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No no no no no

I enjoy the London Review of Books but I’m not a fan of their policy of hiring English people to write about U.S. politics. In theory it could work just fine but in practice there seem to be problems. Recall the notorious line from a couple years ago, “But viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable.”

More recently I noticed this, from John Lanchester:

Republicans, egged on by their newly empowered Tea Party wing, didn’t take the deal, and forced the debate on raising the debt ceiling right to the edge of an unprecedented and globally catastrophic US default. The process ended with surrender on the part of President Obama and the Democrats. There is near unanimity among economists that the proposals in the agreed package will at best make recovery from the recession more difficult, and at worst may trigger a second, even more severe downturn. The disturbing thing about the whole process wasn’t so much that the Tea Partiers were irrational as that they were irrationalist: they were consciously pursuing a course of action which made no economic sense, as part of a worldview which is essentially theological [emphasis added]. They know that everyone else knows that they truly don’t care about the consequences of their actions, and the prospect of the Tea Party wing being in government is truly frightening. ‘Sane Republican’ is not an oxymoron, not yet – but we’re heading that way.

Huh? The Tea Party activists have several goals, #1 of which is to unseat Obama in 2012, and one step of that goal is to shoot down any stimulus plans that might juice the economy between now and then. So it’s not at all “irrational” (let alone “irrationalist”) for them to pursue a strategy which, in Lanchester’s words, “will at best make recovery from the recession more difficult, and at worst may trigger a second, even more severe downturn.”

You can also think about it tactically. By refusing to compromise, the conservative Republicans got the Democrats to give in.

Or you can take the long view. Conservative Republicans would like a long-term balanced budget with low inflation and low taxes on the rich. With that as a goal, it’s not unreasonable to fight any expansion of spending on items they do not support.

I’m not saying you have to agree with Republican politicians or Tea Party activists here; it just seems silly to describe them as irrational. They just have goals which are much different from Lanchester’s (and, for that matter, from many Americans).


  1. Sarang says:

    Um, and what is this supposed to have to do with Lanchester being English?

  2. Mark Palko says:

    This is bad writing and terrible political analysis, but can we really attribute this to the writer not being from the country he’s writing about? It’s not like our native born analysts have set the bar all that high.

  3. Jay says:

    Is this the same John Lanchester that wrote the novel The Debt to Pleasure? That book gives the impression that the author thinks he’s really clever, when in fact the unreliable-narrator gimmick is obvious from early on, and the whole thing is overly puffed up. If it’s him, I can’t imagine why TLS has made him a political correspondent.

    • Corey says:

      It’s good netiquette to preface the revelation of key plot points with a spoiler warning (even if you think they’re obvious).

    • Nick Cox says:

      The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books are completely different journals. Perhaps U.S. based commentators should refrain from analysis if they are that ignorant of the London literary scene….

  4. Jflycn says:

    “any stimulus plans that might juice the economy between now and then”? Seriously?

    Don’t take the word “stimulus” literally. Economy is not Pavlov’s dog.

  5. BrendanH says:

    I don’t think it was a British journalist that coined the “only two types of Republicans, millionaires and suckers” phrase.

  6. Andrew says:

    In response:

    Yes, an American writer could screw this up too (see Easterbrook, Gregg), but I think it’s that much tougher if you’re writing about a country that’s not your own. There’s just so much about the culture that you soak up just by living here. (I don’t actually know anything about Lanchester; it’s possible he grew up on the U.S. But I’m guessing he’s not American.)

    • K? O'Rourke says:

      I think you have a point.

      At least when I was attending an after-hours French Canadian movie [Bon Cop, Bad Cop] that was presented at an Ivey League University event and after the showing a couple professors talked about the exemplary swearing in the movie [true] they went on about Canadian politics – it was hilarious.

      But I kept quiet – its hard to safely throw stones from one’s own back yard.

  7. Ase Innes-Ker says:

    I agree with Andrew (of course, my observations will be very anecdotal, and n=1, and from someone with very minor interest in politics). I live in Sweden now, but maintain online friendships with americans across the political spectrum. And, people I come in contact with here (as well as the papers I read) have very little understanding about what drives the american right, or drives groups like the Tea Party. And, they don’t have an understanding that the strategies and tactics are rational from their point of view. Of course, in Sweden, there is great trust in government (comparatively), and a belief in paying high taxes to get a great deal of social benefits. The tea-party is just mystifying, rather than a political opinion one is in opposition of.

