The Substance of Things

Wednesday, February 17, in Hollywood, should have been a holiday. As for the rest of the country, well, you may have had snow and sleet, but it was sunny and eighty here, and it was Paris Hilton’s birthday. And she is what this town is all about, marketing empty-headed serious attitude from quite attractive young men and women with no discernible accomplishments, skills or talents – save the attitude. But that’s how it is. We sell the sizzle, not the steak – there is no steak, actually. And this was her day, as Paris Whitney Hilton was born February 17, 1981 – so she is now twenty-nine, and may remain so indefinitely. Her arrest in 2007 was a real pain in the ass in this neighborhood – seven press helicopters orbiting over the roof at dawn is no way to start the day – but she was off to jail soon enough and things settled down. And yes, she is not from Hollywood, really – born in New York and growing up in a suite in the Waldorf-Astoria and out in the Hamptons. But she did do her freshman year of high school out here in Rancho Mirage. Then it was back to New York and bouncing around various schools, ending up at the Canterbury School in Connecticut, where she was a member of the ice hockey team, of all things. But she was expelled for violating the school rules, so maybe that doesn’t count. Now she has her high school equivalency diploma, and her millions, and her line of shoes and perfumes and jewelry and such – and her big home up the hill just off Mulholland Drive. She’s Hollywood now.

And there’s no point in analyzing her celebrity – everyone has done that, lamenting how Americans seem to have a problem with substance, preferring the shiny surface of things. She’s awful, and we’re awful, and so on and so forth. But it’s not just us – “According to a new novel by Sudanese author Kola Boof, Osama bin Laden is obsessed with singer Whitney Houston. Boof claims that when she was held as a sex slave for the terrorist for four months in a Moroccan hotel room, he couldn’t stop talking about the legendary singer.”

Yes, that’s odd. And maybe it’s true, but only a curiosity. We’re the ones who institutionalized shallowness, and turned it into a billion dollar industry. The substance of things is boring. And the facts and details of this and that are boring. And attitude is not boring – it’s what really matters. Sarah Palin senses this, and she is building a political career on pure attitude, not on any discernible accomplishments, skills or talents. She calls those three things elitist nonsense. And many agree with her. She’s riding the wave, as we say out here in Los Angeles. Blame Hollywood if you’d like, but like her, studio executives out here simply expect thoughtless superficiality, or shrug and accept it, and decide to ride it to fame and fortune and power. Sure, you can bemoan the debased nature of American insight, such as it is, but you’re not going to change it. And wealth and power are cool. So you use it. Paris Hilton knows best.

All that makes the election of Barack Obama quite odd, as he seems to be an accomplished, intelligent man with many talents and great skills, for diplomacy and oratory, and able to master most any issue and work out solutions to some really nasty problems. He seems to be a man of substance. How did we elect him? Of course people back then also liked his sunny let’s-fix-this attitude, or did in late 2008. They must have voted for that. But the problem is you cannot govern by attitude alone – Bush tried that and it didn’t work out. You actually have to do things, and manage whatever monster big-ass crisis comes your way. Striking a pose just doesn’t cut it.

But doing things, and explaining the substance of those things – his job now – is difficult in this culture. And on Paris Hilton’s birthday it became obvious how hard that is, as it was not only the birthday of that fetching not-quite-young lass but also the one-year anniversary of the passage of the stimulus bill, and Obama was faced with the task of saying LOOK, SUBSTANCE! And, as Reuters notes, that’s always a tough sell:

President Barack Obama vigorously defended his $787 billion stimulus on Wednesday, insisting it rescued Americans from the worst of the economic calamity and ripping Republican critics who called it a waste.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden launched a sweeping effort to convince skeptical Americans that the stimulus has been beneficial on the one-year anniversary of a plan that was pushed through the U.S. Congress by Democratic majorities.

Obama, in a White House speech, said he believed the stimulus will save or create 1.5 million jobs in 2010 after saving or creating as many as 2 million jobs thus far.

His point was to show that the stimulus, while admittedly unpopular, had the effect of keeping the U.S. economy from plunging into a second Great Depression.

“Our work is far from over but we have rescued this economy from the worst of this crisis,” he said.

Yeah, well, prove it. He may have sent many administration officials “fanning out across the country this week to promote projects that have been funded by the stimulus to show Americans its results” – but Americans don’t feel good about this. The White House may hope that once Americans saw the results of the stimulus, locally, they would realize it really has helped. But that’s talking facts to people who judge most everything on attitude, theirs and his. And they don’t like facts:

A CBS News/New York Times poll last week found that only 6 percent of Americans believed the package had created jobs. Another poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation showed a majority opposed the stimulus program.

