Mithradates, he died old. — A.E. Housman, Terence, this is stupid stuff
I started out wanting to make a simple point — it's in the headline — about the Biden/Ryan debate, but as I dug deeper, the post started to turn into a case study of Big Lie management by the political class, with an appendix on transcription technology. Yes, "started," and I didn't say "'finished," but perhaps this approach will prove useful in post-game analysis of tomorrow's spectacle, because we can see all the players working together for shared goals (in this case, bringing austerity Social Security and Medicare (Down, Pete!)). So a post that started out as a standard media critique using close reading might have ended up as something more.
The Biden hagiography after last Tuesday's debate was pretty thick. A quick tour of the blogs of Obama loyalists and/or apparatchiks:
Daily Kos (front-page staffer Georgia Logothetis):
Biden delivered an eviscerating performance because he hit a trifecta that's wholly absent on the Romney-Ryan ticket: (1) deep knowledge; (2) huge heart and (3) brutal honesty.
Shakespeare's Sister (Melissa McEwan):
Rep. Paul Ryan would say something dishonest or stupid; Vice President Joe Biden would react with incredulity, exasperation, and fury. It was pretty awesome. [Biden] utterly destroyed everything Ryan was saying, and called him out, point-blank, on his "malarkey."
Balloon Juice (Sarah):
Ryan sat there and spluttered and dissembled like a smug teenager who's been caught puffing on a joint, while Biden hit him with facts on topic after topic, in between taking every opportunity to stick on the shiv (Sarah Palin and Jack Kennedy, anyone?). … I mean it Joe. Call me and I'm yours.
(Note the Palin reference. We'll get to it below.)
Smirking Chimp (William Rivers Pitt):
Biden – at times laconic, at times incredulous, at times simply pissed – gave a clinic on debate management over the course of 90 minutes. He left no stone unturned in attacking the weak points of his opponent's arguments and general philosophy, handily managed to make Mitt Romney the absent and hopeless star of the show, and in the process delivered a rousing defense of both the Obama administration and Democratic Party principles that was deeply reminiscent of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Biden's presentation was, like Clinton's, both folksy and factual, and – most important of all – he did not allow Mr. Ryan to slip even one lie into the conversation without covering it with bite-marks, bruises and blood.
Talking Points Memo (Josh Marshall):
On each successive encounter, Biden was on the offensive and owned the conversation. I don't think it was close. Biden made the whole Democratic argument — on policy and values and he hit Romney really everywhere Democrats wanted him to. He left nothing unsaid. … I suspect Ryan's equivocations and unwillingness to give details will be the day 2 and weekend stories. But the most critical point in terms of the trajectory of the debate was that Biden left it all on the field.
Phew. Paper towels, anyone? Cigarettes? Of course, all these fine posts — "honesty," "dishonest," "dissembled," "lie," "equivocation" — hit the key D talking point: "The other guys are liars."* Good party discipline! Anyhow, when Josh Marshall says Biden said "left nothing unsaid," my faithful tinfoil hat tells me to go look for what Biden left unsaid. To the transcript! ** For Grand Bargain™-brand Cat Food aficionados, this is the key exchange:
[32:24]MS. RADDATZ: Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process. Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive, Mr. Ryan?
REP. RYAN: Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts. …
MS. RADDATZ: Vice President Biden, two minutes.
VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: You know, I heard that death panel argument from Sarah Palin. It seems that every vice presidential debate, I hear this kind of stuff about panels. But let's talk about Medicare. …
Notice the premise Raddatz [genuflects] sneaks into her question: That Medicare and Social Security are "going broke." Ryan immediately accepts and amplifies the premise: "These are indisputable facts." And Biden, by what he left unsaid, accepts Raddatz's premise and agrees with Ryan.
The serious (as opposed to Serious) thing to say here is that on current projections, Social Security faces a shortfall — NOT bankruptcy — a quarter of a century from now. OK, I guess that's a real concern. But compared to other concerns, it's really pretty minor, and doesn't deserve a tenth the attention it gets. It's also worth noting that even if the trust fund is exhausted and no other financing provided, Social Security will be able to pay about three-quarters of scheduled benefits, which would mean real benefits higher than it pays now.
(Krugman, I might add, is quoted in many, many other contexts by the bloggers cited above, I might add, making what they leave unsaid as curious and explicable as what Biden left unsaid. Or not.)
Big Lie #2: Medicare is going bankrupt. Another D-leaning and prominent economist, Mark Thoma:
Jared Bernstein notes that over the longer run, we do need to find a way to control the growth of health care costs. But in the nearer term, stories about Medicare going broke are overstating the problem in order to win the political and ideological battle:
Misleading Medicare Mantra, by Jared Bernstein: When you criticize the Republican's plan for Medicare privatization, their kneejerk comeback is to claim that Medicare is going bankrupt. They've got to break it to fix it. It's a misleading non sequitur that should not go unchallenged. … If the trust fund were to exhaust in 2024, income coming into the fund would still finance 90% of benefits. That's something to be avoided, but it's a different kind insolvency than that implied by the R's mantra.
