Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wonky Awards disappoint

By Frank Moraes

Wonk Blog presented their second annual Wonky Awards on Friday. I like the idea of it. I appreciate policy wonks a great deal. And I heartily agree with many of the awards. But others? In particular, the top two awards are ridiculous.

First let's look at some of the well picked awards. They named The Tax Policy Center "Think Tank of the Year." The TPC does a lot of good work, but they were particularly important this year because they showed that Romney's tax plan was bunk. There were just not enough loopholes in the tax code to pay for his $5 trillion tax cut and extra $2 trillion military spending.


Wonk Blog also named It's Even Worse Than It Looks as "Book of the Year." This is welcome because—What a surprise!—the book has received very little attention because it doesn't pretend that the problems in Washington are equally the fault of the Democrats and Republicans. Wonk Blog also gives some much needed attention to software patents, even though the entire intellectual property system is broken.



Perhaps the best award was, "Graph of the Year." For this, they presented the inflation-adjusted interest rate on long-term US treasury bonds. They could have used this last year, but it is particularly interesting this year. For the second half of 2012, investors have been paying the federal government to hold on to their money. Yet all we hear about is how debt is killing us. Amazing.





Many of the awards are just silly. What, for example, is "Rising Star Central Banker of the Year"? Or: "Most Confusing Policy Metaphor of the Year"? And perhaps worst of all: "Most Unfortunate YouTube Video Including a Figure From the Policy World"? I seriously doubt that we will see these next year. We certainly didn't see them last year. Of course, there are at least two awards that were repeated that were similarly silly, at least regarding their winners this year. The first was "Most Worthwhile Canadian Initiative," which is inexplicably not an initiative but a man. Second was "Least Worthwhile Canadian Initiative," which was the NHL lockout. But at least the gang at Wonk Blog is trying.

And now we get to the major awards. The second worst award this year was "Policymaker of the Year." This was awarded to ECB head Mario Draghi. I will admit that Draghi has done a much better job than Jean-Claude Trichet. But policymaker of the year? I don't think so. The ECB is still doing the bare minimum required. The main difference now is that even more needs to be done. And I fully expect that in the next year there will be another crisis that will require yet another patch.

But by far the worst award this year wasn't even on offer last year: "Wonk of the Year." And the award goes to—Wait for it!—Grover Norquist. I think the folks at Wonk Blog know they are on thin ice here, because they start the discussion of this award by defining "wonk":
The definition of a "wonk" is "a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field." But those details and procedures don't always stay arcane. Sometimes, the odd, obsessive work a wonk has been doing for decades becomes very, very public.

But this is not what Norquist does. He may be preoccupied with taxes, but not the details. A wonk doesn't decide that all taxes are bad. That is the decision of an ideologue. And that makes Norquist the opposite of a wonk: he isn't interested in the data or the facts; he just wants to cut taxes because he wants to destroy the government, "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Apart of this, I would think that Norquist would have been tossed out of contention for "Wonk of the Year" due to his very public repudiation of his absolutist tax pledge. Especially after it turned out that some members of the House were even more serious about it than he is. But instead, Wonk Blog just glosses over this epic failure by claiming, "Republicans are beginning to defect from Norquist's pledge, but by setting the terms of the debate around such an extreme anti-tax position, Norquist is winning even as he's losing."

Look: I understand how this stuff works. Most of the Wonky awards were already set before Norquist recanted and came to be seen as the paper tiger he always was. But Wonk Blog could have thrown the whole category out—as I said, it didn't exist last year. Or they could have given it to any number of real wonks. I suspect they kept it in just to get some attention. After all, "Wonk of the Year" is the first thing in the article. Also: I wouldn't have written about this if Norquist hadn't been in the list. Still, it looks like they failed; mostly, no one seems to really care about this bit of traffic trolling. If people are bothered by any award, it seems to be Mario Draghi winning "Policymaker of the Year."

If Wonk Blog wants to make these awards a real thing, they need to be smarter about it. They ought to pick 5-7 standard awards and give them out each year. And they need to be serious about it and not give out awards to people like Norquist and the NHL. The only real use of such awards is to get really wonky. And they certainly didn't succeed at that this year.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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