Ethics & Public Policy Center

Bring Back the Duel

Published in New Criterion on October 1, 2001



As is well known, members of Parliaments with rules derived from those of the mother of Parliaments are forbidden from using the word “liar” or “lie” to refer to other members or their remarks. You can see why this rule is a necessary one. The charge that someone is lacking in good faith poisons the wells of debate in a system which is founded on debate. It invites a retort in kind which at once drains the system of substance and renders the parliamentary process trivial. The deliberations of our own dear legislature have been trivialized and drained of substance for other reasons, however, which unhappy fact throws most if not all of our substantive political debate into the press—where charges of lying made by political adversaries against each other now seem to have become almost routine.

Of course, it is easy to lose one’s head in the heat of political strife, but what are we to think of those who, with every opportunity for reflection and the moderation of passion, accuse their political opponents of lying in cold print—which affords slanderers and calumniators a certain amount of protection? But then, the words “lying,” “lie” and “liar” nowadays hardly seem to carry the kick they did in the days when violence was likely to accompany their deployment. Partly this must be as a result of the crudeness and vulgarity of the media culture that I discussed in this space last month. Every time someone—like, say, Gary Condit—is unresponsive to press inquiries about the most intimate details of his private life he is accused of “lying.”

As I argued then, it is nonsense for the media to pretend that any public man who does not open up his private life to the scrutiny of any idle curiosity-seeker is a liar. But so far have we accepted media values that someone like Representative Condit does not even have the spirit to resent the slander. Hence the ridiculous spectacle of his offering his throat to the media hounds on nationwide TV and then refusing to answer their questions, as charmingly put to him by Miss Connie Chung. Naturally, he was torn to pieces. Why did he submit to such an interview unless he had already acquiesced in the right of the media to know all there was to know about him? And having accepted that he had forfeited his “zone of privacy”, where did he think he was going to get the standing to reassert it on the air? What he may or may not have got up to with Chandra Levy will probably never be known, but it is beyond dispute that he hadn’t the wit or the courage or the self-possession to defend his own honor in public. I wonder how many of our congressmen and senators would have had these qualities in his position?

You don’t have to wish for a return to dueling to recognize that, if the accusation of bad faith is not vigorously–though perhaps not always violently—resented, it will be made more and more often. Another reason for this sad state of affairs must be the extent to which politics in general has become trivialized during the Clinton years. The Carville-Matalin Punch and Judy show —now happily out of sight while Miss Matalin is serving in the administration—stressed the extent to which neither the elder George Bush nor Bill Clinton nor their many spokesmen really meant what they said anyway. Hadn’t Bush, after all, broken his promise not to raise taxes after having made it the centerpiece of his electoral appeal in 1988? Didn’t Clinton say on national television: “I did not have sex with that woman”? Naturally enough, when lying itself becomes standard operating procedure, so will the accusation of lying.

Though politicians themselves, who still have to meet each other every day, may still be relatively shy of it, there is no evident journalistic inhibition against promiscuous accusations of knowing falsehood being brought against one’s political opponents. Last May The New Republic, still editorially grumpy because Al Gore wasn’t president, ran a cover with a picture of George W. Bush and the loud headline: “He’s Lying.” What he was allegedly lying about, said Paul Krugman and Jonathan Chait inside, was budget projections made for ten years to come which purported to show that there would be, given the projections’ assumptions about economic growth, plenty of surplus tax dollars coming into the Treasury to “pay for” the Bush tax cuts, then being debated (and subsequently passed) in Congress.

If The New Republic had confined itself to observing that the Administration’s projecting the amount of tax receipts to the Treasury in 2011 was a laughably inexact exercise, there could have been no objection. But Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton and columnist for the New York Times insisted that “The fiscal predictions that enable Bush to pay for his tax cut and contingency fund are not mere errors but deliberate efforts to deceive the public.” Harsh words! That, presumably, is the sort of intellectual street-fighting they engage in at Princeton, where passions obviously run higher than they do in Washington. Professor Krugman proceeds to demonstrate what would be the fiscally terrifying result of having made the same projections “with proper accounting,” but for the charge of bad faith made against the President of the United States he offers no evidence beyond the fact that he doesn’t agree with Professor Krugman.

Likewise, Mr Chait, a senior editor of the magazine, notes that “the debate over the Bush tax cut has been shrouded in a fog of cant and untruth”—all of it, presumably, emanating from one side. Unlike Professor Krugman, however, he has what he considers to be evidence of prevarication and not just bad economics. It is this. In a leaked memo from the Republican leadership in Congress which sought supporters for the tax cut for a televised rally, he found the following: “[T]he Speaker’s office was very clear in saying that they do not need people in suits. If people want to participate —AND WE DO NEED BODIES — they must be DRESSED DOWN, appear to be REAL WORKER types, etc. We plan to have hard hats for people to wear. Other groups are providing waiters/waitresses, and other types of workers.”