Big Lie #3: Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. The rebuttals to Big Lies #1 and #2 reflect the Washington consensus that Krugman, Thoma, and Bernstein share. However, the United States government — and by extension, the programs it funds — cannot go bankrupt. No government that is sovereign in its own currency can.*** James Galbraith:
A government borrowing in its own currency need never default on its debts; paying them is simply a matter of adding the interest to the bank accounts of the bond holders. A government can only decide to default — an act of financial suicide — or (in the case of a government borrowing in a currency it doesn't control) be forced to default by its bankers. But a US bank will always cash a check issued by the US Government, whatever happens.
The common thread tying these themes together is simplicity itself. It's that modern money is a spreadsheet! It works by computer! When government spends or lends, it does so by adding numbers to private bank accounts. When it taxes, it marks those same accounts down. When it borrows, it shifts funds from a demand deposit (called a reserve account) to savings (called a securities account). And that for practical purposes is all there is. The money government spends doesn't come from anywhere, and it doesn't cost anything to produce. The government therefore cannot run out.
The United States government can no more run out of money than a bowling alley can run out of pins.****
Does anybody call bullshit on these Big Lies in real or near-real time? Heck, let's lower the bar. Did anybody even notice them? To the live blogs: Daily Kos: No and no. Shakespeare's Sister: No and no. Balloon Juice: No and no (and Andrew Sullivan: No and yes ("classic left right fight" (classic he said/she said, you mean)). How about the majors? The Guardian notices, but does not call bullshit:
So Paul Ryan gets some breathing space here, as we move on to Medicare and social security. They are both going bankrupt indisputably, he says, and rabvbits on about the ills of Obamacare. "You know I heard this death panel stuff from Sarah Palin. Seems like every vice presidential debate I hear about these panels," smiles Biden. Zingy-zing-zing [Note again Palin reference].
The WSJ notices but does not call bullshit:
Paul Ryan knows his stuff on Social Security and Medicare [and Biden, by what he leaves unsaid agrees]. The question still remains whether a majority of Americans would ever support his solutions. Most current polls suggests the answer is "not yet."
"Ryan quickly chimed in calling Raddatz's claims "indisputable facts." There's little doubt that the programs are headed towards insolvency as the baby boomers retire, but their demise is not imminent."
US News, of all people, not only notices, but calls bullshit using better bullshit:
Even [!] moderator Martha Radditz got this a bit wrong. Medicare is the big concern, and it will in fact bankrupt the nation if nothing is done to arrest mushrooming costs that might eventually swamp the entire federal budget. Social Security is not really going bankrupt [incroyable!], and can be fixed [it ain't broken!] with some relatively minor [to whom] changes, such as raising the retirement age and reducing SS benefits for wealthy retirees. All we need on that are a few politicians willing to do it. Medicare is the big deal, because medical costs are rising so fast and nobody really knows how to stop that.
So, to sum up: On the bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare, we have all the participants in the debate — the moderator, both "opponents," and almost all of the press; the entire “political class” — refusing to calling bullshit on a very obvious untruth: That Social Security and Medicare are going bankrupt. And even if Republicans accept the untruth (as the WSJ did), you'd expect some Democratic commentators to call bullshit, given that two prominent Democratic-leaning economists, one a Nobelist, called bullshit on the same ideas previously from their respective very bully pulpits. (Note that even if you don't accept MMT, and hence wouldn't classify Big Lie #3 as a lie, Big Lies #1 and #2 still hold.)
Now that's Big Lie management!
* * *
Before I tear myself from the debate transcript, I'd like to point out one very interesting tactic Joe [genuflects] Biden used. He began his answer to Raddatz this way:
[34:52] JOE BIDEN: You know, I heard that death panel argument from Sarah Palin. It seems every vice presidential debate, I hear this kind of stuff about panels. But let's talk about Medicare.
Now, our Democratic loyalist friends may not have have noticed or called bullshit on Big Lies about the crown jewels of the New Deal and the Great Society, but ring the Palin bell and they salivate right on cue (see Balloon Juice and the Guardian live blog, supra; see comments here).
Finally, Joe Biden, to his credit, poses the essential question:
[42:11] Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this? A man who introduced a bill that would raise it $6,400 a year, knowing it, and passing it, and Romney saying he would sign it? Or me and the president?
Can I answer "neither"? Because here's Biden's debate bafflegab on Social Security. Starting at [36:38]:
And with regard to Social Security, we will not — we will not privatize it. … Look, I was there when we did that with Social Security, in 1983. I was one of eight people sitting in the room that included Tip O'Neill negotiating with President Reagan. We all got together, and everybody said, as long as everybody's in the deal, everybody's in the deal, and everybody is making some sacrifice, we can find a way. We made the system solvent to 2033. … [W]e will be no part of a voucher program or the privatization of Social Security. … The idea of changing — and change being, in this case, to cut the benefits for people without taking other action [Oh? Like what?] you could do to make it work — is absolutely the wrong way.
