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HOW HARDBALL’S LIKE LAUREL AND HARDY! The loud dumb fellow got it wrong. His pals were too timid to tell him: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 5, 2009

How Hardball’s like Laurel and Hardy: On Monday, ABC News had no idea how marginal tax rates actually work (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/4/09). Last night, Chris Matthews loudly ran off the rails concerning those troubling “earmarks.”

The excitable host conducted his chat with pundits Heileman and Cillizza. Before we see what Matthews said, let’s review the basic facts: The federal spending bill in question totals $410 billion. Of that, the “earmarks” total $7.7 billion. The “earmarks” thus comprise less than 1.9 percent of the total package. (Beyond that, we’ve seen no one try to explain why these provisions are “wasteful.”)

The guest pundits did make several attempts to calm Matthews as he thundered about all the “pork” and “crap” in the bill. But as usual, his thunder about Obama’s failure to deal with this “pork-barrel spending” prevailed. By the way: How well did Matthews know his facts? Eventually, it came to this. We use the Nexis transcript:

HEILEMANN (3/4/09): Well, look, but, Chris, this is, this is—this stuff is such small potatoes compared to the stuff that is on the president’s agenda to actually—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: More than—

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: —410 billion dollars!

HEILEMANN: —to actually fix the economy.

MATTHEWS: Four hundred and 10 billion dollars!

HEILEMANN: That’s, that’s—that’s half of the original TARP, as you know, and probably about a third or a quarter of what we’re eventually going to put in—

MATTHEWS: This is actually government spending, by the way. This isn’t loan guarantees.

Trust us. Anyone who watched this segment would have thought that the bill in question involved $410 billion in “earmarks.” And of course, no one clarified what Matthews said. The actual worth of the “earmarks—$7.7 billion—was never mentioned. No one made the slightest attempt to state the basic facts. (To find the full transcript, click here.)

We’ll guess that Heileman and/or Cillizza knew the actual figures involved here. But uh-oh! From watching Matthews through the years, we’ll guess that he probably didn’t. At any rate, one thing is certain: Citizens who watched this program were never exposed to the actual facts. The guest pundits could have corrected or clarified what Matthews said. But darlings! It just isn’t done!

Hardball viewers came away with bogus facts in their noggins again.

But then, Hardball is often like Laurel and Hardy. The loud dumb one is always in charge. The others know that their pal has it wrong—but they’re too timid to tell him.

Laurel and Hardy played this for laughs, comically sketching the human condition. The loud dumb one was always in charge! Today, it’s the shape of your “press corps.”

THE USES OF LOW-INCOME CHILDREN: What is your “press corps” actually like? Here, let Gail Collins tell:

COLLINS (3/5/09): When I walked into work on Wednesday, the big unfairness issue people were talking about was not Countrywide, or Illinois pols, but the finale of “The Bachelor,” when the guy who had just picked his lifetime love on national television returned to the airwaves to dump her for the woman who came in second.

“I had to hurt people in a way, but I feel I did it with integrity,” said the bachelor in question, whose name is Jason Mesnick.

The big objection to Mesnick’s behavior is not the dumping but the fact that he waited until everybody had gathered together for a follow-up special to break the news to his about-to-be-ex fiancée. Mesnick told People magazine that he would have preferred to spare the poor woman the humiliation of being rejected in prime time, but the producers wouldn’t allow it. “That was part of the deal,” he said.

That’s what “the press corps” was talking about when Collins walked into work.

Unfair! you hotly insist. Surely these scribes have earned the right to vent about minor distractions. But the fatuous culture of this group is apparent in its actual work. The Washington Post has struggled for weeks with George Will’s bungles about global warming. On Monday, ABC News had no idea how marginal tax rates actually work. Last night, a $5 million man continued to pimp that bull-roar about those earmarks. And this morning, the Washington Post has embarrassed itself with two accounts of what occurred when its editorial board met with Ed Sec Arne Duncan.

How fatuous is the upper-end “press corps?” Consider part of Bill Turque’s account of yesterday’s meeting with Duncan. Most likely, this isn’t Turque’s fault:

TURQUE (3/5/09): Duncan said he will encourage states to adopt achievement standards that give a clear picture of whether U.S. students are prepared to compete with global peers. And the funding will help states create better tests to show whether students are on track for college.

