Mugged By Their Own Narrative

As Team Romney continues the process of self-immolation, various journalists have discerned a pattern in conservative reactions to his collapse.

Echoing Richard Cohen’s column from several days ago, Fareed Zakaria notices that Romney is deeply constrained by the Republican Party’s pursuit of purity:

So Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit. When pressed for details recently, he explained that “the devil’s in the details. The angel is in the vision.” He’s right. Were he to get specific, he would be committing ideological blasphemy. So instead he talks about freedom and capitalism.

And that’s a reasonably good place to start—but it’s pretty familiar ground. Mike Tomasky drives the point home:

What a fantastic last two weeks these have been. I don’t even mean Barack Obama solidifying his lead over Mitt Romney, although that’s perfectly fine. No, I mean the near-mathematically perfect joy of watching these smug and contemptible creatures of the right dodge and swerve and make excuses and, most of all, whine. There is no joy in the kingdom of man so great as the joy of seeing bullies and hucksters laid low, and watching people who have arrogantly spent years assuming they were right about the world living to see all those haughty assumptions die before their eyes. Watching them squirm is more fun than watching Romney and Paul Ryan flail away

I loved the initial reaction to the famous videotape. Problem? Are you kidding? This is just what we’ve been waiting for! This will help Romney, it was said; finally, we have Mitt unchained, Mitt raw, Mitt the truth-teller. Now he can just charge out there and do more of this, and in no time the nation will be putty in our hands! And just you wait for the next polls.

Well, the polls have started to come, and they portend total disaster. Americans don’t turn out to like a heartlessly cruel Social Darwinian articulation of the national condition that by the by calls half the population worthless. Huh. Go figure.

(Cf. Eugene Robinson, in the highly improbable case that you want even more linked reading on this.)

Today’s American Right is so thoroughly immersed in its own, closed world (what sometimes gets called “epistemic closure”) that it frequently finds itself without resources to participate in the common political world. They are dumbfounded at the possibility that an “empty suit,” affirmative action beneficiary like Barack Obama could possibly win one presidential term, let alone two.

That’s why, in the years immediately following the 2008 election, ACORN and shadowy Alinskyite election-stealers were all the rage. This wasn’t just idle chatter on the far fringe, as the proliferation of Voter ID laws soon demonstrated.

It’s also why Republican elites have been salivating at the opportunity to push their gospel of government gutting, even when Americans are skeptical about deregulated markets and sensitive to cuts to social welfare programs.

And, finally, it’s why they’re bitterly helpless to make sense of the unpopularity of their program. Their polling data are terrible and getting worse—for their candidate, for the broader GOP platform, for the substance of the Ryan Budget, for nigh on EVERYTHING conservatives are pushing. Hell, the only worse numbers are the empirical data on Ryan’s debt-detonating budget. 

A sensible, empirically-savvy observer attends to these data and suspects that their movement has become unpopular. A powerful segment of the conservative establishment (if not the whole thing) sees these same numbers and instead suspects the data themselves. Worse still, they count it as one more piece of evidence that the bulk of media outlets are powerfully arrayed against conservatism.

They conclude anything, that is, that protects them from having to admit and face the unreal and unpopular aspects of their movement. In this world, it is impossible that the conservative movement could lose in the marketplace of ideas. The problem is either distortion (imaginary vote-stealers, enormously collusive media outlets, etc) or a rhetorical shortcoming (“if Romney just gets specific, we’ll win this thing!”).

In this sense, then, the GOP isn’t so much the Party of Lincoln or the Party of Rand…but the Party of Phyllis Schlafly. In her Choice Not an Echo, Schlafly argued that only a Republican Party purified of its moderates could distinguish itself from the Democrats. In Rule and Ruin, his study of the modern Republican Party, Geoffrey Kabaservice put it this way:

[F]or the persuadable, A Choice Not an Echo offered an all-encompassing explanation of political reality and a powerful stimulus for action…Schlafly also articulated a key article of conservative faith, which was that a “hidden” majority of Americans were conservative but rarely participated in elections since there was so little to choose from between the two parties. If the moderates could be thwarted and a true conservative like Goldwater could gain the Republican presidential nomination, the parties at last would divide along ideological lines, and a newly energized conservative majority would sweep the Republicans to victory.

