Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, may be the all-powerful arbiter of what’s hot and what’s not in celebrity culture. But having declared Paul Krugman a “national treasure,” Carter is now trying to reinvent himself as an angry liberal, devoting his monthly editor’s letter to relentless Bush-bashing in a style that is unabashedly School of Krugman.
He should have stuck with schmoozing teen idols and British royalty. Just check out his letter in the December 2003 issue (unfortunately, there’s no link for this). Carter’s so bad at this he makes Krugman look good. His entire two-page letter is a bullet-point list of President Bush’s failures. He writes, “There’s a lot of ground to cover here, so let’s do it scorecard style.” By that he means shamelessly plagiarizing the famous “Harper’s Index,” in which pseudo-statistics are ironically juxtaposed with blasé one-liners.
Let’s sample some of Carter’s “scorecard,” focusing on Bush’s performance on the economy. (Throughout the following, indented and bulleted text is quoted directly and fully from Carter, including emphasis; I have dispensed with quotation marks for convenience.) We’ll start with an absolute oh-my-God-what-was-I-thinking howler. Surely by now someone has told Carter of the utterly astounding error he (and his fact checker, if he has one) has made here: He seems not know the difference between a trillion and a quadrillion. He’ll never live this one down:
· $6.84 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion) — Current national debt.
· $9.3 quadrillion — Estimated national debt by 2008.
This puts Carter off by a factor of 1,000. The Office of Management and Budget’s Midterm Update for 2004 confirms that it’s actually trillion (yes, trillion), which is 1,000 times smaller than quadrillion (yes, quadrillion). Quadrillion (yes, quadrillion) means one followed by fifteen zeros, while trillion (yes, trillion) means one followed by only twelve zeros.
· $1.58 billion — Amount on average the national debt increases each day.
If the current national debt really were $6.84 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion), then at $1.58 billion each day the debt would take 4,266 years to grow to $9.3 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion).
· $23,396 — Amount of each U.S. citizen’s share of the national debt as of October 12, 2003.
Again, if the current national debt really were $6.84 quadrillion (yes, quadrillion), that means the population of the United States would be 292 billion (yes, billion). That’s 46 times the entire world population of only 6.3 billion (yes, billion).
· #1 — This year’s deficit will be the biggest in U.S. history.
How many times are we going to have to hear this lie repeated? It’s only true — if you can call it that — if you don’t adjust for inflation, and if you don’t adjust for the size of the overall economy. According to OMB statistics, at only 2.8 percent of gross domestic product, current deficits are lower than they’ve been in 20 of the last 30 years. Even if we think in terms of the dollar value of deficits, adjusting them for inflation puts them lower now than in 7 of the last 21 years.
· 2.4 million — Number of Americans who lost their jobs during the first two and a half years of the Bush administration.
Lie. That’s just the decline in the number of big-business and government payrolls — not the number of people who lost their jobs. If you count the self-employed, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Labor, there are more people working (as of October) than at any time in U.S. history. And 168 thousand more people are working than when President Bush took office.
· #1 — The administration is well on its way to being the first since Herbert Hoover’s to preside over an overall loss of jobs during its complete term in office. For Bush to avoid this fate, the economy would have to create jobs over the next 13 months at a rate unprecedented outside of World War II.
Again, Carter is counting payrolls, not jobs. He probably doesn’t know the difference — any more than he knows the difference between a trillion and a quadrillion — but they are not the same thing. But let’s let that pass, and instead examine the frequently heard liberal lie that payrolls would have to grow at “a rate unprecedented” for there to be net payroll gains at the end of Bush’s first term.
First of all, starting with the September payroll loss of 2.4 million that Carter cites, Bush has 16 months to right the labor ship, not 13 (but hey, 16 … 13 … trillion … quadrillion … same difference). To add 2.4 million jobs in a civilian labor force that totals 146.5 million people, we need a job-creation rate of 1.65 percent. Is that “a rate unprecedented”? No — that’s another flat-out lie. Since January 1948 (when consistent records became available), there have been 654 overlapping 16-month periods. Of those, 423 — or 65 percent of the total — have seen job growth in excess of the required 1.65 percent.
In other words, it’s not only not “unprecedented” to have that kind of growth — it’s downright typical. And after the last couple of payroll reports from the Department of Labor, it looks like Bush is going to make it without breaking a sweat.
