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OUR OWN PRIVATE EGYPT! Why are we the people so clueless? Limbaugh—and others—all help: // link // print // previous // next //

Jay Mathews, for those who hate novels: Unheard of! Darlings, it just isn’t done!

Last Friday, at his Washington Post blog, education writer Jay Mathews broke every known rule in the book! Citing the recent work of an actual expert, Mathews described a pillar of America’s education debate—and noted that this hoary old groaner is just flat-out wrong.

Were American students once number one in the world? Sorry, but no, Mathews said:

MATHEWS (2/11/11): The myth of declining U.S. schools: They've long been mediocre

"U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math," Newsweek reported in September. I hear that a lot. Politicians and business leaders often bemoan the decline of American education compared to the rest of the world. We are doomed, they say, unless we [fill in here the latest plan to save the country.]

So I was surprised to find, in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.

Duh. America was never “number one in the world” when it comes to these types of assessments. In his report (click here, then click again), Loveless notes that the first major international student testing was conducted in 1964. That study assessed 13-year-old students in twelve different countries. And sorry! After the testing was done, here’s how the twelve countries ranked:

Ranking of Countries in the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS), 1964
United States

Our students outscored Sweden—that was it. (As you may recall, Swedish parents were in a major funk at the time due to those damn Bergman movies!)

There’s much more to Mathews’ post, and to Loveless’ report. But does this information actually matter? Only if you want a discourse which isn’t built around novelized tales—novels created by powerful interests to serve their needs and their fatuous preferences. Everyone from Obama on down has been spreading that silly notion around—the claim that our kids were once first in the world, and that we have been slipping somehow. (It must be the teachers unions!) Powerful policy judgments are built from this claim—a claim which is clownishly wrong.

Obama should be ashamed of himself—but so should the whole mainstream press corps. For some reason, this is a pleasing, novelized tale—a pleasing tale which is bogus.

People! Jay Mathews broke every rule in the book when he offered this outrageous post. When the elites agree on a novelized tale, you’re not supposed to debunk it! That said: Tomorrow, we’ll start to explore a few recent posts where we wish Jay had done a bit better.

Your nation’s clownish public discourse is built around many such novelized tales. One such tale involves Michelle Rhee—and, in very revealing ways, it’s back in the eye of the storm.

Special report: Who are the people!

PART 4—OUR OWN PRIVATE EGYPT (permalink): Will Egypt build a real democracy? At this point, there’s no way to tell.

But here in the vaunted United States, we the people have no real democracy ourselves! Paul Krugman sketches part of the problem—though only part—in today’s New York Times column.

Every eighth-grade civics text will tell you—you can’t have a real democracy without a well-informed public. But plainly, we don’t have any such critter here in our own private Egypt. For our taste, Krugman’s framework is a bit too snarky in this passage. But in this passage, he describes a long-standing American problem:

KRUGMAN (2/14/11): The key point to understand is that while many voters say that they want lower spending, press the issue a bit further and it turns out that they only want to cut spending on other people.

That’s the lesson from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, in which Americans were asked whether they favored higher or lower spending in a variety of areas. It turns out that they want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. They’re evenly divided about spending on aid to the unemployed and—surprise—defense.

The only thing they clearly want to cut is foreign aid, which most Americans believe, wrongly, accounts for a large share of the federal budget.

We Americans say we want lower spending—but we have no real idea what the federal government spends its money on! And this has been true for a very long time, as endless surveys have shown. In this passage, Krugman starts to explain why we the people are so infernally clueless, here in our own private gong-show:

KRUGMAN: How can voters be so ill informed? In their defense, bear in mind that they have jobs, children to raise, parents to take care of. They don’t have the time or the incentive to study the federal budget, let alone state budgets (which are by and large incomprehensible). So they rely on what they hear from seemingly authoritative figures.

And what they’ve been hearing ever since Ronald Reagan is that their hard-earned dollars are going to waste, paying for vast armies of useless bureaucrats (payroll is only 5 percent of federal spending) and welfare queens driving Cadillacs. How can we expect voters to appreciate fiscal reality when politicians consistently misrepresent that reality?