Duncan said the Obama administration aims to support performance pay to reward good teaching, individually and schoolwide. Beyond standardized test scores, Duncan mentioned classroom observation, parent and student surveys, and attendance as ways to help rate teacher effectiveness.

We don’t know what that first paragraph means. To the extent that we can guess, Duncan’s proposals are reasonable but quite underwhelming. But good God! The conversation described in that second graf is one for Extremely Slow Learners. According to Duncan, we can go beyond mere test scores if we want to rate our teachers. We can observe their work in class, he says. And we can take their attendance!

It would be hard to overstate how fatuous that passage is. But according to Turque, this conversation was going on at the highest levels of America’s “press corps”—perhaps just after the various scribes finished kicking The Bachelor around.

The next paragraph really is Turque’s fault—or the fault of his editor:

TURQUE (continuing directly): “We also have to make it easier to get rid of teachers when student achievement isn't happening,” Duncan said. He added, however, that teacher tenure—a form of job security that is a key issue in contract talks for D.C. teachers—is not the main problem. Duncan said it was vital to make acquisition of tenure more rigorous and establish a fair, expeditious process to remove low-performing teachers.

Tenure isn’t the main problem, Duncan reportedly said. But Turque fails to say what the main problem is for Duncan. Did anyone bother to ask?

Readers, we can keep track of teachers’ attendance! And we can observe them as they teach! These claims are certainly true, of course—and yet, the inanity of these suggestions is truly a thing to behold. To state the obvious, principals have been rating teachers through classroom observation roughly since the dawn of time. And who ever thought of keeping track of their attendance? Did we need to import a new Ed Sec to make such obvious observations? We don’t know what Duncan actually said, and we don’t mean this as a criticism of his ideas. But Turque describes a D-plus discussion—a discussion for a remedial class.

And yet, in this morning’s editorial, the editors who sat through this session express the very highest praise for a range of vague ideas which emerged from the chat. Falling down in praise of Duncan, the editors stand opposed to “the same failed programs” and “broken schools;” by way of contrast, they stand in favor of “reform” and “programs with proven records of success.” (They also seem to favor “dramatically improv[ing] the education of children.”) The editors favor “improved student assessments as well as sophisticated data systems” (our emphases). Not only that: The editors “admire the fact that Mr. Duncan has absolutely no use for those who would use the social ills of poor children as an excuse for not educating them.” And they close with a very high-minded statement. Like Duncan, they favor “what works.”

The editors spill with excitement today—but do these editors have the first clue? If so, how did that conversation occur—the one described by Turque? Why didn’t the editors laugh out loud when told that we can rate our teachers by keeping track of their attendance? By observing them in class? No one could think that such silly reforms can fuel the transformations envisioned. But then, as Collins tells us today, these editors may have been debating The Bachelor when Duncan showed up in the room. They certainly weren’t straightening out the mess they let Will made of climate change. More on this embarrassing episode in tomorrow’s edition.

This brings us around to another know-nothing. On Monday night, he used the interests of low-income kids to fuel his latest gong-show:

OLBERMANN (3/2/09): Our runner up [for worst person in the world], Mary Matalin, went on the Today Show and got Governor Bobby “let me tell you a story” Jindal in more hot water. “He`s the greatest public policy innovator in the country today," she said. "Bobby Jindal has made more progress in Louisiana in the shortest period of time in the history of the state, probably in the country. Education reform, ethics reform; everything that put Louisiana down in scale is now one of the top states in the country.”

The annual report card on education in the states by Education Week for 2007: Louisiana 21st best. The annual report card on education in the states by Education Week in 2008: Louisiana 35th best. This comes from a press release issued in January by the Louisiana Department of Education.

Let’s state the obvious: Olbermann has no idea what Matalin meant when she spoke about Jindal and “education reform.” (Nor do we. We don’t know if she can support what she said.) He knows nothing about Louisiana schools, or about those Education Week rankings. By the rules of the game, Olbermann has to throw hay to the herd every night, reinforcing their sense of tribal superiority. And his staff gave him this hay on Monday—although it makes little real sense.

