Back in the sixties everyone was reading Tolkien – Frodo saves Middle Earth and Gandalf didn’t really die – and over the last decade or so every kid in the world, and a good number of adults, read the Harry Potter books. And the movie adaptations of each made billions of dollars. Unlikely heroes always sell well, and the pain-in-the-ass know-it-all, Hermione, turned out to be a decent sort. And in each case everyone slowly closed the final volume with a sigh of regret, that the story really was over, but with overwhelming satisfaction. Things worked out as they should, and as they had to, really. The world had righted itself.
And now every woman in America is reading Fifty Shades of Grey – although The Story of O is still available and far better, if you’re a woman fascinated by bondage and submission and that sort of thing. It seems many are. And that might have something to do with the brutal times in which we live, and thus a vague but understandable longing to give up and give in and just go with things, for the fun of it and to see what happens next. If nothing matters you might as well explore everything possible. Something wonderful might happen, even in Seattle. O has her adventures in and around Paris. But of course the setting doesn’t matter in these matters. And the books fly off the shelves.
But no one reads political books – they must be loss-leaders for publishing houses, an attempt to establish some of that serious prestige that might be yours if you now and then publish something by Very Serious People. But in six months those books are on the remainder table, at far less than half-price, usually because they cover issues that are no longer issues – like examining Bush’s Brain – a once-fascinating profile of Karl Rove, who is merely a minor commentator on Fox News now, seldom seen, with Bush himself entirely silent in Texas, as he has been for years. The world moves on. And any book by Michael Dukakis, or Sarah Palin, is now useful only as a doorstop. Of course the Palin folks bought up many thousands of her books and resold them at her rallies, and charged even more for her to sign your copy. And now you have a keepsake, or a doorstop. And no one has ever met anyone who’s read any of Newt Gingrich’s books. They may be a myth.
Nope, political books are meant to be talked about, in the moment, and not read. What’s the point? They’re not intended to live beyond the moment. And paying too close attention can get you in trouble:
On Wednesday, Vanity Fair released excerpts of a new Obama biography by David Maraniss that focuses on his romances as a student in the early 1980s. At one point in the story, Obama – who never gave the girls’ names in his original book, “Dreams From My Father” – tells Maraniss that one story about a date was not referring to the same girlfriend who made up his most serious relationship at the time and is the focus of Maraniss’ chapter, Genevieve Cook.
And the right exploded:
Politico suggested that Obama may have misled about his memoir by not cautioning readers that characters might be combined: “Though Dreams From My Father is an autobiography, and hence non-fiction, Obama makes no mention of this ‘compression,’ nor is there any note by the publisher, Broadway Books,” wrote Dylan Byers. “In fact, Obama only acknowledged the ‘compression’ after Maraniss learned that Cook had no recollection of some of the events at which Obama said she was present.”
Drudge Report went further, trumpeting Byers’ story with the headline: “OBAMA ADMITS FABRICATING GIRLFRIEND IN MEMOIR.”
It seems no one read the introduction:
For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology. With the exception of my family and a handful of public figures, the names of most characters have been changed for the sake of privacy.
Byers then admitted he had missed that passage. Oops. It pays to read carefully. But Fox News and the conservative websites went wall-to-wall with the original notion that Obama is a serial liar, and they will probably ride this for another news cycle or two, or three or four. And certainly no one will read the book. That’s not the point. You talk about political books, you don’t really read them.
And the question is whether anyone will read Paul Krugman’s new book, End This Depression Now! This seems to be a spirited defense of Keynesian economics, applied to the current situation which he identifies as a real depression, calling for stimulating the economy now, to get us out of our hole, and paying back what that costs when we’re on our feet again. It’s the argument he’s been making for years, but what with his Nobel Prize in Economics, and the clear failure of austerity-as-growth in Europe, his new book is no doubt filled with somewhat wonky substance. It may be a textbook one day, not a doorstop.
But it is also a political book, as we do have one party calling for getting things going again by spending on infrastructure and whatnot, employing many and getting money in their pockets to bring back demand for goods and services, and the other party calling for getting things going again by stopping all spending cold, throwing hundreds of thousands out of work but getting our massive debt under control. That’s a dramatic difference and probably at the core of what the upcoming election will be about – unless the Republicans choose to go with too many gays and too many abortions and too many Mexicans everywhere. We’ll have to wait on that. It seems they’re still deciding.
But if you assume the election will be about austerity versus stimulus then that explains why Krugman’s promotional interviews went like this one with Talking Points Memo:
There may not be much President Obama can do to improve the economy between now and the election, but telling a clear story about why it remains weak could mean the difference between victory and defeat this November. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman fears the Obama team is getting that critical narrative wrong.
