The Battle of Favorite Aunts

David Brooks and Paul Krugman are at it again.  I’m not as surprised as I was the first time I noticed it.

This is an odd kind of disagreement.  Imagine that you and your wife are visiting the home of two elderly aunts.  Your young daughter comes into the room with a ball of yarn.

“Isn’t this yarn a beautiful color?” says the child. 

“Oh, yes,” you say, “And mauve is one of Aunt Ella’s favorite colors.”

“No, no,” says your wife, “That’s forest green.  One of Aunt Margaret’s favorite colors.”

This is a disagreement.  It is packaged so as to appear to be a disagreement about what color the yarn is.  It is, in fact, a disagreement about which aunt’s sensibilities need more to be catered to at the moment.  You and your wife are not colorblind, as an uninformed observer might think, but you do have different judgments about the feelings of the relevant parties.  Let’s look at it this way.

“Isn’t this yarn a beautiful color?” says the child.

“Oh yes,” you say, “And remember how important it is to reassure Aunt Ella about how much we care for her.  She just got some very bad news from her doctor, remember.”

“Oh no,” says your wife.  “Aunt Ella doesn’t care a lick about little preferences like that and Aunt Margaret does.  Besides, you can see, just by looking, that Aunt Margaret is in a lot of pain right now and playing the “favorite color” card is the humane thing to do.”

If we were to extend this (I’m not going to) it is easy to image the beginning of the next round going like this.

“What is with you and Aunt Margaret?  You are always soooo sensitive to her every mood and you don’t care as much about Aunt Ella.”

“I do care as much about Aunt Ella, but you simply can’t load every situation in her favor without Aunt Margaret noticing.  She isn’t as dumb as you say she is.”

You see where that’s going.  Does it sound familiar?

My observation today is that the persistently discrepant observations of David Brooks and Paul Krugman are like the first round of the argument.  They are disagreeing, certainly, but they are not disagreeing about what they seem to be disagreeing about.  This is not a fight about the merit of the two approaches to Medicare and deficit reduction.  This fight is about whether David Brooks’ favorite aunt should be catered to (Republicans—moderates, where available, but Republicans for sure) or Paul Krugman’s favorite aunt, a Democrat.

There are other differences between them, of course.  Brooks writes about political culture when he can.  Krugman writes about economics all the time.  Brooks honors personal intention whenever possible; Krugman focuses on systemic effects whenever possible.

Judge for yourselves.  Here is Brooks’s column. Here is Krugman’s.  Krugman says Paul Ryan’s plan is an illusion.[1]

What Mr. Ryan actually offers, then, are specific proposals that would sharply increase the deficit, plus an assertion that he has secret tax and spending plans that he refuses to share with us, but which will turn his overall plan into deficit reduction.

If this sounds like a joke, that’s because it is. Yet Mr. Ryan’s “plan” has been treated with great respect in Washington. He even received an award for fiscal responsibility from three of the leading deficit-scold pressure groups. What’s going on?

The answer, basically, is a triumph of style over substance.

OK.  I get that.  On the other hand, according to Brooks:

If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station.

And why is that?  The reason is that addressing really big problems requires passionate commitment.  Who has the passion for entitlement reform?  Not Obama:

He [Obama] had the courage to chop roughly $700 billion out of Medicare reimbursements. He had the courage to put some Medicare eligibility reforms on the table in his negotiations with Republicans. He created that (highly circumscribed) board of technocrats who might wring some efficiencies out of the system.

Still, you wouldn’t call Obama a passionate reformer. He’s trimmed on the edges of entitlements. He’s not done anything that might fundamentally alter their ruinous course.

Romney and Ryan, on the other hand.

When you look at Mitt Romney through this prism, you see surprising passion. By picking Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney has put Medicare at the center of the national debate. Possibly for the first time, he has done something politically perilous. He has made it clear that restructuring Medicare will be a high priority.

This is impressive. If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station.

Here’s where we come out, imagining that Brooks and Krugman are talking about the same thing in the sense that the husband and wife are really talking about the color of the yarn.  Krugman says Ryan’s plan is an illusion and a con job.  Brooks says it is the only train leaving the station.

This isn’t about Medicare savings and entitlement momentum.  It isn’t, that is to say about the color of the yarn.  This is about whether Aunt Ella or Aunt Margaret is to be preferred, given that in this instance, you must prefer one of them.

If Brooks and Krugman ever lined up their argument so that it was about the same thing and measured by the same metric, then someone would be right and someone would be wrong.  They aren’t going to do that.  It’s going to be yarn color v. favorite aunt from here until November.



[1] Actually, it is a chimera but I don’t want to scare the children.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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