Joe Scarborough versus the box


MSNBC host and resident proto-conservative Joe Scarborough welcomed Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to his show this week to discuss, among other things, the debt and deficit — wherein the economist argued that the Beltway deficit hysteria was misplaced. Apparently Joe felt strongly enough to followup with a Politico op-ed, contending that “entitlements and debt are the most pressing challenges we face as a country over the next few decades” and is incredulous because everyone he knows (which is to say, nearly every pundit guest on his show) agrees with him. 

Greg Sargent has a term for this phenomenon of cable punditry eating its own rhetorical tail, the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop:”

The relentless bipartisan focus on the deficit convinces voters to be worried about it, which in turn leads lawmakers to spend still more time talking about it and less time talking about the economy, a phenomenon that is self-reinforcing. This is exacerbated by some commentators and news orgs, who continue to treat the deficit scolds with a great deal of deference, while marginalizing the opinion that we should prioritize boosting the economy and job creation as a means of getting the country’s fiscal problems under control over time without savage spending cuts that will hurt a lot of people.

Krugman calls it an economic version of “Incestuous Amplification” (emphasis mine):

Back during the early days of the Iraq debacle, I learned that the military has a term for how highly dubious ideas become not just accepted, but viewed as certainties. “Incestuous amplification” happen when a closed group of people repeat the same things to each other – and when accepting the group’s preconceptions itself becomes a necessary ticket to being in the in-group.

[…] the reality is that among those who have expressed views very similar to mine are the chief economist of Goldman Sachs; the former Treasury secretary and head of the National Economic Council; the former deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve; and the economics editor of the Financial Times. The point isn’t that these people are necessarily right (although they are), it is that Scarborough’s attempt at argument through authority is easily refuted by even a casual stroll through recent economic punditry.

But these people aren’t part of the in-group […]

Then, yesterday, Joe was on his Twitter account riffing off his co-host’s comparison of Krugman to climate-deniers, decrying lefty “debt-deniers” while endorsing (again, on Politico) an approach of “walking and chewing gum at the same time:”

Maybe Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress are incapable of addressing the United States’ long-term debt while avoiding the kind of harsh austerity measures that have led to a triple-dip recession in Great Britain.

The dichotomy of their self-ascribed emergency looks something like this: we have a long-term spending problem that must be addressed now, now, right now damnit, while quite reasonably agreeing that short-term austerity measures are a bad idea. It seems as though the Beltway just can’t let go of the idea of deficit reduction, even to the point of being forgetful of the President and Congress having already pushed $2.4 trillion in cuts and perhaps only needing $1.4 trillion more (for stabilization purposes). The end result of constant deficit-bemoaning these past few years has been no additional stimulus, a tepid economic recovery and a shrinking deficit. Perhaps this is another way of saying “You’ve already won this argument,” or more to the point — “Just let it go, Joe.”

Yet trying (indeed, insisting) as he did in that segment with Krugman that any short term stimulus must be paired with long-term debt strategy seems to only have legitimization in that sense that it’s been advocated by Very Serious People.

Mike Konczal lists the obvious problems with this strategy:

There is no solid economic argument for this. There may be political arguments, as in that’s the only way to build a coalition to get legislation through a partisan Congress, but they are just that, political.


The political argument for this is also weak, if only because it was the operative strategy over the past several years and didn’t work.


As for the short term, alleviating unemployment is the most responsible budget action even though it increases the short-term deficit. Austerity is likely to give us a higher debt-to-GDP problem if it causes a double-dip recession.


As for the part of the budget that won’t take care of itself, President Obama fought an ugly and costly battle to bend the cost curve of health care, in which he was accused of everything from creating death panels to looting benefits of seniors in order to pass them out to his army of Takers. Since he’s already paid that price, why wouldn’t he wait and see how well Medicare cost saving techniques work?

If your deficit-hysteria has no basis in sound economic thought and your political argument is weak because, well, the legislative framework of the past few years has largely reflected your desires then your obsession is an arbitrary choice. A network morning show may amplify the nature of your focus, but that is a difference of degree and not kind.

Now far be it for me to assume I could come up with a better term than Sargent et al. (and Krugman wasn’t the only person to see Scarborough’s defense as a poor attempt at argument through authority) on the inability of Joe to get over it. Yet in this manner he is as human as the rest of us, by which I mean that our worldview is primarily shaped by our immediate sphere of social influences and way of life. Think of it as occupying an epistemological-closed box, or a modified version of Marx’s concept of class consciousness, whereby Joe is simply exercising the knowledge and opinions that one would expect from a Very Serious and Commercially Successful Moderately Conservative Pundit Burnishing His Bipartisan Credentials. Because there is a bipartisan feedback loop on the importance of the debt and deficit — a concern (naturally) reinforced by the Very Serious Guests who solemnly nod as they maintain their membership on the cable gravy train — that is proof enough for Joe that the deficit is the most pressing moral concern of our times.


4 responses to “Joe Scarborough versus the box

  1. Excellent post.

    I think in today’s political climate, anytime there is agreement on an issue on both sides of the aisle (in this case the scariness of the debt monster), we are justified in being skeptical.

  2. Pingback: More on deficits, morality, and Joe Scarborough | Punditocracy·

  3. Pingback: The devolution of Joe Scarborough’s debt obsession « The McLean Parlor·

  4. Pingback: The devolution of Joe Scarborough’s debt obsession | Punditocracy·

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