Talking About Nothing At All

It’s hard to describe graduate school, probably because it’s so intense and at the same time so divorced from anything like real life. There would be times, at Duke University in the early seventies, when there’d be that odd moment of startling clarity – hey, everyone in this room is talking about nothing at all. Suddenly it was like watching a silent movie, without the title cards – a surreal moment and a sort of out-of-body experience. Nominally the topic of the graduate seminar would have something to do with early eighteenth-century British literature, but nothing has anything to do with early eighteenth-century British literature. There was the sunshine outside the window, and dentists and businessmen and truck drivers out there doing what they do, and Nixon up in Washington being nasty, and the war in Vietnam winding down – real life. The talk in the room was of what Jonathan Swift really thought of Robert Walpole, or how the prose style of John Dryden really did change everything, or something else, or maybe not. Take one step back, out of the intense immediate, and it’s hard to step back in. They really were talking about nothing.

That served them well. Most of them became scholars, where one’s career depends on becoming the preeminent authority on something where there is no existing preeminent authority, something not yet discussed and analyzed and parsed to death. You either found a way to say every other scholar in the last hundred or more years had got it wrong – Swift or Pope or whomever had been saying something else entirely, if you thought about it – or you found something obscure or arcane that no one cared about and made discussing that your life’s work – which was far easier. When you weren’t doing that you taught undergraduate classes, to kids who had no idea what you were talking about. It’s a living, but a few of us just walked away from it all. A world where everyone is talking about nothing at all was not that appealing. A lifetime of that is a frightening prospect.

There were, however, those who thrived in that environment and didn’t become scholars – they became talk-show hosts. One of those was Charlie Rose – once an undergraduate at Duke, where he also got his law degree – just like Richard Nixon and Angela Davis. Yes, the tragically flawed president and the militant radical, but unlike those two, Rose did nothing with his law degree but talk, or listen to talk, or facilitate talk – and he’s good at it. His PBS interview show is one of the best – an hour on one topic, most often with one interviewee, with probing questions on some Very Serious Issue and lots of time to hash things out. Rose has always had a loyal following of news junkies and policy wonks – these are what they call in-depth interviews – but that following is small. Much of what is discussed is obscure at times, and discussed in bewildering detail, so that any broader audience would think Charlie and his guest(s) were talking about nothing at all. Yeah, sometimes it was like being back at Duke.

That happened again this week:

Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough brought their ongoing debate over the debt to Charlie Rose’s table tonight, where they spent an hour fighting from their respective trenches – never finding common ground, and often veering from the economic debate to critique each other’s sparring style.

Krugman argued, as he long has, that fixing the debt is not an immediate problem, and that government should continue to invest and focus on jobs. Scarborough argued that solving the debt crisis is an immediate concern, but that government could do that and increase jobs at the same time.

Krugman and Scarborough had been having at each other for weeks, but this night Krugman was exasperated and flat and Scarborough was glib – and they talked past each other, which is kind of like talking about nothing at all. It’s just that Scarborough was the one talking about nothing at all. He was talking in his own way about what Krugman has cynically called those nasty but wholly imaginary Bond Vigilantes. After the first debt-ceiling debacle, which resulted in the downgrade of our credit rating, they were supposed to swoop in and our borrowing costs were supposed to go sky high. But the interest rate on the benchmark ten-year treasuries fell to next to nothing – actually producing a negative interest rate, making it crazy not to borrow more, which we didn’t of course. And those rates stayed low, historically low. That was a year and half ago, but Scarborough keeps saying just wait – those Bond Vigilantes are coming, any day now – you’ll see. Krugman keeps saying there are no Bond Vigilantes – look at the empirical evidence! Scarborough says wait, just wait, just wait.

It’s a bit like the Bush years. In 2001 and then 2003 tax cuts for the filthy rich were supposed to result in millions of jobs and unimaginable prosperity – but that never happened. We were told wait, just wait – that will happen any day now. It’s been more than a decade and we’re still waiting, and being told we’re stupid for not having sufficient faith in what is going happen one day soon – just wait, just wait. The folks in the UK went with full austerity and low taxes after all, and yes they had a triple-dip recession and misery, but at least their credit rating is now solid. No, wait – their credit rating was just downgraded, as no one believes they’ll be able to pay anyone much of anything, because their economy has collapsed into stagnation and no possibility of growth. But wait, just wait – the UK will be an economic powerhouse soon. Have faith. Just wait. Krugman likes to joke that these guys are waiting for the Confidence Fairy.

