Bring Back the Duel

—from The New Criterion

As is well known, members of Parliaments with rules derived from those of the
mother of Parliaments are forbidden from using the word “liar” or
“lie” to refer to other members or their remarks. You can see why
this rule is a necessary one. The charge that someone is lacking in good faith
poisons the wells of debate in a system which is founded on debate. It invites a
retort in kind which at once drains the system of substance and renders the
parliamentary process trivial. The deliberations of our own dear legislature
have been trivialized and drained of substance for other reasons, however, which
unhappy fact throws most if not all of our substantive political debate into the
press—where charges of lying made by political adversaries against each
other now seem to have become almost routine.

Of course, it is easy to lose one’s head in the heat of political
strife, but what are we to think of those who, with every opportunity for
reflection and the moderation of passion, accuse their political opponents of
lying in cold print—which affords slanderers and calumniators a certain
amount of protection? But then, the words “lying,” “lie”
and “liar” nowadays hardly seem to carry the kick they did in the
days when violence was likely to accompany their deployment. Partly this must be
as a result of the crudeness and vulgarity of the media culture that I discussed
in this space last month. Every time someone—like, say, Gary
Condit—is unresponsive to press inquiries about the most intimate details
of his private life he is accused of “lying.”

As I argued then, it is nonsense for the media to pretend that any public man
who does not open up his private life to the scrutiny of any idle
curiosity-seeker is a liar. But so far have we accepted media values that
someone like Representative Condit does not even have the spirit to resent the
slander. Hence the ridiculous spectacle of his offering his throat to the media
hounds on nationwide TV and then refusing to answer their questions, as
charmingly put to him by Miss Connie Chung. Naturally, he was torn to pieces.
Why did he submit to such an interview unless he had already acquiesced in the
right of the media to know all there was to know about him? And having accepted
that he had forfeited his “zone of privacy”, where did he think he
was going to get the standing to reassert it on the air? What he may or may not
have got up to with Chandra Levy will probably never be known, but it is beyond
dispute that he hadn’t the wit or the courage or the self-possession to
defend his own honor in public. I wonder how many of our congressmen and
senators would have had these qualities in his position?

You don’t have to wish for a return to dueling to recognize that, if
the accusation of bad faith is not vigorously–though perhaps not always
violently—resented, it will be made more and more often. Another reason
for this sad state of affairs must be the extent to which politics in general
has become trivialized during the Clinton years. The Carville-Matalin Punch and
Judy show —now happily out of sight while Miss Matalin is serving in the
administration—stressed the extent to which neither the elder George Bush
nor Bill Clinton nor their many spokesmen really meant what they said anyway.
Hadn’t Bush, after all, broken his promise not to raise taxes after having
made it the centerpiece of his electoral appeal in 1988? Didn’t Clinton
say on national television: “I did not have sex with that woman”?
Naturally enough, when lying itself becomes standard operating procedure, so
will the accusation of lying.

Though politicians themselves, who still have to meet each other every day,
may still be relatively shy of it, there is no evident journalistic inhibition
against promiscuous accusations of knowing falsehood being brought against
one’s political opponents. Last May The New Republic, still
editorially grumpy because Al Gore wasn’t president, ran a cover with a
picture of George W. Bush and the loud headline: “He’s Lying.”
What he was allegedly lying about, said Paul Krugman and Jonathan Chait inside,
was budget projections made for ten years to come which purported to show that
there would be, given the projections’ assumptions about economic growth,
plenty of surplus tax dollars coming into the Treasury to “pay for”
the Bush tax cuts, then being debated (and subsequently passed) in Congress.

If The New Republic had confined itself to observing that the
Administration’s projecting the amount of tax receipts to the Treasury in
2011 was a laughably inexact exercise, there could have been no objection. But
Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton and columnist for the New York
insisted that “The fiscal predictions that enable Bush to pay
for his tax cut and contingency fund are not mere errors but deliberate efforts
to deceive the public.” Harsh words! That, presumably, is the sort of
intellectual street-fighting they engage in at Princeton, where passions
obviously run higher than they do in Washington. Professor Krugman proceeds to
demonstrate what would be the fiscally terrifying result of having made the same
projections “with proper accounting,” but for the charge of bad
faith made against the President of the United States he offers no evidence
beyond the fact that he doesn’t agree with Professor Krugman.

