Not long ago I took issue with the position of some Republican governors, that some of the funds available from the $787B stimulus package would impose distressing permanent legislation and policies on state governments, concerning future payments from entitlement funds, specifically unemployment benefits. As time has gone on, much of the mythology accompanying this has been dispelled, the waters are calming and quieter heads are prevailing.
However, in a manner much like using the term “transparent” to describe how President Obama would like the government to be about its’ financial affairs(it hasn’t been and probably will not be, despite the web sites available to track federal monies from taxpayers dollars) the latest word to be center stage in public discourse is, “clear”. Well, just as I suspected, many conditions that were claimed to be “permanent”, on second inspection, were not, and much of what the legislators claim as “transparent” turns out not be see-through at all. Add to those, now, nearly every time a politician or bureaucrat says:
-Let’s be clear here (or “about this”),
I’d like to be clear on this,
We should be clear, here,
I want to make this crystal clear,
one can be very nearly completely almost assuredly possibly certain that whatever you are about be told is (or purported to be) clear, will not be. Clear, that is.
Along with being very nearly stunned in recalling the number of times then President-elect Obama used the word “clear” in his acceptance speech, on a Sunday morning political talk show, Peter Orzag, the new main man at the OMB, prefaced his responses to George Stephanopoulos with qualifying phrases about necessary clarity three times in five minutes. My friend Barbara, who is a much better student of human behavior than I am, reminded me that both Obama and Orzag probably were coached by the same handlers, urging them to use some variation on “I want to be clear” as a technique to give themselves both linguistic and mental breathing space before attempting a potentially taxing response. This is all well and good, but in almost every instance, what follows the disclaimer about chrystallinity is usually something like this: “First all we will need to do this…”, then, “Secondly, our attention should be focused on…”, which if followed by, “And lastly, we should not lose sight of…”, and by then, any chance that any thing at all had any chance to be “clear” has been lost. And Sen. Harry Reid likes to be clear as well: what that usually means is that he about to make an excuse for something the Democratic congress failed to do or compromised on. I would just as soon he left that kind of clarity in Vegas. And if Harry’s explanations are not clear enough for you, Nancy Pelosi will make sure you get it later: she will stand behind a lectern, flanked by beaming dems and say, “Let’s be clear about this…”, and you will feel a kind of California warmness. She hopes. (In Orzag’s defense, he did illustrate that when someone like Bill Gates makes a $1000.00 donation to charity, after the current tax cuts expire, the Mr. Gates’ tax deduction will drop from $350.00 to $280.00. Clear. Precise. I can understand that. There is something to be said for economists sticking to numbers).
Conversely, showing no evidence whatsoever of coaching from democratic handlers, Secretary Gates, on Meet the Press the same day, made doubly sure (to my way of thinking) that nothing was clear, using a kind of unclear political double-speak when trying to answer David Gregory’s questions: queried about the residual forces announced for Iraq into the next several months and years, Gates did not explain or make clear anything, by saying that the proposed 50,000 troops to be left there will be a “transition force”, and a “way station” on the road to Iraqi independence. He also said that they would be re-named in a “different role”, for “a different kind of mission”. Really? This is, of course, bullshit. He said this residual force will make it “safer for those remaining” (And who is that, exactly?) As has been pointed out repeatedly, every one of the 50,000 combat ready troops are, in fact, truly combat ready. They march around in body armor, carry automatic weapons and hand grenades and kick in doors, looking for insurgents. The only reality which Mr. Gates made clear is that, despite the linguistic gymnastics, nothing will change (To his credit, when asked what might constitute “victory” in Iraq, he only offered that that would be for someone else to decide, later).
