economy politics

The Fly, The Lie, And The Terrified Billionaires

It says quite a bit about the average intelligence of the American voter when netizens were, in some cases anyway, more interested in the fly which rested comfortably atop Mike Pence’s coiffed, white hair during Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate, than they were in the debate itself.

To be sure, “The Fly” (which was capitalized, movie title style, as a trending topic) surely has an interesting backstory of its own. How did it get there? Why Pence? Where did it go after leaving his head? What does it think about COVID-19? Was it tested before entering the building? Is it now positive for the virus after two minutes of close, personal contact with the vice president, who’s been exposed to countless infected US officials and administration staffers this month? What does it think about social injustice? And so on. The fly would like its two minutes to respond, if you please.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like every minute spent watching the same clip of a fly landing on a candidate’s head is a minute wasted. Which is why so many Americans delighted in the exercise. This is a society that revels in distractions. Flies alighted on political candidates are like catnip to a public that, on any other evening, would be mindlessly scrolling through their high school classmates’ social media pages giggling vacuously at cats chasing laser pointers up a wall.

Not that there was much worth analyzing from the debate itself. Pence was cordial enough. By comparison to his boss, he was a model statesman. But there’s an inherent shamelessness that goes along with participating in this administration. If you’re still around, you’re complicit. And that long ago passed the threshold into unforgivable territory. Jim Mattis knew it. So did John Kelly. So did countless others who resigned over the past three years.

As usual, it was hard to sort out whether Pence actually believes the narrative or whether he was just duty-bound to parrot talking points. His economic propaganda is especially irritating. Unlike Larry Kudlow’s cartoonish delivery, Pence’s tales of an economic renaissance are delivered with a straight-faced reverence for Trump that gives them an air of credibility with vulnerable voters.

Trump’s economy had its bright spots (had, past tense), just like most presidents have achievements worth touting. But Pence’s ostensibly earnest story about Trump reviving an economy on life support is nonsense on almost all headline measures. GDP was similar, for example (figure below).

As for the labor market, there were more jobs created, on average, during the last several years of the Obama administration than there were during Trump’s first term in office (figure below).

Even Jeff Gundlach marvels at the sheer audacity of Trump’s labor market claims. They simply weren’t true prior to the pandemic. Now (i.e., post-pandemic), they are irrelevant.

Again, it is obviously the case that one can make a list of economic achievements worth mentioning for Trump and Pence. But that is hardly unique to this administration. All administrations manage to get some things right at some point, if not by design then by sheer happenstance.

Kamala Harris derided Trump’s tax cuts as a handout to the rich and to corporations. Which they were. Everyone knows that. Or, actually, everyone doesn’t know that. And that’s the problem.

It’s hardly surprising (although it is disheartening) that the American electorate is disinterested in numbers and immune to facts. Again, most voters aren’t very smart. But the unwillingness of the president’s base (which, in many cases, consists of lower- and middle-income households) to look in the mirror (either figuratively or literally) and ask themselves if their plight has actually improved over the past three years, is astounding.

The Trump tax cuts were designed to benefit the rich and corporations. All of the numbers and analyses (many of which were conducted by nonpartisan groups) were released prior to the passage of the tax overhaul. Those analyses (see here, here, and here for example) showed the breakdown. The effect of the tax cuts was known ahead of time. All Americans had to do to discover where the benefits would accrue was spend 15 minutes perusing a few simple bar charts.

Time after time since then, the administration has promised middle-class tax breaks. That itself is an admission of guilt. If the original tax cuts were meant to help the middle-class, then why would you spend the subsequent two years pledging to “do something” (and Trump has actually used that nebulous phrase on too many occasions to count) for the middle-class?

The notion that Trump was ever going to fight for working Americans has a solid claim on a spot in the top-five most outlandish promises ever made by a politician. Of course, all of Trump’s promises have a claim on those five spots, so maybe that isn’t saying very much.

Pence is shameless, so there was no chance he was going to tell the truth. But at least he feigned respect for Harris and went out of his way to praise her and Joe Biden for their years of public service. He was, at the least, civil.

But, again, it’s increasingly difficult to stomach the lies, especially when it comes to the economy. Pence invoked the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bogeyman at least once on Wednesday evening, in a bid to scare Americans into voting against their own self-interests. As though the average American has more in common with Trump than with Ocasio-Cortez.

The Trump administration and the GOP presided over a supply-side economic regime that pushed the nation deeper into debt (assuming you believe the national debt matters), exploded the deficit (assuming you think that matters), and delivered a windfall to corporations and the wealthy. Period.

