How Did Things Get So Screwed Up?

October 28th, 2012 at 4:28 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 factchecking 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% 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 flim-flammers 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.

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16 comments in reply to "How Did Things Get So Screwed Up?"

  1. Rima Regas says:

    They’ve been lying. They’ve been constructing an alternate reality complete with alternate history, economics, science, education – you name it. Now, in the last days of the campaign, they’re playing mind games and enlisting corporate CEOs to bolster their efforts. At the risk of sounding paranoid, and I don’t think I’m the only one, the polling organizations are playing along, with Gallup leading the charge.

    Paul Krugman just wrote a blog post on what they’re doing to Nate Silver. Read it here.

    Frank Rich wrote a must-read piece about what the right will do when Obama wins. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, I think we all need to read the piece and put some thought into it.

    The thing we Dems are not, at least not innately, is disciplined. If there are two major lessons we need to learn from the last four years is that halfway measures give halfway results and we need to close ranks around Obama, just like the GOP closed ranks around McConnell and keep going #Forward while veering to the left.

  2. Michael Olsen says:

    Jared, I always enjoy your commentary, here, online, on television.

    I think you aren’t being cynical enough. You sound like you think that it is only one party that lies to the electorate, and says things that are false. It’s both. Why do you ignore:

    – The current administration has nearly doubled the national debt, even as the President, when in the Senate, decried it as a travesty.

    – That the stimulus, even if it had some merit, did not justify its cost. It would have been better to take half that money and give it away.

    – That the administration wants everyone who votes for it to believe it can have “free stuff” paid for by “the rich.” Car vouchers, education loans, retirement benefits, food stamps, whatever; and it continues to say that it will never make the citizenry pay for these things — even though half the population pays none of the income taxes that support these items.

    – That the administration creates a ‘war on women’ that doesn’t exist, to scare and cajole voters into believing the opponent — whatever you think of him — will roll the clock back 100 years. In the last 40 years there have been no material changes in the unstoppable tide of women’s progress, during republican and democratic rule. It won’t stop now. (The Ledbedder Act, of course, did nothing to enhance women’s rights, it was a gift to trial lawyers, and you know it.)

    So, your honesty and penetrating analysis are usually so refreshing. You seem to have gone in to a red haze here. Snap out of it. You’ll keep writing and blogging and being a talking head even if Joe Biden retires.


    • Jared Bernstein says:

      Thanks for the kind words, and I should snap out of it–this situation has me in a real funk. Not at all self-pitying…I’ll be fine. But I’m an information person, a facts person. And I’m worried about our ability to present, process, absorb, and act on relevant information in ways that improve the present and the future.

      And no, no, no! I will not accept a pox on both their houses. I completely agree that nobody’s perfect by a long shot but the Romney team’s shape shifting and cynicism has been remarkable, way beyond the pale, and O’s team hasn’t been anywhere near as bad–not even close.

      • fausto412 says:

        Agreeing with your post as I feel much the same away. I also feel you are right about the audience here. When discussing economics and politics fact based analysis and discussion is hard to find and when you come into the table with your Krugman, Wonkbook, OTE knowledge people refuse to believe you or just dismiss you. When did dismissing someone because he disagreed with you become ok?(When the right created an alternate reality?)

        I do hate the “both sides” nonsense. It shows intellectual laziness, lack of knowledge about what is being discussed. Example: The Obama Admin lied about the mandate in HCR reform…they in public called it anything but a Tax. Had they done that this issue wouldn’t have made it to the Supreme Court but not because it is within the Governments rights to do. It would not make it to the Supreme Court because Americans are easily swayed by the worth Tax and the legislation would not have passed. Now is that politically necessary lying to be put on the same level as Death Panels? If you can’t appreciate the difference then you aren’t informed enough on the subject to pass judgement. If we had a well functioning media both Death Panels and the word Tax wouldn’t matter in that debate but if we talk “if” scenarios I could go for an hour easily. If the GOP is so willing to lie it would be idiotic for the Democrats to go 100% honest in making their arguments…it would be disarming yourself. Policy examination and fact based reporting and commentating is needed here to restore some credibility and honor to our political discourse. Instead of spending money on stars the news needs to spend money on true subject matter experts.

    • Smiley Bob says:

      I am sorry Michael, but you have drunk so much of the Republican swill that you do not realize that everything you just said is a lie. Just picking on the stimulus alone, you have obviously not read or understood any of Jared’s posts. The stimulus was effective and and did what it was supposed to, it was just not enough. No sense trying to correct the rest of your comments as you are in different universe.

      • Michael Olsen says:

        Smiley Bob – well, that says it all doesn’t it. I can’t really disagree with someone called Smiley Bob.

  3. Nhon Tran says:

    Thank you.
    “a President with a solid, if not inspriring, record…”
    I agree, but he failed miserably to put his case before the American people in the Denver debate!!!
    If he were to lose, he would have only himself to blame!
    But keep the faith everyone!
    Nhon Tran

  4. Horst Lehrheuer says:

    Here is what I shared also with some of my Facebook friends wrt Jared Bernstein’s commentary above:
    “I happen to think that a lot of Bernstein’s criticism is correct! Here is one of my non-political reasons for this: any proponent, like Romney/Ryan (btw – an Ayn Rand and objectivism fan) and many others (also among Democrats) who still believe and act upon the ability of simple causal idealized models such as the “free market” (with e.g. “perfect competition and information,” which also cannot provide any useful predictions) will lead, if elected, this country and others for that matter into a future for which we all will have to pay the price. Inequality will very likely keep on rising, among other issues. – Even more broadly speaking, it is astonishing how much two-hundred-plus year old thinking, including Newtonian (mechanistic) and Cartesian (dualistic) and linear thinking among others, still dominates the thinking and acting of our political, corporate and academic decision makers and thinkers today. Of course, why should we then expect the majority of the electorate and citizens around the world to do any better? Simply speaking: “We get what we accept or elect” and for that we cannot abdicate our responsibility.