Schlafly’s book was “all-encompassing.” Her view of American politics was a perfectly self-sufficient system. Like any Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory worth its salt, it left nothing unexplained for acolytes to account for. Part of this, as I’ve recently written, involved claiming that the legitimate mantle of the American tradition that covered her specific political views—and little else. In words that would echo, if they weren’t already being shouted in unison today, Schlafly aimed to take the country back—from the Left and for (the legitimate Americans) conservatives.

Remember when being labeled a “Massachusetts Moderate” was a dangerous threat to Romney’s candidacy? Remember when other candidates for the nomination (esp. Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich) joined FOX pundits in fretting that Romney wasn’t conservative enough to win in November?

All of this is also why Romney’s chances at recovering his electoral footing grow slimmer by the day. Much as he might like a do-over, Romney can’t really “Etch-a-Sketch” away his comments about the so-called “47%” because his base would see this as treason.[1] Worst of all, should Romney lose, it’s not clear that the American Right is prepared to reflect on why. All signs point to their likely response: doubling down on ideological purity. Check their bench—none of the brightest conservative political stars are moderates. None.


(Random Sidenote: As usual, the League was way ahead on this. We argued this point during the Tod-convened League bull session a few weeks ago in DC . It reminded me of GOP apostate Mike Lofgren’s farewell essay to his party, and I got started on a post along these lines, but almost everything else in my life got away from me and it’s taken me until now.)

[1] Given the Right’s penchant for tarring even their domestic ideological opponents as un-American, some will view any moderate gestures from the Romney camp as literal treason.

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81 thoughts on “Mugged By Their Own Narrative

  1. I know it seems TOTALLY INSANE that any moderate Anerican could ever vote for Romney/Ryan, but I’m pretty sure this too represents pandering. Obviously it’s not pandering to you or me, but I’m pretty sure this pandering too is based on Frank Luntz’s focus groups and other semi-scientific attempts to make vote-getting rigorous and controllable. We probably shouldn’t be surprised or outraged by this shit anymore, nor should we pretend to be surprised or outraged by it.


  2. I said in 2008 that the GOP would have to get worse before it got better, after seeing the primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in which the crowd cheered for torture. What this post describes is a substantial portion of of the “worse” I was thinking of — an -purging entity stuck in a spiral of self-defeating internal self-purges aimed at refining ideological purity reached a point of self-parody and took the party to confront the specter of self-destruction.

    What I’m wondering now is what the “better” is going to look like if and when it ever gets here. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the GOP returning to the days when guys like Bob Michel and Dick Lugar would be considered acceptable party leaders, much less guys like Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford.


    • Is there any change that the Republicans could make that would allow them to win enough elections to remain relevant in politics given the changing demographics of the U.S.

      Why do progressives always hold up Republicans like Lugar or Ford who were happy to be in the minority and who were happy to be in a position where they could not really affect policy or governance?


      • You can call me a progressive if you want. I do not call myself that and I think the label is inaccurate.

        Sometimes, reaching compromises with the other side is good. Yes, sometimes you need a vote so there is a winner and a loser, too. But insisting on winning everything all the time is not a viable governing strategy.

        And the product of a “more-conservative-than-thou” arms race in a primary is like as not to be as batspit crazy as Michelle Bachman or as objectionable as Todd Akin. The example of Romney’s Rightward Run, a five-year process reaching its climax before our eyes, is a fine illustration of the dynamic at work.


        • Todd Akin “objectionable”? Not hardly. Gingrich is supporting him as are other GOP notables. The RNC is making noises about contributing to his campaign.

          I said at the time that the GOP agreed with Akin, he was just too blunt. Now, “legitimate rape” is once again acceptable to the GOP.



        • When asked what changes that Republicans can make, most people do not answer and the few that do answer always say that the Republicans should just become Democratic-lite.

          There are no changes that would make the Republican relevant. Most possible changes would lose more Republican support than they would gain from peeling off a few Democrats. I think it is safe to say that more than 50% of the U.S. have become automatic Democratic Party voters and there is nothing that the Republicans can do about it.


      • Luger not affect policy? The dude is as responsible as anyone on this planet for the control of loose nuclear material after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While others were worrying about whether they had a majority, he was wandering both sides of the aisle building support for securing that stuff to prevent it from falling in the wrong hands.