  8. Joseph says:

    I grew up in Canada, even if I have lived in the United States for about a decade now. I still find the Canadian political system far more intuitive than the American one. Admittedly, I am not a political expert of any kind, but it takes a lot of work to gain that “gut instinct” level knack for how a political system works. Heck, for a long time I bought into the ideal that the President could act like a Prime Minister on domestic matters.

    So there is an extra learning curve. What I found weird, being from a parliamentary system, is how there can be such a wide a disconnect between the authors of a policy and who gets the credit or blame. So I think that Andrew has a point, even if there are clear exceptions (e.g. a Brit who studied the system from the outside as a profession might actually see things that lie in our blind spots.

  9. Manuel Moe G says:

    Good example of bad writing from an English writer, but I appreciate the Economist’s writing on USA politics – they don’t feel any pressure to call a spade anything but a spade. They have little patience for Republican populism-in-name-only tomfoolery, for example.

    If it was the New York Times, there would be either [1] an attempt to save the reader from drawing the “wrong” conclusion from the facts by using loaded terminology throughout the article, or [2] the article is solely made of quotes from highly-available loudmouths on both ends of the presupposed self-serving spectrum of “reasonable” comment, in an attempt to not make waves, with no effort made to see if any of it is consistent with reality. And it would be all done with a haughty air of ostentatious aping of dispassionate (fraudulent) objectivity, to try to manufacture unearned authority.

    • Sebastian says:

      a lot of the people writing about the US for the Economist are actually US American – e.g. Will Wilkinson blogging for Democracy in America, Ryan Avent writing for the Free Exchange blog etc. Even if they’re not born in the US, their US correspondence are all based in the US.

  10. says:

    “I think it’s that much tougher if you’re writing about a country that’s not your own. There’s just so much about the culture that you soak up just by living here.”
    May be I am misunderstanding some thing here (I am not aregular visitor of this blog) but I am puzzled by this statement. I visited USA off and on from 1970-2011, lived there off and on for six years. I met different kind of groups of people, academics (mostly white and a lot of them Jewish, African-Americansboth acamic and non-academic, and many Indians a lot of them relatives. Since I am in mathematics, I did not particularly study their social habits but they seem to live in different sorts of worlds. I am not sure that living in the country helps understanding other groups well whereas trained observers might. There are many different groups, languages etc in India and I often find foreigners’ writings ( Bernard Cohn to Glenn Davis Stone) often more perceptive than many Indian writings on similar topics. In fact there are similar complaints from Ramachandra Guha and blogs like ‘Law and Other Things’. Sometimes Indian authors seem to think that because they are Indian, they know about India without adequate study.
    I wonder whether some thing similar is going on here. It is possible, I misunderstood the post.

  11. Lord says:

    You could still call them irrational for the face they present, nonnegotiators, debt standoffs, birthers and all, even if they have ulterior motives. They may want to be seen irrational to prevent from having to deal with their opponents only interested in stalling or to extract extravagant concessions. That they also want to conceal their motives seems evident in the feigned concern for debt while offering only tax cuts.

  12. “Conservative Republicans would like a long-term balanced budget” I think you yourself have posted that they hold this goal in (irrational?) conflict with others.

    The Tea Party seem about as irrationalist to me as any population of that size in the US. I think it’s a bit of a middlebrow insurrection as evidenced by their opposition to Gov. Romney, too. My sense is their anti-stimulus position is more about posturing against expert communities than a strategic desire to defeat President Obama or shrink the federal govt. I suppose one could argue that their skepticism of global warming is also some type of rational strategy. I think its just a schelling point for a bunch of east african plain apes.

  13. Daniel says:

    “not a fan of their policy of hiring English people to write about U.S. politics”

    And are you a fan of many universities’ (incl. Columbia’s) policies of hiring Americans to research Chinese, African, Latin American, etc. politics? If not, how is this different?

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