Contrast Biden in debate to Biden before the debate. Robert Borosage:
Then Joe Biden announced yesterday that the ticket would guarantee no changes in Social Security. "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security," Biden told patrons of the Coffee Break Café in Stuart, Virginia, "I flat guarantee you."
Come on, "folks." Does what Biden said in the debate sound like a "flat guarantee" of "no changes" to you?
To conclude: Here are the elements in the Biden/Ryan debate that "tee up" the Grand Bargain:
1. Biden glorifies the previous Grand Bargain ("I was one of eight people sitting in the room").
2. Biden, Ryan, the moderator, and almost all of the press, along with the Democratic commentariat, accept the Big Lie that "Social Security and Medicare are going bankrupt."
3. These Big Lies by the political class are the essential ideological justification for the policy objective of The Grand Bargain: Sacrificing elders, the sick, and the poor on the altar of austerity, whether in the lame duck or after the election (no matter which legacy party candidate wins).
4. Given a direct opportunity to refute the Big Lies — "Social Security isn't going bankrupt! It's good for thirty years!" would have done the job; could none of Axelrod's minions have put it on an index card for Joltin' Joe? — Biden said nothing, accepted the premise, and in fact threw "progressive" a tiny morsel of red meat in the form of a Sarah Palin reference as a distraction.
5. Given a direct opportunity to repeat a "flat guarantee" of “no changes,” Biden left that unsaid, and proffered prolix and discursive bafflegab.
Get our your can openers! Because the fix is in.
* * **
NOTE Readers, and Yves, I apologize for the early release of this post. I had a "fat finger" moment with the WordPress administrative interface. A hat tip to Alexa for first drawing my attention to this subject matter (at 1:17AM the night of the debate).
NOTE * A note on the "Liars!" narrative:
In 2008 the Obama narrative was "hope, change, and the other guys are racists, especially that Clinton bitch." In 2012 the Obama narrative seems to have evolved into "The other guys are liars." (For loyalists who want to play along at home.) Much more simple and clean! Actually, the "liar" narrative is a fine example of scorched earth tactics. You don't see GM saying Ford cars are death traps engineered by lying weasels, for the very good reason that the general public would soon conclude that all cars, no matter the manufacturer, were the same; the message would boomerang. Similarly, the general public, faced with a consistent narrative that "the other guys are all liars", will conclude that all politicians, of whatever stripe, are liars, both big and small, because every politician is some other politician's "other guy." Of course, this conclusion would have the great merit of being true, at least for operatives of the legacy parties.
Romney, most wonderfully, can't deny the charge ("I am not a crook", have so stopped beating my wife, etc). And one can only wonder what would happen if Romney copped to it! In any case, watching the Obama campaign treat the Democratic Party's remaining good will as an asset to strip rather than build, one can only wonder what the 1% has in mind for the parties and the electoral system generally. Nothing good, would be my guess. Anything regarded as disposable will be disposed of.
NOTE ** A note on transcription technology:
Near real-time transcripts are at NPR, ABC, Pravda. Politico has a kinda sorta interactive embedded unshare-able transcript widget that includes annotations keyed to page numbers, which doesn't help me check the transcript against the video; only time codes can do that (and I couldn't get their annotation permalink to work; YMMV). Izvestia has functionality similar to Politico's with better page design and without the user experience-crippling widget.
AlJazeera, however, has this awesome tool that lets you search the transcript for a word (say, "bankruptcy"), shows how often each speaker uses the word, provides a handy bar chart of those words, lets you click the bar chart and scroll to where the word appears in the transcript, and then synchs the video to the clicked-on word, which is an easy way to grab the time codes.. Then they let you select and share the snippet. For the evidence- and cite-obsessed, that's a very big deal. If in some happy alternative universe there were ever a show trial for criminal banksters, or if Obama, Bush, etc. ever found themselves in the dock at the The Hague, a tool like Al Jazeera's is the one I would want to use.
NOTE *** Zimbabwe prophylactic.
NOTE **** The Greens should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the MMT paradigm. They haven't. The rich should be taxed not to "fund" the Green New Deal — because taxes, in that paradigm, function to regulate aggregate demand, not to "fund" spending — but so the rich can't buy the electoral system with all the loose cash they've got lying about, and so a multi-generational aristocracy can be prevented from talking hold. All pre-requisites to preventing austerity (in essence a terrorist attack by elites on "their own" people) and implementing Green policies, I would think.
UPDATE I’d love to be wrong. Obama could remove my uncertainty very easily tomorrow night. Jon, take this down: “There will be not one penny of cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Any cost savings on my watch will be returned to beneficiaries.” And, while, we’re at it, reduce Social Security eligibility to say, 60, so some jobs can get freed up for younger people. Oh, and Medicare for All, but that’s a topic for another day.