Likewise, Mr Chait, a senior editor of the magazine, notes that “the
debate over the Bush tax cut has been shrouded in a fog of cant and
untruth”—all of it, presumably, emanating from one side. Unlike
Professor Krugman, however, he has what he considers to be evidence of
prevarication and not just bad economics. It is this. In a leaked memo from the
Republican leadership in Congress which sought supporters for the tax cut for a
televised rally, he found the following: “[T]he Speaker’s office was very
clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to
participate —AND WE DO NEED BODIES — they must be DRESSED DOWN,
appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc. We plan to have hard hats for people to
wear. Other groups are providing waiters/waitresses, and other types of

QED! “If the advocates of the Bush tax cut were honest, a memo like
this would not exist,” he solemnly informed his readers. By this standard
of honesty, the former vice president must be branded a liar for combing over
his bald spot. But his doughty partisans at The New Republic, no longer
in any danger of being called to the field of honor to defend their calumnies
with their lives, must think that such pathetic scrounging of material for
character-assassination all just part of the cut-and-thrust of political debate
in the post-modern era. In the rest of his piece, Mr. Chait is full of
information about what the Republicans must “really” intend by such
obviously misguided policy prescriptions, but his quiver of proofs that their
“lies” are deliberate and culpable is otherwise empty.

Shocking as the charge that the President was lying may once have been,
The New Republic’s sensational discovery produced little reaction
from the rest of the press. It might almost seem that, in the era of
news-as-entertainment, the public just doesn’t care if its elected
officials are trustworthy or not? Perhaps, those ordinary “workers”
that the Republican fat cats so wickedly impersonated have at last come to
accept what those who move in the most exclusive post-modern circles have been
telling us for a long time, namely that “truth” is a chimera anyway.
That, at least, is one way of explaining to ourselves the late summer saga (or
farce) of the appropriately named “trust funds” belonging to social
security and Medicare.

They are appropriately named because they require trust to believe in them,
though they do not in fact exist by most definitions of what a trust fund is.
They are not, that is an income-producing account consisting of stocks, bonds or
interest-bearing deposits, or some combination of all three. The alleged social
security trust fund is simply the current account receipts from the FICA tax out
of which current social security benefits may, if you choose to look at it in
this way, be paid. It is a strictly notional “fund” because there is
no practical difference between the receipts of the social security tax and
general tax revenues. As a collaborative exercise in demagoguery Republicans and
Democrats got together at the beginning of the era of budget surpluses to
require that the social security tax receipts should be regarded as if
they were in a “lock box” from which those notional wads of cash
could only be taken in order to pay social security benefits and nothing

How this would help either social security beneficiaries or the fiscal health
of the nation must be supposed to have been as obscure to the framers of this
foolish statute as to everybody else, but what it certainly did was to create a
kind of suicide pact of the two parties, an agreement by Republicans to allow a
portion of tax revenues to be held hostage rather than being given back in tax
relief and by Democrats to restrain spending, lest either side open itself to
the charge of robbing the elderly and infirm—a charge which, though
acknowledged by everyone to be untrue, is equally acknowledged to be
unanswerable and politically fatal. The press, plays along with the same charade
because it adds to the thrill of political combat that such a super-weapon may
be employed at any moment.

In the meantime, we must make do with that rusty old dueling pistol, the
lately trivial charge of bad faith. And whom should we find deploying it most
assiduously from his perch on the op ed page of the New York Times but
our passionate friend, Professor Krugman, sounding even more than the other
Times columnists as if he were on salary from the DNC. Again and again he
could be found over the course of the summer firing at the Republicans charges
of immorality that Dick Gephardt or Tom Daschle would blush to make. In a column
of August 24 headed “Pants on Fire,” for example, he pretends to
write an open letter to Mitch Daniels, the head of the Office of Management and

Dear Mitch:

I have a
suggestion. It’s dishonest and irresponsible — but I suspect that doesn’t
bother you. And it would help you squirm out of a problem that we both know
isn’t going away.

