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Print view: Our political discourse is very dumb--though not quite as dumb as you've heard
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KRUGMAN EZRA MADDOW COLLINS! Our political discourse is very dumb—though not quite as dumb as you’ve heard: // link // print // previous // next //

Covering (for) Bloomberg: Luckily, Michael Bloomberg’s a billionaire, because his judgment often seems bad.

Yesterday, it happened again. At her Washington Post education blog, Valerie Strauss explains why Bloomberg had to dump Cathie Black, the publishing magnate he weirdly picked, a few months ago, to run New York City’s schools. For good or for ill, Black had no experience in education—none at all:

STRAUSS (4/7/11): As for Black, her very brief tenure was marked by a series of gaffes. When a parent asked her about crowding at schools, she responded with this joke: “Could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us”—for which she later apologized. She also used the phrase “many Sophie’s Choice” to explain the difficulty she faced in dealing with crowding, a reference to the William Styron novel about a Polish mother in the World War II Auschwitz concentration camp who had to choose which of her two children would die.

As if that weren’t enough, Black was booed at a public meeting by parents, and she booed back. There is a reason that district leaders should come from the ranks of educators.

For a more dignified, yet striking, account of Black’s downfall, see today’s New York Times. (The report is well worth reading.)

Black’s jokes about birth control and Sophie’s Choice were widely reported in January—in the New York Post and the Daily News. But the New York Times tends to cover for Bloomberg. Except one tongue-in-cheek cite in “Fashion & Style,” the incidents weren’t mentioned there.

Our news is heavily “managed.” Especially in the realm of education, the public is handed a relentless array of inaccurate and misleading “facts,” with a wide array of other facts carefully hidden away. In the past decade, the Washington Post and the New York Times have hidden a series of testing scandals. And everyone agrees to serve the public a bunch of bum facts.

In this past week, Gene Lyons did something that just isn’t done. In a nationally-syndicated column, he mentioned a set of accurate facts about American children. We’ll send you to Salon:

LYONS (4/6/11): Consider [Bill] Gates' recent speech to the National Governor's Conference. "Over the past four decades, the per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled," the great man claimed, "while our student achievement has remained virtually flat ... To build a dynamic 21st-century economy and offer every American a high-quality education, we need to flip the curve."

Alas, this is well-meaning demagoguery. Sure, costs are up. But so is overall student performance. According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the "gold standard" of educational testing—American kids have actually done better in reading and math since about 1980. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute summarizes the data:

"American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading."

You'd think this would be good news. But like TV evangelists, education reformers peddling miracle cures often exaggerate others' sins.

This would be a much better world if people were allowed to know that our black kids, and our Hispanic kids, are doing much better in school.

In a world where people were allowed to know that, citizens might find themselves believing that we, as a people, can solve our difficult problems. Citizens might start to admire our low-income kids, who have in fact been doing much better. Citizens might admire our much-maligned teachers, despite their infernal unions.

We citizens might even start to see ourselves as a people again. Perhaps for that reason, people aren’t allowed to know the facts Rothstein described. It’s amazingly rare to see a columnist cite the facts Lyons cited. Few people have ever heard those facts. We’ll guess that very few teachers have heard those facts.

And yet, the facts are there.

Instead, we hear that crap from the likes of Bill Gates—and from Diane Ravitch. Gates repeats those misleading claims to denigrate our existing schools. (For all we know, his intentions are good.) Ravitch repeats those bogus claims to denigrate George Bush.

Is it true? Has American student achievement “remained virtually flat” in the past forty years? That claim can be defended as technically accurate, due to changes in the student population—but it’s also grossly misleading. On the NAEP, scores by black kids are way up over that time; so are scores by Hispanic kids. And as Lyons noted, “it should be stipulated that nobody's yet found a means or motive for cheating on NAEP” tests.

In fact, we wouldn’t quite agree with that. On the state and big-city levels, superintendents now have a motive to cheat, although we don’t know if they have the opportunity. But scores have been rising for forty years—and, during most of that period, no one had any real motive. The NAEP was used for research only. In the wider world, no one gave a dang about it. No one’s job or reputation was at stake.

