugarte asks Rick if he despises him and Rick replys, “I suppose I would if gave you any thought at all.”

  3. snarkout says:

    Ooh, looking forward to the Caro discussion — his kid gloves about Coke Stevenson were a mystery to me (and basically turned me off his LBJ books altogether, although sometime I’ll make them staycation reading and plow through “Master of the Senate”, at least).

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      As I’ll say, Master of the Senate is really fantastic and the first (which I’m re-reading) better than I gave it credit for. Means of Ascent is a catastrophe, of course.

  4. c u n d gulag says:

    Shorter Stewart:
    ‘I love dogs.
    Hitler loved dogs.
    Hitler wasn’t as bad as people made him out to be.’

    Mr. Stewart, you feckin’ idjit, the best grifters ‘don’t seem cunning. They seem very genuine!’

    Mr. Stewart, there’s a very cheap bridge in Brooklyn I have to sell you

    Oh, and have you met my friend, the Nigerian billionaire’s son?
    He needs some help from you to acquire his inheritance from his late father.
    It seems that there’s a little problem with the money left in his accounts here, and he can use some help from an American. All he needs is your savings account number for a week or two, and he’ll pay you MILLIONS for the privledge!!!

    SHEEEEEEEESH!

  5. david mizner says:

    Ezra Klein also suffered from a crush on Paul Ryan. I’m not sure if he’s recovered. His defense is not unlike Stewart’s: he’s sincere.

    I don’t think Ryan is a charlatan or a flim-flam artist. More to the point, I think he’s playing an important role, and one I’m happy to try and help him play: The worlds of liberals and conservatives are increasingly closed loops. Very few politicians from one side are willing to seriously engage with the other side, particularly on substance. Substance is scary. Substance is where you can be made to look bad. And substance has occasionally made Ryan look bad. But the willingness to engage has made him look good. It’s given some people the information they need to decide him a charlatan, and others the information they need to decide him a bright spot. It’s also given Ryan a much deeper understanding of liberal ideas than most conservative politicians have.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/08/on_paul_ryan.html

    • snarkout says:

      Ezra Klein can, at least, read a budget analysis:

      It’s that last assumption, perhaps, that shows most clearly how unlikely Ryan’s specified budget path is. He’s saying that in 2050, spending on defense, on food stamps, on infrastructure, on education, on research and development, on the federal workforce, and everything other non-entitlement program combined will be less than four percentage points of GDP. [...] Ryan has not outlined a realistic goal.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not sure what the connection between the post you link to the point being made here. Surely you can see there’s a substantial difference between saying nice things about someone prior to engaging in substantive critique and saying nice things about someone in lieu of a substantive critique.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Right. Ezra’s never had to “recover” because he’s never believed that Ryan’s plan was anything but substantively awful. I could do without the assessment of Ryan’s character but it’s nothing like Stewart’s nonsense.

        • david mizner says:

          Not exactly. He praised Ryan for his radicalism – indeed, he recently said his past praise of Ryan lends credibility to his more recent criticism.

          Ryan’s radicalism is welcome, and all too rare. The size of his proposal is shocking, but it is proportionate to the size of our problem: According to the Congressional Budget Office, which examined a simplified version of his proposal, it would wipe out our projected long-term deficits…

          Whatever the outcome, it is long past time we faced up to the seriousness of the problem. The House and Senate bills, though I think they are worthwhile, do not go nearly far enough, and few politicians share Ryan’s appetite for proposing daring solutions to dangerous problems.

          http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/05/AR2010020504796.html

          Don’t believe me? Here’s Klein:

          I wrote a column praising Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. I called its ambition “welcome, and all too rare.” I said its dismissal of the status quo was “a point in its favor.” When the inevitable backlash came, I defended Ryan against accusations that he was a fraud, and that technical mistakes in his tax projections should be taken as evidence of dishonesty. I also, for the record, like Ryan personally, and appreciate his policy-oriented approach to politics.

          http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/why-rep-paul-ryans-budget-plan-is-so-flawed/2011/04/11/AFHLOpMD_story.html

          But yeah, as that second link show he hit Ryan’s latest pretty hard.

          • Malaclypse says:

            And, from your very link:

            o I believe I have some credibility when I say that the budget Ryan released last week is not courageous or serious or significant. It’s a joke, and a bad one. For one thing, Ryan’s savings all come from cuts, and at least two-thirds of them come from programs serving the poor. The wealthy, meanwhile, would see their taxes lowered, and the Defense Department would escape unscathed. It is not courageous to attack the weak while supporting your party’s most inane and damaging fiscal orthodoxies. But the problem isn’t just that Ryan’s budget is morally questionable. It also wouldn’t work.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I think both you and Klein overstate his praise of Ryan in the earlier article.