        The Man’s a Goddamn American hero, and my fellow Hoosiers should be damned ashamed of themselves for worrying that he didn’t hate gays and taxes enough.


      • “Is there any change that the Republicans could make that would allow them to win enough elections to remain relevant in politics given the changing demographics of the U.S. ”

        Well they could become more libertarian:-
        Stop advocating for government control of women’s bodies.
        Stop government control over which adults get married.
        Stop supporting nationalisation of the charity wing of religions.
        Stop advocating for restrictions on free trade and man up to international competition.
        Stop trying to deny minority religions their first amendment rights.
        Stop trying to deny non-believers their freedom of expression by encouraging advertisers to reject their material.
        Stop trying to get religion into schools which would result in a reduction in freedom of religion for minority believers.


  3. Who cares? Does anyone really believe that the Republicans will ever be able to affect policy or governance again? Given the changing demographics and economic situation in the U.S., no conservative party can survive and thus, no one should waste time thinking about conservatives.

    The only people who would be interested in Republican politics or even conservative politics would be people who isolate themselves and who refuse to face the changing demographic, cultural , and economic situation of the U.S. Why else would 90% plus of Ivy League students describe themselves as liberals and progressives. Those Ivy Leaguers are smart enough to realize that there is no future in conservative politics and that the U.S. will soon be a one party state much like the cities of Boston, NYC, Philly, Chicago, or Palo Alto where they attended school.

    Instead of an endless number of posts and columns discussing what is wrong with the irrelevant Republican party, maybe people should analyze what will happen as the U.S. becomes a one party state and most of the current Republican voters start voting in the Democratic primaries?


        • To be fair, Bloomberg only became a Republican because he knew that there was a snowball’s chance in hell of him winning the Democratic nod. NYC Democratic politics is still very much a bottom up kind of thing. You start at the ground and work your way up.

          There is also nothing in Bloomberg’s record that would make the national Republican party happy even when he had an R next to his name.


    • Republicans are the majority in Governorships and state legislatures. There’s more ‘political talent’ out there right now, grooming red, then blue. Or Green.

      So I believe Republicans affect policy and governance right now.

      But I also believe when most folks thing ‘government,’ the kind they see as a problem, they see the federal government, when it’s typically the laws cooked up by their own state legislatures that provoke make their lives more difficult.


      • And I’d recommend reading about The American Legislative Exchange Council, a strange group providing model legislation which is being adopted by states all over the nation. Mine even paid for Republicans to go to some of their ‘workshops.’

        This is the group writing most of the voter-ID laws cropping up all over.

        Here’s a good place to start:

        Or here’s Bill Moyers:

        And a ALEC Exposed, a watch-dog group:


      • Zic is dead-on about the farm teams. And while 2016 is a long time in the political future, the likehlihood of “Obama fatigue” after eight years is great and there is no obvious successor to Obama. So Republicans will have a leg up for that open race.

        (Jokes that Jeb Bush already has the 2016 nomination sewn up are amusing but I would be not surprised at all if Jeb didn’t even run. It’s far too early to prognosticate that.)


        • “there is no obvious successor to Obama”

          In 2016, at the national level, the Dems will have HRC, who will be one of the most accomplished, qualified candidates ever to run for President. (And many Republicans have, unwisely for them I think, publically supported her and her husband. I can hardly imagine a more “obvious successor” ever, including a lot of past VP’s.

          “Obama fatigue” may occur -or the press may tell us it is occurring- but if the economy is flying high four years from now and the deficit is somewhat better, Obama will receive -fairly or not- a whole lot of credit that will transfer to his successor. Obama’s successor may Gore-it-up, Brazille-style, but there is no reason to believe that is particularly likely.

          At the gubernatorial and senate levels I think we will see lots of new talent on both sides. 2016 is a long ways away at those levels. The House even more so.

          And a lot of big name Republican talent is in trouble of some sort or another: Christy, Walker, Ryan, etc.

          I am sure the R’s make a comeback at some point, but an Obama win in 2012 has long term positive effects for the D’s at the national level for 2016, IMO.


          • In 2016, at the national level, the Dems will have HRC, who will be one of the most accomplished, qualified candidates ever to run for President.

