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FROM THE FINLAND STATION! Quoting Kopp and praising the Finns, Tom Friedman has some hot data: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 22, 2009

Stolberg over Shuster: We never disagree with Boehlert. Except this morning, that is.

At issue is yesterday’s news report by the New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg. In our view, Boehlert is one of the giants of the past dozen years—and he thought Stoloberg’s piece was “dreadful.” He made some perfectly decent points. But on balance, we disagree with his judgment.

Stolberg reported on a budget proposal Obama made at Monday’s cabinet meeting. Here’s the way she started:

STOLBERG (4/21/09): When is $100 million small change?

When you are President Obama and you propose trimming that amount from your $3.6 trillion federal budget.

On the theory that every little bit helps, Mr. Obama convened the first cabinet meeting of his presidency on Monday and said that in an effort to make the government ''as efficient as possible'' and to ensure that ''every taxpayer dollar is being spent wisely,'' he was challenging department heads and agency chiefs to come up with ways to save $100 million over the next 90 days.

Budget analysts promptly burst out laughing. A reporter declared at the White House briefing that the initiative would become fodder for late-night talk show hosts. The Republican Study Committee, a group of fiscal conservatives, put out a news release with the headline, “Obama’s 0.0025% spending cut.”

Without question, Stolberg adopts a semi-rollicking style. But let’s be honest: Everyone does something dumb at some point—and in this case, Obama was taking his turn. Did budget analysts “burst out laughing” when they heard about this proposal? If not, they pretty much should have. The proposal really is fairly laughable.

(For what it’s worth, we wouldn’t assume that “burst out laughing” is meant to be taken literally. Several years ago, Michael Steele got an excellent Baltimore Sun columnist fired for having used a similar phrase in a non-literal manner. We were stunned that the Sun let itself be cowed by Steele’s absurd complaints.)

Eric suggests that mainstream scribes must have taken their cue from that Republican Study Committee release. We doubt it. The release was issued at some point on Monday; in that morning’s Washington Post, Michael Fletcher was already rolling his eyes at Obama’s forthcoming proposal (click here). Why was Fletcher less than impressed? Because the proposal’s inherently silly! Good God! The proposed “spending cuts” would represent one thirty-six thousandth of this year’s federal budget! At some point, we all do something a little bit dumb. This was Obama’s turn.

(In today’s paper, the Post devotes this editorial to Obama’s proposal. Trust us: They didn’t need the RSC to give them their cue.)

Should Stolberg have yukked it up that much? Possibly, possibly not. But consider: For the past many years, we liberals have begged the mainstream press to drop its magisterial pose. No more of this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand stuff, we’ve implored; reporters should just come out and tell us when something is false, we have said. If that’s our view, why shouldn’t they do the same when a proposal’s just basically silly? In our view, the Times tends to let its political reporters show a bit too much of their “attitude.” But we’d have to say that Stolberg’s report was better than David Shuster’s. By far.

Ah, Shuster! Guest-hosting on Monday night’s Countdown, he called in reliable Margaret Carlson to help him review this same topic. Carlson spent the 1990s (and a few years beyond) mocking the Clintons and Gore, of course, helping send Bush to the White House. (She had a very high profile on CNN during that period.) But she’s been re-purposed for a new career—and on Monday night, she happily played along with a groaning presentation by Shuster. If you watched Countdown, you were told that the Republican Party (and Fox News) had criticized Obama’s proposal—but you weren’t allowed to know that anyone else had said or thought any such thing. (Someone had asked Obama a question at his cabinet meeting, but you weren’t told who it was.) Carlson quickly said that this peculiar conduct meant that the GOP was engaging in “cognitive dissonance;” she cited cheering actors from the movie Dave in support of Obama’s idea. This was the start of their exchange, which was defiantly dumb—pure propaganda. If MSNBC ever posts the transcript, it will post it here:

SHUSTER (4/20/09): Let’s bring in Margaret Carlson, a political columnist from Bloomberg News and Washington editor of The Week magazine. And Margaret, thanks for joining us tonight.

CARLSON: You’re welcome. Good evening!

SHUSTER: They complain when he spends, they complain when he cuts spending. We saw that with defense spending too. When one party criticizes both “A” and “not-A,” what message does that send?

CARLSON: Cognitive dissonance. When the president did his $100 million cut today, they called it a Hollywood stunt and therefore the movie Dave. By the way, didn’t— When you were watching that movie, David, didn’t people cheer when the guy came in, Charles Grodin, and started cutting things out of the budget? These gestures count...