            Don’t get me wrong, it was wrong and wrongheaded. Klein should (and does) repudiate the praise.

            Facing up to how he does this is a worthwhile exercise in understanding our budget problem. It’s not the privatization that does it. His proposal to add optional private accounts to Social Security actually increases the program’s cost, which is a good reminder that Social Security plays little role in our long-term deficits. Similarly, his proposal to privatize Medicare increases costs…

            Ryan saves his money after he privatizes the programs. Under his proposal, seniors stop getting Medicare, which is both government-run and pays for any procedures that can be shown to help improve their condition. Instead, the seniors get a voucher to buy private insurance, and that voucher grows more slowly than medical costs. That means the coverage that voucher buys is going to grow more slowly than medical costs. Seniors will be in the same position the rest of us are in: Either you can afford the coverage and care you need through savings or subsidies or both, or . . . you can’t.

            Whatever the outcome, it is long past time we faced up to the seriousness of the problem. The House and Senate bills, though I think they are worthwhile, do not go nearly far enough, and few politicians share Ryan’s appetite for proposing daring solutions to dangerous problems. (Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon whose excellent health-care proposal was largely ignored this year, is another.) Liberals and conservatives may disagree over Ryan’s solution, but I imagine most Americans would support his approach to the work. “This is my 12th year,” he says. “If I lose my job over this, then so be it. If you’re given the opportunity to serve, you better serve like it’s your last term every term.”

            So, Klein goes very wrong in thinking that Ryan is serious and that that was a serious proposal (perhaps with some errors). But he doesn’t hallucinate the content of the proposal (a la Stewart). Now, whether it was reasonable in 2010 to take Ryan as sincere is perhaps not super open (Ryan’s record during the Bush admin suggests otherwise), but the magnitude of Ryan’s mendacity certainly wasn’t evident to me until recently. (Note that he ever seemed non-evil, but he seems to be letting it hang out more. Or perhaps I’m just amazed at his backtracking on Randianism.)

            It’s not good to be mesmerised by Ryan’s Air of Seriousness, but it’s clearly worse to be so mesmerised that you can’t see at all what he’s proposing.

    • Warren Terra says:

      You link a post that’s two years old and “you’re not sure he’s recovered”. Don’t let us detain you: go find out!

      (hint: if you try hard enough, you may find the post where Ezra apologizes for ever thinking Paul Ryan took numbers seriously … about two years ago).

      • Warren Terra says:

        (For older posts – from before the WaPo changed its URL system for blogs – you can use this search)

        • david mizner says:

          I barely read Klein anymore. Why would I be anxious to read someone who praised Ryan’s roadmap? And what’s with all the love here for Ezra Broder Klein?

          • Warren Terra says:

            You “barely read” him but you’re awfully damn sure he professes things you abhor. When people disagree, you sneeringly refuse to reconsider. Heck, Klein writes a post specifically pointing out that he initially wanted to believe Ryan was a sincere interlocutor, and going on to rip Ryan a new one, and you selectively quote the part where Klein admits to past imputations of sincerity as if this were some proof of ongoing gullibility or disingenousness.

            • david mizner says:

              Huh? Ongoing? I said in my initial comment I didn’t know where he stood now. I’m not an avid reader but I recalled that there was a stretch where Klein did much to advance the Ryan-is-serious meme and was blasted by Krugman and others for doing so. His self-described praise of Ryan was based on his boldness and his willingness to talk policy with liberals. Presumably, his self-described personal fondness for Ryan also played a role.

              You could have just said, Actually Klein has in fact gotten over his crush, but I guess it’s more fun to impute ill motives to me.

              By the way, Klein’s praise of Ryan is arguably worse because he more or less opposes his policy proposals.

          • Hogan says:

            Why would I be anxious to read someone who praised Ryan’s roadmap?

            To find out whether you know what you’re talking about now?

            • david mizner says:

              I admitted in my initial comment I wasn’t up to speed on his most recent thoughts.

              Ezra Klein also suffered from a crush on Paul Ryan. I’m not sure if he’s recovered.

              Scott claimed he never had a crush to get over — I debunked that — and now you and othersare criticizing me for not saying he backtracked even though I said upfront I didn’t know if he had.