Along these same muddled lines, Congressman Cantor, when asked point blank, TWICE, by George Stephanopoulos, if Republicans were going to vote for the new proposed budget, Cantor completely dodged the question, TWICE, and even managed to make the discussion less clear, by inserting a dig about the stimulus bill, claiming it was “Speaker Pelosi’s bill”. It was not “Pelosi’s”, of course, and he offered no clear indications about the upcoming vote. Stephanopoulos finally gave up his search for any clarity. And in order to further his genuine lack of clarity on both the economy and the stimulus bill, Cantor said that we should be “preserving and protecting new jobs”, as the “focus on economic growth”. Now, I don’t know where Mr. Cantor has been hiding, but you cannot “preserve “a new job, and the task of “protecting” should be for existing jobs. And last I heard the stimulus bill was as much about “jobs” as anything to focus on economic growth…in addition to Republican tax cuts (which he earlier said did not exist). The only clear revelation here was that Cantor himself was not clear about the content of the bill. Had either Gates or Cantor told me up front that they were going to be “clear” in their remarks, I might have been more comforted. But telling me (Gates) that the “same-old, same-old” will have a new “role” as a “way station”, and having Cantor answer the voting question by saying that “people want results” and the Republican party is the party of ”new ideas” is all not very clear at all, but rather insulting and infuriating. Verbal contortionism does not for clarity make. Sam Watkins, a Republican strategist, said on MSNBC-TV this afternoon, that Republicans did not get re-elected in recent voting because they did not “talk the talk and walk the walk”: well, that’s pretty not clear. What the hell does that mean? And RNC chairman Steele has decided to reinvigorate the party by infusing it with hip hop and Michelle Bachman. Those are two truly new ideas. Are you clear on that? Traditional Republican should be clearly infuriated.
But there were some moments of clarity on Sunday…or at least moments of clear protestation. Katrina vanden Heuvel (The Nation) lashed out with clarity and precision when she told George Will and Karl Rove that the Republicans, since the days of Ronald Reagan, had been “starving the beast (government)” while “feeding the rich” though tax cuts. Clear enough. Karl Rove made it abundantly clear that while not complying with a subpoena to appear before Congress, but he was happy to show up at NBC to get paid to sit on a panel. Rove also used a variation on ”being clear”: he offered to “set the record straight”, at one point (whatever it was that he set the record straight on went right over my head…but with great clarity). Also last week, at CPAC, Sen. McConnel asked, “Who would you rather hang out with, guys like Krugman and Reich or Rush Limbaugh?” This made very clear the fact that he can really confuse apples and oranges. If you would like to draw a comparison here, in order to make something “clear”, you should at least find another economist to run up against Krugman or Reich: last time I looked, Limbaugh has no credentials as an economist. In fact, Limbaugh makes a career out of guaranteeing that nothing is clear except his girth and his bombast (As I think about it, I am much happier to “hang out” with Krugman, who says that the only thing we know for sure is that nobody knows anything for sure, and that the only reality which is clear is that there are almost no clear realities. Somehow, I prefer that nebulous innocence to the vacuous emotional tirades of Limbaughism). And Newt Gingrich asked the same CPAC group, “Do they (the democrats) think we are stupid?” Actually, Newt, the clearer reality may be that ever since trickle-down economics, voo-doo economics, “Read my lips: No new taxes” taxes, the desire to tinker (and wreck) social security and then cut taxes for the uber-rich( who can most afford to pay them…we do, after all, have a progressive income tax), the Republicans have been counting on our being stupid for years , while we continually fell for those lines of thinking which have put the United States in this current financial mess .Speaking of which: After repeated promises of transparency and attempts to “be clear on this”, the new President reached into his hat and pulled out a rabbit named Geithner. Mr. Geithner (and his second in command, Larry Summers) were supposed to be clear about what we needed to do next, about the economy. Geithner has never used the word clear that I can find, has said and done (almost literally) nothing which I can see is clear in any way, and our economic situation seems only to deteriorate further every day.
Geithner has thus far been so completely unclear that he is like a fogged-up mirror, in the least, and as permeable as a brick wall at the worst. And Larry Summers is sounding like he has used Cantor’s speech coach: if we are lucky, sometime this summer we might hear him say something which is helpful, forward looking and makes it ”clear” that he and Geithner are capable of and planning to do something for the good of the country besides give money to AIG and General Motors (talk about a couple guys who could use some new ideas). While it is “clear” (sorry about that) that the economies of scale at stake are enormous, the President told us…CLEARLY… that Geithner’s resume up to the task. I’m waiting. This Geithnerian drama lacks drama, and Bernanke and Summers are likely breathing the same rarified air and drinking from the same purified water: there is no substance, there are no minerals or supplements, and no impurities to be filtered out through discussion. Perhaps without substance, one does not need to ponder the need for clarity.
I hope you are clear on all of this, because I’m not. At the moment, unless something changes, all I see ahead is Rumsfeld’s long slog through unclear double-speak. While it used to be that “on a clear day you could see forever”…and see even General Motors…despite repeated claims to the contrary, no one has made anything “perfectly clear”, at all. And we are not that stupid. As my mother used to say, “Its all clear as mud”.