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UP FROM THE CHIMPS! Having watched cable, our spirits soared when Tyson dragged in the chimps: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 28, 2008

IN DEFENSE OF THE NOVEL: We were massively puzzled by Lori Montgomery’s high-profile piece in this morning’s Post. Her piece tops page one in the “Business” section; it concerns the future of Bush’s tax cuts. We were kerflubbled from the start—right from this opening framework:

MONTGOMERY (3/28/08): When President Bush pushed big tax breaks through Congress in 2001 and 2003, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Joined Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and other Democrats in opposing them as fiscally reckless. But now that McCain and Clinton are running for president, neither is looking to get rid of the cuts. Instead, they are arguing over which ones to keep.

The same is true of Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama...

We don’t suppose that’s necessarily false—but it struck us as a strange way to frame the discussion. And as we proceeded, our puzzlement grew. At one point, we gaped at this:

MONTGOMERY: Because the tax cuts were projected to yield giant budget deficits, they were written to expire in 2010. Bush and other Republicans, including McCain, want to make them permanent, arguing that the specter of higher taxes in 2011 is adding uncertainty to and weakening today's economy. That move that would deprive the treasury of $2.4 trillion over the next 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

Now we’re told that McCain, like other Republicans, “wants to make [the tax cuts] permanent!” At any rate, that highlighted statement surely isn’t true of Bush’s original tax cut plan, the one which passed in 2001. Indeed, just a few paragraphs earlier, Montgomery had written this:

MONTGOMERY: Conceived during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign as a means to return what were then huge government surpluses to taxpayers, the cuts were approved by Congress in the midst of a recession, which worsened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Though the recession was mild, the recovery was sluggish and hampered by a deep decline in employment. Productivity ultimately rebounded robustly, but national savings plunged, and the country racked up a large trade deficit.

That highlighted statement is certainly accurate, at least in terms of the way the original tax cut plan was presented during Campaign 2000. But within five paragraphs, the 2001 cuts were both “conceived as a means to return what were then huge government surpluses” and “projected to yield giant budget deficits.” It’s possible that both statements could be true. But in this case, we’d have to say that the first of these statements (“giant deficits”) just pretty much isn’t.

Is this the best the Post can do in major stories about major issues? As she continues, Montgomery writes this. We can’t make out the logic:

MONTGOMERY: Democrats, including Clinton and Obama, have said they want to keep the social-relief provisions, as well as income tax cuts for households making less than $250,000 a year, to help strengthen the middle class. By taking tax cuts away from the rich, the candidates suggest that they will generate cash that could be spent elsewhere.

But that is not technically true. The middle-class tax cuts also reduce revenue—by about $800 billion over the next decade, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.

“They said President Bush was fiscally irresponsible for enacting the tax cuts, but on balance, they would increase the deficit by just as much," said Len Burman, the center's director. "All of the campaigns understand that, but they've collectively decided they can't recognize the reality that we're spending beyond our means."

We have no idea why the highlighted statement isn’t “technically true.” Obviously, if a president generates extra revenue from dumping some tax cuts, that extra revenue can be spent somewhere else. The fact that some other tax cuts also reduce federal revenue doesn’t make this proposition inaccurate. As she continues, Montgomery quotes Burman making a claim that is worth discussing. But she has produced substantial confusion before we get to his statement.

We found other parts of this report puzzling, but we’ll simply repeat our question: Is this the best the Post can do in high-profile reports about major issues? If so, maybe it’s better if the Post spends its time inventing fatuous novels about the various candidates’ “characters.” John McCain’s an authentic straight-shooting straight-talker may make more sense than this.

UP FROM THE CHIMPS: We’re off today on a mission of national import, and so we’ll roll back out output. But good lord! It really can be quite a thing to observe our national discourse.

For example, it’s amazing to see how easy it is to “insult” and “demean” the American people. In this morning’s Post, for example, an ambassador’s wife boo-hoo-hoos about the way Hillary Clinton has “demean[ed] women like me” with her statements about Northern Ireland and Bosnia. But then, just a few nights ago, Colonel David Hunt was boo-hooing on The O’Reilly Factor over the same durn thing. Poor Colonel Hunt had been cut to the quick by Clinton’s erroneous statement about Bosnia:

O’REILLY (3/25/08): All right, now when you heard that Hillary Clinton said she was under fire, had to run to the car, and no welcoming ceremony—and we're looking at the welcoming ceremony right now—when you heard her say that, what went through your mind? First impression?

HUNT: It is a lie, an absolute lie and it's insulting. We had F- 18s overhead. That's Air Force, great Air Force guys. We had attack helicopters. We had 40 tanks. It was an armored division at Tuzla. There were 4,000 armed men, Secret Service and Navy Seals. There wasn't anybody coughing in the Balkans the day she showed up. And it's insulting to the guys who did a great job. It was an uneventful visit. It was a good visit for the soldiers. And to lie about that is insulting. Everybody worked to make her visit so good.

