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Peggy Noonan’s World

September 13, 2020 (1,136 words)

The toughest part of being a name-brand commentator who gets published in the prestige press on a regular, weekly basis is that it can be hard to come up with worthwhile subject matter every single week.

Even when a kernel of an idea does present itself, the difficulty lies in fleshing things out properly on a deadline.

The careful reader can tell when a best-laid plan goes awry. The title of a column may be catchy. The opening sentence or two may draw you in. There may even be a musical phrase somewhere in there that especially resonates. But as you read on you realize this week’s installment is not really coming together or taking off as perhaps the author would have liked.

This is an occupational hazard that can happen to the best of them. To paraphrase Truman Capote’s famous critique of the old Jack Kerouac book On the Road, sometimes our favorite columnists are “writing,” and sometimes they’re “just typing.”

While it’s not my habit to check out the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal every single Saturday, when I do Peggy Noonan’s prominent above-the-fold missive on the Op-Ed page is always a must-read.

Like the rest of her audience, i enjoy the way she cleverly manages to tease out the tenor of the times, and how she goes about her business with such a generous spirt. But occasionally her strokes are a bit too broad. Take for instance today, when she writes:

“America has now been battered by waves of distress. Summer is becoming fall and there’s little sign people want to remake everything in a progressive direction. They want stability, not a cultural and economic revolution, which many of the Democratic candidates seemed to imply they’d be open to, even support. They want the economy to come back. They don’t want looting in the streets; they feel they have already been looted, by history”

Here Ms. Noonan is pitch-perfect about the waves of distress, the desire for stability, and a longing for the economy to come back. But as to her claim “there’s little sign people want to remake everything in a progressive direction,” well, that would depend on what is meant by “everything” and “progressive.”

Then let’s hone in specifically on Noonan’s contention the public has little taste at this time for “cultural and economic revolution.” One could say the dreaded cultural revolution has already occurred, to the chagrin of many. The only thing really up for debate is whether an economic revolution is warranted.

But I would like to avoid using the word “revolution” in this context, simply because it unnecessarily excites some folks and worries others. Better to plug in a word less fraught with emotion, such as “reform.”

In fact I would also suggest we rethink discussing potential economic adjustments as being in a “progressive direction.” In the present context, “progressive” is too easily misconstrued as being synonymous with “socialist,” and we all know the immediate tar and feathering a nefarious word like “socialist” comes in for.

Linguistic shorthand such as “progressive direction” or “economic revolution” can be helpful when trying to communicate. It can save time and bring the discussion to the crux of a matter more quickly. But such shorthand can also work against having a serious discussion.

It can encourage the listener/reader to fall back on familiar, pre-established positions, and continue assuming he or she already knows all about what’s being presented for consideration.

No need to really pay attention to what’s being written or said. When this phenomenon kicks in, even the most detailed dissertation becomes little more than a sensation that washes over us, making us feel either content or disgruntled.

Therefore in many cases it would be better to avoid the linguistic shorthand altogether. This would force the listener/reader to actually think the issue under discussion through to a more logical and rational conclusion. Avoiding linguistic shorthand might have the same positive effect on the writer/speaker, as well.

Peggy Noonan’s take on there not being much of an appetite for systemic economic change is not necessarily off the mark. She speaks for a segment of the population who mainly yearns for the pre-pandemic status quo. These are the people she makes a point to rub elbows with on a regular basis. And these are the ones who naturally share her own well-established ideological preferences.

But there is another America apart from the one Ms. Noonan is able to personally interact with and deftly portray. To get a feel for that America one has to refer to the work of some of our other fine journalists. Consider the notable economist Paul Krugman, for example, whose opinions can be found in the New York Times.

Mr. Krugman is fond of reminding us that while the stock market may be doing well, even now during the pandemic, it’s not representative of the economy that most people experience. Just the other day he pointed out that more than half of all stocks are owned by 1% of the population. The bottom half of the population owns only 0.7% of the market.

As any wily pollster can tell you, the answer you get on a survey depends on how you phrase the question. A majority of people may recoil from the idea of having an abortion, but that same majority does not want to interfere with a woman making medical decisions about her own body.

In a similar way, a distinct majority have come to realize in their bones there is something fundamentally wrong with the winner-take-all form of casino capitalism that has come to dominant our society over the last fifty or sixty years. Much of that majority has also become frustrated with our current medical system and is willing to consider alternatives.

If you suggest taxing the largest (monopoly) fortunes, breaking up the big banks, and legislating against the more predatory aspect of private equity behavior, lots of regular, middle-of-the-road people will express support.

But when Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes to the stump and pounds the podium to advocate on behalf of such issues, it turns off those same, previously receptive individuals. In this case I would say certain folks are shooting the messenger without paying proper attention to the message.

The fine, upstanding people who populate Peggy Noonan’s World and celebrate her perspective are the ones who hold the most valuable cards at this important table. The “haves” need to admit the “have nots” aren’t being treated equitably, and must prepare themselves to try and do something about it.

Our basic rules of economic engagement are due for a major re-write. That was the sentiment rumbling across the country when the pandemic hit. And it will be waiting there to greet us once this pandemic finally passes through.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
September 13, 2020

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