Friday, March 5, 2010

Newsweek, Part II: What They Talk About When They Aren't Talking to Themselves About Themselves

Note: unlike many of the other guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's editorial response comes from a real, live person: the mysterious Mr. Awesome, a law student who is not a pundit and fears nothing. He previously paid us a visit to relate his tale of seeing Barack Obama with The Devil and explain why dumb shit takes primacy over the survival of poor people.

Newsweek Sucks Really Bad

Newsweek is not journalism. They produce spun-sugar articles, thin on everything but verbiage. Their treatment of fact and fact-checking is so poor you have to think they have something to hide. You’d think they had an agenda, or that they’re spinning for someone. It’s not journalism, so it has to be something, right?

But Newsweek’s reporting is so consistently insubstantial and meaningless that identifying a coherent agenda in the information vapor is just divination through cloud-reading. Some Newsweek piece of analysis may look like a donkey or an elephant at one point or another, but it’s always just a big, cold, mass of wet shit, barely tethered to the Earth. Or so I thought.

After I read Mr. Sese Seko’s takedown of the Newsweek editorial board’s slumber party transcript from a couple days back, I thought to myself, "I bet I could go to, like, right now, and the first story I'd see would be a complete puff piece with no information or insight." And I was right. Check it out. Or don’t. It’s Newsweek, so you know it probably doesn’t matter either way.

The gist here is that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is this amazing young legislator who has a great budgetary plan to fix America. Hell, it’s not just a plan. It’s a bona fide Budget Roadmap. And you can tell he’s for real because the author, one Peter Suderman, describes him as "energetic, wonky" and a real salt of the earth guy with a background in a family construction business. Rep. Ryan is a bright young buck, gee whiz, like golly. He smells like cookies.

You know this Roadmap could actually "work" because the Suderman writes one line saying it "could work," (at least in theory!) and because the Congressional Budgetary Office reports the Roadmap could make America deficit neutral 53 years from now, which I guess is a way of measuring "working." The Sudester never actually defines "working," and he doesn’t quote anyone else’s definition of what makes budgets "work," so I’m guessing that budget neutrality is what it means for a budget "to work."

How does it "work?" Well, it slashes the hell out of Medicare and it replaces corporate income taxation with a consumption tax, which could refer to a value-added tax or a sales tax or an income tax with an investment and savings exemption — Suderman doesn’t say which, so, you know, whatever. He does say whatever this means will be simpler than our current corporate tax structure, so that’s nice. Simple things are good, whatever they are.

Going solely by the information available in the article, you may wonder how this would "work." This is not a matter of Ryan’s ideas being bad or wrong. It’s simply a matter of Suderman's explanation being grossly inadequate. The two changes Suderman highlights are seemingly unrelated. One reduces spending, and the other affects tax revenue in some way Suderman doesn’t bother to describe even on the level of increase or decrease. So, how do these combine to an overall reduction in the deficit? What do these changes actually mean as broad policy concerns? Who knows?

This is pure Newsweek. This article does nothing to inform the reader about what this policy proposal means, how it operates, what it’s designed to do, or what it will do. The scraps of fact Suderman tosses out don’t inform because they’re presented without context necessary to provide actual meaning. A massive reduction in Medicare spending could mean anything, but Suderman doesn’t even attempt to list or summarize any of the specific changes behind this reduction. An ostensibly simplifying total overhaul of the corporate tax system along new and unspecified lines is even more offensively vague.

In context, the natural assumption is that this system must increase tax revenue, because it’s part of a plan to balance the budget. But that doesn’t fit the overall GOP theory of taxation. So maybe it’s a plan to reduce tax revenue, but spur business investment, a trickle-down sort of thing. Or maybe it’s a functional, re-design that’s supposed to reduce transaction costs and tax confusion. Who the fuck knows? Does Suderman know? Is the author sitting there, hoarding facts like a smug old miser? Did he read even that precious Roadmap? What the fuck, man? It’s like describing baseball as, "A process involving a lot of men in tight pants with wood." That explanation doesn’t "work."

And that’s it. That’s all Suderman says about the actual budget proposal.

The rest is just Suderman bemoaning how the Republican leadership is distancing itself from the Ryan plan. He argues that the GOP is letting the plan wither because Ryan proposes cuts to Medicare and Social Security, programs to which "the public is deeply attached." Deep attachment is an interesting way to phrase this. I guess after the public spent some decades paying into a retirement benefits package, they became deeply attached to it, in the sense that they fucking paid for it.

And it is balls-to-the-wall stupid. Take this gem:
So Ryan's proposal is instructive not only because it clarifies the difference between liberal and conservative policy, which is that serious reductions in government mean serious reductions in popular entitlements; it's also instructive about the road ahead for the GOP.
This sentence doesn’t "work." The difference between two policies is an unverified fact which, true or false, would apply to the theory or execution of either policy. I think he’s trying to imply that the difference is conservative policy recognizes this fact, while liberal policy doesn’t. Of course, Suderman does nothing to justify this distinction, provides no research to verify that the one policy does or doesn’t accept this as true, and provides no example of how this hypothetical difference makes a difference. He’s saying that one "half" of the political spectrum doesn’t recognize some essential fact of reality. And he’s just tossing it out there with the lazy disregard of small talk.

Suderman compounds his failure by failing to attribute these beliefs to any actual people. I don’t know if it’s ignorance, laziness, or dishonesty. But something compels him to make this point absent any liberal people who espouse this idea. He hasn’t just failed to make a point here, he’s failed to make a point about nobody in particular. There are concentric spheres of intellectual laziness and rhetorical shallowness here, interconnected cogs, whirling away to produce nothing but noise. It may be that he recognizes no connection between people and ideas. His Newsweek is strong.

Ostensibly, none of this is even related to the article, which is about how the GOP needs to start being more constructive (and less GOP, I guess), and embrace the many-splendored Ryan Roadmap. Skip to the bottom of the article, though, and you see Suderman is on loan or something from Reason Magazine. If you have an embarrassing knowledge of the libertarian intelligentsia, you will realize that the whole thing is a sad gambit.

The libertarians have been trying for some time to shift the Republican Party into a culturally, morally, religiously null entity, a sort of soulless big business-supporting tax-cutting machine without all the spangles and glitter of hating gay people and bombing brown people and so on. Part of that means rejecting the "deep attachment" retirees and old people voters have to the social security "entitlement" they fucking paid for.

I guess Suderman et al figured no one would notice this editorial slant in the hollow, echoing void of Newsweek. I was personally disappointed to learn that Newsweek is no longer even a primary source of honest emptiness. It’s like learning that a co-worker who constantly tells you mundane, meaningless stories was actually just stealing from another, equally boring co-worker, who read them in a creepy book about how to win friends and influence people. It’s still all nonsense and fluff, but now it’s dirty fluff. It’s like learning that crickets chirp in bad faith.