Cartoon America

Here’s a thought about pop-culture. Adults do persist in watching cartoons – they just won’t admit it. And we now have cartoons specifically for adults, like the wildly successful Simpsons show, and feature-length animated films like the Shrek and Toy Story franchises – and one-offs like Wall-E and “Up” and so on – because these are our morality plays. Little else binds us together. The Roadrunner facing off, endlessly, against Wily Coyote, is the David and Goliath story told over and over again – the quick and loose underdog, with no real plan, ever, will always escape from the ruthless careful planner, and step back and watch him humiliate himself. Beep-beep! And that’s how we want life to be – he who has nothing, and happily makes it up as he goes along, wins. And having endless resources, and planning and calculating very carefully, gets you blown up or flattened by a truck. Cool.

And of course the Simpsons is an ironic Pilgrim’s Progress – a morality play with tropes and highly symbolic characters, where an everyman – not smart, not attractive, not self-aware, and certainly not rich and successful – but good-hearted, although morally weak at times – stumbles through life, trying to make the best of it. Of course he screws up. And of course along the way he encounters the symbolic problems life throws at us all – the hapless and dim and dull clergyman, Reverend Lovejoy, the infuriatingly earnest and cheerful neighbor, Ned Flanders, and the strange and mad-for-money old Montgomery Burns, the ultimate heartless richer-than-rich man at the top, who owns and controls most everything. None of them can offer anything useful to our everyman. No, this is Homer Simpson and the slough of despond – that “swamp of despair” he must escape each week, through Duff Beer or donuts or whatever – and we watch how he actually does it, and escapes with his soul intact. It’s an allegorical everyman’s pilgrimage, and pretty funny. All adults can relate to this, as opposed to whatever goes on in SpongeBob SquarePants. Some cartoons are just for kids.

But cartoons are done in broad strokes and intentionally unreal – the Simpson family is bright yellow for example, and Wily Coyote always bounces back, not really hurt at all. One must not confuse allegory with real life. There is no Montgomery Burns, really, except for Mitt Romney. No, just kidding – Romney is a fine fellow, or pretends to be, somewhat convincingly.

But someone needs to tell him life is not a cartoon. He doesn’t need to be the absurd rich man. And his new tax plan is a promise to cut federal spending by twenty percent in four years, with no defense cuts and with tax-rate cuts, almost entirely for the rich – all paid for by cutting unspecified deductions. He’ll work that out with Congress once he’s president. The basics are here and there’s this discussion at ThinkProgress:

Mitt Romney – fresh off his series of primary victories last night – appeared on CNBC this morning, where he was asked about the Tax Policy Center’s assessment that his tax plan would add trillions of dollars to the national debt. Romney responded by saying that TPC didn’t actually score his whole plan, admitting later in the interview that his plan “can’t be scored” because some of the key details have been left out…

There a clip at this link if you want to hear him say that you just have to trust him that this will work, but there are some facts:

The reason that Romney’s plan can’t be scored, as he himself noted, is that he hasn’t explained which deductions and exemptions he will supposedly limit to pay for it. Instead, he waves his hands and promises to get to that part later. But at the same time, he feels comfortable criticizing TPC for not taking into account elements that he freely admits he hasn’t (and maybe won’t ever) release.

But even if Romney coughed up those details, his plan’s math still wouldn’t add up. Even with limiting deductions and exemptions for the richest Americans, Romney would need economic growth to be at 6.5 percent for five years to prevent his plan from adding to the deficit. But the very best five-year period in post-war America was from 1961 to 1966, when economic growth averaged 5.8 percent.

As Center for American Progress Director of Tax and Budget Policy Michael Linden noted, “Tim Pawlenty’s economic plan relied on consistent 5 percent real growth and he was basically laughed out of the room for making such outlandish assumptions.” Yet Romney’s plan depends on the same sort of fantasy.

It’s a cartoon plan, or perhaps it’s allegorical – symbolic not literal, messaging, not a message. He’s doing what he thinks the Republican base will see as a sign – what the Catholics call an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. And if you really believe in austerity economics, shut things down to make things grow, this is it. If you live in that cartoon world, where Wily Coyote is never really hurt at all, this is the cartoon made real.

