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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Giving the Center Finger to Centrism

Paul Krugman identifies a problem around which many other problems orbit. I hesitate to call it a "philosophy," because it's too reactionary to really qualify. But the correct word escapes me, so "philosophy" it is. It's the philosophy of those who believe with all their little hearts that the grass is always literally greener on the other side of the fence. It's a philosophy born of wishful thinking.

Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis -- a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences -- it's increasingly obvious that what we're looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.

And no, I don't mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, OK, that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.

No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.


"Think about what's happening right now," he writes. "We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating -- offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion."

Never mind that this is exactly the wrong debate to be having right now anyway. At a time of fragile economic recovery and low employment, we're not debating whether it's wise to cut government spending -- thereby reducing demand and putting government workers on the street, where they'll add competition to an already overly-competitive jobseeker market -- we're debating how much of this stupidity we should engage in. This is what passes for a "serious, adult conversation" -- a debate over whether it's better to be brainless or merely stupid. We should be talking about ways to increase demand and employment and let the ensuing increased tax revenues go a long way toward reducing the deficit.

But we can't have that conversation, because that would mean abandoning compromise and practicing leadership. And that would be the worst thing ever. Compromise is always good and if the debate is whether to cut off both healthy legs or none, then the obvious sane solution is to split the difference and amputate one.

Part of the problem is Broderism -- the belief that the appearance of functioning government is more important than results. That good government always involves "reaching across the aisle," regardless of how lamebrained those on the other side of that aisle are. And if the results are a disastrous mix of half-measures, misplaced priorities, and dead-wrong ideologies, then at least the voters know that Washington can get things done. For the Broderist, an endless string of half-baked idiocy is proof that government works. And don't forget to admire how marvelously nonpartisan they are.

For the non-Broderist, the appeal of centrism is that it's just so damned lazy. You don't have to think about it, you don't have to consider the consequences, you just have to split the ideological difference on any given issue and talking heads on Sunday shows will wag their heads like you just dropped the wisdom of Solomon on them. How do you get from New York to L.A.? Well, you drive out to St. Louis, kill the engine, and say, "Close enough." Half a loaf is better than none, after all. And think of all the gas you've saved!

So we've got two sides arguing over exactly the wrong issue and almost no one is willing to point that out. Everyone is much more interested in identifying precisely where the center lies and declaring this -- this completely arbitrary position on the GOP/Democrat scale -- to be perfection.

"I think this is a moral issue. The 'both sides are at fault' people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it's out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray," Krugman writes. "It's a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price."

I hope he's wrong, but I'm pretty sure he's right.


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