Daily Howler logo
AS THE NEWS TURNS! As George Will set a new fact in stone, Ron Brownstein pimped Senator Ryan: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2010

Krugman speaks, following Ezra: This morning, Paul Krugman presents his view about projected levels of deficit/debt. We’re not saying he’s right on every nuance, though for all we know, he may be. But we strongly recommend that you study his column—this observation, for example:

KRUGMAN (2/5/10): Let’s talk for a moment about budget reality. Contrary to what you often hear, the large deficit the federal government is running right now isn’t the result of runaway spending growth. Instead, well more than half of the deficit was caused by the ongoing economic crisis, which has led to a plunge in tax receipts, required federal bailouts of financial institutions, and been met—appropriately—with temporary measures to stimulate growth and support employment.

Where have our current (mammoth) deficits come from? Others have (quite occasionally) tried to explain that matter along the way, though such explanations rarely dent the deeply unintelligent discussions conducted each evening on cable. Nor do our biggest national newspapers make real attempts to lay out such matters. At one point, Krugman puts it like this:

KRUGMAN: To me—and I’m not alone in this—the sudden outbreak of deficit hysteria brings back memories of the groupthink that took hold during the run-up to the Iraq war. Now, as then, dubious allegations, not backed by hard evidence, are being reported as if they have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, as then, much of the political and media establishments have bought into the notion that we must take drastic action quickly, even though there hasn’t been any new information to justify this sudden urgency. Now, as then, those who challenge the prevailing narrative, no matter how strong their case and no matter how solid their background, are being marginalized.

That “media establishment” is highly Potemkin. The following claim remains counterintuitive: At the present time, our media establishment tends to be extremely unintelligent. In Krugman’s presentation, its members rush to affirm “dubious allegations, not backed by hard evidence.” And yet, they hold great power.

That said, we’ll recommend Ezra Klein’s column from last Sunday’s Washington Post. In this column, Klein discussed the difficulty Obama had in the past year in explaining two “very important economic arguments.” In particular, “the stimulus proved almost impossible to explain,” Ezra said.

We would ask a simple question: Why was that so hard?

This morning, Krugman describes a deeply unintelligent “media establishment”—an establishment devoted to hysterical, uninformed groupthink. Last Sunday, Ezra described a problem which partially tracks to the failures of this “elite.” We don’t agree with each tilt to Ezra’s piece. But he’s describing a profound problem—the profound lack of “intellectual capital” within our public debates.

We live in an exceptionally unintelligent political/journalistic culture—a culture in which a fool like Dowd gets handed our highest journalistic awards. Krugman and Klein have their hands on the same problem. More on this topic next week.

Special report: Dumb like us!

EPILOGUE—AS THE NEWS TURNS (permalink): This has been a very good week—if you enjoy observing the very bad way the “news” gets invented in our country. This includes the role played in this process by incompetent “liberal” “elites.”

Yesterday morning, in his nationally syndicated column, George Will nailed down our society’s latest new “fact.” Careful, rubes! And please note this: Will doesn’t assert that the new “fact” is true. In this, his column’s opening paragraph, he simply leaps to repeat it:

WILL (2/4/10): On Day One of his vow to take “meaningful steps to rein in our debt,” Barack Obama asked Congress to freeze portions of discretionary domestic spending. This would follow an astonishing permanent expansion: Republicans on the House Budget Committee say appropriations bills Obama has signed, along with his stimulus spending, have increased discretionary domestic spending 84 percent. He almost certainly will not keep his promise to veto spending bills when Congress, as it almost certainly will, largely disregards his request.

Will’s column appeared in the Washington Post, our most important political newspaper. But it also appeared (among other places) in the Biloxi Sun Herald, the Bismarck Tribune, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and the Sarasota Herald Tribune. And in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. It appeared in Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News, in New Jersey’s Gloucester County Times. The column even appeared in the Island Packet. (Hilton Head/Bluffton. Click here.)

But then, Wikipedia says that Will’s column appears in 450 newspapers. We’ll assume that number jumps around quite a bit. But whatever the number may currently be, it represents a lot of us rubes getting exposed to our country’s new “fact.”