The progressive project would be well served if people knew about those score gains. But everyone misleads the public. And good lord, how short-sighted we liberals are! When Ravitch spreads that gloomy picture around, we liberals cheer and cheer! For an example from this week, click here, scroll through comments. We want so much to hear that Bush sucks, we’ll trash black kids—and teachers—to get there.

Also this week: To see Jay Mathews say there’s been no progress, click this.

Whatever the intention might be, these endlessly repetitive claims keep driving the current “conservative” world view: As a people, we can’t do anything right! It’s time we all went our own way!


At the start of this morning’s column, Paul Krugman surveys the recent conduct of many establishment pundits:

KRUGMAN (4/8/11): Many commentators swooned earlier this week after House Republicans, led by the Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, unveiled their budget proposals. They lavished praise on Mr. Ryan, asserting that his plan set a new standard of fiscal seriousness.

Well, they should have waited until people who know how to read budget numbers had a chance to study the proposal. For the G.O.P. plan turns out not to be serious at all. Instead, it’s simultaneously ridiculous and heartless.

How ridiculous is it? Let me count the ways—or rather a few of the ways, because there are more howlers in the plan than I can cover in one column.

More howlers than he can cover? That’s exactly what we’ve been saying! Since 1998!

Coded messaging to the side, Krugman runs through a few of the insults to simple intelligence found in Ryan’s proposal—insults ignored by swooning pundits who didn’t wait for the numbers. To wit:

Would Ryan’s proposal address our very large deficits? Uh-oh! In the assessment of the plan which has been trumpeted by Ryan, “the claim that lower taxes mean higher revenue is still very much there.” This “voodoo proposition” has produced bad projections. “A more sober assessment” from the CBO “finds that over the next decade the plan would lead to bigger deficits and more debt than current law.”

Would Ryan’s proposal leave basic government functions in place? According to the CBO, the proposal “calls for spending on items other than Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—but including defense” to decline to “just 3.5 percent of G.D.P. in the long run.” (As compared to the current 12 percent!) That percentage would be “not much bigger than federal spending when Calvin Coolidge was president, and the United States, among other things, had only a tiny military establishment.”

“How could such a drastic shrinking of government take place without crippling essential public functions?” Krugman asks. “The plan doesn’t say.”

Would Ryan’s proposal protect average people? “Of the $4 trillion in spending cuts he proposes over the next decade, two-thirds involve cutting programs that mainly serve low-income Americans.” And by repealing last year’s health reform, “the plan would also deprive an estimated 34 million nonelderly Americans of health insurance.” With regard to Ryan’s Medicare vouchers: The CBO estimates that “by 2030 the value of a voucher would cover only a third of the cost of a private insurance policy equivalent to Medicare as we know it.” (That’s if your 80-year-old grandma can find an insurance company willing to sell her a policy at all!)

As he finished, Krugman says those swooning pundits got themselves “punked” by Ryan. That tends to misconstrue the way a good deal of punditry works.

Dating back at least to the Clinton/Gore years, a great deal of American punditry is mainly concerned with reciting Official Approved Standard Narratives. Such punditry isn’t about the numbers, the facts. The numbers play almost no part in this game. It’s about advancing the novel.

Luckily, American punditry isn’t as bad as it was in the Clinton/Gore years. (That may not be enough to save us.) But first, let’s revisit one of the younger pundits who swooned a bit this week:

On Wednesday evening, Ezra Klein offered a post which bore this headline: “10 concluding thoughts on Ryan’s budget.” And good lord! Ezra’s concluding thoughts on the Ryan plan were just as scathing as Krugman’s! These are just a few of the judgments Ezra now expressed:

KLEIN (4/6/11): As my earlier post on controlling medical costs suggests, I’m in a list-making mood. I’ve also been wanting to somehow summarize my last two days of blogging on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget. So here are 10 concluding thoughts.