· #1 — Set record for biggest two-year point drop in the history of the stock market during the first half of a presidential term.
This may be technically true, but the way it is presented makes it essentially a lie. Point drops in the market are not comparable across periods of time, because the level of the market changes so much (so the importance of a point is always changing). The Dow Jones Industrial Average can easily move 100 points in a single day now — but when Franklin D. Roosevelt first took office in 1933, the level of the whole darn thing was only 60.9! What counts are percentage moves.
Yes, the Dow fell 26.0 percent in George W. Bush’s first two years, and that’s not good. But it’s not the worst (the worst was the first two years of Richard Nixon’s second term — partially shared with Gerald Ford — in which the Dow fell 29.6 percent). And the first two Bush years are not that far off from the first two years of FDR’s second term, when the market dropped 22.1 percent.
Carter is quick to compare President Bush’s current deficit numbers to those of the first President Bush, but he fails to mention whose first two years had the all-time best stock market performance: Ronald Reagan’s. In the first two years of his second term the market climbed 67.7 percent. The runners up are FDR’s first term with 67.0 percent, Eisenhower’s first term with 41.1 percent, and Truman’s first elected term with 38.9 percent. Clinton’s halcyon second term can only boast a tepid-by-comparison 37.4 percent.
· 1.6 — Percentage increase in economic growth since Bush took office, the slowest rate of increase over an equivalent period for any administration in 50 years.
Carter mangles his terms here: he means simply “economic growth,” not literally “increase in economic growth” (his cited number of 1.6 percent makes sense no other way). But even forgiving that lapse of technical terminology, his claim about that 1.6 percent rate is a flat-out lie. Growth has been lower than 1.6 percent over an equivalent period many times over the last 50 years, in administrations both Republican and Democratic. In fact growth was negative when Jimmy Carter handed the White House keys to Ronald Reagan in the first quarter of 1981.
Carter’s list goes on and on, covering every conceivable domain in which Bush can be seen as having done something Carter thinks is wrong, or failed to do something he thinks is right, all framed in this “Harper’s Index” pseudo-statistical style which is designed to give opinions the ring of fact. A lot of his editor’s letter centers on how rich everyone in the Bush administration is, but I can’t figure out why Carter is complaining about that. Somebody’s got to buy all the luxury goods — the Bulgari watches, the Guess leather, the Belvedere vodka, the Dior underwear — that are advertised in full-color in the pages surrounding Carter’s letter.
And of course, Carter offers a great deal about the war. A particular favorite:
· 0 — Number of trips taken to Afghanistan before waging war against that country.
· 0 — Number of trips to Iraq before waging war against that country.
Observers more charitable than Carter might want to cut President Bush some slack on this one. Taking a quick jaunt to Afghanistan in the days between 9/11 and the U.S. invasion might not have been the best use of his time.
And besides, there’s no tradition among American presidents of first visiting countries against whom a president later wages war. I’m hard pressed to think of a single example. Raymond Teichman, supervisory archivist at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., tells me that liberal icon FDR never set foot in Germany, Italy, or Japan before waging war on them. Well, FDR did visit Germany as a child. Teichman says, “It was fashionable in the post-Civil War period to go to Germany. His father took the waters at Baden-Baden.”
Carter, on the other hand, drinks the Kool-Aid. As both editor and columnist, he gets to make up reality in the little Jonestown that is Vanity Fair. Consider these representative lines from the adoring letters about himself that he chose to publish this month:
Thank you, Graydon Carter, for being brave enough to tell the truth about this dangerous administration … Those of us who have no money and no influence feel intimidated and don’t speak out against the Bush regime.
* * *
In my small East Texas community, we have started a political group which is growing daily. We meet once a month, and the first thing I do is read the editorial by Mr. Carter.
Carter’s flirtation with Bush-bashing may be comically incompetent and self-aggrandizing, but it’s not without wider meaning. Carter is a reliable compass that always points true north in the realm of celebrity culture. For this poseur to be striking this particular pose tells us that visceral loathing of the Bush administration in the media is a wave that has yet to crest. I’ll feel a lot more comfortable when Carter goes back to what he’s really good at — analyzing such things as the deep cultural significance of Madonna kissing Britney Spears.