“How can voters be so ill informed?” Throughout this column, Krugman points to the disinformation which comes from “politicians”—especially conservative pols. This is part of the explanation for the public’s ignorance, of course. But many other major sectors have helped create this, our own private Egypt.

Consider a remarkable event from just a few weeks ago—an event which has been widely discussed, by only by liberal writers.

Hay-yo! Mike Stark, a liberal activist, somehow got through on the telephone line to speak to El Rushbo, Rush Limbaugh. Operating from a slightly muddled basic framework, Stark challenged some of the basic ways Ronald Reagan is described by conservatives. This is the way the chat began. For the full transcript and tape, just click here:

STARK (2/4/11): Hi, Rush. I, um—I’m calling because— Well, first of all, I’m a liberal, and I seriously don’t understand this, uh, Reagan idolatry on behalf of conservatives. I’ll get, I’ll give you my reasons. Instead of privatizing Social Security, he raised taxes. We’re all paying higher taxes today out of our paychecks every single week because he decided to save Social Security. He–

LIMBAUGH: Wait, wait. Hold it. I need to go— Wait! Jeez.

STARK: --the Greenspan Commission. He signed it into law, and it raised taxes on Social Security.

LIMBAUGH: What— Wait, you’re talking about Reagan or Clinton?

STARK: I’m talking about Reagan. Reagan did that. He raised taxes on Social Security.

“Reagan raised taxes on Social Security,” Stark accurately said. He did this through “the Greenspan commission,” whose proposals he “signed into law.” As a matter of basic American history, these statements are about as controversial as saying that Reagan was governor of California, or that his wife was named Nancy. But Limbaugh, a very important broadcaster, quickly began deceiving his listeners, the vast bulk of whom are American citizens and registered voters.

Moments later, still speaking with Stark, Limbaugh was handing them this:

LIMBAUGH: Where did you get this silly notion that Reagan raised taxes on Social Security? What websites do you read? Where did you pick that up?

STARK: Look up the Greenspan Commission. It’s not too hard to find. I mean, it’s a matter of history.

LIMBAUGH: Where did you get it? I mean, you’re asking me questions. I’m just reversing one on you here.

STARK: I’m sorry. It’s just general knowledge. It’s something I’ve known for a long time. I can’t remember where I got it from.

LIMBAUGH: You can’t remember? You’ve never heard of a website called Media Matters which highlighted it yesterday?

STARK: Oh, no. I know Media Matters very well but that’s not where I got it.

LIMBAUGH: Oh, not where you got it. It’s an amazing coincidence.

“Where did you get this silly notion that Reagan raised taxes on Social Security?” Having asked this remarkable question, Limbaugh instantly shifted ground, getting Stark to discuss a demonized web site, Media Matters.

Eventually, Limbaugh backtracked from that remarkable opening statement. Stark was no longer on the line when Limbaugh offered this silly, fleeting account of Reagan’s actions on Social Security:

LIMBAUGH: Reagan was forced to raise payroll taxes by a crisis in Social Security in 1983. He endorsed that rescue plan that was written by Alan Greenspan. It was reluctant. He was not a big supporter of that. Remember, Reagan did not have a congressional majority with him.

“Reagan was forced to raise payroll taxes,” Limbaugh now said, acknowledging the accuracy of the statement he had first called a “silly notion.” He didn’t even attempt to explain why he said Reagan was “forced” to do this—but this claim was basically nonsense too. (To read President Reagan’s effusive remarks at the 1983 bill-signing ceremony, see below.) And alas! This fleeting admission came late in a monologue about how people like Stark can’t be reasoned with! Limbaugh, to the now-absent Stark: “Your call is actually kinda interesting because you represent the impossibility of bridging the gap. Somebody like you just has to be defeated. There’s no crossing the aisle and finding common ground with you.”

