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NO THEY CAN’T! How much pork is in that bill? “Some,” the Post has now said: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2009

Mufson has heard: Once in a while, the cohort surprises. So let’s give credit to the Post’s Steven Mufson for offering this 1600-word analysis of the effectiveness of the New Deal. Mufson’s piece appeared yesterday, on page one of the Post’s Business section.

We’re not experts on such matters; there may be shortcomings in Mufson’s analysis of which we’re unaware. Readers, nothing is perfect! But Mufson surprised us with his detailed critique of a major claim—a claim which has been driving the public discussion. More often, big journalists seem to be living on Mars; they seem to take pride in avoiding the debates which are actually driving the discourse. Rush and Drudge say something—and millions believe them. Inside their palaces, journos take pride in acting like they haven’t heard.

Claims have been widespread about the New Deal. At the Post, Mufson has heard.

NO THEY CAN’T: The Beltway press corps doesn’t do policy. So Eric Boehlert.notes in this post; he then links to this new study concerning the role of economists in TV discussions of the stimulus package. We recommend that you review that study, but let’s go straight to the barrel’s bottom: So far, Hardball has featured 46 guests in discussions of the stimulus package. Only one of the 46 guests was an economist, this new study says.

Hardball has featured one economist! And that “economist” was Dick Armey, who ought to be famous for having said, in his unintentionally comical book, The Flat Tax, that the flat tax is progressive. (It was number two in his list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Is the flat tax progressive? Sure it is.”) But then, we all have lived, for at least twenty years, in a gong show wrapped in a mystery, inside a hall of mirrors. We think that new study from Media Matters helps show where we all live.

Pseudo-discussion occurs each night; we saw this again last evening when a passenger plane crashed in Buffalo. On cable, all other discussion was wiped rom the map. That circumstance continued this morning, and the reason for it is clear: No other discussion had been occurring; it had all been pseudo, right from the start. As soon as pictures of flames could be shown, other discussions were dropped, like a rock. Grateful pundits launched a new pseudo-discussion. But this one, at least, came with pictures.

Boehlert’s new study concerns TV. But let’s be frank—your most famous American newspapers aren’t up to discussions of policy either. Just consider the groaning report by Dan Eggen in today’s Post.

Eggen’s piece bears an intriguing headline: “Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork.” As every sentient human must know, that headline reflects a ubiquitous talking-point, one which has driven discussion of the stimulus package over the past several weeks. Is the stimulus package a big Christmas tree, laden with ornaments made out of lard? Republicans have persistently made this claim. But to date, this ubiquitous claim has met with little scrutiny inside the press corps. The Beltway press corps doesn’t do policy, just as Boehlert says.

Today, the Post has offered a news report which directly addresses this central assertion! And in the process, the Post has shown that it too is part of a hapless elite—a low-grade journalistic elite which is simply too dumb to do policy.

How weak is Eggen’s effort? Again, let’s consider that eye-catching headline. “Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork,” it says—and yet, the word ”some” is quite vague. Presumably, this could have become the day when the Post performed a basic service; this could have been the day when Republican critics were asked to quantify this central complaint. How much of the package do they claim to be pork? Might we even imagine the use of some numbers? Not in the world of your D-plus elite! Here’s what happens when Eggen cites this Republican complaint, complete with Democratic rebuttals. Go ahead! Try to spot a single number anywhere in this mess:

EGGEN (2/13/09): But many Republicans, anti-tax advocates and other critics argue that the final version of the bill is still larded with wasteful spending and dubious initiatives that will do little to create jobs or spur financial markets. The legislation's sheer size and complexity set off a lobbying spectacle over the past few weeks, as diverse interests including pharmaceutical companies, cement firms and manufacturers of energy-saving light bulbs converged on Washington to elbow for their share.

"You have a moving vehicle, and people are trying to pile on and influence it in any way they can," said David Merritt, a health policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) who is now a project director with Newt Gingrich's Center for Health Transformation.