“They’ve tied themselves up in knots because they’ve bought into this notion that it would sound wrong to admit that they haven’t been able to do everything that they really should have done,” Krugman told TPM in an interview following the release of his new book… ”It’s incredible – they can’t quite make up their minds on whether the theme is that Republicans are standing in the way of doing what has to be done, or things are really good and America’s back on track. The problem is that you can’t perceive both of those lines at the same time.”
So the talk here isn’t so much about the book as it is about political strategy and framing devices:
Team Obama’s narrative that the stimulative measures he took were precisely what the country needed, and as a result America is on the mend is based on a gamble that the economy will be in a steady recovery come Election Day. But if outside factors diminish the outlook, it will leave voters with the impression that Obama’s approach itself was the problem, rather than the vigorous Republican resistance that forced him to scale back his ambitions.
“What they should be saying is, ‘We have the right ideas and we’re pursuing them as far as we can given the opposition from Republicans,’ which would be more or less the true narrative,” Krugman said.
But he fears that they fear to do that:
“They have decided that it sounds like weakness to say that we haven’t been doing everything that we should be doing. And so they have instead opted to always pretend that what they thought they were able to get is also exactly what they should have done. So they’ve never conceded that that first stimulus was too small, or that there really should have been a second round of stimulus. And that means that if things go badly, they end up owning it. They can’t say, ‘Don’t blame us, blame the do-nothing Congress.’”
But that too is actually part of the book:
Krugman laments the “shadow of economic catastrophe” we live in, and the opportunity cost of huge stockpiles of underutilized human and physical capital. The government should put that to work, Krugman says, first by reversing the state layoffs of teachers, firefighters and other employees, and then ideally with a New Deal-style public works push to rebuild American infrastructure by putting the unemployed to work. But even though GOP opposition makes that all but impossible, Krugman believes it’s a mistake for Obama not to go the extra mile and at least tell voters what more he would do if only he could.
And you simply need to apply that:
“There is a political danger to Obama, which is that Romney can go around saying, ‘The economy is still lousy,’ which is true,” Krugman said. “And the fact that Obama has never made a really clear case for his own economic leadership hurts. Now, I still think Obama will probably win, because there are other issues, but they have created a trap for themselves on the economic policy front by allowing themselves to own a weak economy in a way that they shouldn’t, because a lot of the problem has been tortured opposition from the Republicans.”
And too, there was sort of establishment consensus, for a time, that forced Obama to pivot to deficit-reduction, as we all remember. But then the Occupy Wall Street folks upended that, and of course the Republicans messed up, but maybe not enough:
When the ensuing negotiations with Republicans collapsed and nearly took the U.S. economy with it, Obama turned to his current narrative. Krugman worries that the story’s not strong enough, and there’s still some chance that the economic recovery could slip and toss the election to the GOP.
“We have a slowly developing cycle of an improving economy and improving household balance sheets that lead you on the road to recovery,” Krugman said. “But obviously a lot can go wrong if there’s some kind of major setback – problems in Europe could still hurt the United States, or a spike in oil prices as a result of what’s happening in the Middle East. … We could have morning in America still – but probably not in 2012. So I don’t think there’s going to be a strong enough recovery to make it easy for Obama.”
What about his book? Ah, that was just something to start the discussion of the real issues. And that continues with a video interview with the Daily Ticker:
“Romney, whatever he believes, if he believes anything, is certainly kowtowing to doctrines from the Republican party that would be a disaster,” Krugman tells Henry Blodget and Daniel Gross in the above video. “Romney will cut spending, which means basically the poor. So in the very short run we’re going to be taking money away from the people who would actually spend the money and give it to corporations who will sit on the cash because they don’t see good reasons to invest in the economy.”
Romney has thrown his support behind Congressman Paul Ryan’s controversial budget, which Krugman describes as “the most transparent piece of fraudulent accounting I’ve ever seen.” Ryan’s proposed tax cuts would cost the government $4.6 trillion over the next 10 years and disproportionately benefit the wealthy while inflicting economic hardship on students, the middle class and the elderly, Krugman says.
But there is a nod to the principles and supporting data in the actual book:
Krugman underscores the need for more government spending and aggressive Federal Reserve action, and decries the “tepid” response and “misguided” fiscal policies that have overtaken Washington – i.e. the focus on deficit reduction and inflation instead of getting Americans back to work.
But the immediate political situation is the real issue:
The Obama reelection campaign begins in earnest this weekend and Krugman believes Obama has a slight advantage over Romney at this stage in the election cycle. Obama’s shaky economic track record may be a hard selling point to voters but the administration’s rescue of the U.S. auto industry could be an issue that helps put Obama back in the White House.
“My God he saved the auto industry and he saved the industrial base in the American heartland which happens to be also the part of the country that’s doing the best in this recovery,” Krugman says. “The auto bailout may turn out to be the key to his re-election.”