No one believes it worked. But selling people on the idea that you managed to make what was apocalyptically awful merely sustainably bad, and actually slowly improving, is tough. You can’t win that one – no one feels much better when they’re told they may be sick as a dog, but now, thanks to a bit of heroic effort, at least they’re not going to die. Sick and very slowly getting better is better than dead, but it doesn’t feel good.

And the Republicans could score political points with that, and emailed out to reporters the original administration estimates from a year ago – you said the jobless rate would only rise to eight percent under the stimulus and only now it’s just dropping down, very, very slowly, from over ten percent. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell – “In the first year of the trillion-dollar stimulus, Americans have lost millions of jobs, the unemployment rate continues to hover near 10 percent, the deficit continues to soar and we’re inundated with stories of waste, fraud and abuse. This was not the plan Americans asked for or the results they were promised.” Palin said similar things on her Facebook page.

Yeah – but you’re not dead, and none of us are dead just yet. Shouldn’t that count for something?

That’s not much of a response. And the only thing Obama managed was this:

Obama used a portion of his speech to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy, saying they have enjoyed its benefits even as they criticized the plan.

“There are those, let’s face it, across the aisle who have tried to score political points by attacking what we did, even as many of them show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts,” Obama said.

He said you can’t have it both ways – you say stimulus doesn’t work, and this package didn’t work, and then show up and say it does work to the locals, even when you voted against the funding you’re celebrating. But that’s okay. Your constituents won’t figure out you voted against what you’re so proud you brought home to them. No one notices the details – they’re boring.

And Obama seems to get it, as he added this – “Millions more are struggling to make ends meet. So it doesn’t yet feel like much of a recovery. And I understand that. It’s why we’re going to continue to do everything in our power to turn this economy around.” He knows no one pays attention to economic trends and patterns, no matter how encouraging, so he’ll keep working to fix things. You just have to factor in the personal, and attitudinal. But he did warn that with Congress now working on a multibillion-dollar jobs bill, there was the possibility, this year, of layoffs by state governments as funding from the stimulus runs out. It might be good to keep this going, no matter what Mitch and Sarah say. Sure, assume, wrongly, that the whole stimulus thing was stupid, and pout – but think about the substance here. We need to fix the economy.

And in the New York Times, David Leonhardt writes what the substance is, that first year’s stimulus bill, even if not perfect, has been a stunning success:

Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative. …

Around the world over the last century, the typical financial crisis caused the jobless rate to rise for almost five years, according to work by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. On that timeline, our rate would still be rising in early 2012. Even that may be optimistic, given that the recent crisis was so bad. As Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson (Republicans both) and many others warned in 2008, this recession had the potential to become a depression.

Kevin Drum comments:

For partisan political reasons, Republicans find it in their interest to insist that the stimulus was just a boondoggle that hasn’t created a single job. The fact that this frequently gets reported with a straight face is a black mark for the press, which ought to insist on its sources being a wee bit more reality-based if they want to be quoted without being immediately debunked in the following paragraph.

And he suggests this pretty colored bar chart from Organizing for America, as it tells the real story in really simple visuals, for those who don’t like detail.

And Steve Benen in this item says “it is now impossible for serious observers to claim the stimulus didn’t create new jobs.” That data are right there, from all sorts of independent sources. Facts are facts.

But there must be ways around that:

It leaves the right looking for alternate rhetorical strategies. Today, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.) tried a new tack in a press release. Notice the addition of one key word to the GOP talking points: “One year [after the stimulus bill became law], not one net job has been created as unemployment rose from 7.6 percent to nearly 10 percent nationwide.”

And he cites Matt Finkelstein explaining why the rhetorical shift matters – “The distinction here is important. By shifting the focus to ‘net jobs,’ Pence is effectively conceding that the Recovery Act did create jobs – that, while unemployment rose more than expected, we would be even worse off if the program hadn’t passed.”

Benen argues that Republican officials are starting to worry – at least a little – “that the economy might be improving far more than they’d like.”

If job creation starts picking up in a meaningful way in the spring, as the Obama administration expects, the good news for the country may be bad news for the GOP’s midterm election strategy. They’ll need something negative to say, and pointing to net job growth may fool a few people.

But probably not many. It’s really very foolish – the recession began in December 2007, and the economy fell off a cliff in September 2008. The month the president took office, thanks to conditions Obama inherited, the economy lost 741,000 jobs. A month later, it was 681,000. A month after that, it was 652,000. Of course there’s going to be a net job loss. The net loss will exist for quite a long while. When a nation experiences a downturn of this severity – easily the worst since the Great Depression – it takes a very long time to make up the lost ground.