Limbaugh isn’t a politician—he’s a very important national broadcaster with an extremely large audience. On a daily basis, he deceives millions of voters in just the way he did here. Why do people continue to trust him, in the way described by conservative writer Conor Friedersdorf a few weeks ago? In part, to borrow Friedersdorf’s language, because “they don't realize that [the nation’s radio stations] puts this man on the air fully understanding that large parts of his program are uninformed nonsense mixed with brazen bullshit” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/11).

Friedersdorf was explaining why voters trust Glenn Beck—but his explanation extends to Limbaugh. That said, why don’t voters know or understand that Limbaugh is constantly deceiving them? In large part, this is the fault of other major sectors—including the mainstream press and the bulk of the “liberal” world.

Limbaugh’s statements to Stark were truly remarkable. He started by denouncing an obvious statement of fact as a “silly notion.” Later, he fleetingly backtracked, while presenting a blatantly silly notion of his own—the idea that Reagan was somehow “forced” to sign that 1983 Social Security measure. At a time when the nation is struggling hard to find solutions to budget problems, it’s news when a major figure like Limbaugh presents such nonsense to millions of voters. That’s especially true in the face of what Krugman notes today—in the face of the fact that the public has no earthly idea how the federal budget actually works.

An eighth-grade civics text can tell you—a democracy simply can’t function this way! But down through the years, the nation’s mainstream press organs have given wide berth to frauds like Limbaugh. And these same mainstream organs are very reluctant to report and discuss the facts touched on in Krugman’s piece—to report the fact that we the people are cluelesss about our own government. Meanwhile, the weak-willed boys and girls of our “liberal journals” have sat on the sidelines politely observing. Can you name the liberal journal which has ever criticized the mainstream press corps for its determined silence on these matters?

Can we talk? Limbaugh operates within a consensual code of silence agreed to by all major sectors. That helps explain how we’ve come to live in our own private laughable gong-show.

In a rational world, what would liberal and progressive entities do to tackle these various problems? Several suggestions:

First, we would look for ways to tell the public that they’re being disinformed. To state the obvious, this can’t be done in the clownish manner adopted by public clowns like Keith Olbermann. Progressives have to find ways to gain the trust of the broad range of average voters. This idea never occurs to most major “liberals,” a point we’ll discuss tomorrow as we look at some recent blog posts.

Second, we would insist that major mainstream organs discuss these matters as news. In a democracy, it’s news when the public doesn’t know squat from squadoodle about basic budget matters; it ought to widely reported as such. It’s news when people like Limbaugh conduct such clownish discussions.

How might progressive organs gain the trust of a wide range of voters? Of one thing you can be certain—you will never be asked to consider such questions on the pseudo-liberal web. We pseudo-liberals have turned out to be little better than the ditto-heads we’ve always mocked.

We live to mock The Other Tribe. One result? Our own private gong-show.

“Democracy” is just a word in this country, so clownish is our public discourse. By now, much of the clowning comes from our own side. Tomorrow, a further note on this incomparable post.

A chance to see Reagan forced and reluctant: Was President Reagan “forced” to sign that 1983 bill—the one in which payroll taxes were raised? Was he “reluctant” to sign such a measure?

That’s what Limbaugh told his listeners after he got Mike Stark off the line. He was deceiving his listeners again, as he so constantly does.

Below, you can read the full text of Reagan’s statement at the Rose Garden bill-signing ceremony. The bill was signed in April 20, though the weather was still a bit chilly:

PRESIDENT REAGAN (4/20/83): Well, I want to extend to all of you a very warm welcome. Something ought to be warm.


But it's especially fitting that so many of us from so many different backgrounds—young and old, the working and the retired, Democrat and Republican—should come together for the signing of this landmark legislation.

This bill demonstrates for all time our nation's ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have one pledge that they will get their fair share of benefits when they retire.

And this bill assures us of one more thing that is equally important. It's a clear and dramatic demonstration that our system can still work when men and women of good will join together to make it work.