True, your bobbing
and weaving have been impressive. Some people have actually bought your line
that the surplus has vanished because of Congressional big spending. . .But
there’s more trouble ahead. You bullied the Congressional Budget Office into
delaying its own budget projection until next week, so that you could get your
numbers out first. Still, when the C.B.O. numbers come out everyone knows that
they will look considerably worse than yours.

And of course we
both know that the truth is actually even worse than that, because the C.B.O.
must pretend to believe what politicians tell it.

He goes on to make a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Daniels announce that
the defense budget is part of Social Security–which, he says is
“just an expanded version of your administration’s Medicare scam.”
As a witness he calls an I.M.F. report which said, “basically,” he
avers, “liar, liar, pants on fire” to the Bush budget numbers. On
his own responsibility he refers to “blatantly dishonest
accounting,” designed to provide “big tax cuts to the very, very
affluent.” This is a view that he continually repeats for several columns
on the same subject, frequently adding along the way snide attempts at irony
that look as if they were intended to be subtle but somehow went horribly
wrong—like “Let me pretend for a moment that the truth
matters” or “Dishonesty in the pursuit of tax cuts is no vice. That,
in the end, will be the only way to defend George W. Bush’s deceptions.”
In another column, he writes:

After all, a
recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the
revenue lost because of the Bush tax cut will be more than twice the sum needed
to secure Social Security without any reform at all for the next 75 years. The
administration tried to refute that calculation, playing its usual game of
statistical three-card monte — “Look, honey, I just found $4 billion under
the cushion, and 60 lines of stem cells too!” — but the center’s estimate
matches those of the I.M.F. and other independent organizations.

I don’t know much about card-swindles, but I don’t believe that
three-card monte consists of lifting up seat cushions and finding things that
aren’t there. What, exactly, was then this bit of dishonesty he says was
involved in the administration’s attempt to “refute” the
Democratic think tank’s calculation of the effects of the tax cut? Krugman
doesn’t say, expecting us to take the charge on faith—his own (good)
rather than Bush’s (bad). This is odd coming from a man who elsewhere
asserts that the charge of lying brought against the President was “a
simple statement of fact.” Admittedly, from that quarter such a charge is
hardly remarkable, but the point is that it should be. An accusation of
dishonesty is not something to be made lightly, or without factual (rather than
interpretative) documentation in support of it.

It’s not even as if both honesty and temperance of language are that
difficult in this case. There are good arguments to be made on each side, and a
genuinely–that is to say honestly–objective commentator could make
them without having recourse to any bad or dishonest ones. But the central truth
is that the Mexican stand-off over the “lockbox” is itself a piece
of dishonesty–and, apparently, an unassailable one–whose
enshrinement in the center of the political process requires both sides to flirt
with complementary dishonesties. The Democrats blame the threat to the surplus
on Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich,” though as they know that
rescinding the tax cut would be divisive within the Democratic caucus and
unpopular with the public, they don’t propose it. Better to get the
political advantage from abusing a measure without incurring the political
disadvantage of actually doing anything about it.

Bush attempts to play the economic Keynesian, arguing for the stimulative
properties of the tax cut, but only when it suits him to be one. His answer to
the Democrats’ charge of having “lost” the surplus with his
tax cuts is to argue forcefully in reply that the “real” threat to
the economy is not the tax cut but excessive Democratic spending and he actually
welcomes the diminishment or even disappearance of the surplus as a means of
keeping a check on spending. Meanwhile, he joins in the game of making a
shibboleth of the surplus which is, in Keynesian terms, sheer madness and one of
the mistakes that deepened the Great Depression. A government surplus represents
money taken out of the economy at a time when monetary loosening to stimulate
growth is the order of the day everywhere else.

