I often wonder if there’s a place for humor in the world anymore.
People still like jokes, but the Trump years killed satire and even a cursory scroll through Twitter proves Americans no longer understand, let alone appreciate, anything other than vacuous sarcasm. Dry humor is out. Irony has been degraded by the widespread adoption of Whataboutism. The public thinks wry is a kind of bread. Sardonic is anything that smells like sardines.
It’s a lamentable state of affairs. There was a time when you couldn’t write satire unless you were actually clever. These days, every American is Peter Griffin staring at the cartoon in the The New Yorker.
This is an ongoing process. Every week, Americans get incrementally less intelligent. As a consequence, flagrant farce works its way inward from the fringes until it permeates everything we read, irrespective of how ostensibly respectable the source.
Witness Bloomberg’s latest article documenting the weekly musings of Larry Summers.
Summers is, as I never tire of reminding folks, a paid “contributor” to Bloomberg. I emphasize the paid part not because I think there’s something untoward or dishonest about the arrangement. (I don’t.) Rather, I think there’s something absurd about Summers demanding compensation to hold a relatively short, weekly Zoom call with David Westin. Again, I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with it. (There isn’t.) Summers is entitled to receive the going market rate for his idle musings. I’m just suggesting it’s silly. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
In any event, this week, Summers regaled Westin with a critique of the Fed’s communications strategy. Seemingly without so much as a polite nod to the irony inherent in Summers chiding someone else for hubris, he told Bloomberg that “an approach that is much more recognizing of uncertainty and carries with it much more humility is the right way forward for monetary policy.”
But that wasn’t the punchline. The comedic gold was the juxtaposition between, on one hand, Summers’s emphasis on the necessity of being humble in the face of unknowable outcomes and, on the other, the precision with which he proceeded to forecast the very same outcomes.
“None of us know the future and so confident statements about what’s going to happen by public officials… often turn out to be embarrassing,” Summers declared.
Now contrast that with the following direct quote from Bloomberg’s coverage of their own coverage (i.e., an article documenting their television programming):
Asked on Bloomberg Television’s “Wall Street Week” with David Westin for his estimates on the balance of risks for the US, Summers gave the following odds:
- 10% to 15% for the economy to work out well
- 50% to 55% for inflation to run for a while above 2%
- 30% to 35% for policy makers having to force the economy to “turn down more than we want” by tackling inflation
In case the joke isn’t obvious, it’s not clear what the difference is between Summers assigning mathematical (albeit subjective) odds to unknowable outcomes (complete with a 5% margin for error) and the Fed forecasting growth, inflation and unemployment via the summary economic projections.
How is Summers being more “recognizing of uncertainty” than the Fed is in the SEP which, you’re reminded, contains medians, central tendencies and ranges?
Summers told Westin that “the odds have gotten a bit more tilted to inflation than I thought.” How is that more humble than Jerome Powell saying (repeatedly) that inflation pressures are proving more persistent than he and the Committee imagined?
If anything, Summers is being more presumptuous than Powell by going on television and assigning numerical odds to outcomes which, by his own admission, aren’t amenable to “confident statements.” If a reporter asked Powell during a post-FOMC meeting press conference to assign odds the way Summers did, he (Powell) would surely refuse, citing the need to be humble in the face of uncertainty. If the media persisted, he’d point them to the SEP.
I don’t expect anyone to find this as funny as I do. Bloomberg certainly missed the joke. “[Summers] said Fed officials needed to be ‘much more careful’ than they had been in recent years when making pronouncements about the economy,” Simon Kennedy wrote.
The headline on Kennedy’s article read: “Summers Sees Just a 15% Chance of US Economy Working Out Well.” The summary bullet points were: “Ex-Treasury chief puts 50%-55% odds of inflation over 2%” and “There’s a 35% chance of the economy slumping, Summers says”.