QED! “If the advocates of the Bush tax cut were honest, a memo like this would not exist,” he solemnly informed his readers. By this standard of honesty, the former vice president must be branded a liar for combing over his bald spot. But his doughty partisans at The New Republic, no longer in any danger of being called to the field of honor to defend their calumnies with their lives, must think that such pathetic scrounging of material for character-assassination all just part of the cut-and-thrust of political debate in the post-modern era. In the rest of his piece, Mr. Chait is full of information about what the Republicans must “really” intend by such obviously misguided policy prescriptions, but his quiver of proofs that their “lies” are deliberate and culpable is otherwise empty.

Shocking as the charge that the President was lying may once have been, The New Republic’s sensational discovery produced little reaction from the rest of the press. It might almost seem that, in the era of news-as-entertainment, the public just doesn’t care if its elected officials are trustworthy or not? Perhaps, those ordinary “workers” that the Republican fat cats so wickedly impersonated have at last come to accept what those who move in the most exclusive post-modern circles have been telling us for a long time, namely that “truth” is a chimera anyway. That, at least, is one way of explaining to ourselves the late summer saga (or farce) of the appropriately named “trust funds” belonging to social security and Medicare.

They are appropriately named because they require trust to believe in them, though they do not in fact exist by most definitions of what a trust fund is. They are not, that is an income-producing account consisting of stocks, bonds or interest-bearing deposits, or some combination of all three. The alleged social security trust fund is simply the current account receipts from the FICA tax out of which current social security benefits may, if you choose to look at it in this way, be paid. It is a strictly notional “fund” because there is no practical difference between the receipts of the social security tax and general tax revenues. As a collaborative exercise in demagoguery Republicans and Democrats got together at the beginning of the era of budget surpluses to require that the social security tax receipts should be regarded as if they were in a “lock box” from which those notional wads of cash could only be taken in order to pay social security benefits and nothing else.

How this would help either social security beneficiaries or the fiscal health of the nation must be supposed to have been as obscure to the framers of this foolish statute as to everybody else, but what it certainly did was to create a kind of suicide pact of the two parties, an agreement by Republicans to allow a portion of tax revenues to be held hostage rather than being given back in tax relief and by Democrats to restrain spending, lest either side open itself to the charge of robbing the elderly and infirm—a charge which, though acknowledged by everyone to be untrue, is equally acknowledged to be unanswerable and politically fatal. The press, plays along with the same charade because it adds to the thrill of political combat that such a super-weapon may be employed at any moment.

In the meantime, we must make do with that rusty old dueling pistol, the lately trivial charge of bad faith. And whom should we find deploying it most assiduously from his perch on the op ed page of the New York Times but our passionate friend, Professor Krugman, sounding even more than the other Times columnists as if he were on salary from the DNC. Again and again he could be found over the course of the summer firing at the Republicans charges of immorality that Dick Gephardt or Tom Daschle would blush to make. In a column of August 24 headed “Pants on Fire,” for example, he pretends to write an open letter to Mitch Daniels, the head of the Office of Management and Budget:

Dear Mitch:

I have a suggestion. It’s dishonest and irresponsible — but I suspect that doesn’t bother you. And it would help you squirm out of a problem that we both know isn’t going away.

True, your bobbing and weaving have been impressive. Some people have actually bought your line that the surplus has vanished because of Congressional big spending. . .But there’s more trouble ahead. You bullied the Congressional Budget Office into delaying its own budget projection until next week, so that you could get your numbers out first. Still, when the C.B.O. numbers come out everyone knows that they will look considerably worse than yours.

And of course we both know that the truth is actually even worse than that, because the C.B.O. must pretend to believe what politicians tell it.

He goes on to make a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Daniels announce that the defense budget is part of Social Security–which, he says is “just an expanded version of your administration’s Medicare scam.” As a witness he calls an I.M.F. report which said, “basically,” he avers, “liar, liar, pants on fire” to the Bush budget numbers. On his own responsibility he refers to “blatantly dishonest accounting,” designed to provide “big tax cuts to the very, very affluent.” This is a view that he continually repeats for several columns on the same subject, frequently adding along the way snide attempts at irony that look as if they were intended to be subtle but somehow went horribly wrong—like “Let me pretend for a moment that the truth matters” or “Dishonesty in the pursuit of tax cuts is no vice. That, in the end, will be the only way to defend George W. Bush’s deceptions.” In another column, he writes:

After all, a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the revenue lost because of the Bush tax cut will be more than twice the sum needed to secure Social Security without any reform at all for the next 75 years. The administration tried to refute that calculation, playing its usual game of statistical three-card monte — “Look, honey, I just found $4 billion under the cushion, and 60 lines of stem cells too!” — but the center’s estimate matches those of the I.M.F. and other independent organizations.

I don’t know much about card-swindles, but I don’t believe that three-card monte consists of lifting up seat cushions and finding things that aren’t there. What, exactly, was then this bit of dishonesty he says was involved in the administration’s attempt to “refute” the Democratic think tank’s calculation of the effects of the tax cut? Krugman doesn’t say, expecting us to take the charge on faith—his own (good) rather than Bush’s (bad). This is odd coming from a man who elsewhere asserts that the charge of lying brought against the President was “a simple statement of fact.” Admittedly, from that quarter such a charge is hardly remarkable, but the point is that it should be. An accusation of dishonesty is not something to be made lightly, or without factual (rather than interpretative) documentation in support of it.