Alas! Given the ubiquity of Will’s column, his presentation pretty much makes it a fact: Obama is freezing domestic discretionary spending—but only after increasing such spending by an “astonishing” 84 percent! Again, Will doesn’t say that this claim is true; he simply reports that Republicans have been “saying” it, as we noted in yesterday’s HOWLER. But surely, this new “fact” will never die, now that Will has advanced it. Indeed, here’s the way our country’s new “fact” got pimped on last evening’s Hannity program. Republican strategist Karen Hanretty moved the new “fact” along as part of a truly repulsive performance during the program’s panel discussion. Lanny Davis served as her foil, but there’s been quite a bit of that lately:

DAVIS (2/4/10): Excuse me, the Republicans voted against a bill that they were in favor of last year that would say we're going to cut the budget, both in spending, and we're going to do it in a—

HANRETTY: That's nonsense! Discretionary—discretionary spending increased 84 percent! An 84 percent discretionary spending increase since Barack Obama has been president.

HANNITY: That’s right!

Hanretty’s claim may even be technically accurate, given the limited way she expressed it. But in context, she was advancing the country’s new “fact.” Obama will freeze domestic spending—but only after increasing such spending by an astounding 84 percent!

But is that new fact actually accurate? On Tuesday, Peter Orszag said it wasn’t, and he even mentioned numbers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/10). But even today, using the Nexis archives, we can find no indication that any news org in the whole country has bothered to fact-check this shiny new claim, the claim which emerged from last Friday’s session between Obama and the House GOP. That includes our hapless “progressive news channel,” on whose air a second, more important new script got advanced last night. Ronald Brownstein chatted with the hapless Chris Matthews and advanced a New Standard Press Line:

BROWNSTEIN (2/4/10): Midterm elections—it is harder for the party in power to make it a “choice” election. That’s clearly what the Democrats want to do. They want to talk about Republican ideas. Paul Ryan, that very smart House Republican, put out a budget last week that talks about, again, replacing Medicare with a voucher for everybody under 55. That’s something the Democrats more than Republicans are likely to want to talk about in the fall.

Ryan is the guy who invented our newest fact, during last Friday’s session with Obama. By last night, Brownstein was letting us know that Ryan is “very smart.” But then, that’s pretty much what Matthews said last Friday night, on the utterly clown-worthy show where three millionaire “liberal” cheerleaders let us see how hapless and scripted they actually are. “That guy, Ryan, is pretty smart,” MSNBC’s primal idiot said. “I think he did ask a good question.”

Three hours earlier, clowning on Hardball, Matthews didn’t even seem to know who Paul Ryan was (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/1/10).

Just a guess: You’ll continue to see Paul Ryan cast in the role of the “very smart” fellow. This is not unlike the Group Process we liberals ignored in an earlier decade, a Group Process in which Candidate Bush got defined as “plain-spoken,” while Candidate Gore got defined as a delusional liar. Everyone recited those scripts; liberal leaders were too dumb—and/or too store-bought—to criticize, challenge or complain. Last night, Brownstein seemed to be mouthing a New Insider Script. And last week, Steven Hayes told us where it was going, speaking rather frankly on Fox. Paul Ryan is being pimped to take a Wisconsin senate seat, Hayes explained.

Brownstein’s comment could be a part of that film: Pimping Senator Ryan.

But is Paul Ryan “very smart?” Is he “extraordinarily knowledgeable,” the way they prefer to say it on Fox? More specifically, is his 84 percent allegation accurate—or is it just the latest pile of steaming invented sh*t? In an attempt to cipher that out, let’s look at what some major pundits have been saying on Fox about that freeze in discretionary spending.

Let’s start our search with Charles Krauthammer.

No one is more relentlessly negative about Obama than Charles is. On the other hand, Charles is actually technically smart; unlike many other pundits, he actually knows how to evaluate a factual assertion. Which is odd, because what follows is what Charles said last Friday night, when asked to evaluate the very smart Ryan’s new 84 percent claim.

Charles appeared on that evening’s Special Report. Host Bret Baier played tape of Ryan making his allegation, as he spoke to Obama that day. Asked to comment, Krauthammer said what follows. In the (probably bungled) Nexis transcript, his words are somewhat murky—but an earlier, clearer statement will follow:

KRAUTHAMMER (1/29/10): To stay still knee high in the weeds: If you include stimulus and you just include the appropriations for all the regular departments, which Obama now is saying is going to have a freeze that he, Obama instituted himself, in the case of 20 percent, which is much higher than you normally get. So he is, no matter what number you use, ratcheting up and freezing the spending of these departments at an extraordinarily high level.