None of this is exactly dishonest. Whether you regard the threat to the
lockbox as issuing from tax cuts or from spending is all in how you look at it.
It is the idea of the lockbox itself as anything other than a means of buying up
government debt which is dishonest. But, as Alan Reynolds put it in National
Review Online
“it certainly does not matter whether bondholders are
paid off with excess payroll or excess income taxes.” It may be good that,
in a time of surplus, government debt should be bought up, but no one would
suppose that the surplus should be preserved artificially for that purpose, even
at the cost of a fiscal tightening in the teeth of a threatened recession, if it
weren’t for the false metaphor of the lockbox and the political uses to
which both sides think they can put it.

But this is a very special kind of dishonesty—one that became
particularly popular in the Clinton years when the media’s tacit
acceptance of the dissevering of rhetoric from action was confirmed with its
failure to protest against the obvious humbug of Clinton’s assurance that
he could “feel your pain.” Accept that and you can go on to accept
that Clinton himself believed that he was telling the truth when he said he had
not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. From there it is easy to accept
without comment the Democrats’ charge that the administration was not
“protecting our seniors”—as if anything less than a $160 billion surplus
would result in decreased social security or Medicare benefits to current
recipients, whose benefit levels are mandated by law.

All this is sheer demagoguery of course, but it is now the custom of the
country. On the Republican side, the demagoguery is also a form of
self-contradiction. It is not necessarily, or not culpably, self-contradictory
to argue that the fiscal stimulus of tax-cutting will produce more benefits than
the fiscal stimulus of increasing spending, but Bush does not make that
argument, instead hoping (presumably) that the contradiction will be too
difficult for ordinary folk to understand anyway. He may well be right, but if
so he counsels despair. Clinton’s treatment of the political debate was
always completely cynical, and he never made much effort to raise the
intellectual level of his political rhetoric to the point of coherence (remember
that “bridge to the 21st century”?), perhaps calculating
(surely rightly) that he had the intellectuals in his corner anyway.

Bush the younger, in attempting to emulate his predecessor can obviously not
rely on the acquiescence of the professoriat. Determined not to make the mistake
of his father—or at least the mistake his father made of being
out-humbugged in 1992 — he has tacitly accepted what was already de facto
reality among the Democrats and the media, namely that real, serious political
debate in this country is no more. Thus the media swallowed without a peep the
“arsenic in drinking water” charge by the Democrats, though they
knew that it was another bit of shameless demagoguery. They certainly
wouldn’t want to appear “biased” by pointing the fact out, yet
not to point it out could hardly be consistent with honesty, at least as honesty
has traditionally been understood.

The habit of impugning one’s political opponent’s good faith was
perhaps made easier by the habit on the left, which is now even more common
among the apolitical but bien pensant who describe themselves as
“moderates,” of impugning the “compassion” of fiscal
conservatives because of their tendency to be less generous with other
people’s money, if not with their own. Now fiscal conservatism, since the
Clinton era, has been somewhat rehabilitated. But the “compassion”
of social conservatives — for example, on behalf of homosexual partners
who are not allowed to marry each other — is still freely questioned, and
few non-conservative voices are ever raised in protest. Of course it
didn’t help that George W. Bush saw this calumny as an opportunity to
advertise himself as a “compassionate conservative”— as if
admitting the charge made against the conservatives before him.

But there is a difference even between this insult and one of dishonesty. In
fact, the worst humbugs are the most honest: they really believe that they feel
the pain of the unfortunate, and that this gives them a better claim to knowing
what to do on their behalf. Arguably, it is even fair fighting for liberals to
call conservatives uncompassionate, just as it is for conservatives to call
liberals profligate, though both would presumably deny the charge. But it can
never be fair to accuse someone of dishonesty unless the purpose of doing so is
to have him expelled from the fora of civilized discourse. But then, that may
well be what the likes of Paul Krugman want to happen to conservatives.


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