Krugman wasn’t that lively on the Charlie Rose show – he admitted he had a bad night – but the question remains. How long do we wait? It’s faith versus empiricism – it’s the world as these guys want it to be versus the way it is. Which do you prefer? Do you prefer to talk about nothing at all?

Now there’s something else to talk about too:

Job growth has begun gathering steam as the housing market comes back to life and many private employers start to look past government budget battles and begin adding employees to their thinned ranks.

The Labor Department said the economy added 236,000 net jobs in February, much more than the 160,000 that analysts on average had expected. The gain was strong enough to help drive the nation’s unemployment rate down to 7.7%, from 7.9% in January. It’s at the lowest point in President Obama’s tenure. Employees put in more hours of work last month, and their average hourly earnings edged higher.

That’s good news, and that set off Krugman:

Four years ago, as a newly elected president began his efforts to rescue the economy and strengthen the social safety net, conservative economic pundits – people who claimed to understand markets and know how to satisfy them – warned of imminent financial disaster. Stocks, they declared, would plunge, while interest rates would soar.

Even a casual trawl through the headlines of the time turns up one dire pronouncement after another. “Obama’s radicalism is killing the Dow,” warned an op-ed article by Michael Boskin, an economic adviser to both Presidents Bush. “The disciplinarians of U.S. policy-makers return,” declared The Wall Street Journal, warning that the “bond vigilantes” would soon push Treasury yields to destructive heights.

Sure enough, this week the Dow Jones industrial average has been hitting all-time highs, while the current yield on 10-year U.S. government bonds is roughly half what it was when The Journal published that screed.

Yes, everyone makes a bad prediction now and then, but these guys were talking about nothing at all, and maybe that should matter:

The important point about these particular bad predictions is that they came from people who constantly invoke the potential wrath of the markets as a reason we must follow their policy advice. Don’t try to cover America’s uninsured, they told us; if you do, you will undermine business confidence and the stock market will tank. Don’t try to reform Wall Street, or even criticize its abuses; you’ll hurt the plutocrats’ feelings, and that will lead to plunging markets. Don’t try to fight unemployment with higher government spending; if you do, interest rates will skyrocket.

And, of course, do slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid right away, or the markets will punish you for your presumption.

By the way, I’m not just talking about the hard right; a fair number of self-proclaimed centrists play the same game. For example, two years ago, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson warned us to expect an attack of the bond vigilantes within, um, two years unless we adopted, you guessed it, Simpson-Bowles.

So what the bad predictions tell us is that we are, in effect, dealing with priests who demand human sacrifices to appease their angry gods – but who actually have no insight whatsoever into what those gods actually want, and are simply projecting their own preferences onto the alleged mind of the market.

It’s all talk about nothing, versus reality:

The interest-rate story is fairly simple. As some of us have been trying to explain for four years and more, the financial crisis and the bursting of the housing bubble created a situation in which almost all of the economy’s major players are simultaneously trying to pay down debt by spending less than their income. Since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, this means a deeply depressed economy. It also means low interest rates, because another way to look at our situation is, to put it loosely, that right now everyone wants to save, and nobody wants to invest. So we’re awash in desired savings with no place to go, and those excess savings are driving down borrowing costs.

Under these conditions, of course, the government should ignore its short-run deficit and ramp up spending to support the economy. Unfortunately, policy makers have been intimidated by those false priests, who have convinced them that they must pursue austerity or face the wrath of the invisible market gods.

In short, there’s how the economy actually works, and then there are all these people talking about nothing at all. Empirical evidence shows than the Keynesian liberals were right – the markets of the last four years have shown that – not that it seems to matter.

