Man Without Qualities

Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Erosion? Heck No, It's Just Rot: Towards A General Theory Of The Krugman/DeLong Rhetorical Inflationary Cycle

Astute reader Patrick Sullivan notes that Paul Krugman grossly misrepresents the position of Max Hastings in this Krugmanaical misquote:

... Max Hastings, the veteran war correspondent — who supported Britain's participation in the war — writes that "the prime minister committed British troops and sacrificed British lives on the basis of a deceit, and it stinks."

But it is not true that Hastings supported Britain's participation in the war or that he has ever been fond of the Bush Administration. What Hastings actually wrote was:

I hardly know anyone, and I doubt if you do, who is eager to join President George W Bush's war with Iraq. Before reaching an unpalatable conclusion, however, let us summarise some good reasons for having nothing to do with this adventure. ... One of the most dangerous developments since the attack on the Twin Towers is that Israel's hawks have persuaded some influential Americans to equate the terrorists of al-Qaeda with the Palestinian suicide-bombers. ... The US refusal to match an attack on Iraq with a show of opposition to the excesses of the Sharon regime on the West Bank seems one of the gravest weaknesses of American policy. But the British Government, which espouses this view, has so far entirely failed to persuade Washington of its validity. ... Fighting al-Qaeda demands a long, unglamorous struggle dominated by intelligence and diplomacy. Invading Iraq provides an opportunity to deploy American military power to maximum effect, but is irrelevant to combating Muslim terrorism. America appears to lack any credible policy for the future of Iraq after deposing Saddam. ... All these seem substantial objections to starting a war. Yet set against them is an overwhelming reality: the United States is determined to fight. ... If Britain now withdrew its contingent unilaterally from the invasion force, US anger would be unrestrained.... If we piled arms now, in American eyes we would look not merely ridiculous, but treacherous. ... Mr Bush and Mr Blair have made a miserable job of explaining their purposes in Iraq.... US policy, as explained so far, appears to reflect the visceral instincts of Mr Bush, rather than any comprehensible legal framework. ...

I feel deeply uncomfortable about war against Iraq, but I now see no alternative to British participation. This is scarcely a dignified intellectual position. But the alternative, a decisive breach with the US when the West faces grave threats to its security, seems too painful to contemplate. I suspect Mr Blair thinks the same.

The excellent Atlantic Blog points out that Brad DeLong has also served up this whopper:

Brad DeLong ... offers up a piece by Max Hastings ... that is critical of the Bush administration, leading it with this comment: "Britain's genuinely conservative Daily Telegraph is now filled with unhappy campers... " But [DeLong] does not bother to mention that Hastings has been opposed to the war from the beginning .... And Hastings has continued to be hostile (reg. required) to the Bush administration. ...

Yesterday, James Taranto termed this particular Krugman effort an unusually deranged column even by his standards. The same might be said of the more subtle and evasive DeLong effort - but then no major, if swooning, media outlet has provided DeLong's derangements wide circulation. Faced with what they see as an increasingly desperate political situation, Messrs. Krugman, DeLong and other liberal commentators are resorting to increasingly preposterous rhetorical inflation in apparent efforts to pump up aggregate support from their political base. As Taranto puts it: But now an argument is developing on the Democratic left that somehow the policies themselves are corrupt--that because Bush doesn't agree with liberal ideas, he is a liar. And, as I noted yesterday, Democrats and Herr Doktorprofessor seem to feel the need to reach their respective bases - in each case apparently a base presumed by them to be ever more lacking in intelligence and education.

I believe that we must face the unpleasant facts. There is a clear need for a Friedman-Phelps type correction of the Krugman/DeLong rhetorical inflationary cycle. As Professor Phelps reminded in the Wall Street Journal yesterday in the economic context:

Behind that view is the "aggregate demand" fallacy: the government can deliver high employment simply by pumping up high aggregate demand -- by easier money or bigger budgetary deficits. A.W. Phillips sensed the mistake here, arguing in 1958 that a pumped-up employment level typically brings a higher rate of inflation (illustrated with his famous curve). Milton Friedman and I corrected Phillips , explaining in 1968 that, to keep on doing the pumping trick, the rate of inflation would have to be driven higher and higher -- until the payments system broke down or the policy was halted.

And so too with now-ongoing liberal rhetorical inflation: the rate of inflation will have to be driven higher and higher -- until the system breaks down or the policy is halted. Indeed, Herr Doktorprofessor's rhetoric has already reached Weimarian dimensions, comparable to the benighted German era in which one routinely brought a wheelbarrow of currency to market just to buy a loaf of bread. Similarly, here are some samples that Herr Doktorprofessor yesterday wheel barrowed into the marketplace of ideas:

[T]his administration... — to an extent never before seen in U.S. history — systematically and brazenly distorts the facts ...

[T]he Republican National Committee declared that the latest tax cut benefits "everyone who pays taxes." That is simply a lie. ...

[T]he bald-faced misrepresentation of an elitist tax cut offering little or nothing to most Americans is only the latest in a long string of blatant misstatements. Misleading the public has been a consistent strategy for the Bush team ...

Each time the administration comes up with another whopper, partisan supporters — a group that includes a large segment of the news media — obediently insist that black is white and up is down.

[T]he neoconservatives who fomented this war were nonchalant, or worse, about mass murders by Central American death squads in the 1980's ...

[T]he selling of the war is arguably the worst scandal in American political history ...

[O]ur political system has become utterly, and perhaps irrevocably, corrupted.

Surely, given the current credibility crisis at the Times, draconian inflation fighting solutions are appropriate. Yes, yes, one could bring in a new columnist and impose some harsh rhetorical conversion ratio (say, 100,000-to-one) between the new rhetorical currency and the outgoing, debased Krugmark, much the way Argentina and those banana republics which Herr Doktorprofessor adores comparing to the United States do repeatedly. But exactly that banana republic experience cautions us that without some ongoing rhetorical discipline, the salutary effects of the new currency would soon be lost - just as endless versions of pesos or reales or or whatevers flow meaninglessly into each other.

Perhaps Herr Doktorprofessor's rhetoric could be pegged to some relatively stable standard. Yes, it would be uncomfortable for Herr Doktoprofessor to receive that memorandum from Pinch or Howell requiring that a Paul Krugman column be no more than, say, 8 times as inflated or preposterous than, say, the E.J. Dionne effort then in circulation. A rhetoric board, modeled on the currency boards that have helped some inflation-prone nations so much, might also be an option. Or perhaps the Times should admit the extent of the problem and consider full-sale Dionneization. I realize that each of these suggestions would be strong medicine - even humiliating at first. But surely Times administration, Democrats and liberals (or is it just "liberals?" - must ask Paul) generally must come to understand that something serious must be done! And if some of those those banana republics can pull themselves together - at least for a while from time to time - the Times Op-Ed page can do it, too!

UPDATE: More good things - from Luskin.

FURTHER UPDATE: Some non-Times examples of hyperinflation of liberal rhetoric to the point of prevarication or close to it: a Guardian retraction (In our front page lead on May 31 headlined "Straw, Powell had serious doubts over their Iraqi weapons claims," we said that the foreign secretary Jack Straw and his US counterpart Colin Powell had met at the Waldorf Hotel in New York shortly before Mr Powell addressed the United Nations on February 5. Mr Straw has now made it clear that no such meeting took place. The Guardian accepts that and apologises for suggesting it did.) and the hideous, fake Wolfowitz ("What WMD? It was all about the oil!") misquote that has been globally disseminated by the left.

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