              In other words, you’re arguing with me just to argue with me.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                Scott claimed he never had a crush to get over

                I said he never had a crush like Stewart — i.e. praising the content of Ryan’s actual policy proposals. As to whether Klein thought Ryan was genuine, it itself, I could give a shit.

                • david mizner says:

                  So no you no problem with a “liberal” journalist like Klein calling Ryan bold and sincere, etc. and generally treating him a serious person worthy of respect as long as he doesn’t agree with his policy proposals?

                • david mizner says:

                  By the way, I was responding to this part of your post:

                  once a reporter has a narrative of authenticity or genuineness about a political figure, anything can be neatly wedged in to fit.

                  Klein did much to perpetuate that narrative even if he didn’t, or barely, allow(ed) it to alter his own view of Ryan’s proposals. It’s weird to me that people are treating Klein’s coverage of Ryan as an entirely different matter, almost off topic.

                • Bill Murray says:

                  well you said

                  Ezra’s never had to “recover” because he’s never believed that Ryan’s plan was anything but substantively awful. I could do without the assessment of Ryan’s character but it’s nothing like Stewart’s nonsense.

                  Given that recover refers to the crush, I take your statement as saying that Ezra had no crush, then in the next sentence you say Ezra’s assessment of Ryan’s character is nothing like Stewart’s. So you kind said both.

              • Hogan says:

                In other words, you’re arguing with me just to argue with me.

                Yeah, no. You make claims (oh, I beg your pardon, “speculations”) that you can’t back up, and then get all het up when people call you on it. In the words of Cheese Wagstaff, that shit is unseemly.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            And what’s with all the love here for Ezra Broder Klein?

            Does everyone see how this works?

            When Warren pointed out problems with david’s attack on somebody, david’s response is to accuse him of untoward affection towards that target, while accusing him (and, by extension, those who objected to the attack) of being Not A Real Liberal.

            Believe it or not, this same behavior has been known to crop up in other contexts.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              The comparison with Border is also utterly absurd. Broder had no interest in policy and was a conservative. Klein is extremely knowledgeable about policy and is a liberal. If you never read him, admittedly, this might be less obvious.

              • david mizner says:

                I used to read him all the time back at his own blog — when he was an actual liberal.

              • Ian says:

                To give Mizner at least a little credit, I think it’s pretty clear that Klein is trying to thread a needle: succeeding in the Village without a wholesale descent into Broderism. This makes him much more polite to bozos than his liberal readers would like. That said, I always thought his overtures to Ryan were intended as a kind of trap: by taking Ryan’s wonkish demeanor at face value, Klein sought to drag him into a substantive discussion that would reveal how preposterous his starting assumptions were. It didn’t really work.

                (Plus, Klein is decidedly less liberal on (mid-term) deficit reduction than someone like Atrios.)

              • Rob says:

                You mean how today he talks about the government is driving both health care and higher education costs?

                Yeah, he’s truly a liberal.

                • Warren Terra says:

                  Hey, great reading comprehension there, buddy:

                  There’s another similarity that Barro doesn’t mention: Like the health-care sector, the higher education sector is heavily subsidized by the government. Some take that commonality as a causality: Health-care and college costs are out of control because the government subsidizes them. I think the truth is closer to the reverse: The government subsidizes them because their costs are out of control.

                  The critical phrase that rendered your comment moot – the one saying “I think the truth is closer to the reverse” – was in the fifth sentence, so I can understand why you didn’t make it that far.

                • Furious Jorge says:

                  Ouch.

            • david mizner says:

              Attack? Who’d I attack? And what were the problems Warren is alleged to have pointed out?

              You’re half-right, though. I shouldn’t have suggested that s/he had a untoward affection for Klein, although I’d like to know why people objected when I pointed out that Ezra went through a ill-advised stretch of praising Ryan — a stretch that was roundly criticized. I’d be surprised if people here didn’t criticize him. So maybe Warrren is motivated not be a fondness for Klein but by a fondness debating me. Either way, there’s nothing there.

              • Malaclypse says:

                So maybe Warrren is motivated not be a fondness for Klein but by a fondness debating me.

                Yea, that’s it.

              • Warren Terra says:

                You referred to Ezra’s approach of two years ago, in avowed ignorance of his later evolution on the subject, and described Ezra’s opinion about Ryan in the present tense. Almost certainly, you did this because you knew Klein had later recanted, but didn’t want to let that knowledge get in the way of a good slam, or to spend the time fleshing out this knowledge.