A post at the FNC website had compared Obama’s proposal to a proposal made in Dave—so Margaret rushed to turn the comparison. As she continued, she came pretty close to putting her foot in her mouth:

CARLSON: When you were watching that movie, David, didn’t people cheer when the guy came in, Charles Grodin, and started cutting things out of the budget? These gestures count, but Fox News and, and Glenn Beck and the rest of them, they know a stunt when they see one after the stunt last week with the tea parties in which they’re complaining about spending, forgetting that President George Bush was a record-breaking spender without doing any taxing...

Oops. It almost sounded like she was saying that Obama had rolled out a “stunt.” (To watch this whole segment, click this.)

Trust us: Carlson understood how silly Obama’s proposal was. But increasingly, MSNBC has adopted the methods of Fox. They treat you like things—like you’re dumb as rocks—just as Fox has done all these years. We think this is bad for progressive interests. And you can’t run a nation on dumb.

We never disagree with Boehlert, a person whom we deeply admire. This morning, though, on balance, we do. Stolberg’s report was basically right. Elsewhere, those who rail at Fox were once again using its methods.

Special report: From the Finland Station!

PART 1—THE LATEST CUT-AND-PASTED DATA: Yesterday, we read this highly incoherent essay in Time, written by Walter Isaacson. Among other things, we wondered where Isaacson got the data found in this gloomy passage:

ISAACSON (4/15/09): These 21st century American Standards should be comparable to, and benchmarked against, the standards of other countries so that we can determine how globally competitive our nation's economy will be in the future. Forty years ago, the U.S. had the best graduation rates in the world. Now it ranks 18th. In math scores on international tests, the U.S. ranks 25th; in reading, 15th. As Obama said in his speech to Congress a few weeks ago, "This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

The U.S, “ranks 15th in reading on international tests?” On what tests? Out of how many countries? As often happens when the nation’s Big Dogs declaim on the need for higher achievement, Isaacson failed to include these basic, bone-simple facts.

Where did Isaacson get his data? The answer should have been fairly obvious: Someone had been handing them out! This morning, another journalistic Big Dog orates on this same topic—Tom Friedman, in the New York Times. He at least explains the source of his data, the same data (and framework) which Isaacson had:

FRIEDMAN (4/22/09): In our case, the excess consumer demand and jobs created by our credit and housing bubbles have masked not only our weaknesses in manufacturing and other economic fundamentals, but something worse: how far we have fallen behind in K-12 education and how much it is now costing us. That is the conclusion I drew from a new study by the consulting firm McKinsey, entitled “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.”

Just a quick review: In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. dominated the world in K-12 education...Today, we have fallen behind in both per capita high school graduates and their quality. Consequences to follow.

For instance, in the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment that measured the applied learning and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, the U.S. ranked 25th out of the 30 in math and 24th in science. That put our average youth on par with those from Portugal and the Slovak Republic, “rather than with students in countries that are more relevant competitors for service-sector and high-value jobs, like Canada, the Netherlands, Korea, and Australia,” McKinsey noted.

We haven’t reviewed the McKinsey report, which seems to be exciting Big Scribes as much as the Kinsey Report once did. But Friedman is much clearer than Isaacson; we’re no longer told that the “the U.S.” ranks 25th in math scores on international tests (plural). More clearly, we’re told that U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25th (out of 30) on one such measure. To be honest, the measure sounds extremely narrow, thus perhaps just a tad cherry-picked.

And we’re told where the data appear—in the McKinsey Report.

Question: Do U.S. students typically score this low, when measured against other countries in math? To the best of our knowledge, the answer is no. In 2007, for instance, U.S. fourth-graders ranked eleventh (out of 36 participating countries) in the math portion of the TIMSS, the best-known international measure; U.S. eighth-graders scored ninth in math, out of 48 countries. (For fuller data, click here.) And as we noted not long ago, the U.S. has been gaining against the rest of the world on the TIMSS—has steadily improved its standing since 1995. No matter! When Big Dogs write on this gloomy topic, they typically copy from each others’ papers. They repeat the same gloomy tales, cutting-and-pasting the same gloomy data—data they have usually cadged from The Latest Gloomy Report.

Of course, in an actual high school with real standards, such cut-and-pasting students would fail. In the curious world called Big Media High, they simply rework the latest incoherent demands for action.

Isaacson’s essay is deeply incoherent. Friedman’s column isn’t much better; he tops Isaacson in one comical way. And, as has been decreed by God, he ends by quoting Wendy Kopp—having heaped praise on the wonders of Finland! But so it typically tends to go when Big Dogs proclaim about this topic. Everybody has the same data; everybody has the same framework! Meanwhile, no one shows a very strong sign of knowing what he’s talking about.

Has there ever been such a know-nothing gang in the whole history of human affairs? Tomorrow, we’ll look at Friedman’s pronouncements. Then, it’s on to the Isaacson Station!