            And who will be 69 years old on 1/20/2017. One senior citizen does not a deep bench make.


          • Secretary Clinton will at that point be 69 years old. She has several times stated matter-of-factly that her term as Secretary of State will end in 2013 whether President Obama is re-elected or not, so she’ll have been out of office for three years. She has also stated that she is ready to step off “the high wire of American politics.” I doubt she’ll throw her hat into the ring at all.

            We’ll see, of course, and right now there’s absolutely no way to know for sure one way or the other. I agree that were she to run, she’d have among the most impressive resumes in post-war history (the first President Bush had a pretty impressive resume in 1988, too; LBJ was actually President when he ran and had an impressive pre-Presidential career behind him; Ike being overall commander of the European Theater in WWII is among the most impressive qualifications I can imagine). Yes, she’d walk into the primaries as the 800-pound gorilla. But that wouldn’t even guarantee that she’d get the nomination, particularly against a younger, more energetic and more charismatic primary rival. Like the one she faced in 2008.


              • If you want to know you will be inaugurated in 2017, start by writing down all of the sitting Democratic Party senators and governors who are in office in 2013. Then scratch off all of them who have not graduated from Harvard or Yale (undergraduate/graduate/professional school. Cory Booker would be considered an Obama third term.


            • I think she’d grab the nomination. She lost in 2008 primarily by her Iraq war vote (the biggest issue by far in the mind of primary voters, pre financial crash) and to a lesser extent by the perception that Clintonism wasn’t liberal enough for a post Bush world, and to an even lesser extent by a campaign that was so overconfident that they forgot to organize strongly to win the early caucases. (She could’ve won the whol shebang if it weren’t for the Obama team’s smart play on caucus states.) The Iraq war vote is the distant past and Clintonism is now the most popular view in the universe, apparently.

              If Obama wins, and ends up being creditted (even unfairly) with an economic turnaround, she will be the prohibitive favorite for POTUS, if she chooses.

              I actually think age could help her in a way. I think men are slightly less likely to display and feel sexist attitudes towards older women than younger women. I’m not ready to justify that, but I have some intuition that it’s true.


    • American politics swings back and forth. So do parties. Right now, the GOP definition of conservativism is seriously warped, but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way.

      Lincoln certainly wouldn’t recognize his party today. Heck, my grandmother wouldn’t either. Just within my lifetime the GOP has changed enough that I can barely recognize the party I recall from when I first reached voting age (and I’m not that old).

      Of course, the Dems have changed too. When I was born, they ran Virginia and decried SCOTUS over turning the law banning interracial marriages. Less than 50 years later a man born from just such an ‘unnatural and ungodly’ union became president on their ticket with enthusiastic support.

      Those disaffected by that major shift became Republicans thanks to Nixon’s cyncial southern strategy. Now that demographic decision is coming back to bite them, which will eventually force another change as basic survival instincts start to kick in among the younger and less hide bound.

      Considering that they’ll still need the Religious Right, I expect some preacher to come out with a pronouncement that the ghost of Lincoln has finally had enough and cursed them to wander in electoral limbo until the recover the soul of the party as he knew it.


      • +1million.

        My mom was raised by her grandparents, her grandmother’s uncle was Hannibal Hamlin’s secretary while he served as Vice President. She was a Republican in the traditional sense a Lincoln Republican. She’s aghast at the modern Republican Party; does not recognize any of the traditional values that mean ‘Republican’ to her in it.

        She’s again voting for Obama; the second time she’s not voted Republican in her life. Last election cycle, she supported Romney in the primaries. This cycle, she says she cannot support him, he’s gone to far to the crazy consuming the right.

        But I don’t think the change we’re discussing works top down, it works bottom up, and it’s going to take many many years to undo the damage the modern GOP’s inflicting on the political process in small towns, counties, cities and states. The top of the ticket matters, yes. But the bottom of the ticket is where the weeds grow.


        • Yes. Bottom up change is the most likely, although right now the crazy at the top is hindering it.

          For example, the guy in the state legislature from my district is Republican and I’ve voted for him 4 times now. He’s socially open-minded, and environmentally responsible!, but fiscally conservative – a perfect match for our district. Sadly, he’ll probably never move beyond the state House because even going to state Senate would require campaigning in districts that would consider him far too moderate, if not (gasp!) liberal.