We’ve been here before. This month also marks the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War – our Shock and Awe bombing of Baghdad began on March 20, ten years ago. Eight years, eight months, three weeks and four days later we were outta there – with not much to show for it. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and even George Bush sheepishly admitted that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 at all – or more precisely, said he never even implied such a thing. Now Iraq is cozy with Iran and supporting the Syrian government as we try to figure out a way to support the rebels trying to overthrow it – and the Sunnis are still periodically blowing up the Shia, or the other way around, while the Kurds up north will sooner or later break away and join their Turkish breatheren, causing no end of trouble. Only John McCain thinks this war was the best thing America had ever done. Everyone else is wondering how the hell this happened. As in marriages, that’s what ten-year anniversaries are for.

James Fallows wonders about that:

As I think about it this war and others the U.S. has contemplated or entered during my conscious life, I realize how strong the recurrent pattern of threat inflation is. Exactly once in the post-WW II era has the real threat been more ominous than officially portrayed. That was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the world really came within moments of nuclear destruction.

Otherwise: the “missile gap.” The Gulf of Tonkin. The overall scale of the Soviet menace. Iraq. In each case, the public soberly received official warnings about the imminent threat. In cold retrospect, those warnings were wrong – or contrived, or overblown, or misperceived. Official claims about the evils of these systems were many times justified. Claims about imminent threats were most of the times hyped.

Kevin Drum adds this:

We’re all going to use the anniversary as a reason to cast blame and demand accountability from everyone who was wrong ten years ago. That’s fine. But it’s more important, I think, to try to learn some actual lessons, and this is the key one. The lesson isn’t that threats are never real. The lesson is that, nine times out of ten, the official account of the threat is overblown by at least half.

So keep that in mind for the next war. If you listen to the war supporters, and their case still sounds reasonable even after you discount everything they say by fifty percent or more, then maybe you should support military action. But that ought to be your standard. Your default assumption should be that they’re overstating the threat by at least that much.

Yes, assume people are talking about nothing. It’s usually the best assumption, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at the Atlantic, remembers early 2003:

I wasn’t a liberal hawk. I was actually a deliveryman for a deli in Park Slope, doing what writing I could (mostly at the Village Voice) in between. Back then I was seized with a deep feeling that I what I thought did not matter much. I was a writer in the sense that there were things that were published with my name on them. I didn’t have a blog. I didn’t have status. I didn’t have a pager.

But I did have a grinding cynicism. I was skeptical of war, but if the U.S. was going to take out a mad tyrant, who was I to object? And more, who were you to object? I remember being out during one of the big anti-war protests and watching the crowds stream down Broadway. I remember thinking, “You fools believe that you matter? You think what you’re saying means anything?”

In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, “No. Not in my name.” It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism.

Here he cites Fallows:

Let’s assume that many Iraqis may indeed be better off. For Americans that’s not the relevant fact. After all, many people in Cuba, North Korea, etc. might be better off if the U.S. invaded there too. The question I am asking is whether this was a sane investment of American lives, money, national focus and attention, and international reputation. I argued before the war and soon after that it wasn’t, and I think time has strengthened rather than weakened that case.

There’s talk about nothing, then there’s reality, and pragmatism, and Coates adds this:

I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness – my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn’t deserve my hard thinking or hard acting, my cynicism. I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every “sensible” and “serious” person you knew – left or right – was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.

Watching reasonable people assemble sober arguments for a disaster was, to put it mildly, searing.

That’s Krugman’s problem too, on economic matters. As for the war, a few of Andrew Sullivan’s readers sound off, like this one:

What always amazed me about the run-up to the Iraq War was the context in which it was discussed. The question was always, “What if they have WMDs?” in which case the inevitable answer would be, “We have to go in.” At no point did I hear any pundit or advisor or government official or anyone anywhere say, “The question isn’t whether or not they have them. They do. The question is, does that mean attacking is the best option?”

Frankly, I, like everyone else, assumed Saddam had them, but at no point did that ever make me assume that he was likely to use them. And I don’t think myself particularly astute. Nor was I emotionally detached. I lived in New York during 9-11 and I remember that day vividly. But none of that ever made me conclude that it was likely that he would use those weapons. Thus, I thought the way Bush was allowed to frame the debate around does he/does he not have them enabled him to rush to war with fewer detractors. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have gone to war. I’m just saying the way he framed the debate made it easier.