(Olbermann didn’t even explain how those data “bolster” his case, so let us help him out here: Jindal’s first year in office was 2008. If we take those rankings on their face, Louisiana’s ranking declined during his first year in office. Had Olbermann bothered explaining that, the rubes could have felt even more enhanced. But do those rankings reflect on Jindal’s work, in his first year in office? The answer is far from obvious.)

First, rankings like this may have some merit (or not). But no one would think that minor, year-by-year fluctuations can be taken as reliable measures.

More importantly: The Education Week rankings involve observations in six large categories—and governors have no real control over a good deal of the material measured. Example: In the first large category, “Chance for success,” Louisiana rates very low among the states—largely because it is a high-poverty state. (In last year’s ranking, for example, the state ranked 47th in percentage of “children from families with incomes at least 200 percent of poverty level.” To see that report from last year, just click here. The new report isn’t on-line.) A second category is “K-12 achievement;” high-poverty states will tend to score low in this measure, however well their governors may be functioning in the matters they directly control. These, and other Ed Week measures, lie far outside the immediate control of any governor, however much Olbermann may want to trash him. In short, the Ed Week rankings are not intended as report cards for a state’s government.

With that in mind, let’s look at part of the state press release to which Olbermann alluded. (The press release is quite direct, one sign of well-managed government.) Here is the way it begins:

LOUISIANA PRESS RELEASE (1/7/09): While the 2009 edition of Quality Counts released today reveals Louisiana’s education system has several strong components, in general the report indicates gains were minimal. Louisiana’s 2009 overall grade was a C, which is on mark with the national grade and the state’s 2008 grade.

The annual report by Quality Counts is a state-by-state summary of public education and its governing policies. The overall grade is made up of scores from six main indices: chance for success; transitions and alignment; school finance; K-12 achievement; standards, assessments and accountability; and the teaching profession.

For 2009, Louisiana once again finished 47th in its ranking of student achievement and moved up from a 2008 ranking of 50th to 48th in the category designed to measure a child’s chance for success, including parental education and income. However, the state ranks number two in how it measures education progress and number six in its programs to improve teacher quality.

Louisiana “ranks number two in how it measures education progress and number six in its programs to improve teacher quality!” Are those the areas to which Matalin referred in praising Jindal’s work? Like Olbermann, we have no idea. For the record, these high rankings seem to be based on last year’s assessments (based on 2007); Education Week only considered three of its six major categories in revamping last year’s rankings, and these matters would seem to fall outside the areas which were reconsidered. In other words: If Jindal reinvented the wheel in three of this study’s six major categories, it wouldn’t show up, until next year, in the rankings to which KeithO referred. This is another reason to avoid using the Ed Week ranking as a measure of a governor’s success.

Why did Louisiana’s ranking drop in 2008? Like Olbermann, we don’t know. But here’s what the press release says. Presumably, Olbermann read it:

LOUISIANA PRESS RELEASE (1/7/09):In overall rank, Louisiana dropped from 21st last year to 35th this year. The decline in ranking primarily stems from a significant decrease in the score for school finance.

The state received a D this year in school finance, compared to a C+ last year and went down in rank from 25th last year to 49th this year. According to Quality Counts, new, more up-to-date indices were used in the school finance calculations which may have contributed to the decline in Louisiana’s rank.

Is that accurate? Like Olbermann, we have no idea. If it is, it suggests that the drop in Louisiana’s ranking stems from new financial measurement systems, not from changes that Jindal made. But let’s stress again: We don’t know how true that statement is. Neither does thundering Olbermann.

It takes a special kind of “progressive” to use low-income children this way, as cudgels with which he can bang a political target over the head. But that’s precisely the way low-income kids have been used by the Olbermanns down through the years. Sometimes, journalists praise the silliest possible “reforms” in service to some larger vision. Sometimes, they grab some ranking and pretend they know what it means. By the way: Candidate Clinton was trashed in precisely this way during the 1992 campaign. He too came from a high-poverty state—and the results of that poverty were used to show that he’d bungled his state’s public schools.

Stupid then, dumb today. But then, Olbermann often seems like a very bad person—one of “the worst in the world!”