Entry from April 12, 2011

Well, it’s official. Ezra Klein, the boy wonder blogger of the Washington Post has announced in today’s paper that “the budget [Paul] Ryan released last week is not courageous or serious or significant. It’s a joke, and a bad one.” Might as well pack up and go home to Wisconsin, Paul. How can you ever show your face in this town again? Curiously, however, Mr Klein chooses to begin his column with a sideways glance at those who might still harbor the slightest smidgen of a doubt as to his authority for making such a sweeping judgment.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column praising Rep. Paul Ryan’s Roadmap. I called its ambition “welcome, and all too rare.” I said its dismissal of the status quo was “a point in its favor.” When the inevitable backlash came, I defended Ryan against accusations that he was a fraud, and that technical mistakes in his tax projections should be taken as evidence of dishonesty. I also, for the record, like Ryan personally, and appreciate his policy-oriented approach to politics. So I believe I have some credibility when I say . . .

. . . what I quote him as saying above. Now to my mind, “credibility” about fiscal issues would involve a bit of expertise, perhaps some experience in the CBO or the OMB in actually putting together a budget, or at the very least a compelling skill in reasoning and an unrivaled command of facts. At any rate, it’s not having once said something nice about a person you are now trashing. If that amounts to “credibility” it’s the cheapest and most easily forged sort of credibility imaginable.

One might even be tempted to call such “credibility” a joke itself — though it’s not so good a joke as the riposte of Paul Krugman’s blog over at The New York Times. Professor Krugman, who is obviously long past having to establish any credulity of his own, wrote this: “Ezra is right about this plan — but the Roadmap was also a bad joke. And Ryan has been a disingenuous flake all along; if you didn’t see that from the start, it makes you less, not more, credible.” Ouch! It’s not every day when your “credibility” takes a hit like that from a Nobel Prize-winning economist. That must be why young Ezra was stung into a hurried reply on the Post’s website, explaining “Why I defended Paul Ryan.”

If I were writing social policy, Ryan’s Roadmap is not how I’d do it. But it was a plausible conservative vision for how to move forward on a variety of front [sic]. . . I think Krugman is right to critique me — and some others — for really wanting to see conservative politicians take some of these policy questions more seriously. I do want that! It’d be good for the country. My personal rule is that I give legislators the benefit of the doubt until they demonstrate they don’t deserve it.

Needless to say, he now finds that, if Congressman Ryan once deserved the benefit of that (very considerable) doubt, he does so no longer.

But notice how both Professor Krugman’s reproof and Mr Klein’s reply slip quickly away from the difficult and complicated nuts-and-bolts of fiscal policy into the question of political loyalties. The Professor means to intimate that the blogger’s adherence to the quasi-official left-wing Krugmanian gospel — namely that Republican budget plans are ipso facto intellectually unrespectable — has been called into question, while the blogger’s panicked reply is, in effect, that he swears he hasn’t been disloyal. He has always regarded the Ryans and their GOP kind as being unregenerate and therefore deserving of their place among the politically damned, though he confesses to the (surely venial?) sin of once having wished that they might be saved. Please, professor, don’t throw me into that outer darkness!

In other words, both the professor and the blogger find it natural to assume that the question of Ryan or no-Ryan is what amounts to a faith-based proposition: an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it, joke or no-joke, since no other view of the matter is to be countenanced. It is, therefore, not only not a serious policy proposal, it cannot be a serious policy proposal. There can be nothing good to be said about it if we are to remain true Krugmanites — which, obviously, ambitious young bloggers like Mr Klein are keen to do. Now, to some extent the non-wonkish segment of the population like myself is always going to have to take on faith the pronouncements of Nobel Prize-winning economists like the professor and brainy bloggers like Mr Klein about things we ourselves lack expertise in, but what they inspire when they tell us that those who think differently from themselves can only be considered a joke and not worth listening to is not our confidence in their credibility.

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