My plot to sap the nation’s brainpower

On Obama’s speech, I’m puzzled by Andrew Sullivan’s response to my asking, in my previous post, “What does it matter who caused the problem [of the budget deficit]? Obama’s job is to solve it.” Andrew replies:

Let me try to explain: it matters who caused the problem and why because if we do not understand the causes we cannot fix the problem and it matters because any adult judgment of a politician’s first year that does not take into account the inheritance he was bequeathed is impossible.

Fair enough, I suppose. In appraising Obama’s first year, one should certainly take note of his poisoned inheritance. If I haven’t always done so, it might be because I think the point so obvious that repeating it gets tiresome. As for needing to understand the problem before we can fix it: of course. But the essentials of the problem are not that hard to understand: the government is spending too much and taxing too little. The question is, what do we do about that?

As he warms to his theme, though, Andrew loses me. He says that, like the GOP, I “remove the context” of the inheritance, thus rigging the debate so Obama cannot win. This kind of punditry is “far more of a problem for the country than anything Obama has done – because it bases political judgment on unreality, and distorts the body politic’s capacity for reasoned argument.” Good God. I had not realised I was doing something so complicated.

It is quite an accusation. In asking for the debate to focus on solutions – which taxes do we raise, which programs do we squeeze – I am eroding the nation’s brainpower, and deliberately, mind you, because like so many others I am “invested in continuing the game”. I suppose it is better to be accused of bad faith than stupidity, but my own brainpower must indeed be seriously diminished, because this complaint strikes me as so much portentous nonsense. That cannot be right, can it?

We are standing in a burning building. “Andrew, help me with this extinguisher.” “One moment, Clive. Let us first examine the causes of the conflagration. We cannot douse these terrible flames until we have laid bare the history, and faced it unflinchingly. I see what you are doing. You and others I could name refuse that necessary course, and are thus depleting the nation’s capacity for rational thought. A few of us have chosen not to play that game. We have invested our hopes and dreams in rising above all that. In the name of the body politic, in the name of reasoned argument, in the name of all that is decent, can we not renounce the [cut short by falling debris...]”

On the other hand, we agree (mostly) about the iPad.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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