Taking about nothing can be dangerous, and there’s this letter:

The Iraq War still confounds me. In the run-up to the war, I was 17. We invaded one month before my 18th birthday. And yet I knew, 100%, that it was the wrong thing to do to invade Iraq. How could I be right and so many adults be wrong?

It wasn’t a question of knowledge. I had access to much less information than those who were in power. It was a question of values. As much as I was castigated at this time for this view, I believe strongly that military force should only be used when absolutely necessary to defend oneself. I also believed strongly in deference to international authority, not American unilateralism. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, because the U.N. inspectors said there were none, and it was the height of arrogance to denounce their conclusions and insist there were WMD anyway.

At the time, I was a pretty lone voice against the war, except for my dad and my 11th grade history teacher. It’s strange to me that public opinion came around to my view, but only after the war took longer than anticipated. No one seemed to consider that invading a country that hadn’t done anything was inherently wrong AND ALSO anti-Christian. I’m a devout Orthodox Christian, and what I hated most about the Bush years was how the Christian message of love and forgiveness was co-opted into something ugly.

Another:

At the time, there were many incredibly well-reasoned voices that were simply drowned out by the drumbeats of war. For example, a group of 33 of the country’s leading international relation scholars all paid for a full page op-ed out of their own pocket to make the simple case that the war was a mistake. And perhaps we should all take time to remember how prophetic Barack Obama’s words on the topic were at the time. And by now, I think it’s pretty clear that President Obama is hardly a radical.

The decision to invade Iraq shouldn’t be remembered as a debate between the experts and the radicals. It was just the case that many of those in favor of war wanted to characterize the opposition as radicals, regardless of the truth.

Another:

The justification for war seemed transparently ridiculous, WMD and 9/11 were deliberately conflated, and the GOP and media sycophants were calling for some sort of patriotic national unity, hardening back to Kate Smith and WW2. I was furious at this unjustifiable war, based on unproven assertions and obvious propaganda, which was somehow tied to what we went through in NYC? No thank you.

So I protested, like many hundreds of thousands of my fellow New Yorkers. We were derided as fellow travelers, anti-Semites. ANSWER, a group I knew nothing about nor cared nothing for, was held up as proof that we were fools and suckers. The rage I felt at the Bush administration – and their Democratic Party enablers – was inextinguishable.

My anger now still burns. The war was evil and stupid, yet there are plenty of powerful people who somehow seen to want to justify it still. My own post 9/11 fears, shared by many of us, were probably unwarranted. Nothing significant happened in NYC, partly through good intelligence and international cooperation, partly through luck, and partly, tragically, through softer targets elsewhere in the world. The things I didn’t foresee were so much worse: the devastation of Iraq from the insurgency, the loss of life and limb of so many American troops. Protesting that war was the morally right thing for me to do, even if it was just to show the rest of America that here were some New Yorkers who didn’t want the US to fight that war for their sakes.

Andrew Sullivan himself – who compiles all the ways he got the war all wrong – tells this story:

I remember vividly a conversation I had in my gym’s locker room with a Republican friend just before the war started. I had begun to worry – with the Turks balking, Rumsfeld posturing and the war plan nebulous and quite possibly under-manned. His response was simple (paraphrasing from memory): our military is so great these days they can accomplish anything. That tells you the impact of the post-Cold War triumphalism that had slowly replaced strategic thinking in our late-imperial phase. For my part, I remember reassuring a non-political skeptic the following (same paraphrase) on the eve of the war: You wait. We’ll find bunkers crammed with chemical weapons and possibly nuclear weapons that could end up in al Qaeda’s hands and in our cities. I promise you they’re there.

Right, and austerity is prosperity, and Obama is ruining the economy, with the markets crashing, every single day for four years now, and unemployment is getting worse by the day, and if we don’t fix the debt and balance the budget, right now, we’ll all die, and the only way to do that is to phase out Social Security and make Medicare a voucher program, making it go away soon enough, and so on and so forth. It would be nice if everyone could have that odd moment of startling clarity – hey, everyone in this room is talking about nothing at all. Maybe everyone should go to graduate school.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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