This holiday season, let's spare a kind thought for the decent people who toil inside Washington's legislative machinery. These good folk must live and work inside the dreamlike bubble that is today's policy and media world. Each day they strain to see reality through the reflected light of the false but colorful narratives projected against the bubble's surface.
Or would it be a better metaphor to say they're prisoners in some cold underground cell? No matter how many polls are conducted, no matter how many economic analyses are performed, no matter how many bitter lessons are taught and re-taught, there are those who hope to deny them even a glimpse of reality.
Instead these good people are forced to stare into the harsh glare of synthetic reality, hour after hour, as if were a naked lightbulb in windowless room. Only a few precious slivers of genuine sunlight penetrate the dank basement of illusion that imprisons them.
Well-intentioned staffers in Washington need good information to do their jobs well. Instead they're being inundated with confusing pseudo-facts and empty fear-mongering. This week's case in point? The Congressional "super committee." Did you know that unless they come up with their cuts there will be no Christmas this year? You didn't? Then you haven't been reading the Wall Street Journal.
Unfortunately, that kind of distortion isn't the exception. It's the rule.
The War (on Christmas) Comes Home
As we reported the other day, Democrats on the Committee are on the verge of offering a disastrous and unjust "compromise" that would punish millions of innocent people for the excesses of a few -- and probably doom their own party's electoral chances.
As the Committee approaches its final days, the pressure is building... and so is the media misinformation. The most darkly comical example of this comes from the Wall Street Journal, where a headline tells us that "Supercommittee Failure Could Throttle Holiday Spending."
Imagine: No gifts will glitter under the tree. The elves will join the ranks of the unemployed. The North Pole will fall into darkness as its failing economy threatens the Eurozone, if not the world. Rudolph will shrug off his harness and slink into the forest as the other reindeer look on mournfully.
Listen up, Congress: Give us those cuts or the fat guy in the red suit gets it!
But, absurd as it sounds, it's not far from what the Journal is saying: "Consumers are starting to feel a bit more confident about the economy," writes Josh Mitchell, citing the most recent index of consumer sentiment from Thomson Reuters and the University of Michigan. "But," adds Mitchell, "a cloud forming over Washington threatens to darken the mood."
A securities analyst is quoted as saying this: "Although investors have found it easy to ignore the U.S. deficit problem against the backdrop of the European crisis, the calm before the storm is about to end and with it risks of a further downgrade by at least one rating agency..."
Adds Mitchell: "Such a scenario can't be good for consumer confidence heading into the holiday shopping season."
This would be nothing more than comic relief if it weren't so typical of the entire media narrative around the Committee, and if this narrative weren't taken so seriously inside the Beltway.
We've already explained why a super committee failure will not necessarily lead to another downgrade of U.S. debt -- and that, contrary to another media myth, the last downgrade didn't affect the stock market at all. It was the last austerity deal, the debt-ceiling agreement between Barack Obama and John Boehner, that tanked the market this summer.
But that's only addressing the world's markets. What about American consumers? They're the engine of economic growth. Will their confidence in the economy really be shattered if a Congressional committee doesn't recommend cutting their entitlements and raising their taxes? (It sounds silly, but that's the proposition being put forward.) A new Politico/George Washington University Battleground poll gives us the answer:
At least half of those people weren't even familiar with the super committee or its mission. Once it was described, nearly 70% said they expect it to fail and only 21% expect it to succeed. If they've either never heard of it or expect it to fail, how could its failure undermine their confidence in the economy? It could certainly undermine their confidence in the parties making the deal, however. The people who were polled made it clear that they're adamantly opposed to the very kind of deal the Democrats are now proposing as a "compromise."
Lumps of Coal in the Christmas Stocking
The centerpiece of the Democratic proposal was a series of cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. What's the number one item people did not want to see cut? Medicare and Medicaid. The second most unpopular target was Social Security. Between Medicare and Social Security, 56% of people polled felt that these entitlements were (in the poll's words) "the worst possible thing to cut." By contrast, only 20% of people polled felt that way about defense spending.
When asked whether they supported "hundreds of millions of dollars in spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid through increasing beneficiary costs" (the Democratic offer includes $100 billion of such costs for Medicare and an additional amount for Medicaid), 76% were opposed -- and 52% were "opposed strongly."
Overall, 21% of people polled thought "the economy" was our most urgent problem, and 21% thought it was our second-most urgent problem. 18% thought that jobs are our most urgent problem, with 15% rating jobs at second place. That's 40% who think that jobs and the economy are our most urgent problem and 33% who place them second. Deficits and government spending, the focus of this committee, is rated at 19% and 13% respectively.
In other words: There's a committee which people have either never heard of or expect to fail. It's prepared to do things they hate to solve a problem they don't consider very important. And yet Washington's gripped with a fear that this committee will fail. It should be terrified that it will succeed.