Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fables of the Deconstruction

It's a good idea to at least occasionally peruse the work of liberal pundits so as to understand what the other side of the ideological divide is thinking. In the case of what Thomas Frank is thinking in his weekly column in the Wall Street Journal, the answer is usually, "not very much nor very hard."

Take today's "effort" called Jim DeMint's Capitalist Fairy Tales. Now with all that's going on in the world today; oil spills, debt crisis's, primary elections, Supreme Court nominations, immigration debates, Democratic lying and Republican philandering, you'd think there would be no shortage of fresh topics for Frank to opine on. Instead, he chooses to devote today's column to a book from Jim DeMint that came out last year.

Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina may well be the man for this insurgent political moment. The Associated Press calls him a "potential conservative kingmaker" as he rallies support for outsider conservatives like Kentucky's Rand Paul and Florida's Marco Rubio.

But who is Jim DeMint, this hero of the tea partiers? One way to find out is to read his 2009 manifesto, "Saving Freedom: We Can Stop America's Slide Into Socialism." The book hit the best-seller lists last summer, and if we want to understand the thinking of the newest right, it may be the place to start.

And indeed it might be if that's what Frank actually had in mind. Of course, it's not. No, he's writing about DeMint's book in order to demonstrate how wrong it is. The sub-heading of Frank's column is "The hero of the tea partiers is not much of a historian." With such a lead, one would expect that Frank would cite example after example of DeMint's historical ignorance and inaccuracy. But, as is usually the case with Frank, one would be disappointed with what he actually produced.

For when you read the entire column (as I did three times), you'd be hard-pressed to find even one concrete example that shows that DeMints' book is nothing but historically inaccurate fairy tales as Frank claims. One of the main criticisms leveled by Frank is that DeMint uses the term "socialism" too liberally (no pun intended).

Take, for example, the sudden popularity of the epithet "socialist," a fad which Mr. DeMint's book seems designed to fuel. At first the term seems merely to be an enhanced version of the old favorite epithet, "liberal." It gets applied to everything. Sometimes, in Mr. DeMint's telling, "socialism" means government that is "big," that runs up deficits. Sometimes it means Social Security. Sometimes we're on our way to socialism; sometimes we're already there.

While Mr. DeMint may believe the label applies in more places than Mr. Frank, that's more a matter of opinion than anything else.

Sometimes "socialism" is what we saw in the late Soviet Union. Sometimes it is what we see in the nations of Western Europe, which, we are told, capitulated to socialism in the 1940s and soon thereafter "declined into economic stagnation." Which is strange, since a brief check with the annals of reality reminds us that it was during those very postwar years that France, Italy, Belgium and Sweden--all of them called out by the South Carolina solon for choosing socialism after World War II--embarked on a great boom period.

One of the biggest problems with Frank's attacks is that he doesn't tell us what DeMint actually wrote in the book and then explain why it's wrong or factually incorrect. All we get here is that DeMint apparently says that many European embraced socialism after World War II and then "declined into economic stagnation," with only the last four words coming verbatim from the book. Frank uses this to claim that DeMint is wrong because the economies of these countries experienced strong growth in the post-war period. While it's true that Western Europe did enjoy a post-war economic boom, it's also true that at some point in the 1990s many of the countries entered a period of low or stagnate economic growth. As Daniel Henninger noted in his WSJ column last week:

The state of Europe can be summed up in one word: stagnation. Jean-Claude Trichet, the European Central Bank president who just agreed to monetize the debt that Europeans can't or won't pay, noted in a 2006 speech that "over the period from 1996 to 2005, euro area output grew on average 1.3 percentage points less than in the U.S., and the gap appears to be persistent."

Angus Maddison, the eminent European historian of world economic development who died days before Europe's debt crisis, wrote in 2001: "The most disturbing aspect of West European performance since 1973 has been the staggering rise in unemployment. In 1994-8 the average level was nearly 11% of the labor force. This is higher than the depressed years of the 1930s."

So unless DeMint said in his book that these countries embraced socialism after WWII and immediately declined into economic stagnation, Frank's attack is baseless. Of course we don't what DeMint said in full (or really any) context because Frank just gives us a snippet. I realize that words are precious for the print pundits, but if you want to convince us that the book is full of fairy tales and historical misinformation, you gotta give us more than that.

That's really the closest that Frank comes to proving his point too. He spends the rest of the column criticzing DeMint for not including enough socialist voices in his book (which incidentally is called "Saving Freedom" not "Explaining Socialism") and disagreeing with DeMint on what are really more matters of opinion than fact.

In a telling passage, Mr. DeMint describes the 2008 presidential debates as an example of our leaders "abandoning the cause of freedom and promoting socialist solutions." Then-Sen. Barack Obama, he recalls, referred to "markets running wild after deregulation." Neither candidate "defended free enterprise or explained how bad government policies had been the root cause of the problem."

Mr. DeMint does not correct this situation by showing us that markets did not run wild after deregulation or that bad government policies were, indeed, the cause of the financial crisis (he does devote five unconvincing pages to the latter subject later on); he simply points out that the future president made these arguments and is hence a man of "socialist principles."

Again, Frank may disagree with DeMint's interpretation of events and may not agree with the conclusions that he comes to, but none of this advances the argument that DeMint's book is nothing but fairy tales. I also love how Frank begrudgingly admits that DeMint does explain why he believes that government was the cause of the financial crisis, just not in a fashion that was convincing enough for Frank.
The is the best "look in the mirror" moment from Frank:

Mr. DeMint's thinking advances by a process of moral triangulation, not by proofs and demonstrations in the conventional sense.

Proofs and demonstrations in the conventional sense? Perhaps one day Mr. Frank will employ them in one of his columns himself.