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Jared Bernstein

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How Did Things Get So Screwed Up?

Posted: 10/29/2012 9:18 am

I expected this presidential race to tighten up, so why should I find that fact so dispiriting?

At least two reasons come to mind. First, the stakes are high. If Romney/Ryan win and really do:

- Pass another massive trickle down tax cut on top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent;
- Repeal Obamacare, voucherize Medicare, and block grant Medicaid and food stamps;
- Deregulate financial markets and environmental protections;
- Push through budgets that spend a lot more on defense and a lot less on public goods, including education;

...the nation will be a lot worse off for it. I understand that they won't have a free legislative hand to wreck such havoc, but new administrations tend to get quite a bit of what they want, and even half of the above agenda would be terrible.

I and others have written a lot about that. Here, I'd like to think a bit about the second reason the current moment feels so unsettling: facts, policy analysis, pragmatic compromise, even common sense and simple math seem less relevant in this election cycle than in any in my lifetime.

That's not for lack of such analysis. I and many, many others offer tons of fact-based policy analysis, and many of us -- Krugman and the Wonkbook team are especially noteworthy -- try to do so in ways that are intelligible and go down easily. But I fear we are mostly writing for each other, our converted fans, and mindless opposition trolls.

It's no great insight to point out we're stuck in an age of truthiness, where fact-checking has been relegated to a section in the paper. It's also an old saw to knock folks making this argument as egg-heads who don't get the gut -- the Drew Westin critique that Democrats lose when they go for the brain instead of the heart. [Though I must admit I was struck when I read a passage this week from a New Yorker article citing the political scientists Gerber and Green on persuading non-voters to vote: "We do not see much evidence that what you communicate matters."]

I'm sure that's all true but it's not the whole story. When I say "policy analysis is missing" I'm not talking about coursework from the Kennedy School of Government. I'm talking about the math that says you can't cut taxes 20 percent across the board and balance the budget. Trickle-down doesn't work. Climate change is a real threat. Occupying other countries without clear benchmarks and goals is not in our interest. If we deeply cut federal spending, we can't invest in public goods including education, economically productive infrastructure, a safety net, pollution abatement, and so on-investments that matter to many of all political stripes.

But again, what bothers me about the Romney campaign and the current moment is not just the policy agenda. It's their ability to completely deny that agenda and gain ground in the polls. It's Romney's ability to very successfully argue that he doesn't really have a big tax cut (the first debate), that the tax cut he doesn't really have can be paid for by magic math, that his foreign policy is the same as the President's (the last debate), that his plan will add 12 million jobs -- the number that forecasters tell us we're likely to see regardless of who wins.

How did we devolve to a country where someone like this can just assert things with virtually no backup from reality and not only be taken seriously but be allegedly gaining ground on a president with a solid, if not inspiring, record? A president who can, with building evidence, make the case that were heading out of the economic woods, who's got a budget that's been scored by the CBO to stabilize the debt within the next decade, who plans to implement historic health care legislation that will unquestionably help tens of millions of people?

In trying to understand how we got here, I remembered a great book I read a few months ago, Ed Luce's Time to Start Thinking (which, in a very positive review in the NYT, the reviewer suggested might be retitled "Time to Start Drinking"). Ed fleshes out the details in ways worth reading for yourself, but here's my summary:

- Our politics has lost the pragmatism that no less than de Tocqueville recognized as being integral to our progress; it has been replaced by an ideology that is impenetrable to facts;

- Economists and policy analysts have themselves too often become undependable guides as, from their positions in bought-and-paid-for think tanks and endowed chairs, they have written off the challenges posed by globalization, technological change, and inequality as essentially consistent with creative destruction and efficient markets.

- Both of the above have led to underinvestment in public goods, particularly in education but relatedly in R&D and innovation;

- Money in politics reinforces all of the above, creating a vicious circle that boosts ideology over information, investment, innovation, and thus blocks both accurate diagnosis and problem-solving prescription.

As can be seen with crystal clarity in this election cycle, as these forces have evolved and gained strength, we are doing an increasingly bad job of maintaining our democracy. And it's not just the election -- it's also governing: consider the fiscal cliff debate today and the debt ceiling debacle last year.

Yes, it's time to start thinking again, but more pointedly, it's time to realize what a potentially wonderful country we have here in America and to once again embrace the responsibility for its stewardship. Right now, that means making the effort to see through shape-shifting flimflammers whose platform reduces to "tell me what you want and I'll tell you that I can give to you at absolutely no cost." I'll be happy to keep explaining the details, but I suspect at this point you don't really need them.

We have a but a few days left to wake up. I hope this missive serves as an alarm clock.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.

 

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