1) Ryan’s suggestion that Medicare and Medicaid can or should be held to the rate of inflation is absurd…

2) The idea that conservatives believe the savings in Ryan’s plan are realistic while those in the Affordable Care Act aren’t boggles the mind…

3) I suspect Ryan capped Medicare and Medicaid at the rate of inflation…because when he used [a more sensible rate], he couldn’t get the numbers to add up…

4) The budget is much more regressive than I thought it would be. In the first 10 years, it has $4 trillion in program cuts, and most of them are coming from programs that primarily serve low-income or otherwise vulnerable Americans. In our previous conversations, Ryan was always been quick to say that government should help the truly vulnerable. This budget evinces none of that compassion.

“Absurd,” “mind-boggling” and “much more regressive” than Ezra thought! And things get no better in points 5-10, which include such judgments as “dishonest/disappointing.” Like Krugman, Ezra concluded that Ryan’s plan is a ludicrous scam. But not before the young fellow swooned on Day One, helping enable Ryan with a set of familiar hosannas.

If “Honest Paul” becomes a feature film, the display ad in the New York Times may feature blurbs like this:

Newspaper ad for Honest Paul:
Smart, policy-oriented! Has shown political courage!

Paul Ryan is the kind of politician I fundamentally like.
–Liberal analyst Ezra Klein, The Washington Post

Why did Ezra swoon like that? As a matter of fact, we can’t tell you. More generally, this is the way a type of young scribe will establish himself as a Serious Person. It’s the fee he pays to his elders before he tells the truth. It’s one of the ways these squirming young people wriggle their way up the ladder, helping to land big careers.

News flash: Rachel won’t ask Ezra about this the next time he guests on her program! People, that just isn’t done! Especially in the “liberal” world, we do not embarrass our court personnel. In the meantime, consider Maddow’s segment with Gail Collins Wednesday night. (To watch the segment, click here.)

Admit it—we warned you that Collins was due for a Maddow appearance! But when she appeared, it was Maddow’s performance that deserves a few winks of your time. Do we want our emerging liberal culture to resemble the low-IQ culture Krugman described? In this, her very first question to Collins, Maddow invented a world:

MADDOW (4/6/11): Why, with all the attention to Paul Ryan and his budget, why no attention to the numbers? I mean, the biggest numbers, the biggest projections in the budget are laughably weird or wrong. Why no attention?

Why no attention to the numbers? That same day, the Washington Post was spilling with news reports and op-ed columns which dissected Ryan’s numbers—and pounded him for what they showed. Three op-ed columns—by Meyerson, Milbank and Miller—hammered Ryan very hard while sifting an array of numbers. On page one, a news report by Lori Montgomery was working the numbers too:

MONTGOMERY (4/6/11): Starting in 2022, Ryan also would end Medicare as an open-ended entitlement for new retirees and begin slowly raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 67. Instead of getting government-paid benefits, new retirees could choose a private policy on a newly established Medicare exchange. The government would pay "premium support" worth about $8,000 directly to the selected insurance provider, with the wealthiest retirees receiving about a third of that amount.

In an analysis of the budget plan issued Tuesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that "most beneficiaries who receive premium support payments would pay more for their health care than if they participated in traditional Medicare," with 65-year-olds covering an average of twice as much of their total health-care costs.

Medicaid would come in for even sharper cuts, exceeding $700 billion over the next decade. The GOP plan would end the financing partnership between the federal government and the states, replacing it with block grants that give states less money but free them to manage the program as they wish. Federal distributions would be reduced by more than a third by the end of the decade.


The Republican plan underscores how difficult it will be to mop up the enormous tide of red ink. For fiscal 2012, Ryan would authorize $3.5 trillion in total spending, leaving a budget deficit of just under $1 trillion next year. That is slightly lower than the deficit that is currently projected, but still a significant gap between spending and revenue.

Annual deficits would dwindle to less than $400 billion by the end of the decade, a dramatic improvement over Obama's budget proposal. But Ryan's plan would take nearly 30 years to wipe out deficits completely.

Because more deficits mean more borrowing, the national debt would keep rising, to $16 trillion next year and to more than $23 trillion by 2021… Ryan's plan would not begin to make good on his promise to "pay down" the debt until nearly 2040.