Or it may be too many gay people out and about in America. Krugman’s book may end up as one more curiosity on the remainder table.
And in Slate, William Saletan argues that the whole business is just nonsense:
According to Mitt Romney, everything that’s going wrong in this country started when Barack Obama took office. Women lost their jobs. Families lost their homes. The nation’s debt soared.
According to Barack Obama, everything that’s going well started when he took office. The government rescued the auto industry. Energy production rose. The war against Osama Bin Laden turned in our favor.
Each candidate rejects the other’s story. Romney says the things that are going well started going well before Jan. 20, 2009. Obama says the things that are going badly went bad before Jan. 20, 2009. Both of these rebuttals are correct, which means both men are exaggerating what President Obama changed.
This is what politicians do: They heap blame on incumbents, promise to change the world, and then, once elected, pretend to have done so. Don’t believe them. It’s wildly implausible that the nation’s progress or decline began on Inauguration Day. In fact, it’s false. And the candidates, in their rebuttals, show that they know it.
And Saletan gets specific:
Obama tells a thrilling tale of slaying terrorists and rescuing American foreign policy. Addressing Americans from Afghanistan last night, he bragged: “Over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.” An Obama campaign video about the Bin Laden raid focuses not on the intelligence officers who tracked down Bin Laden, or on the SEALs who killed him, but on Obama’s decision to give the final order.
Romney says the real story goes back further: “That mission was the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work and sacrifice by our men and women in the military and intelligence communities.” He’s right. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, says credit must be shared with “the many intelligence professionals who pieced together the clues that led to Bin Laden’s hideout.” Brennan attributes al-Qaida’s decline to “intense efforts over more than a decade, across two administrations.” The CIA gathered leads for years before finding the one that led to Bin Laden. The first directive to accelerate drone strikes on al-Qaida leaders came from President George W. Bush, and the sharp upturn in strikes began in 2008, with 19 al-Qaida operatives among the 286 fatalities.
But then, when it comes to the economy, Romney conveniently forgets a few things too:
He starts counting job losses and foreclosures on the day Obama was sworn in. “Since Barack Obama became president, over 800,000 Americans have lost their jobs,” and “2.8 million homes have been foreclosed on,” Romney declared a month ago. Obama replies that the recession began earlier, and he’s right.
Saletan suggests Factcheck.org:
The unemployment rate began its rise before Obama took office, surged nearly three percentage points – hitting 7.8 percent at the time Obama took office. The rate crested under Obama at 10 percent in October 2009. Since the peak, the rate has come down – steadily but slowly – and stood at 8.2 percent for March. …
The number of households that received a foreclosure notice grew from 1.3 million to 2.3 million during Bush’s last year in office, according to RealtyTrac, a company that monitors foreclosures across the country. The number continued to rise under Obama to 2.8 million in 2009 and peaked at 2.9 million in 2010. However, the amount of households that received a foreclosure notice dropped to 1.9 million in 2011.
Who are you going to believe? Which false narrative do you prefer?
And there’s that other matter Obama is pushing:
His campaign spends much of a 17-minute video showing that the economic decline was well under way by the time he took office. Then the video pivots and, in an equally cynical truncation, claims all the credit for saving Detroit. “Because of the tough choices the president made, the stage was set for a resurgent U.S. auto industry,” says narrator Tom Hanks.
But Saletan asks you to remember this:
Bush announced on Dec. 19, 2008, that his administration would provide General Motors and Chrysler with $13.4 billion in funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. GM would be eligible for an additional $4 billion. … Obama used the viability plans required by Bush to force the automakers to go into bankruptcy and reorganize – successfully completing a process that Bush started.
And as for Romney’s repeated claim that Obama increased the federal deficit by more than twenty percent, one might also look at the facts:
Romney … is attributing to Obama a big rise in spending for fiscal year 2009 – which began under Bush, nearly four months before Obama took office. … The Budget Office attributed much of the increased spending in 2009 to three government programs: the stimulus, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and legislation to address the mortgage crisis, all three totaling $353 billion. TARP and the mortgage bailout were passed under Bush.
Saletan goes on with example after example. It’s all self-serving fudging. And he concludes with this:
Do elections make a difference? Sure. Obama’s election sealed the demise of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Romney’s election would affect Supreme Court rulings well into the future. But the more complicated the problem – the economy, terrorism, China – the less likely it is that a president will fundamentally alter it, especially in the short term.
Elections can change history. But mostly, they decide which party will pretend that the president changed history for the better, and which party will pretend that he changed it for the worse.
And they’ll write books about it, which no one will read. So stick with Tolkien or the Harry Potter books, or the bondage-submission stuff if that’s your thing. You won’t be missing anything. If nothing matters you might as well explore everything possible.