O'REILLY: Now, why do you say it's a lie? Couldn't she have just got caught up in the moment at Georgetown, which is where she made the statement last week, and just kind of gotten carried away? Isn't there a difference between a calculated lie? And I don't know if you would do because she couldn't possibly get away with it. Maybe she just got caught up in the moment, colonel.

HUNT: Not three times, not four times. No. She'd been asked to correct this more than once. This, for me, if you want to be a leader, you don't embellish. You know, the fact that she went there with her daughter to visit soldiers is a big deal. And everyone was thankful for that. But to lie about it insults those who worked so hard and did protect her that day. And it's insulting.

It seems that Hunt was feeling insulted. Troubled by all the needless suffering, Mr. O valiantly tried to talk Hunt back from the ledge:

O’REILLY: Now, colonel, why do you care? Why does it matter? Is it important in the big scheme of things? Why?

HUNT: Well, there again, there was 4,000—what this mean, 4,000 soldiers there, 150 press. By the way, she didn't come in in a helicopter, Lanny. She came in a C-17. She came in a helicopter later. The fact is that it's insulting to the people who did a great job that day. And if you want to talk about—

O'REILLY: I don't see the insult, colonel. I see the embellishment of, you know, I'm commander and chief and I was under fire. But I don't see—I don't think she wanted to insult you and the guys.

HUNT: No, no—

O'REILLY: She was just—she was puffing herself up, colonel. Come on, you know what she's doing.

HUNT: Three—the guys that worked very, very hard to make this visit as perfect as it went. There was nothing wrong that day, except for rain.

O'REILLY: All right. But that wasn't her intent, to insult them. It wasn't.

HUNT: I'm telling you how I took it.

“I'm telling you how I took it,” he said. And the colonel was taking it hard.

At the time, we thought you can’t get dumber than that. Then we read today’s heartsick letter about the way poor Jill Deal feels “demeaned.” And, of course, we read Gene Robinson. Surely, little else must be said.

Last night, though, our spirits soared when we read the prologue to Death by Black Hole, last year’s book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of them high-powered astrophysicist fellers. (He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium.) You may have seen Tyson on various PBS programs. In his prologue, he came out firing:

TYSON (page 17): I claim no special knowledge of when the end of science will come, or where the end might be found, or whether an end exists at all. What I do know is that our species is dumber than we normally admit to ourselves. This limit of our mental faculties, and not necessarily of science itself, ensures to me that we have only just begun to figure out the universe.

Clearly, Tyson could never be a TV pundit; the simple statement, “I claim no special knowledge,” disqualifies him from the start. But our spirits soared when Tyson offered that assessment of our less-than-spectacular species. And then, the rest of the room fell away. He even dragged the chimps in:

TYSON (continuing directly): Let’s assume, for the moment, that human beings are the smartest species on Earth. If, for the sake of discussion, we define “smart” as the capacity of a species to do abstract mathematics then one might further assume that human beings are the only smart species to have ever lived.

What are the chances that this first and only smart species in the history of life on Earth has enough smarts to completely figure out how the universe works? Chimpanzees are an evolutionary hair’s-width from us yet we can agree that no amount of tutelage will ever leave a chimp fluent in trigonometry. Now imagine a species on Earth, or anywhere else, as smart compared with humans as humans are compared with chimpanzees. How much of the universe might they figure out?

Tyson continues in this insulting vein, although he neglects to mention Hunt. But his basic point is clear: Maybe we just aren’t smart enough to figure out various things. Surely, anyone who follows the mainstream press corps has thought this many times.

For ourselves, we favor a banana slug analogy—a banana slug which lives its whole life inside caves, encountering no other part of the world. Aren’t we, in certain ways, like that slug? But then again, perhaps we’ve just been watching Hardball too much.

On page 20, Tyson relents. “Maybe I’m a bit hard on Homo sapiens and have carried the chimpanzee analogy a little too far,” he confesses. You see—they always kiss up in the end! But Tyson goes where most people won’t; he’s willing to consider how “dumb” we all are, even on our very best days. Our suggestion: The public discourse will make more sense if you keep Tyson’s framework in mind.

OTHER HONORS: Tyson was named “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People magazine in 2000.

YET ANOTHER BRUSH WITH GREATNESS? This is completely off the point. But for reasons involving middle names, we’ve occasionally wondered if Tyson is kin to our old, lovely pal, John Tyson (middle name withheld). To eavesdrop on Tyson’s late-night confabs with a 19- and 20-year-old Al Gore, check this piece from the April 23, 2000 Post. (It was posted on-line by Jesse Jackson Jr. Scroll down to point 5.) Or, for the particular excerpt in question, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/21/07. Though you’ll have to scroll down to the bottom. It might not be completely irrelevant to a high-profile recent discussion.

Are these Gotham-area Tysons kin? No earthly idea.