There was a fair amount of silly swooning in response to Ryan’s proposal. But in truth, Maddow’s sweeping claims in this segment were almost as foolish. Before introducing Collins, she had insisted, in various ways, that “the Beltway media” was simply refusing to look at the numbers. (“I doubt that actual, numerically-based fact-based information will penetrate this smoochy-smoochy love bubble surrounding Paul Ryan right now.”) Maddow’s sweeping claims seemed to come from the planet Creeping Hannityism. But as she kept restating her question to Collins, her claims became even less reality-based:

MADDOW (second iteration of question): But the proportion of people who will read or be exposed to the Beltway media take on it, as opposed to actually reading a plan itself, is—there’s a very large difference between those two numbers. That is a very large ratio. The Beltway media reaction to this is, like, “Wow, do you know that Paul Ryan does P-90x every morning, he`s incredibly fit, boyish, and so brave?” I mean, there’s no—the Beltway reaction to this does not involve any basic assessment of the fundamental proposals in the budget. Is that to be expected? Is that unusual in this case?

MADDOW (third iteration of question): OK. But then we’re back to the same question that we are, that I’m reluctant to bring up because we talk about it every time you’re here. Which is they [the Republicans] are not doing what they say they’re doing? And hypocrisy is boring, right? Everyone is like, “Oh, yes, somebody is being a hypocrite. Also, sun is rising in east as well.”

But if you are a—if you are serious about the deficit, you cannot cut taxes for the richest people in the country by an additional 30 percent on top of leaving the Bush tax cuts intact. That will not get rid of the deficit. And yet, Paul Ryan is lauded coast to coast and on every show as this serious guy who’s really concerned about the deficit and doing what is serious about it. And there is no connection between what is attributed to him and what he has actually offered.

Was Ryan being “lauded coast to coast and on every show as this serious guy who’s really concerned about the deficit and doing what is serious about it?” That was pretty much happening on some shows, especially on Fox. But Ryan was also being trashed coast to coast on every show on Maddow’s cable channel. And one hour earlier, on CNN, Eliot Spitzer had “lauded” Ryan in the following way. He spoke with a Republican congressman:

SPITZER (4/6/11): Congressman, thank you so much for joining us tonight….Look, I want to begin with the question that goes to a simple notion of fairness. And here's how I want to frame it for you.

The top one percent of income earners in our nation get 25 percent of the income and control 40 percent of the wealth. Those numbers have gone through the roof over the last decade or two. And yet Paul Ryan's budget plan imposes two-thirds of its burdens on the poor. Two-thirds! Right after we gave a big tax cut to the rich.

Does that violate your sense of fairness in a very basic sense?

AKIN: Well, no. And I think the problem that the way you're framing the question, it sounds like, well, of course it shouldn't be fair. But what you have to understand is that we have a very serious problem with the economy. We have a lot of people that are unemployed. And you can't deal with the unemployed unless you have a strong business sector that's hiring people.

SPITZER: Congressman, you presume in Paul Ryan's plan that unemployment rates are going to go down to—what's the number here? Down to 2.8 percent.

Do you know when the last time was we had unemployment at 2.8 percent? That's 70 years ago! The Fed wouldn't let it happen. You're presuming that to say—so you can then say we'll get revenue from lower unemployment. That's simply a false presumption, isn't it?

That’s basically the way Spitzer had treated the plan the night before, though analyses of Ryan’s numbers were less advanced at that point. On that program, CNN’s highest-ranking Serious Person agreed with some of Spitzer’s objections:

GERGEN (4/5/11): I strongly disagree with elements of it. I agree with what you've been saying that it takes too much out of the hides of children and seniors and others. And any kind of agreement, just as the Bowles-Simpson commission said, has to have tax increases.

The Bowles-Simpson said they would take $2 of spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. That seemed to be a very sensible approach. The Ryan plan does not do that and it takes it all out of spending. So you know, I object to it on a variety of grounds.

There was a fair amount of silly clatter on CNN, to the extent that the plan was discussed at all. But Maddow’s claim about the TV coverage was, in a word, untrue.

Do liberals want a serious culture? Or do we want swooning of our own? As is her wont, Maddow gave no examples of the horrible “Beltway” coverage; she named no names of any big players who had produced ridiculous work. But then, she couldn’t name David Brooks, Collins’ partner in a weekly on-line discussion. She couldn’t name Ezra, her regular guest—and she couldn’t really name E. J. Dionne, a regular guest on Meet the Press. Instead, she offered those silly sweeping claims—claims Collins seemed to know were inaccurate.