          The GOP needs people like him to move up if it’s going to reinvent itself as a party, but right now they are too interested in shooting their toes off.


    • Superdestroyer has been pushing this “argument” (if that’s the right word for a copy-and-paste job with a few words changed every time) on a few sites including OTB and Daniel Larison for a couple of years. It doesn’t change much, although he’s edited a few of his personal concerns out of this one.


    • It is precisely because one-party states are possessed of so much opportunity for corruption, inefficiency, and policy imbalance that the sad state of the Republican party is a matter of concern for everyone.

      A viable Republican party would identify credible policy alternatives to those policies suggested by the Democrats. They would then enter the political area having made an intelligent choice about when to challenge their adversaries and when to negotiate with them. They would find a way to express a preference for their own policies while eschewing labels like “treason” and “unamerican” for their adversaries.

      In so doing, they would, if only due to the machinations of chance, present better policy choices to the electorate and (at least theoretically) earn the rewards of election to office and actual governing power. This is how the system is supposed to work.

      When that opposition party self-destructs due to successive rounds of ideological purification, mistakes popular dissatisfaction with slower-than-promised results from the majority party for a reactionary mandate, and abandons the techniques of legislation in favor of the techniques of demagoguery, it isn’t doing its part to contribute to the collective benefit of the nation as a whole.

      And when, from time to time and if only due to the machinations of chance, the majority Democrats fail to reach any sort of viable policy on their own, the electorate has no other means to express dissatisfaction with the Democrats other than to vote for Republicans, even if the Republicans in question are odious. This is easily mistaken for approval of the product the Republicans brought to the political market, which is also something that creates a skewed and dysfunctional political dynamic.

      That’s why those of us who do not identify as Republicans care about what the Republicans are up to. We want them to present reasonable alternatives to what the Democrats offer. What they’re bringing now is either thoroughly unreasonable, or the same stuff in a different wrapper.


      • Worth noting of course the US was effectively a one party state from 1800 – 1832 and there’s a lot of weird nostalgia about that period. Eventually the Democratic Republicans split as Clay and a few anti-Jacksonians became Whigs.

        I’m sure that’ll happen again.


      • If Republicans are suppose to exist to be a counter point to the dominate Democratic Party, then why would anyone want to put any time or money into it. Why would anyone, other than Gerald Ford, want to have a career that is defined as being a counter to the Democrats.

        It is much more likely than people who just want to be a counter to the most liberal aspects of the Democratic Party would find a way to run for office as a moderate/conservative Democrat. Who would have more impact on policy or governance, a moderate inside the Democratic Party or a Republican who is part of an irrelevant political party who is trying to be the counter to an agenda totally set by the Democrats


    • Same thing that always happens: Either the GOP will shove themselves to the left — basically by ditching immigration and trying to rid America of programs that have been around 80 years now — or they’ll collapse into irrelevance and the Democrats will split along their own internal left/right fault lines, with the righties swooping in to be the new Republican party or whatever they call themselves.

      There won’t be ‘one party governance’ for long.

      You are aware this has happened before? Granted, it’s been a century or so since the last major party croaked, but the natural state of a winner-take-all system is “two parties”.

      The end result will be the same. Two parties. Just the center of political gravity (and perhaps one of the names) will change.


    • I’m a liberal but I don’t think the GOP is going anywhere.

      You are right that they are might be dying a slow demographic death but it is a very slow death. One that could last my entire lifetime or more.

      I grew up in a Congressional district that is as blue as they get. Most of my friends are young, educational professionals who are proud Democratic voters. However as Tod noted in his Value Voters summit posts, there are a lot of young people who are very right-wing. Some will leave, many will not. Recently, a home-schooler came out with a book in which he proclaims “Shock! shock!” at how much sex happened at Yale while he was a student at said Ivy League.


  4. I disagree the Republican bench of rising stars is bereft of moderates. Chris Christie is pretty moderate ideologically. However, his gruff tone and demeanor make him appear to be more ideologically conservate. He pushed back against people saying a Muslim judge he appointed would impose Sharia, he nominated the first openly gay NJ judge, he’s pro gun control, etc. He’s conservative, but if he was less abrasive he wouldn’t be considered a rising star.


