Confusion is our most important product

by: Paul Rosenberg

Tue Nov 16, 2010 at 10:30


The last line in Krugman's Saturday post, "The Soft Bigotry of Low Deficit Commission Expectations", was so stinging that it distracted me from something arguably equally important.  That line (about the Catfood Commission):

The kindest thing we can do now is pretend the whole thing never happened.

But the bulk of the post highlighted something else that's just important in its own way:

[A]nyone can come up with some good deficit-reduction ideas; I can come up with a dozen even before I've had my morning coffee. Brainstorming is easy.

What the commission was supposed to do was something much harder: it was supposed to produce a package that Congress would give an up and down vote. To do this, it would have to produce something much better than a package with some good stuff buried in among the bad stuff; it would have to produce a package good enough to accept as is.

And it didn't do that. Instead, it produced a package that may have had some good things in it, but also, remarkably, introduced a whole slew of new bad ideas that weren't even in the debate before. A 21 percent of GDP limit on revenues? Cutting the top marginal rate to 23 percent? Sharp reductions in the government work force without, as far as anyone can tell, a commensurate reduction in the work to be done? Instead of cutting through the fog, the commission brought out an extra smoke machine.

Krugman sees the Catfood Commission quite clearly at one level.  That last line put it perfectly. However, Krugman misses it completely at another level:  He thinks it's a bug, when of course, it's a feature.  What better way to advance rightwing ideas no one was even seriously thinking about during a Democratic Administration and a Democratic Congress?  Rightwing ideas such as those Krugman just enumerated in that very same paragraph.

Sure, they have only the vaguest relationship to deficit reduction, and introducing them like this out of the blue does nothing to fulfill the supposed purpose cover story of Catfood Commission.  So what?  The cover story was only essential for getting the Commission launched.  It remains useful of course, for continuing to bludgeon folks with the co-chairs' failed potpouri.  But no one has to take it seriously when it no longer suits them--any more than deficit chickenhawks have to take themselves seriously when it's time to cut taxes on the rich & the super-rich.

If this is confusing to anyone, that's precisely the point.  Conservative economic policies aren't supposed to make sense.  They're supposed to make dollars. Billions and billions of them.  Policies that make sense and/or honest deliberative processes that remain grounded broadly supported public principles will almost invariably emerge with a strong "liberal bias", the same way that majorities of self-identified conservatives will support a majority of welfare state programs. Confusion must be introduced at multiple points at multiple levels in order to come out with any sort of "acceptable" conservative policies.  

It is, in fact, the same principle of sowing doubt and confusion that Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document in their recent book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, but with one crucial difference:  In science, the standards of conduct and proper procedure are far better established, and the so the generation of spurious doubt and confusion is much more obvious, and much more clearly identifiable.  But the game is fundamentally, at bottom, still the same.  Create confusion, create uncertainty, create delay, introduce false issues, introduce false solutions, shift the debate, introduce wild accusations, etc., etc., etc.

Get serious. That's the way the game is played.

Paul Rosenberg :: Confusion is our most important product

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In the hillbilly Sierra Mountain lumber towns (4.00 / 1)
Where I grew up, we had a more concise way of putting it.  "You know a Republican's lyin' if his lips is movin'.  Eventually the Red State hillbillies are going to figure this out too.  When they do, I think you're going to see the South and Mid-West go from "Consurvuhtave to Bolshevik overnight.  Maybe some of these Versailles types better start picking their lampposts.  

"Oh. My. God. .... We're doomed." -- Paul Krugman
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.c...">http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.c...">http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.c...


just more the same old game . . . (4.00 / 3)
To me it's just another sign that the Administration is simply not thinking strategically.  They gave in to pressure to form the Cat Food Commission; the folks proposing it actually didn't care what the commission did, it would serve to the move the ball down the field a few more yards (can I get points for a sports metaphor?).  That's all they cared about since it was almost a guarantee the commission would recommend . . . what they recommended.  The administration of course won't fight for anything that is seemingly liberal, instead they'll fight for "compromise" which means the whole discussion moves to the right.  It's an old trick and it works almost every time.

The confusion - the tossing in of unrelated issues, the gratuitous attacks on Social Security - are all about destabilizing public debate.  Seniors will immediately leap to defend social security, the administration will get the blame for attacking it since they authorized the commission and on it all goes.  The incoherence of the proposals becomes part of the game - conservatives can defend any one part they want and ignore the rest since the pieces and parts are unrelated to each other.


When the eagles are silent, the parrots jabber.  Winston Churchill


Leaves one question (4.00 / 2)
Is Obama being played, or is he trying to play us?

I tend to think its the latter.

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
The Answer Is Both. (4.00 / 4)
As usual.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Are you saying he's only playing eight dimensional chess? (4.00 / 1)
[ Parent ]
I Actually DID Play THREE Dimensional Chess A Couple Of Times As A Teenager (0.00 / 0)
And based on that experience, I'd have to say, "two-dimensional tiddly-winks".

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
False equivalency (0.00 / 0)
While I might be willing to forgive a politician for being played, I tend to bristle when they are playing me.

So, yeah, the answer is "both" - but the latter indicates that Obama is not on my side. If he were, his response to "being played" might well be to enlist my aid in revealing the dishonesty of those that are lying to him, rather than simply "playing it forward".


"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
Woa! (0.00 / 0)
You're the one who set it up in the equivalency form of either/or!

I agree it's worse when he's actively against us, but I'm not the one who set up the form of the comparison.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3


[ Parent ]
That's why you got a 4, too (0.00 / 0)
Sometimes the "either/or" construct is more appropriate than others.

I consciously broke the 'equivalency' by stating that I favor the latter proposition - that Obama is playing us. My response to your comment was a reiteration.  

"It sounds wrong...
     ...but its right."


[ Parent ]
What if it's both and neither? (0.00 / 0)
Lakoff talks about the idea that strict father conservatives aren't systems thinkers - that part of strict father cognition is insistence on direct causation.  So the catfood comm's proposal makes a kind of sense if you consider that it's people who don't do systems level thinking trying to solve a system's level problem.  They figure a complex problem requires lots of different solutions rather than a systemic solution.  Hence the variety of pieces in the proposals.

There are some people on the right who know it's total b/s and who favor the confusion, and lots of people on the left who bring a systems mindset and so try to make the connections and who respond to a non-systems proposal as if it is something other than what it is. At some level, the admin and other dems are being played and are playing the rest of us.  At the same time, they truly want to believe their own PR - that they're these post-partisan coalition builders. So they let themselves get played.

When the eagles are silent, the parrots jabber.  Winston Churchill


[ Parent ]
Pretty Much (0.00 / 0)
The tendency to project ones own modes of cognition onto others is a subtle trap we all fall into far more often than we realize.  And it very much does become a structured part of systemic dysfunction, just as you suggest.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
btw (0.00 / 0)
I know I keep writing about systems but I'm really not a total geek.

When the eagles are silent, the parrots jabber.  Winston Churchill

[ Parent ]
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