Asked a silly question three times, Collins never challenged Maddow’s inaccurate premise. (Darlings! It just isn’t done!) Instead, Collins did what any big pundit would do. She gave three straight non-response responses:

MADDOW (first iteration of question): Why, with all the attention to Paul Ryan and his budget, why no attention to the numbers? I mean, the biggest numbers, the biggest projections in the budget are laughably weird or wrong. Why no attention?

COLLINS: Well, I think that’s the whole point of putting it out. I think it’s great that he put it out. He put it out. And now, everybody gets to add it and subtract it and note the 2 percent unemployment and the housing craziness and everything else. I mean, that’s the great part about it and it’s going to happen.

And nobody likes it. I mean, the people in America are not going to like this budget. I think it’s great if America gets to decide whether they think this is the plan they want to go forward with.

“It’s going to happen,” Collins said. Presumably, that was her way of saying this: “What the fudge are talking about? It’s all over this morning’s newspapers!”

Collins non-responded to Maddow all three times. For text, see below.

Our journalistic culture is massively unintelligent. Established Pundits recite approved novels; they try to avoid naming each other’s names. Maddow would never name Brooks, Dionne, Ezra. Instead, perhaps from genuine cluelessness, she threw sweet feed to the herd about “the Beltway press.”

Hannity has done this for decades. Your nation is currently dying of dumb—and your side, through its millionaire stars, is now adding to the dumbness.

Darlings, it just isn’t done: If we had to guess, we would guess that Collins knew that Maddow’s premise was wildly inaccurate.

She could have said so, of course. But darlings! It just isn’t done!

Instead, Collins gave non-response responses each time Maddow asked that question. Here’s the way Collins non-responded to Maddow’s second ask:

MADDOW: I mean, there’s no— The Beltway reaction to this does not involve any basic assessment of the fundamental proposals in the budget. Is that to be expected? Is that unusual in this case?

COLLINS: Well, everybody always likes it when somebody comes up with their own budget plan that’s now capable of being masticated and torn apart and ripped into shreds.

MADDOW: That’s what I want, though. I want the masticating!

COLLINS: Absolutely. Plus, the whole world now knows they want to get rid of Medicare as we know it, and that’s very important.

You’re right—that response didn’t quite make sense, except as a diplomatic attempt to avoid contradicting Maddow. The same thing happened when “Hannity’s Child” fell for the third time:

MADDOW: But if you are a—if you are serious about the deficit, you cannot cut taxes for the richest people in the country by an additional 30 percent on top of leaving the Bush tax cuts intact. That will not get rid of the deficit. And yet, Paul Ryan is lauded coast to coast and on every show as this serious guy who’s really concerned about the deficit and doing what is serious about it. And there is no connection between what is attributed to him and what he has actually offered.

COLLINS: But he’s put it out. So now, we can discuss it.

He’s screwed everything up, it’s a big mess. The numbers are all wrong. He’s killing Medicare as we know it today. He’s doing nothing whatsoever about all the people who aren’t covered by health insurance right now. He’s ruining all the attempts to control medical spending. Medical costs are not going to go down at all.

He’s doing all those terrible things. So fine, he’s been brave. He works out in the morning. He’s got a better part [in his hair]. He put his numbers out, three cheers! And now, let’s talk about them.

For the third time, Collins avoided telling Maddow that the plan was being widely discussed in the Beltway press—and that Ryan was getting hammered.

Collins avoided Maddow’s error three times. Maddow ended by praising herself and her guest, as pundits will commonly do:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Well, while I have been complaining about nobody masticating, chewing over this budget, we have now just done it!

COLLINS: We did. There you are!

MADDOW: Thank you very much. Gail Collins, New York Times columnist, it’s always a pleasure to have you.

As usual, our Darling Girl had gone where no one else would!

Postscript: In her column the next morning, Collins didn’t discuss Ryan’s plan. Perhaps she will do so tomorrow, though it’s more likely that she will discuss Seamus, the abused Irish setter.