But there is real life too, and Romney is actually being strangely European here, as the Europeans are trying this form of Cartoon Economics and it’s just not working:

Europe is choking off its own recovery by insisting on premature austerity. The first mistake was to agree on unrealistically tough deficit-reduction targets. The second mistake was – rather, is – to insist on compliance with those targets even though they are doing serious damage to Europe’s economy…

Europe’s most indebted countries don’t have the financial wherewithal to stimulate their economies, but creditor nations such as Germany do. Instead, they are joining in the austerity – compounding the problem instead of alleviating it. Germany managed to slash its budget deficit to 1 percent of GDP last year.

No country can run big budget deficits forever. But by aiming for fiscal rectitude when the economy is weak, Europe is causing an economic contraction that depresses tax revenue, forcing governments to cut spending even further in a lethal downward spiral.

That’s from BusinessWeek, not some left-wing rag. They know what is simply a cartoon when they see it. Austerity in a depression doesn’t reduce debt. It increases it. And fiscally conservative Andrew Sullivan adds this:

I believe in serious cuts to defense and entitlements, alongside Bowles-Simpson scale tax reform and revenue enhancement, as the way to get back to fiscal sanity. But I am sane enough to realize that doing that two years ago would have been counter-productive. A depression is the one time you can allow spending to increase without worrying about debt. Europe is proving this.

When do you shift gears? Only when the recovery is well under way – and even then, backloading serious entitlement cuts makes the most sense. But Romney seems to be doubling down on the European model, not the American one – as a way to cement his fiscal conservatism with the base. It doesn’t reduce the debt; it can actually increase it.

It’s nutty, but maybe if more people would simply call this the European Model – and then point to Europe, right now – we’d be done with such cartoonish nonsense. For a dose of reality, see The EU Austerity Disaster from Siobhan Dowling – “Draconian spending measures are plunging the euro zone deeper into a double-dip recession.” The item is all dry facts and figures – not the stuff of cartoons of course. It provides the underlying data to prove the BusinessWeek contention, quite convincingly. There’s not much to argue about here. There’s common sense, and the data – and the cartoon on the other side.

But we’re a cartoon culture now, and what we decide is the way things are, and what we should do about anything, has come down to the stories we tell. And in this case, Gene Lyons suggests that it’s time for Obama to quit trying to talk sense to everyone and tell them a different economic story:

Look at it this way: If the Wall Street banking crisis had taken place in 2007 instead of 2008, George W. Bush wouldn’t be able to leave home without being jeered. (As it is, he rarely leaves Texas.) Hardly anybody would buy the brand of tycoonomics GOP presidential candidates are selling. People would understand that save-the-millionaires tax cuts and deregulation had dramatically failed. President Obama would get more credit for pulling the economy out of a nose dive.

Alas, people have short attention spans and a weak understanding of abstract economic issues. You have to tell them a story. The failure of policymakers to do that has been driving progressive MVP Paul Krugman crazy. How can it be, he asks, that governments foreign and domestic are repeating the mistakes of the early 1930s – slashing government spending to reduce budget deficits, putting more people out of work, reducing demand, and inadvertently increasing  deficits? Rinse and repeat.

It seems we need to drop the cartoon story and tell true stories of the real past:

Part of it is that the lessons of the Great Depression belong to history, and, as such, are infinitely malleable. Arguments your grandfather would have dismissed – such as Mitt Romney’s plans to assure prosperity by topping off Scrooge McDuck’s bullion tank – are given credence today. Granddad may not have grasped Keynesian economic theory, but he remembered “Hoovervilles” and bread lines. Scrooge McDuck wasn’t a cartoon figure for nothing.

Think about that last line. We once had a different allegory and iconography, for a good reason. Matt Groening has done his best with Montgomery Burns – today’s Scrooge McDuck – but somehow the scrooges are now heroes. And Lyons notes these issues have become muddled:

Professor Krugman acknowledges that some kinds of economic thinking seem counterintuitive. “Thus,” he writes, “it’s normal to think of the economy as a whole as being like a family, which must tighten its belt in hard times; it’s also completely wrong.” Yet it makes him crazy that even President Obama has used the belt-tightening analogy.

But the problem is that now everyone likes simple cartoons:

While deeply misleading, the family metaphor works politically because it sounds like common sense. Sometimes I wonder if Grandpa didn’t also have an advantage in living closer to the farm. Though innately conservative, rural people do understand that if you skimp on fertilizer in April, you’ll have a poor hay crop come September and a hard time getting your livestock through the winter.

But nobody ever puts it to people like that. Even somebody like Krugman can be brilliant at argumentation, less gifted at storytelling. Democrats generally have lost the knack.

