FDL Book Salon: Jon Chait and “The Big Con”


(Please welcome author Jon Chait in the comments — jh)

Jonathan Chait’s book has the title "The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics." But it’s about more than that. Indeed, some of the best parts of the book have nothing to do with economics. Chait gives us a thoroughgoing indictment of how our political system has become fundamentally corrupted, and how journalists have helped this along.

Before I start to talk about the book in detail, I want to clear the air on one important point. Chait has, in the past, been blisteringly rude about the netroots (some of whom have also been blisteringly rude about him). While the netroots are not a major topic of this book, he takes a couple of swipes against them here too. However, it would be a serious mistake for netroots readers to ignore this book, or think that it has nothing to teach them. Not only will they miss out on one of the best, if not the best recent journalistic accounts of what has gone wrong with America’s political system, but they’ll never discover that Chait reserves his real scorn for other journalists who have played into the Republican agenda. In addition, Chait by turning up today has shown that he’s willing to engage in argument with the netroots on their own territory. I’m not aware of any other serious critic of the netroots who has been willing to do this, and I ask that people – if they want to disagree with Chait – show him the respect that he’s shown them by coming here.

So why is the book valuable? The opening chapter provides a good introduction to the crazier notions of supply side economics. It talks about the Laffer curve – the famous diagram that is supposed to show that cutting taxes will raise government revenue – and how crazies from Jude Wanninski on have tried to use this curve to argue that economic policy should be all tax cuts, all the time. The "supply side economics" of Ronald Reagan’s nuttier advisors is still alive and well, in part because many true believers still subscribe to it, in part because more cynical Republicans such as Irving Kristol think that it’s a useful justification for tax-cuts, even though they know that it’s complete bullshit.

This chapter is recommended reading for anyone who isn’t familiar with this particular economic cult. It’s also the part of the book that has gotten most discussion, in part because Chait excerpted it on the WWW, leading to a lot of blogospheric discussion (the most entertaining moment of which was when libertarian blogger Megan McArdle saw one of her articles spiked by a conservative publication because it disagreed with the Laffer curve, a few weeks after she had loudly pooh-poohed Chait’s claim that Republicans were still strongly influenced by supply-side economics). I was familiar with much of this material already (Paul Krugman’s 1990s book, Peddling Prosperity covers some of the same territory), but then I’m an academic who is interested in economic issues. If you’re not already familiar with this stuff, you’ll find Chait’s contribution valuable.

You’ll also like Chait’s discussion of the role of Republican corruption, and of the revolving door between Congressmen’s offices and the corner suites in lobbyists’ K Street premises. Chait discusses Billy Tauzin’s role in negotiating an incredibly lucrative job as president of the pharmaceutical industry lobby at either exactly the same time as he was crafting legislation that promised to give that industry billions of dollars of tax-payers’ money, or (in his own account) immediately thereafter. Chait talks about the gutting of expertise from the policy process, as well as the K Street project through which Republicans sought to punish lobbying firms that didn’t hire more Republicans or help key items of legislation through. Since the time his book was written, much of this has unravelled; lobbyists are now hiring Democrats again. But the system has become permanently more corrupt than it was before.

Chait’s chapter on the way that Republicans have expelled anyone who disagrees with the low tax agenda from their ranks is also well written. But for my money, the genuinely outstanding part of the book is its discussion of how Washington thinks about the ‘character’ of politicians. This is something that netroots bloggers have talked about a lot, but none of them, none of them, understands the inside story in the way that Chait does. Chait describes how journalists fixed upon the notion of character as a lazy shorthand way to ‘capture’ a politician via a single, supposedly revealing anecdote – and how Republican operatives figured out how to use this laziness to their advantage through blast faxes and emails that try (usually successfully, sooner or later) to ‘fix’ a politician’s character around a character flaw. The success that they’ve enjoyed over the last couple of electoral cycles in making people think that Gore was a self-promoting liar, and Kerry an inauthentic flip-flopper is the result of conscious, well-planned strategies. Simply put, Chait nails it – it’s a cliche to say that some short section of a book is worth the purchase price alone, but in this case it’s true. This is first rate political analysis. Chait’s follow-up chapter on how pundits have failed to understand how radicalized Republicans have become, and how they continue to favor a purported bipartisanship that simply doesn’t mean the same thing as it would in a world where both parties were genuinely close to the center, is also excellent.

So in short, this is a good and important book. That isn’t to say, of course, that I agree with everything in it. Chait repeatedly contrasts the current era with a supposed golden age before Republican partisanship, when government got respect, people believed in the neutrality of experts, and politicians behaved more honestly than today (even if they weren’t completely honest by any means). Chait isn’t alone in this – Mark Schmitt has an interesting article in The American Prospect this month about how other commentators like Paul Krugman also hark back to the 1950s. But this isn’t the only way to think about politics. As Rick Perlstein argues in Before the Storm (which I organized a book club on at Firedoglake the year before last), there was a lot about the 1950s that wasn’t so hot – institutionalized racism, intellectual narrowness, anti-Communist witch-hunts, a more genteel variety of corruption, and the kind of blind faith in expertise that allowed people like Robert McNamara to rise to the top. There’s a joke among academics that pro-community political theorists want to have Salem without the witches; sometimes I feel that Chait wants to have the 1950s without Senator Joseph McCarthy. And I’m not sure that this is possible, or even desirable.

Some possible topics for discussion:

(1) The disagreements that people like I (and, I suspect, Rick Perlstein) have with Chait’s version of the 1950s probably reflect our ideological positions, at least in part. If you’re a social democrat, you’re likely to believe that the pre-existing American consensus, even if it was much better than what we have today, was pretty corrupt in its own way. If you are closer to the center, you’re likely to want a return to something like the middle-ground consensus that existed before Republicans became so radicalized, It might seem that the netroots are mostly in favor of the left wing position, but I’m not so sure – there is a lot of ideological variation among them. What should the ultimate goal of reform be – a return to a more honest bipartisanship (with a sane Republican party), or a concerted effort to shift the US permanently to the left?

(2) Chait wants to return to a world where it’s possible for political commentators, academics, policy wonks and others to be non-partisan, and to command respect because of their non-partisanship. Leaving aside the implications for the immediate political situation (I think Chait would accept that partisan cheerleading is politically necessary at the moment, even if he doesn’t like it), is this worthwhile as a long term goal? Or should we just forget about objectivity and expertise? Or is there a middle ground, or some alternative way of thinking about these issues?

(3) One paragraph of the book struck me as worth an extended essay in its own right – Chait’s description of how the Democratic party now includes all of the political consensus that existed before the radicalization of the Republicans as well as other groups to boot. In Chait’s words:

So, first the Republican party abandoned the consensus, then the Democratic party grasped what was once the conservative half of that consensus. Now the whole sweep of it, everything from Eisenhower conservatives on the right to Truman liberals on the left, resides in the Democratic party. All the conflicting prerogatives that had once seized the domestic debate – fiscal responsibility versus social outlay, support for business versus support for labor – are in one coalition

This may not be quiteas true as it was when Chait wrote it – a Democratic campaign in which the most right-leaning front runner is expressing doubts about trade pacts is a different party from the Democratic party of the 1990s. But I think that there is still an awful lot of truth to it. What consequences does this have for the Democratic party in the short term, and over the longer haul. As I say, I think that there is a long essay in this argument alone, but some discussion among commenters will have to do.

I’ll respond to comments as I can, as will Jonathan Chait – now, over to all of you.

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