Matt Miller is the perfect embodiment of the Washington punditry. In his weekly column in the Washington Post he complains about being a victim of the “False Equivalency Police.” These would be the people who point out that many of the assertions that he and other professional centrists make about the Democratic and Republican parties being taken over by extremists are not true.
It is only the Republican Party that has moved to the extreme right, the Democratic Party has actually moved towards the center. Apparently the people who have the gall to call attention to this fact. and undermine the story of the professional centrists, have sufficiently angered Miller that he now thinks of them as a type of police force. Life is tough for WAPO columnists.
I will always have fond memories of Matt Miller as the one person who left me completely speechless in a debate. The year was 1996 or 1997. Miller and I were on a public radio show debating the proposal, which was then popular in Washington, of reducing the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security by roughly 1 percentage point.
Their argument was that the consumer price index (CPI), which is the basis of the indexation, overstated the true rate of increase in the cost of living. I was pointing out that the evidence for this claim was actually quite weak. Furthermore, such cuts would be a substantial hit to an elderly population that was already not doing very well.
One of the other guests on the show was Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson. In his usual tactful way, Simpson went on a tirade saying that the estimate that the CPI overstated inflation by 1.0 percentage point was way low. He said that it was more like 1.5 percentage points and that he has economists who say that it is more than 2.0 percentage points. He concluded by saying that pretty soon our grandchildren will all be living in chicken coops.
When I got a chance to respond I pointed out that Senator Simpson had it exactly backwards. The greater the overstatement in the CPI, the richer our children will be.
The logic here is straightforward. We know the rate of nominal wage growth, let’s say it’s 3.0 percent annually (this was the 90s). If the CPI tells us that the inflation rate is 2.0 percent, then the rate of real wage growth is 1.0 percent annually ( 3.0 percent -2.0 percent = 1.0 percent).
Suppose that the CPI overstates the true rate of inflation by 1.0 percentage point so that the true rate of inflation is just 1.0 percent. Then the annual rate of real wage growth is 2.0 percent (3 percent – 1.0 percent = 2.0 percent). If Senator Simpson’s economists were right and the overstatement was 2.0 percentage points, then real wages were growing at the rate of 3.0 percent annually (3.0 percent – 0.0 percent = 3.0 percent).
I pointed out that if Simpson was right about the CPI hugely overstating inflation, then our children and grandchildren would be incredibly rich. If real wages rise by 3.0 percent a year, then in 30 years they will be more than 140 percent higher. Therefore there was no reason to be so concerned cutting Social Security benefits for today’s elderly, most of whom would have grown up in poverty using the Simpson CPI.
Miller then responded by saying something to the effect that, “Dean thinks it’s okay to tax our children because they will be rich.” Yes, he had me stumped. I had no good response to that one.
Anyhow, back to the stinking corpse of Americans Elect. Americans Elect was supposed to be a third party that was set up by a group of rich hedge fund types to counter the growing extremism of the two parties. While it had huge support from people like Thomas Friedman and Matt Miller, no one apart from the elite punditry types took it seriously This week they announced that they were folding the tent.
This outcome naturally left Miller disappointed. He still needs someone to embrace his ambitious agenda which includes such things as cutting Social Security and Medicare. He asks:
“If you think we should not guarantee the next generation of retirees a 30 percent real increase in initial Social Security benefits (as we do today) before we’ve first guaranteed that every child in America has access to high-quality pre-schools and great teachers (in part by recruiting top college students to careers in the classroom and paying them up to $150,000 a year), which party represents your voice?”
Of course many of us answer that we should be guaranteeing every child access to high-quality pre-schools and great teachers, but this has nothing to do with the first part of Miller’s sentence. Since workers pay for their Social Security benefits with a designated tax, his sentence makes no more sense than saying we should not pay interest on the government bonds held by wealthy people like Peter Peterson before guaranteeing decent eduction for our kids. Those of us familiar with the projections know that there is no reason that we cannot do both.
He then concludes his piece with a direct attack on the False Equivalency Police, saying that:
“So far as I can tell, others in the False Equivalency Police have offered few ideas on how to broaden the debate to meet the country’s challenges, beyond vanquishing the GOP. That’s their prerogative as a political matter, of course, but it won’t (again, in my view) come close to rebuilding upward mobility and economic security in the United States. I’m not sure what Paul Krugman thinks a plausible path to a much more ambitious agenda is, but I’d be curious to hear it.”
Of course Krugman and others of us who would qualify as card carrying members of the FEP have offered endless suggestions on how we can have a more prosperous equitable future. While most of the FEP, unlike Miller, may not have the benefit of a weekly column in the Washington Post to advertise our views, they are available on the web. Of course Krugman’s writing are highly visible, if Miller is actually interested in finding out what his nemeses on the left have to say.
If Miller doesn’t know our agenda then it is due to his decision to remain ignorant. That’s his right, but he shouldn’t blame the left for his own determined ignorance.
Economist Dean Baker is co-founder of Center for Economic Policy and Research and writes regularly on CEPR’s Beat the Press blog, where this post first appeared.