You’ve Been At This Pundit Thing Too Damn Long, Old Man
Like so many of his colleagues at the Washington Post, there was a time when Ezra Klein was not just another ossified belcher of such predictable kleptocrat apologia/antilogic filtered through the usual echo chamber distortion of stupefying sleepword synonyms for "consensus" as today's "An imperfect, but not-that-bad, deal on the tax cuts" to millionaires who barely pay taxes anyway. I've been perusing the Klein canon for examples, and for instance here, back in 1991 there were signs Wonkbook blogger could be an occasionally innovative thinker, according to this account from the Los Angeles Times:
For 6-year-old inventor Ezra Klein, the inspiration came from his baby sister's spilled ice cream cone.
Why not, he thought, put a frozen piece of plastic around the cone to keep the ice cream cold and catch any wayward drips?
"I call it my 'Ice Cream Cooler and Melt Stopper,' " said Ezra, a first-grader at Irvine's University Park Elementary School. "With this, my sister won't spill everything anymore."Ezra is one of 234 Orange County kindergarten through eighth-graders participating in the fifth annual Astounding Inventions competition from noon to 3 p.m. today at Irvine Valley College. Admission is free.
I am not entirely sure what happened in the interim to Klein, who at some point after this contest exited the cutthroat infomercial kitchen appliance industry and remade himself into a fixture of the Beltway punditocracy, but he has since transformed into a less interesting David Broder.
I knew I should have paid more attention to the signs of a deKlein (so to speak) back in September when he began a column pulling the classic Broder move of loonily pining for a more virtuous supposed past that never existed:
"Remember the good old days, when Washington cared about deficits? I do."
"Washington" never cared about deficits, of course. But since the days before Klein was even born Republicans have found great success deploying the word "deficit" in targeted word-repetition assault campaigns to convince Democrats to relinquish social programs in order to achieve the greater utopia of "balanced budgets" that Republicans can in turn use as an excuse to cut taxes and divert tax dollars to their friends in the security contracting business.
Invariably during this process, some moderate pundit takes notice of the pattern and wonders what happened to the halcyon days of Washington being the kind of town where coalitions of honest grown-up adults were once willing take the painful tough-love bipartisan steps necessary to appease the great nation's bond traders. But nobody listens, because moderates are so boring and also…holy shit, is that Condi Rice over there?! Why don't you go look, while I return to remembering the good old days, when Ezra Klein cared about deficits.
Today, Washington has an opportunity to take an enormous stride toward a balanced budget – and both parties are running in the opposite direction as fast as possible.The opportunity is the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire this year. If they do expire this year – or in the next few years – the budget outlook brightens considerably. But neither party is about to let that happen. The Republicans are proposing to increase the deficit by about $4 trillion by extending all of the Bush tax cuts and the Democrats are countering with an offer to increase the deficit by a bit more than $3 trillion by extending only the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year. Look at those numbers again: $4 trillion and $3 trillion. That's vastly more deficit spending than the stimulus, bank bailouts, health-care bill (which actually reduces the deficit) and everything else we've done in the past few years combined.
Do you see what I did there with the bold typeface, readers? Ezra Klein found a silver lining in Washington's ice cream binge of a fiscal mess, and it rhymes with my partisanship!
In the interim Klein lamented the "failure" of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission on the grounds that it had "led to further fracturing" when the "point of the Simpson-Bowles commission wasn't full employment for budget wonks. It was consensus." A few weeks later, he courageously reversed his position:
A few weeks ago, I said the fiscal commission had failed in its political mission. I was wrong. It didn't succeed in securing the consensus vote it needed, but it got a lot closer than I thought it would, and I think close enough for the commission's purposes. Now it's up to the relevant politicians, as, in the end, it always was.
Later Klein admitted to being somewhat mystified by the movements of his elusive consensus:
It seems a little crazy that tax cuts for the nation's very richest residents are commanding more political energy and consensus than unemployment insurance.
And again today in repeating his qualified support for the Obama Administration's decision to once again win by losing he concedes once again that his perception of the "consensus" is not always where the consensus would ultimately arrive, since the deal the Democratic White House and Congress reached to trade $56 billion in survival money for the unemployed in exchange for $300 billion in tax cuts for millionaires was actually "a better one than many — myself included — thought they'd reach." But it is important to remember that "consensus" as perceived by powerful pundits like Ezra Klein generally fulfills itself into the broader consensus, as his friend Matthew Yglesias observed today on his blog:
I’ve been on a bunch of planes, but catching up on my blog and email reading the progressive wonk consensus seems to be that the tax cut deal is . . . not as bad as people feared it would be based on what was happening the previous week. And I totally agree, though that’s largely a case of expectations management so I’m not going to break out the flowers.
But there's a danger to deploying such laserlike focus to tracking the "consensus", one that is demonstrated in a post Klein wrote yesterday on the consensus's abridged definition of the word "millionaire", a shift I noted (a bit more incredulously) more than two months ago. He was so busy "predicting" what sort of compromise the Obama Administration would eventually reach with the "consensus" view that millionaires must be awarded tax breaks that he forgot to notice how the definition of "millionaires" had been upgraded in exclusion of those lesser millionaires who are actually much more accurately described as "middle class" in a great and wealthy country such as this.
Klein of course is a grizzled veteran of punditry; such nuanced shifts in the literal meanings of things—"progressive", "millionaire", "filibuster" etc.—aren't so conspicuous when one is busy with the more practical burdens of building and charting consensus. The pace of this town can cause in its residents something like a mental progeria, and Klein's brain appears to have started aging in dog years somewhere around the time of his first mention in TNR. (June 2003, at age 19.)
So while I have never been big on "death panels"—and I trust the Supreme Court would fight almost as hard to protect the speech of our bloggers who are past their primes as they do that of our anonymous billionaire-backed front organizations—we ignore sufferers of this epidemic at our peril. Make no mistake: the creeping senility and dementia of our nation's hack consensusphere* has exacted a tremendous cost on this once-great nation. And it will only get worse, as Klein inadvertently warns us in his closing paragraph on tax cuts:
And finally, it's something of a hopeful sign: The White House sat in a room with Republicans and Democrats and managed to negotiate an actual compromise. The final deal includes some things that Democrats will like and some things they won't like, and it includes some things Republicans will like and some things they won't like. But it's a deal, and a better one than many — myself included — thought they'd reach. These tax cuts were a bit of a special legislative case, as their scheduled expiration forced action, but if you want to be optimistic, this process suggests that the next two years might be a bit more productive than some of us have been predicting.
My advice for readers who want to be "optimistic" is to find a good Ecstasy dealer and step away from the internet. By the time this old geezer finally resigns to spend more time with his food blog, they'll have cloned him a few times already, and a new generation of mini Ezras will too preoccupied agreeing with one another about the consensus to notice the memo.
*Hat tip Lorentzen