Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The five worst things in Slate's new blog

There's a new blog on Slate! It's called The Reckoning; it's by Michael Moran. And there's no reason to beat around the bush here: everything about this blog appears to be completely awful. So without further ado, here are the five worst things in The Reckoning's inaugural post.

1. It's devoted to American declinism

The whole blog is, apparently. Moran spends almost every paragraph clubbing the reader over the head with the same idea: that American economic power is diminishing.

One problem: without context, declinism is an insipid topic. It's nonetheless popular among publishers, because readers eat it up. "American decline" sounds scary and important, and works as a blank canvas onto which people can project their fears about the economy and foreign wars and the environment and China. Everyone can read blogs like Moran's and have their worst fears confirmed; it feeds into the weird little strain of fatalism that most people have.

In a vicious cycle of misinformation, short-term domestic and international problems creates alarmism over the collapse of American power, and then alarmism over the collapse of American power leads to short-sighted policy that creates domestic and international problems. Rather than making any effort to forestall this cyclone of stupidity, Moran seems more intent on riding it to blogospheric success.

2. It thinks it's breaking new ground
Moran casts himself as some sort of far-sighted oracle, able to look past parochial concerns and see the very arc of history. He makes more than one reference to the slow awakening of the American population to the problem of decline, referring to the "thick skull of the American collective consciousness." He also suggests several times over that D.C. politicians would rather pretend that decline didn't exist.

He could hardly be more wrong if he were trying. Declinism is incredibly widespread. I'm sure everybody's heard somebody give voice to the commonplace notion that "we'll all be speaking Chinese in fifty years." And Michael, probably every single pundit in the Western world has already beaten you to the punch. Columns lamenting American decline are to syndicated editorialists what Scrubs reruns are to basic cable networks: they churn them out when there's nothing else to show or talk about.

And don't even get me started on the politicians. They're not ignoring the perception of waning American influence, they're responsible for it. Aspiring politicos discovered long ago that American fears can be exploited for personal gain. Moran's just late to the party.

3. It doesn't understand the difference between relative decline and absolute decline
Amazingly, the post gets worse when it moves from generalities to specifics. It spends a long time talking worriedly about how the US share of global economic output is shrinking. But like all relative measures of wealth, this statistic standing alone tells nothing about the actual health of the US economy. It only tells us that other economies around the world are growing faster than ours. This could be because American economic progress has stalled out -- or it could be because other countries were dirt-poor for a very long time and are currently going through phase of massive catch-up growth. (As it turns out, the second scenario accounts for most of the trend.) The significant thing for Americans is whether living conditions in the United States are improving or worsening; in short, how the economy is performing in absolute terms. That's an important question, but it's a question that relative measures can't help us answer.

Moran spends a lot of time playing off the widespread impression that America is somehow harmed when living conditions improve in other countries. But he undermines his own point when he acknowledges that US relative influence has been declining since 1946; in other words, since the end of a massive war that devastated all the other industrial countries. Americans have a strange fetish for always being number one, but is it better to be king of a pile of ashes or the first among many prosperous equals? The richer the rest of the world gets, the more of our stuff they can buy.

The blog does acknowledge that "share of global output" isn't a very useful economic indicator. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to know why, reminding us that "the more serious measurements—potential growth rates, GDP per capita, GDP itself," have recently "turned south relative to other global competitors." Sigh.

4. It thinks both American political parties are equally wrong
Apparently not content to adopt merely half of the Washington Post's editorial conventions, Moran throws in a healthy dose of pox-on-both-your-houses-ism. It's as condescending as ever (mocking partisans for placing their hopes in senators and presidents instead of, say, obscure internet commentators), but he actually finds a new twist on the idea. While most latter day political cynics prefer to bleat about the truth being in the middle, Moran actually travels back more than a decade and adopts Ralph Nader's old saw: the parties are both the same. He lumps them together, decrying the "incrementalism" of their solutions (without, of course, proposing his own). Given that the range of opinion between the two parties is probably larger now than its been in fifty years, it's hard not to wonder what idea could possibly be bold enough for Moran. Nationalize the banks? Invade someone? State socialism? Colonize the solar system?

5. In an appalling display of false modesty, the author links to his own Wikipedia page

Honestly, anyone who does this should be shot.

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