                I’ve been critical of Klein’s episode of respect for Ryan in the past, right here on this same blog. But I look at what Klein has accomplished in the last half-a-dozen years, and I’m both amazed and grateful for his efforts. He now heads a group of four writers (including himself), branded under his own name, with the imprimatur of the Washington Post, a group that daily delves into the details of policy and of politics, influenced with a viewpoint that while hardly leftist is nonetheless more progressive than I think you’ll find in any other daily reported content in our big newspapers (“daily” and “reported content” chosen to exclude for example the wonderful Paul Krugman). The closest thing I can think of to a blog-based, multiple-person, institutionally backed blogging enterprise would be Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek-endorsed borg, and they lack the hard work, the serious interests, and the integrity.

                Sure, Klein’s “Wonkblog” is more “evenhanded” than I’d like (maybe required to be moreso than they’d like), and give Klein a decade and maybe he will come to worship evenhandedness for its own sake. Maybe the Grey Side, an obsessively bland version of the Dark Side, will take over. But you are basically Purity Trolling someone who’s accomplished more good things for our national policy debate than your blog comments could do in a thousand years. And you’re doing it poorly to boot.

  6. Ginger Yellow says:

    Well it’s a good thing we can find some rhetorical common ground with Ryan. That should help us achieve our rhetorical policy goals. Now if only we could raise some rhetorical revenue to pay for them.

  7. howard says:

    it’s a fascinating demonstration of how opinions are impervious to facts: the possibility that he might simply have misread the situation and is mistaken never seems to enter stewart’s mind.

    i actually do think that he’s done some good work on the finance and investing beat, but i gave up on stewart the day he ran the original ryan love note: life is too short to spend it on people who get something that fundamental that wrong.

    but that said, the fact that he can’t envision the possibility of error and instead cites all this inane gibberish precludes any chance for reconsideration….

    • David Hunt says:

      it’s a fascinating demonstration of how opinions are impervious to facts:

      I’ve read that it’s impossible to reason someone out of an opinion that they didn’t reason themself into. That’s not quite true. It’s not impossible, but it’s damn hard to use facts and logic to get someone to move away from an opinion that they know is true “in their gut.” I’ve also read that it’s harder to move smart people away from such view as they are more capable of inventing clever arguments as to why your facts/logic are wrong.

  8. Dana says:

    Funny, I made a comment on some post here last week that I think Mittens will distance himself from the Ryan budget(s). I still think that’s true. I don’t think Ryan or his budget are such immutable forces. This isn’t the Republican primary anymore. I don’t think you can win the presidency on a platform that voucherizes Medicare. Barring a double dip recession, of course.

    Love that pic of Ryan. I often say he looks like a comic book character. That golden sun background reinforces it.

    • rea says:

      I think Mittens will distance himself from the Ryan budget(s).

      How is he going to do that, after embracing them so thoroughly? “Don’t mine me–I was just talking cynically to my base–I don’t really believe that stuff”?

      • Malaclypse says:

        I think we can all agree that, if the Democrats bring this up, that they are playing “gotcha.”

      • njorl says:

        “Don’t mine me–I was just talking cynically to my base–I don’t really believe that stuff”?

        No, he won’t say that. He’ll just do it. If he came right out and said it, he might get called on it.

      • Dana says:

        The man’s not exactly a portrait of consistency or intellectual honesty. A la njorl, I imagine he’ll be artful about it. But most people outside Dittoheadville have no idea what the Ryan Budget is and won’t care if he abandons it, and the dittoheads will fall in line no matter what.

  9. Joshua says:

    I don’t think a lot of people really understand what the Republican party is nowadays – basically a bunch of tinpot fascists working hard to turn America over to their corporate benefactors. Krugman correctly identified the issue in 2002 or so but he was considered a crackput lunatic back then, like anyone to the left of Henry Kissinger.

    I’m not letting Democrats off the hook – they have aided in this, either willingly or by displaying the same ignorance as so many in the Village.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The Big Lie here, of course, is the excusing of granny-starving as some sort of principled stance. “More for us and less for y’all isn’t a principle,” whether its proponent is a sociopath like Rand or an “authentic” nice-guy sociopath like Ryan.

    And it can never, ever be reconciled with even the GOP’s various perversions of Christianity. The party’s attempts to do so can be blackly humorous, but institutionalized misery and death aren’t funny.

  11. sleepyirv says:

    I’m a young man. How many “person arguing a position demolished on the day before” columns can someone take before they’re completely spiritually broken?

  12. [...] that it’s also important to emphasize that implying that Ryan cares about the deficit is conceding too much. He cares about upper-class tax cuts, he cares about funding stupid wars, he cares about slashing [...]

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