Just a few months ago, there was legitimate alarm that Social Security would soon run out of money. On both sides of the political aisle, there were dark suspicions that opponents from the other party were more interested in playing politics than in solving the problem. But in the eleventh hour, a distinguished bipartisan commission appointed by House Speaker O'Neill, by Senate Majority Leader Baker, and by me, began to find a solution that could be enacted into law.

Political leaders of both parties set aside their passions and joined in that search. The result of these labors in the commission and the Congress are now before us, ready to be signed into law, a monument to the spirit of compassion and commitment that unites us as a people.

Today, all of us can look each other square in the eye and say, “We kept our promises.” We promised that we would protect the financial integrity of Social Security. We have. We promised that we would protect beneficiaries against any loss in current benefits. We have. And we promised to attend to the needs of those still working, not only those Americans nearing retirement but young people just entering the labor force. And we've done that, too.

None of us here today would pretend that this bill is perfect. Each of us had to compromise one way or another. But the essence of bipartisanship is to give up a little in order to get a lot. And, my fellow Americans, I think we've gotten a very great deal.

A tumultuous debate about Social Security has raged for more than two decades in this country, but there has been one point that has won universal agreement: The Social Security system must be preserved. And rescuing the system has meant reexamining its original intent, purposes, and practical limits.

The amendments embodied in this legislation recognize that Social Security cannot do as much for us as we might have hoped when the trust funds were overflowing. Time and again, benefits were increased far beyond the taxes and wages that were supposed to support them. In this compromise, we have struck the best possible balance between the taxes we pay and the benefits paid back. Any more in taxes would be an unfair burden on working Americans and could seriously weaken our economy. Any less would threaten the commitment already made to this generation of retirees and to their children.

We're entering an age when average Americans will live longer and live more productive lives. And these amendments adjust to that progress. The changes in this legislation will allow Social Security to age as gracefully as all of us hope to do ourselves, without becoming an overwhelming burden on generations still to come.

So today we see an issue that once divided and frightened so many people now uniting us. Our elderly need no longer fear that the checks they depend on will be stopped or reduced. These amendments protect them. Americans of middle age need no longer worry whether their career-long investment will pay off. These amendments guarantee it. And younger people can feel confident that Social Security will still be around when they need it to cushion their retirement.

These amendments reaffirm the commitment of our government to the performance and stability of Social Security. It was nearly 50 years ago when, under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American people reached a great turning point, setting up the Social Security system. FDR spoke then of an era of startling industrial changes that tended more and more to make life insecure. It was his belief that the system can furnish only a base upon which each one of our citizens may build his individual security through his own individual efforts. Today, we reaffirm Franklin Roosevelt's commitment that Social Security must always provide a secure and stable base so that older Americans may live in dignity.

And now before I sign this legislation, may I pause for a moment and recognize just a few of the people here who've done so much to make this moment possible. There are so many deserving people here today—leaders of the Congress, all members of the Ways and Means and Finance Committees, and members of the Commission, up in front here, but it would be impossible to recognize them all. But, first, can I ask Alan Greenspan and members of the Commission—I was going to say to stand—


But there are others that are also standing here—but the other members of the commission to stand so that we can recognize them. Thank you. And their chairman, Alan Greenspan.

And, now, as a special treat, I would like to ask two of our leaders from Congress—first to step forward for a few words, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Honorable Tip O'Neill.


And, now, the Majority Leader of the Senate, Senator Howard Baker.


Thank you, gentlemen. And thank all of you for being with us today.

I know some of you've come long distances just to participate in this ceremony. We have shared an historic moment, for in signing these amendments into law, we've restored some much needed security to an uncertain world.

And I am now going over and sign, and as you can notice how cold it is, twelve pens there; they're too cold—they can only sign one letter, each pen.


If my name came out to 13 letters, I would have misspelled it.

It is signed.

Reagan even provided “a special treat”—statements by O’Neill and Baker!

Was Reagan “reluctant” to sign that bill? Or was Limbaugh deceiving his listeners again, creating our own private Egypt?