And for what? To generate GDP gains that were roughly on par with those seen during the Obama years. And to deliver average monthly jobs gains that were in fact less than Obama delivered during his final term. Now, after the pandemic, Trump is presiding over a deep recession that has exacerbated the same inequality made worse by his tax policies.

Yet, Pence traffics in ghost stories about socialism, with Ocasio-Cortez as the familiar haunt. Ocasio-Cortez is a person America should fear? Really? A young bartender who beat the odds to become a congresswoman? That’s the enemy now?

By the way, in a video message posted to Twitter before the debate, Trump said he wants COVID-19 therapeutics available to everyone in America. Is that not “socialized medicine”? If it is, then how does that line up with the GOP narrative that socialized medicine is undesirable?

In a testament to the palpable sense of angst among those who stand to “lose” under a more redistributive, fair tax regime that aims to reduce inequality and generally decrease the class-based animosity currently worsening the societal divides that have torn the country apart over the past three years, billionaire Cliff Asness took time out of what should be a busy schedule Wednesday to ban me from his social media account.

My offense? An honestly polite, seven-word exhortation that he not tacitly equate Democrats with Nicolás Maduro. “Come on Cliff, you’re better than that”, I suggested.

Apparently I was wrong.


20 comments on “The Fly, The Lie, And The Terrified Billionaires

  1. Anymouse says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  2. derek says:

    I found his non-answer to the second-to-last question unnerving. He refused to answer what if would do if the president refused to accept the election result. He just replied that he was certain they would win.

    Just when many or most of us were starting to believe that chaos (political & social) after the vote was becoming less inevitable.

    Are we getting too complacent?

    It was also disappointing that when he rolled out the ghost of Hillary Clinton he failed to promise another Benghazi investigation.

  3. jamaican says:

    great article, indeed. Thanks.
    btw in case you did not have a chance to read Cliffs reply (yes, I looked it up), here it is:
    I’m really not. And, that’s not a point, it’s just the kind of high handed bull**** anonymous leftists write when they got nothing.
    speaks volumes

    • That’s awesome. Incidentally — and regular readers know this — I’m anonymous for a hodgepodge of very good reasons, and I’m not a “leftist”.

      It’s amusing that Cliff claims to know enough about me to categorize me as a “leftist” despite my being “anonymous”.

      Of course, we all know plenty about Cliff. And there’s not a lot to like. But I never held that against him.

      Also, my back porch view is better than his based on his Twitter banner image. 🙂

  4. jamaican says:

    @Derek: totally agree.
    I would like to add that in addition to complacency there still seems to be a widely-held believe that Trump is constrained by certain social/political norms, however loosely interpreted (i.e. he can’t do this or that). He’s not.
    I do get the impression that there are still too many people refusing to accept the simple truth that there is no bottom to his barrel.
    And the implications of that.

    On a different topic (deficits):
    Unfortunately there is a very real way that deficits matter, even for the country printing the worlds reserve currency. If enough politicians believe that they do, they will feel compelled to “pay” for deficits by cutting social security, medicaid (fill in the blank for any program that benefits regular folks). With real-world outcomes for real-world people.
    It doesn’t have to be this way, but more often that not, it is

  5. Dana says:

    I don’t care where you live. Walk down any street, anywhere in America and ask any random person who offers to respond to you what comes to their mind when you say the word “REPUBLICAN”.

    They’ll almost always tell you they envision of a big fat guy lighting a cigar with a $100 bill.

  6. If GOP is afraid of a young bartender from Queens who shows more than a little common sense then they must be afraid of all above average intelligence service economy workers everywhere.

    • runamok says:

      They attack a Congresswoman from Queens virulently as she is in their dreams of fear. They are afraid. As they are the party of the oligarchs and super-rich (a spectrum from one to the other), the object that keeps them up at night is a candidate who unites the underclass across geography and ethnicity.

      Mr. Asness, seemingly, also suffers from these dreams.

  7. yburcs says:

    Great writing (again). It’s funny that some on the right are so quick to raise the socialism threat. Every society has some degree of socialism. You get a bunch of people together and there is always collaborative thought and process. Maduro is not so much about socialism, but tyranny, which makes Asness’s argument somewhat ironic when you look at where things are headed under the current administration. Additionally it sure seems blatantly clear to me that the most significant examples of socialism in our country are socialism for the rich; bailouts, fed intervention, tax loopholes….all at the eventual cost to the average tax payer (if you believe debt matters).

    • runamok says:

      A most significant example that could easily have been included is the health care that was provided to the president, and the care provided to many older white people who feel entitled.

