Selective Deficit Disorder and the Zombie Lie Machine

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Of the billions poured out in bailouts and stimulus, a substantial share has gone to privileged insiders and liberal interest groups -- Wall Street bankers, auto unions, public-sector employees." -- New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, 11/29/09

Last week, I wrote about the various zombie lies surrounding budgetary matters -- and how they are legitimated by both right-wing propagandists and local media outlets to the point where Americans who support $7 trillion Pentagon budgets chock full of waste simultaneously complain about "overspending" on deficit-reducing health care proposals. This week, the New York Times' Ross Douthat gives us another good example of how this all works.

As you can see from the quote above, Douthat deliberately equates federal dollars handed to Wall Street insiders with federal dollars supposedly handed to auto unions and public-sector employees. Let's ignore the simple fact that there's a difference between cutting TARP and Federal Reserve bank checks to private banks; floating auto companies loans with demands for union wage concessions; and funding job-creating federal/state programs. Let's ignore the malicious dishonesty of saying the latter two actions constitute giving away public money to "auto unions and public-sector employees" in the same way public money actually was given away to Wall Street firms. Let's even forget the subjective framing of his entire argument -- for instance, his choosing these three budget items, but ignoring the bloated Pentagon budget that is handing over billions in pork to defense contractors and sucking dollars away from every other national spending priority. Let's ignore all that and say it's up for interpretation -- and let's just go to the cold, hard numbers that are not up for interpretation.

According to Bloomberg News, the federal government has committed roughly $12.8 trillion to bailing out Wall Street (that includes the TARP, the Federal Reserve giveaways and the FDIC giveaways -- the latter two which we're all supposed to somehow forget). According to Money magazine, the highest estimate of the cash it will require to float the entire auto industry is $130 billion (as of now, it's well below that). For comparison, that's less money to bailout the entire auto industry as the Wall Street Journal says the federal government has spent on one just one financial company, AIG -- a company that continues to pay out huge bonuses. Additionally, of the $787 billion stimulus, let's use the Wall Street Journal's inflated estimate that $500 billion of that bill went for direct spending (the other $280 billion was tax cuts, according to the Journal) -- and let's assume just for sheer argument's sake that Douthat's absurd argument is true and that all of that $500 billion was simply given to public-sector employees (which it most certainly was not).

Remember, the numbers I have cited are not gleaned from any liberal sources -- Bloomberg News, Money magazine and the Wall Street Journal are a lot of things, but they are about as far from liberal agitprop as it gets. And when you do the arithmetic and give Douthat every single benefit of the doubt about money supposedly being given to auto unions (rather than auto executives) and to public-sector employees, what you come up with is $12.8 trillion for Wall Street, and $630 billion for auto unions and public sector employees. Put another way, out of $13.43 trillion spent on the specific spending Douthat identifies, 95 percent went to Wall Street, and 5 percent went to auto unions and public-sector employees.

And yet, as you can see very clearly in his column, the two are equated as exactly the same. He combines all of the spending and then cites it as proof that a "substantial share" of federal money was wrongly given away, even though the vast majority of the "substantial share" he's inveighing against -- 95 percent, to be exact -- was spending only on one of the three items he specifies.

This is like a compulsive gambler losing $1,000 at a poker table, and then telling his wife with a straight face that one of the big reasons he lost money was the $50 ante. Only a pathological liar would make such an argument to a family member, much less to an even more unforgiving public.

But that's exactly what Douthat does -- he perpetuates the zombie lie that spending on anything vaguely progressive (if you can even call the auto bailout that) is at least as much to blame for bankrupting the nation as spending on corporate largesse, à la the Wall Street bailout. And he does this deliberately, not accidentally. He's paid lots of money to write these columns and to do the 10 minutes of research to verify his claims -- and so when he (or any well-paid pundit) writes something like this, you can bet they have made a conscious decision to obfuscate.

Of course, Douthat is just one of many cogs in the larger Zombie Lie Machine. The zombie lie he perpetuates this week is the same zombie lie of those with Selective Deficit Disorder who insist they are worried about health care bills that reduce the deficit while voting for defense budgets that add $7 trillion to the deficit.

It's a zombie lie that has absolutely no relation to basic budgetary facts -- but because it plays into Reaganized stereotypes about welfare queens and liberal social programs, and because there are people like Douthat willing to knowingly perpetuate such a zombie lie, it continues to lurch forward and dominate the debate. It provides cover for "centrist" Senators like, say, Evan Bayh insisting "there's no bigger deficit hawk in Congress than I am" as they simultaneously vote for deficit-expanding bank bailouts, against war surtaxes, and for proposals to slash the nation's minimal social spending to the bone. It marginalizes progressives who fight to pass health care and end a war that most Americans oppose. In short, it divorces the entire discussion from basic budgetary reality.