The goal is to see improvements and growth. Maybe Pence understands this, maybe not – he is a few threads short of a sweater, if you know what I mean – but either way, this “net job” talk is absurd.

At the National Review Online, however, Rich Lowry, wary that the economy is improving, thinks that conservatives need to prepare for this terrifying possibility, and isn’t big on net loss or details. He argues the facts don’t matter, even good facts for Obama and bad facts of Republicans, and the idea is that the media must be managed, and turns economic success into a narrative of liberal failure:

Republican candidates and conservative media commentators must prepare the American people for this phony boom with terrible long-term consequences. The news story here is: the revival of the economy by central bank money-printing and enormous government deficits to be paid for by our children. Also, triumphalism about the weak economy should stop. Otherwise, Republican and conservative triumphalists will be sandbagged and look foolish in a mere six months, maybe sooner.

Since the economy and jobs are the central issues now, the focus must be on the Obama deficits, the Obama tax hikes on the middle class, and the Obama economic policy which makes government employees richer and the American working people poorer.

Kevin Drum comments:

Well, at least we’ve been prepared. If the economy sucks, it’s Obama’s fault. If the economy prospers, it’s a dangerous mirage brought about by Obama’s failed policies. What do you think are the odds that the media will buy this?

The odds are good. They report on the sizzle, not the steak.

But the counter to that is to offer something like an alternative sizzle, something secondary but compelling, and Steve Benen suggests that is already in progress:

Democrats are pushing the stimulus hypocrisy line pretty hard this week – Republicans say they hate the stimulus, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to secure recovery funds for their states/districts. Republicans, perhaps worried about the effectiveness of the criticism, have embraced a straightforward response.

The response comes from conservative economist Greg Mankiw – the Democratic cries of hypocrisy are simply “baffling.”

It seems perfectly reasonable to believe (1) that increasing government spending is not the best way to promote economic growth in a depressed economy, and (2) that if the government is going to spend gobs of money, those on whom it is spent will benefit. In this case, the right thing for a congressman to do is to oppose the spending plans, but once the spending is inevitable, to try to ensure that the constituents he represents get their share. So what exactly is the problem?

Let me offer an analogy. Many Democratic congressmen opposed the Bush tax cuts. That was based, I presume, on their honest assessment of the policy. But once these tax cuts were passed, I bet these congressmen paid lower taxes. I bet they did not offer to hand the Treasury the extra taxes they would have owed at the previous tax rates. Would it make sense for the GOP to suggest that these Democrats were disingenuous or hypocritical? I don’t think so. Many times, we as individuals benefit from policies we opposed. There is nothing wrong about that.

Benen sees this as the official Republican line, and notes that Aaron Schock, the Republican congressman from Illinois, made the identical argument with the exact same analogy on Meet the Press, even if it is “deeply flawed” and the hypocrisy entirely legitimate:

It’s not complicated – Republicans have claimed, forcefully and repeatedly, that the stimulus effort was a mistake. The recovery spending couldn’t generate economic growth and was simply incapable of creating jobs. The entire endeavor, the GOP said, was a wasteful boondoggle, and they’re proud to have voted against it. Republicans rejected the very idea on ideological and policy grounds.

Now, we know the substance of these claims is demonstrably ridiculous, but the key to the hypocrisy charge is appreciating what else these same Republicans have said. When it comes to their states/districts/constituents, the identical GOP lawmakers have said the stimulus can generate economic growth, can create jobs, and can make an important and positive difference. In some cases, Republicans have even taken credit for stimulus projects they opposed – projects that wouldn’t even exist if they had their way.

GOP officials can take one position or the other, but when they embrace one side in DC while talking to the media, and then the opposite side when dealing with their constituents, it’s more than just stupid – it’s hypocrisy.

You fight sizzle with sizzle. And even the analogy to the Bush tax cuts doesn’t stand up well:

The only way this would make sense is if Democrats opposed and voted against Bush’s policy in DC, and then went back to their states/districts to take credit for the tax cuts and boast about how effective they were.

So you out-sizzle them:

The fact that the hypocrisy charge seems to make Republicans nervous is itself encouraging. That the GOP has not yet come up with a coherent response should encourage Dems to keep it up.

And no one talks about substance. Why bother? It’s boring.

And somewhere high in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is daydreaming about Whitney Houston as I Will Always Love You blares out over the bare hills, on Paris Hilton’s birthday. It’s a strange world.

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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