It’s not even as if both honesty and temperance of language are that difficult in this case. There are good arguments to be made on each side, and a genuinely–that is to say honestly–objective commentator could make them without having recourse to any bad or dishonest ones. But the central truth is that the Mexican stand-off over the “lockbox” is itself a piece of dishonesty–and, apparently, an unassailable one–whose enshrinement in the center of the political process requires both sides to flirt with complementary dishonesties. The Democrats blame the threat to the surplus on Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich,” though as they know that rescinding the tax cut would be divisive within the Democratic caucus and unpopular with the public, they don’t propose it. Better to get the political advantage from abusing a measure without incurring the political disadvantage of actually doing anything about it.

Bush attempts to play the economic Keynesian, arguing for the stimulative properties of the tax cut, but only when it suits him to be one. His answer to the Democrats’ charge of having “lost” the surplus with his tax cuts is to argue forcefully in reply that the “real” threat to the economy is not the tax cut but excessive Democratic spending and he actually welcomes the diminishment or even disappearance of the surplus as a means of keeping a check on spending. Meanwhile, he joins in the game of making a shibboleth of the surplus which is, in Keynesian terms, sheer madness and one of the mistakes that deepened the Great Depression. A government surplus represents money taken out of the economy at a time when monetary loosening to stimulate growth is the order of the day everywhere else.

None of this is exactly dishonest. Whether you regard the threat to the lockbox as issuing from tax cuts or from spending is all in how you look at it. It is the idea of the lockbox itself as anything other than a means of buying up government debt which is dishonest. But, as Alan Reynolds put it in National Review Online “it certainly does not matter whether bondholders are paid off with excess payroll or excess income taxes.” It may be good that, in a time of surplus, government debt should be bought up, but no one would suppose that the surplus should be preserved artificially for that purpose, even at the cost of a fiscal tightening in the teeth of a threatened recession, if it weren’t for the false metaphor of the lockbox and the political uses to which both sides think they can put it.

But this is a very special kind of dishonesty—one that became particularly popular in the Clinton years when the media’s tacit acceptance of the dissevering of rhetoric from action was confirmed with its failure to protest against the obvious humbug of Clinton’s assurance that he could “feel your pain.” Accept that and you can go on to accept that Clinton himself believed that he was telling the truth when he said he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. From there it is easy to accept without comment the Democrats’ charge that the administration was not “protecting our seniors”—as if anything less than a $160 billion surplus would result in decreased social security or Medicare benefits to current recipients, whose benefit levels are mandated by law.

All this is sheer demagoguery of course, but it is now the custom of the country. On the Republican side, the demagoguery is also a form of self-contradiction. It is not necessarily, or not culpably, self-contradictory to argue that the fiscal stimulus of tax-cutting will produce more benefits than the fiscal stimulus of increasing spending, but Bush does not make that argument, instead hoping (presumably) that the contradiction will be too difficult for ordinary folk to understand anyway. He may well be right, but if so he counsels despair. Clinton’s treatment of the political debate was always completely cynical, and he never made much effort to raise the intellectual level of his political rhetoric to the point of coherence (remember that “bridge to the 21st century”?), perhaps calculating (surely rightly) that he had the intellectuals in his corner anyway.

Bush the younger, in attempting to emulate his predecessor can obviously not rely on the acquiescence of the professoriat. Determined not to make the mistake of his father—or at least the mistake his father made of being out-humbugged in 1992 — he has tacitly accepted what was already de facto reality among the Democrats and the media, namely that real, serious political debate in this country is no more. Thus the media swallowed without a peep the “arsenic in drinking water” charge by the Democrats, though they knew that it was another bit of shameless demagoguery. They certainly wouldn’t want to appear “biased” by pointing the fact out, yet not to point it out could hardly be consistent with honesty, at least as honesty has traditionally been understood.

The habit of impugning one’s political opponent’s good faith was perhaps made easier by the habit on the left, which is now even more common among the apolitical but bien pensant who describe themselves as “moderates,” of impugning the “compassion” of fiscal conservatives because of their tendency to be less generous with other people’s money, if not with their own. Now fiscal conservatism, since the Clinton era, has been somewhat rehabilitated. But the “compassion” of social conservatives — for example, on behalf of homosexual partners who are not allowed to marry each other — is still freely questioned, and few non-conservative voices are ever raised in protest. Of course it didn’t help that George W. Bush saw this calumny as an opportunity to advertise himself as a “compassionate conservative”— as if admitting the charge made against the conservatives before him.

But there is a difference even between this insult and one of dishonesty. In fact, the worst humbugs are the most honest: they really believe that they feel the pain of the unfortunate, and that this gives them a better claim to knowing what to do on their behalf. Arguably, it is even fair fighting for liberals to call conservatives uncompassionate, just as it is for conservatives to call liberals profligate, though both would presumably deny the charge. But it can never be fair to accuse someone of dishonesty unless the purpose of doing so is to have him expelled from the fora of civilized discourse. But then, that may well be what the likes of Paul Krugman want to happen to conservatives.

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