  5. Jim Carey says:


    Thanks for writing this. More than the 62 or so emails I get from Democratic causes every day, it is thoughtful pieces like this that might make me make just 1 more contribution to the cause.

  6. Chris G says:

    >”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.”

    Writing about Sarah Palin several years ago, Matt Taibbi commented, “Palin has figured out that … really all you have to do to win elections in this country [is] flatter middle Americans’ moronic fantasies about themselves.”

    You could substitute just about any Republican for “Palin” in the quote above. You’re right, unfortunately. Facts, analysis, etc. don’t mean jack to significant fraction of the electorate. Flattering people’s moronic fantasies however appears to be a winner though year in, year out.

    This may sound a little loopy but I blame Reagan for the current state of affairs. (No, wait! I’m serious! Hear me out!) Reagan drove a fundamental shift in how the general population view government. He was the first high ranking politician to state the “Government is the problem.” and have it stick. That’s a fundamentally different outlook from saying, “Government isn’t working and we need to fix it. In order to do that we need to make it smaller.” (Which could be a plausible and Republican argument in some circumstances.) As an elected official, if you’ve dismissed the need to make Government function effectively for the citizens then flattering people’s moronic fantasies of themselves is probably as good a use of your time as any.

    • Pauley says:

      Chris G.,

      Exactly! And we all should have known, when Reagan ran for and won the governorship of California, just what he was doing and how. It was clear to me that he would not answer straight any question of substance, but pander in jokesy-folksy-talk while talking circles around the truth. His strangling of California’s school system, public works and services were clearly aligned with Goldwater’s ideology, which was rejected in ’64. But Reagan slipped it to us after all by disguising the firebrand rhetoric and hatred of an open and civil society of equality and progressive principles. That actor signed on to portray a false image while fronting for the Birchers who spawned today’s plutocrats. And, there you go again…

  7. Bob Walling says:

    JB: All is lost should a few, a very few, good people do not do anything to prevent this loss! I for one have found sanity from reading yours, Dr. Krugman, Ezra, Dr Riech, etc….. Fear and ignorance can only thrive if allowed to do so …. unfortunately many people in our country are affected by these maladies!!!

  8. Cary King says:


    It seems to me at this time that this may be the best, most important post ever.

    “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….?”


    My theory is that those that understand the real effects of trickle-down were smug and silent for too long.

    The public has come to believe that tax cuts solve every economics problem. And, the public has come to believe that government is unable to solve anything, because for the past 32 years government has been unable to manage itself with adequate funding. Name one major government accomplishment besides war since Reagan – one bridge, one large anything?

    Warren G. Bennis writes that, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

    Thirty-two years of Republican Party small ball.

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
    – Proverbs 29:18

  9. Bob Wyman says:

    People generally understand the rules of household and business economics such as: “You can’t borrow your way out of debt.” But, they don’t understand much about national economics. So, we’ve got to start teaching them easy to understand and remember principles such as:

    “When the people are saving, the government must spend.
    When the people are spending, the government must save.”

  10. Hugh says:

    Joe Firestone commented on this post at New Economic Perspectives and I saw that comment in a cross-post at corrente. As a progressive, I seldom visit sites of Establishment liberals. Too much cognitive dissonance. Many of us no longer accept the rationale of voting for the lesser evil, perhaps because we see Romney and Obama, the Democrats and Republicans, not as greater and lesser but rather complementary evils. If Romney or Obama is elected, we in the 99% are screwed. For most Americans there has been no recovery. What gains there have been have gone to the 1%. Job creation under Obama has been fairly poor as has been the quality of the jobs created. Spare me the lines about Obama being hamstrung. The Democrats could have done away with the filibuster at the beginning of the 2009 session by simple majority vote. Obama could have pressed for Medicare for All but he opted for the corporate sellout of Obamacare instead. He needed no acts of Congress to prosecute Bush era torturers or fraud and looting on Wall Street. We on the progressive side are not factless. We have been chronicling and documenting the convergence of the two parties for years. I am not here to change anyone’s mind. I do not expect in so brief a space or at such a time to convert anyone to anything. I am here to say that there is life after the two parties and also the solutions and analysis which both parties so conspicuously lack.

  11. Bill Gatliff says:


    Please, PLEASE keep up the faith and good work. Actual facts are needed now more than ever, along with the ability to explain them to us.

    I recently read “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative”, by Stephen Denning. Changed my life. I suggest you do likewise, because it would provide essential tools for helping us all get re-focused on what matters.

    Case in point: I don’t understand why the D’s don’t just come out with clarity and say that the R’s numbers don’t work, vouchers won’t work, and so on. We all love that Clinton can speak to the common man, but if a whole bunch more people don’t learn to do likewise then we’re sunk.

    In particular, I don’t see why Obama doesn’t just openly admit that the reason he didn’t make the progress he wanted to the last four years is because the R’s made stopping his re-election more important than serving their country.

    It really is that simple. The time for flowery prose is over. Get pithy already.