Wonderful! No matter what number you use, Obama is “freezing the spending of these departments at an extraordinarily high level,” Charles rather fecklessly said. Unfortunately, the number the “very smart” Ryan had used was a very large one—84 percent! But uh-oh! All week long, Krauthammer had been telling Fox viewers that the actual number was twenty percent! Here he is, on the O’Reilly Factor, three days earlier. To watch this presentation, click here:

KRAUTHAMMER (1/26/10): What he's saying is, “I want to do a freeze on the regular departments.” But what he doesn't tell you is that last year, in their first year in office, when they had a free ride in spending, they ratcheted up the spending for all of these departments astronomically—an average over the last half of fiscal 2009 and all of fiscal 2010, an average of about 20 percent. Now, that's huge, because normally year over year you would increase a department's spending by 3 percent, 4 percent, especially with low inflation.

According to Charles, the relevant spending had bumped up by twenty percent. Indeed, Charles had said this same thing just two hours earlier, on that same evening’s Special Report:

KRAUTHAMMER (1/26/10): This isn't a real cut. It's an appearance of cuts. It's a maneuver as a response to what happened in Massachusetts because he lost the independents, Obama [sic], three to one, and he knows independents worry about debt and deficits and spending.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Sure.

KRAUTHAMMER: So he announces a freeze which is meaningless. Remember, these departments enjoyed a 20 percent increase in budget as a result of what Obama and the Democrats have done in 2009. So you are freezing it at an extraordinarily high and unusual time.

All week long, Fox viewers had been told it was twenty percent. When Ryan came along and said 84 percent, Charles affirmed the general claim, “no matter what number you use!” Too perfect! Too funny! But then, within our society’s Potemkin discourse, one number is always as good as another when you’re inventing a potent new narrative. Given the lack of push-back from liberal elites and/or from the mainstream “press corps,” you can pretty use the numbers you choose! That said, these are the numbers Karl Rove chose this Tuesday evening, on Hannity:

HANNITY (2/2/10): Do you see any moderating of this president or is it just rigid ideology to the very end even if he's “one-term Obama?”

ROVE: I think they think that they're showing ideological dexterity by emphasizing a spending freeze and by saying they're going to work on reducing the deficit. But realize, the American people are not dumb. They have increased discretionary domestic spending, by their own measure, from $530 billion of Bush's last full budget to $704 million by next year. And they're going to flat-line it there. They’ve given a huge increase in their discretionary spending. They're going to freeze it and then play around with these pockets of money they have in these various stimulus bills to top off the tank for any of the Democrat who needs it and think the American people somehow don't see that going on, but they do.

HANNITY: All right, Karl Rove, always appreciate you being on. Thank you.

In Rove’s numbers, the relevant spending had bumped up by roughly thirty percent—thirty percent, over a rather murky number of years.

Who says conservatives don’t support choice? On Fox, viewers get to choose from among an array of factual claims about the phony freeze. According to Charles, domestic discretionary spending was ratcheted up at an “astronomical” rate of twenty percent. According to Rove, there was a “huge increase”—an increase of roughly thirty percent, over some undisclosed number of years. And Paul Ryan, who is “very smart”/“extraordinarily knowledgeable,” says the jump is 84 percent! (As far as we know, he’s never been asked to say what years he’s talking about.) And when these numbers start to collide, everybody knows that they don’t have to notice! “No matter what number you use,” Charles explains, the story comes out the same way.

Too perfect!

(On last Friday’s Special Report, you may recall, Steven Hayes also failed to affirm Ryan’s 84 percent allegation. Like Charles, he simply vouched for Ryan’s “overall point”—though he then said the brilliant Ryan is standing in line to take a senate seat. After watching Brownstein recite, are you sure that isn’t correct?)

What’s the actual fact in all this? Within our Potemkin journalistic culture, it’s exceptionally hard to find out. Remember: According to OMB director Peter Orszag, domestic discretionary spending was a bit more than $400 billion in fiscal year 2008—and it’s a bit less than $450 billion in fiscal year 2010. The freeze will occur at that level, he says. At that level, such spending has increased maybe 10-12 percent over a span of two years (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/10).

That’s what Orszag says. But for the past several decades, our “political discourse” has run on two familiar fuels: It has run on Invented Group Facts, and on Invented Group Tales About Character. Here’s our new fact, in the wake of Will’s column: Obama plans to freeze domestic spending after bumping it up 84 percent. Here’s our new character tale, after Brownstein: Paul Ryan is very smart.

“The American people are not dumb,” Rove said. But we the people live within an exceptionally dumb journalistic/political culture. And remember: Now, as during the Clinton/Gore years, this process is enabled by our array of liberal baboons—by Keith and Rachel and Uncle Matthews, who can sit and clown for hours. In our view, our three cheerleaders played the fool for two hours last Friday night.

Gimme an O, these simpletons cried. One week later, as new narratives fly, can you see where their cheerleading got us?