  5. One side effect of the purity purges of the GOP that i don’t see get discussed is, what happens to the Dems as this massive flood of Republican refugees seeks membership?

    People like me, John Cole, and countless others are now Democrats, and add our opinions and ideas to groups that never heard our voices before.

    Right now there is unity in the Dems over the economic message, but a serious split over foreign policy and civil liberties.

    My crystal ball predicts that eventually the GOP will wither away and the Dems will split into two parties.


    • That’s one outcome, if the Republicans go the way of the Whigs and the Federalists.

      I think it’s more likely that they will hit rock bottom and float there for a while, and when the Democrats stumble as they inevitably will, Republicans will re-learn how to form a coalition again.

      The institutional incentives built in to contemporary election law are powerful bulwarks against the dissolution of the two major parties. There’s probably no getting rid of the existing two parties, but there’s also no guarantee that they will continue to be the ideological avatars that they are now. Historically, the Democrats used to be the conservative party and the Republicans used to be the wild-eyed radicals.


    • I don’t see the GOP going anywhere. Too much money behind it. It might change, but it will still be the GOP.

      One of the downsides of a two party system, which we’re seeing now, is that parties become schizophrenic as different groups within it vie for control. The Democratic party has managed to keep its left-wing down, largely because that wing doesn’t have the money that the centrists do, and it doesn’t really seem to care about local and state-level politics all that much, so it doesn’t look all that schizophrenic right now. The right-wing of the Republican party is battling with its more moderate wings because it has both money and interest in the local shit, so the Republican party is a mess.


    • Possible. Right now Obama has done a good job of making the Dems a reasonable home for people like me who are somewhat pro-military (but not unnecessary military action). To some extent, I’d like to think that’s he’s made some of the farther left consider that pov more seriously, rather than simply reacting against it. In that. he’s created a situation opposite to the right’s ideological purge.

      Do I think it will last? Nope.

      Not sure if or how the party will split, but I do expect that the political landscape will look different – and probably different in a way I don’t anticipate – in 2016.


    • We have been, for all intents and purposes, a two-party country almost from the moment of our conception.

      The Republicans aren’t going anywhere. They have just been taken over by their activist wing. Continued poor electoral prospects will force them to moderate: with two parties, you have to compete in the center (at least over the long haul).

      The current Republican party is a phenomenon, a reaction to several trends in the culture and they body politic:

      1. The huge demographic shifts in America resulting largely from the Immigration Act of 1965.

      2. The aging of the white population.

      3. Continuing monumental social shifts from the 60s until today, including anti-racism, feminism, and gay rights.

      4. The triumph of the “movement” conservatives in defining their party since the Barry Goldwater candidacy of 1964, and even more particularly since the Gingrich congressional wins of 1994.

      5. A weak, dithering, and increasingly corporatist “liberal” opposition party.

      None of these are written in stone: the baby boomers are right on track to start dying, the browning of America is a fait accompli , the social changes are taking deep hold within the culture. Who knows, maybe Citizen’s United might spur some serious consideration by the Democrats of the repercussions of money in politics.

      In other words, the world changes. The Republicans will remain a viable party, if only because they have no choice; and it would be bad for all of us if they did not. They will moderate, but only when they have to.

      It doesn’t seem to me that they’re quite ready: they still fantasize that if the Americans were presented a “pure” conservative message, they would embrace it. That fantasy can persist, because–after Reagan–the party has consistently put forth presidential candidates that are considerably more moderate than the rest of the party (Bush 1, Dole, Bush 2–remember “compassionate conservatism”?–McCain, and now Romney).

      Let them put up a Ryan, or a Rubio next time, and see how the message “takes” with the American public once it’s presented in an unvarnished way. Not until that moment will the Republicans understand and believe that their core beliefs have not been wholly embraced by the American people.


  6. Burt “It is precisely because one-party states are possessed of so much opportunity for corruption, inefficiency..” This accurately describes the current situation. :)

    Neither candidate can proscribe a “fix” as the only fix would mean such massive pain to all voters. So we’ll continue on with this fiction that cutting a billion here or there or spending a billion will solve the problem. Meanwhile the PV of the off budget liabilities (@ 222 trillion) will continue to grow and, at some point, the can won’t be able to be kicked down the road. Then the voters will really have something to complain about when the defaults start hitting their precious entitlement programs.


