This post by Jonathan Bernstein earlier today led me to Jonathan’s earlier takedown, a few years ago, of the idea that “sacrifice” for its own sake (as in a willingness to forego a benefit or accept a lower standard of living) is a good thing. Jonathan called instead for a “chess model of sacrifice”:
Everyone understands that a sacrifice in chess is self-interested. There is no moral or character component to sacrificing a piece; it’s a good idea if it helps the player win, and a bad idea otherwise. No one analyzes a chess game by saying that the player lost, but at least she was willing to sacrifice her rook, or that he didn’t deserve to win because he was unwilling to sacrifice anything. That a player didn’t perceive a nice line of play involving a sacrifice is a totally different type of discussion.
This has to be right. People—for example, contemporary German conservative people—who impose sacrifices on themselves or (even more satisfying) others at the cost of making their own and others’ economic situation worse rather than better are subjectively virtuous but objectively foolish. We would all be better off if they felt subjectively foolish as well.
Jonathan goes on to solicit explanations of “the appeal of sacrifice talk to journalists.” Given that Jonathan thinks his meme hasn’t been taken up much since he proposed it, I’ll risk some speculations a few years late:
1. Journalists, like most of us, think politics is more like personal life than it is. On the individual level, those who save money have more later (and more security against reverses); those who exercise, up to a point, grow healthier. The idea that governments should not save during a depression—that deficit spending, in the short term, represents wisdom, not moral laxity—is economic orthodoxy but flouts all personal experience. Not for nothing did Keynes call his warning against austerity in a downturn the “paradox of thrift.”
2. Journalists love the civic-virtue frame. They persistently write as if the cause of partisan and ideological disagreement were a self-indulgent love of bickering for its own sake, the solution being for Wise Men (always men) to put aside politics and reach an agreement, no matter which, for the common good. (Smart political scientists, on the contrary, realize that disagreement is permanent and natural, the price of freedom, and that good civic education would stress its permanence.)
3. Journalists are lazy regarding policy details (like me on this score). The economics of deficit spending involves investigating, and striking, a balance between short-term stimulus and long-term deficit reduction. But that’s difficult. The frame of sacrifice seems—though it isn’t—a useful information shortcut. We can’t tell who is following the most accurate economic indicators or the latest debates in the American Economic Review. (And journalists wouldn’t want to listen to sources who did that anyway: such might be wonkish, no fun—even, to use a journalist’s worst insult, introverts.) But we can tell who is willing to make lots of people angry that they’re losing a benefit or seeing their taxes increase. Journalists track a spurious virtue of character because the real virtues of intellect are, for laypeople, very hard to judge.
4. American journalists are, well, Americans, steeped in a Protestant Ethic that we Americans simultaneously venerate and flout (and feel vicious for flouting, though virtuous to the extent that we castigate the floutation). Even if Keynesianism works well, it seems to reward sin. Keynes embraced the iconoclasm: he’d grown up with Bloomsbury and wanted to place intrinsically pleasant things like art and love above what he saw as religious claptrap. But that limits his broad appeal in a a country that was founded by Puritans and that continues to thrill to the trapping of Puritan claps.
5. As blog readers won’t find surprising, journalists are Broderists: they believe that both parties are Equally At Fault. A debate on the merits of competing economic plans might show one of them to be better founded (even with respect to relatively nonpartisan criteria: more honest with the numbers, more favored by a large range of economists, more likely to actually achieve the ends it names—unlike, say, the Ryan budget which Ryan’s own numbers show would take decades to shrink the deficit). Calling for something that no politician is likely to do, i.e. betray his or her most fervent constituents for no particular reason and to no particular end, is a way to guarantee the desired psychic result: that both parties will fail and the journalist will be able to scold them equally.
Feel free to contest this list, or add to it, in comments..