      I have relatives in who live in the South of the United States.They bemoan socialism while all the time taking as much from the system as they can, including care for serious long-term conditions. Over the years, they have sucked a sum amounting to seven figures. Paid for by a socialized medical system. A system that has kept them alive. Many people are not very smart.

  8. I find it appalling that so few people understand what economic socialism is in our country. I often ask people, “what country has the largest socialist project in the world?” Everyone guesses European countries or china. However it is the USA, the U.S. interstate system. I point out that free roads of all types are socialism, as is taxation policies for home interest deduction. The examples are too many to list. I like to point out the socialism inherent with QE and how farmers have their economic socialism through government programs. The conclusion is inescapable, those that hate economic socialism the most are the greatest beneficiaries of economic socialism. They do not hate socialism as much as they hate you getting your socialism.

    To add to this confusion, I also have a definition for socialism that I find rare therefore I rarely communicate. This definition for socialism is social engineering intended to produce a particular outcome in society. With that definition any action intended to affect social order or society taken by government is a form of social engineering and therefore socialism. With this definition both the left and right are socialists. A few examples: If you tax a behavior such as buying a big house more then are we not engaged in economic social engineering and therefore is economic socialism? If we reduce penalties for racist policing are we not social engineering fear into the hearts of the targeted races? If you give a tax cut the rich or effectively increase barriers to prosecute the wealthy then we are social engineering inequality?

    In latter this view of socialism no one can be smeared of being a socialist in politics because we all are. Socialism is not a disease of the left but a tool of both the right and left used to affect public policy. I like this latter definition because it diffuses the hatred of the word and focuses instead on policy outcomes.

    • John Taylor says:

      mR. iMPERFECT – YOUR POINT ABOUT SOCIALISM AND POLICY CHOICES IS CORRECT, BUT THE ‘WORD’ IS A RED FLAG FOR EVERYONE. Sorry about the caps as I know Walt hates them – but I am too busy – lazy – to go back, and IT MAKES MY POINT. Maybe MMA can be used to change our thought process to consider policy choices upfront rather than burying them out of sight.

      • The word has been vilified. I think intentionally to reduce chances that the masses focus on outcomes.

        (sarcasm) What a horrible world that would be if lesser beings than the wealthy were focused on outcomes.

    • dayjob says:

      I grew up in a very rural area where farming is the backbone of the economy and have many relatives who are involved in farming. I frequently see those folks post about how liberals should move to Venezuela if they want socialism so bad. They don’t like it when I point out that they’d be clamoring to move to Venezuela too, but they already get their handouts here. The conversation then devolves into non-sequiturs or anger that anyone would dare question a farmer’s work ethic. Admittedly, it was a bit trollish on my part and I’m no longer on facebook, but it does demonstrate the extent to which these people happily deceive themselves about socialism.

    • BCQuant says:

      I was born in the GDR and we fled across the iron curtain when I was four.
      Grew up in Germany where the official term for it’s economic system is “Soziale Marktwirtschaft”.
      Later lived in Portugal for almost a decade and currently for over a decade in Canada.

      From an American point of view those countries are four degrees of “socialist”. Yet I can’t point out a single reason why I would want to live in the US.

      The way the term “socialist” gets demonized for political purposes is a joke considering humans are by nature “social” animals.

      How about replacing Venezuela, Cuba and China with Sweden, Switzerland (25 USD minimum wage anyone?) and New Zealand when telling tales of the Socialist Boogieman?
      And there are still plenty of ways for people to become millionaires and billionaires in those countries!

      The US needs a multi-party system so people start to understand that there are many different degrees of “left” and “right”.
      And for good measure, every young person on the planet should be forced (paid?) to live or study in a different country for a year or two. Over time bigotry and racism would be eradicated and global compassion and cooperation would go through the roof.

      I came to this site for H’s great writing and takes on economic issues and the comment section has definitely caught up to that level! Thanks and cheers to everyone here.

  9. Eddie Z says:

    Thank you for this well reasoned rebuttal. I wish more people could read this essay

  10. derek says:

    As Renfield asked: “Flies? Flies? Why should I eat flies? Why should I eat flies when there are these nice, big juicy spiders?”

  11. I would appreciate a simple definitive explanation of what attributes or beliefs make one ‘leftwing’ or ‘rightwing”. I hear all the time how bad the extreme right is and how bad the extreme left is but am unsure of how one delineates the two. I’ve seen video of the Nazi goons in Charlotte on the ‘extreme right’ and no videos that I can put my finger on of the ‘extreme left’?? I always assumed I was therefore somewhere in the middle.

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