    • Meanwhile the PV of the off budget liabilities (@ 222 trillion) will continue to grow…

      What I find amusing is that the numbers attached to this meme roughly double every few months. It’s perfect bullshit, of course. Like adding up the cost of all the food I’m likely to eat, electricity, gas, rent, etc., until I die, looking at my checking account, noting the difference between those two amounts, and declaring that I have a huge “unfunded liability” (and should therefore kill myself in response, I suppose).


      • Gotta love the concept of compound interest baby. And it’s not bullshit. If you take all the obligated payments by law and bring it back to the present value, that’s 222 Trillion. It’s the reverse of what my retirement planner does. You need X now to get Y at this point in the future.

        Now, the gov’t doesn’t have to PAY what it’s previously promised! It can stop sending SS checks or decrease the amounts, etc. We call that “default”. Believe what you want, but it’s coming. Hope you’re not counting on getting all of your slice of that 222 T.


        • You’re going to have to be more specific than that, Damon. How is this all figured? What’s counted as an obligation and for how long? What’s the discount rate you’re applying (and why)?

          Finally, you do realize that the government will have offsetting revenues over whatever (likely absurd) timeframe you’re assuming, right? What’s the NPV of those?

          The last time I saw one of these things detailed out it was bogus accounting. No, it was B-O-O-O-O-O-GUS (channeling Tom and Ray).



            This article addresses my point. The article defines obligation and for how long and the primary source of data, CBO. For methodology, specifically the PV rate, I suggest you contact the author. Email address is given in the article. I’ll note that the article also mentions that the fiscal gap, defined in the article, grew by 11T last year.


            • Sorry, but it really doesn’t clarify at all. For instance, contra your assertion, it nowhere specifies how far out the projections are carried.

              The last time I got into this debate with someone the gap was claimed to be ~$60T. Unlike you, that interlocutor was actually able to link to the original article that at least sort of showed their work. And that work was illuminating. For instance, the official shortfall in the Social Security program is something like 6 or 7 T over the next 75 years (the farthest out-year projection). The writer of that article claimed that, No, you have to consider all the payments that are still owed to people already “in the system” beyond that point as well, which pushed it up to something like 30T.

              Now do you see the problem? Let me line it out for you. The writer starts out with cash accounting at year 0 (2012 or whatever) and then silently, mysteriously, switches to accrual accounting at the back end. IOW, the shortfall is computed by subtracting 75 years of payments into the system from 150 years of payments from the system. But wait, it gets even worse. He dutifully estimated population growth over that period as well as inflation but didn’t include any kind of discount rate, which would have more than wiped out the inflation effect, and is SOP in economic calculation.

              There are two completely valid ways to figure on something like this. You can either pick a time frame and look at all the income and expense in that time-frame (which is the method preferred by the SSA), or you can look at a cohort (say, everyone born between Jan 1, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2009 inclusive) and estimate their earnings, payments into the system(s), and claimed expenditures over their lifetime. What you can’t do is start with method one at the front end and switch to method 2 at the back end. Not if your intent is… you know, truth or something close to it.

              Now I have no idea if these guys did something like that, and neither do you, because they just made raw assertions without showing any work. But this meme has been out there a while and, like I said earlier, the number roughly doubles every time I hear it. And since the one time I could actually get an article that went into any detail it was just bullshit like the above.

              Keep in mind that money is just accounting. It’s fancy pieces of paper and numbers in databases. The real issue is the ability of our economy to produce the goods and services that consumers need and desire. That gets down to the Smithian basics of Land, Labor, and Capital. We have natural resources, a high level of capitalization (real, tangible), the ability to create more, an under-utilized workforce, and immigrants constantly knocking on the door to get in here and work. You’re obsessing over the map and ignoring the actual landscape. All this sturm and drang is just panicking over paperwork. Literally.

              These aren’t fundamental economic issues so much as political issues. Frankly, if there’s a luxury we can’t afford anymore, it’s millionaires and billionaires. And we can’t afford to constantly buy more than we produce.


              • I understand your point, but I’ll say again. You’ll have to contact the author. From my perspective, the point makes sense. The CBO hasn’t disputed the numbers either, which I’d expect you’d see if the amounts were way off. This seems rationale.


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