Lyons argues the trick now may be to stress government investment – he doesn’t call it government spending, as it’s a special subset of spending – and he offers a clear example of what he means:

In Arkansas, where I live, nothing could be clearer than the relationship between public investment and economic prosperity. It’s practically written on the landscape, yet many need reminding.

I recently read a beautifully written memoir called “A Straw in the Sun,” by Charlie May Simon, an Arkansas writer who homesteaded in Perry County (where I live) during the 1930s. Back then, rural Arkansans basically lived in the Third World. Simon and her neighbors grew their own food, made their own clothes, music and home brew. They had no electrical power, telephones, indoor plumbing or paved roads. Few in Perry County did. They walked to town, or hitched rides on mule-drawn wagons.

Enchanting as Simon makes it sound, the world she evokes feels not 75 years distant, but 175. After World War II, what brought Perry County into the 20th century was government investment. My 65-year-old neighbor was in high school when the main highway through the county was first paved after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bridged the Arkansas River at Conway.

Tell that story and the deficit hawks should just shut up, and slink away into the shadows. But they do like their cartoon view of things:

It came as something of a surprise to read that my ambitious state representative, a genial former neighbor now living over in Conway, has conceived a plan to return us to the bad old days. Supposedly by eliminating income taxes from 40 of the state’s less prosperous counties – along with concomitant cuts in public spending – GOP visionaries envision that nothing less than an economic miracle will take place.

Never mind why no such thing happened during Arkansas’s first 150 years or so of statehood. Thankfully, the proposal got nowhere. What’s amazing to me, however, is that otherwise intelligent people could be so blinded by ideology as to entertain so preposterous a scheme. Believe me; these fellows are rapt with sincerity. What’s more, their ideological brethren are taking over state governments from sea to shining sea.

You could say they live in an ideological allegorical cartoon – a Pilgrim’s Progress morality tale about saving your soul through austerity, austerity that you believe, against all experience and logic and common sense, will create prosperity. Wily Coyote never get hurt, of course.

But Lyons prefers the real world:

That Conway, a pleasant town of approximately 60,000, should serve as the epicenter of this backward revolution strikes me as comically ironic. Although filled with Republicans, there are few cities of like size whose prosperity depends more obviously upon public largess. Located along Interstate 40, it’s also home to three state agencies and the University of Central Arkansas, a rapidly growing public institution. Trim UCA’s budget 20 percent and Conway’s economy would go into a tailspin.

The city’s two private colleges are greatly dependent upon state-sponsored tuition scholarships, just as its nonprofit medical center relies upon Medicaid and Medicare. I could go on. Even Conway’s two newest large private employers are Internet – (hence government) dependent.

Lyons thinks that Democrats have lost control of the story line. They have. Mitt Romney is a cartoon of a man – drawn to look like a presidential candidate – who offers cartoon ideas. But there he is, possibly our next president. Then we can all break out the Duff Beer. We’ll be living in a cartoon – but real people will get hurt. That will probably confuse us.

But with all the calls for war with Iran now, and John McCain’s call for war with Syria – discussed previously here – we seem to be living in a GI Joe cartoon – also one where no one gets hurt, really. And Obama did call out the Republicans on this:

This is not a game… If some of these folks think we should launch a war, let them say so, and explain to the American people.

But nothing is ever explained in cartoons, like why the Simpsons have bright yellow skin, and if Mitt Romney is a cartoon of a man, drawn to look like a presidential candidate, who offers only cartoon ideas, Kevin Drum is onto him:

Romney has repeatedly said that Obama doesn’t support sanctions against Iran; that Obama refuses to leave military options open; and that Obama hasn’t clearly said that it’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. This isn’t a matter of exaggeration or interpretation. These are exactly the things Obama has done. Romney is just flat-out lying.

On the other hand, Obama has also made it clear that he thinks war is a last resort, not a first. Romney could truthfully say that about him. But as Obama says, if that’s his position, maybe he ought to step up to the plate and let everyone know.

Someone prefers to live in a cartoon here. But that may win Romney the nomination. Everyone likes cartoons, and many think we live in one. Until human voices weak us and we drown, until human voices wake us and we drown…. Eliot is always pithy.

Of course this all may be no more than a round-about way of saying people will always believe what they want to believe, in spite of evidence and logic and common sense. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something has changed over the last several decades, first with the invention of the animated film – just right for simple line-drawn allegory – to the current golden age of animation, where we have as much cartoon as reality in our heads, and often more. Damn that Walt Disney! He has much to answer for.

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.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Cartoon Politics, Mitt Romney, Tax Policy, The Power of Narrative and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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