Stimulus advocates say the GOP complaints are overheated and generally focus on projects that Republicans dislike for ideological reasons. Chad Stone, chief economist at the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, defended the bill. "The overwhelming bulk of what is in the package is effective and well-designed stimulus," he said.

According to Eggen, many Republicans say the bill “is still larded with wasteful spending.” But he asks no one to offer a guess as to what percentage of the bill is so larded, and he simply quotes the bill’s defenders calling this complaint “overheated.” Stone at least is quoted saying that “the overwhelming bulk” of the spending in the package is sound. But even after all these weeks, it doesn’t occur to the gang at the Post that statements this vague lack almost all meaning—or that the bill’s attackers should be asked to offer some sort of list (with a total price tag) of the provisions they say are just “lard.” But then, people like Eggen aren’t real good with numbers. Look what happens at the start of the piece, when he gives examples of the types of provisions with which he’s concerned. While you’re at it, note the utterly ridiculous opening premise:

EGGENS (paragraph 1): The compromise stimulus bill adopted by House and Senate negotiators this week is not free of spending that benefits specific communities, industries or groups, despite vows by President Obama that the legislation would be kept clear of pet projects, according to lawmakers, legislative aides and anti-tax groups.

The deal provides $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, for example, including money that could benefit a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leaders Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The 311-mph train could make the trip from Sin City to Tomorrowland in less than two hours, according to backers.

A new alliance of battery companies won $2 billion in grants and loans in the stimulus package to jump-start the domestic lithium ion industry. Filipino veterans, most of whom do not live in the United States, will get $200 million in long-awaited compensation for service in World War II.

The nation's small shipyards also made out well, with $100 million in grant money—a tenfold increase in funding from last year, when the federal Maritime Administration launched the program to benefit yards in places such as Ketchikan, Alaska, and Bayou La Batre, Ala.

How much “pork” exists in this bill? Judging from this puzzling effort, a person might think there can’t be much. Good grief! By paragraph 4, Eggen and his editors are reduced to citing a provision concerning small shipyards—a provision which constitutes roughly one eight-thousandth of the bill’s total cost. Beyond that, they make no attempt to explain why this provision should be regarded as “pork,” the blood-stirring word which tops this report. Whose “pet project” is this provision? What is supposed to be wrong with the project? Quite literally, no attempt is made to answer these questions. But then, note Eggen’s opening premise—a premise which gets transformed in the Post’s unfortunate headline. According to Eggen, this week’s compromise bill “is not free of spending that benefits specific communities, industries or groups.” The reader is left to imagine what sort of bill could be free of such provisions.

Again: By paragraph 4, Eggen is citing a provision which represents one-eight thousandth of this bill’s total cost. (That’s roughly 0.013 percent.) How much “pork” could be in this bill? It doesn’t seem to occur to Eggen that his “evidence” suggests an answer: Not much!

“Despite Pledges, Package Has Some Pork,” the Post headline pathetically cries. But “some” is an extremely vague word, and even now, at this late date, it doesn’t seem to occur to the Post that critics of the bill—or major reporters—might be expected to make an attempt at quantifying so widespread and central a claim. Even now, at this late date, after weeks of complaints from the bill’s defenders, Eggen doesn’t seem to have asked Republican critics to attempt some sort of quantification. There is some pork, the headline cries. This leads to a sad conclusion:

This is a very dumb piece of work. It’s the type of work which is routinely done by an exceptionally dumb “journalistic” cohort—a cohort which doesn’t do policy.

It’s rude in our culture to say such things. But Chris Matthews is paid $5 million per year—and on cable, he has offered the world’s dumbest discourse. Today, the Post tries to go him one better.

How much pork can be found in that bill? “Some,” the Washington Post has now said. The Post is our most important political newspaper. In a world run by such hapless elites, can a nation survive?

Still coming: Yes, we plan to finish our special report, the one called “Snorter McWhorter” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/09). We’ve postponed Part 4 each day this week. Let’s plan to go there on Monday.