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DO YOU UNDERSTAND! Do you understand those budget plans? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2011

Our biggest star’s creeping Maddowism: It’s bad for children and other living things when the liberal world’s Most Valuable Player starts creeping toward a species of Maddowism.

That’s what happens today, at the end of Paul Krugman’s otherwise important new column.

In today’s column, Krugman asserts the foolishness, and apparent bad faith, in Paul Ryan’s tax proposals. This is Krugman’s account of the Ryan tax plan:

KRUGMAN (4/25/11): That proposal begins by warning that “a major debt crisis is inevitable” unless we confront the deficit. It then calls, not for tax increases, but for tax cuts, with taxes on the wealthy falling to their lowest level since 1931.

And because of those large tax cuts, the only way the Ryan proposal can even claim to reduce the deficit is through savage cuts in spending, mainly falling on the poor and vulnerable. (A realistic assessment suggests that the proposal would actually increase the deficit.)

Pure crapola, Krugman says. He then describes the historically low rate of taxation under which we Americans labor.

Before long, Krugman describes the one budget plan which really moves us toward balance. It’s the plan of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which “is projected to yield a balanced budget by 2021.” The plans calls for “substantially higher taxes on the wealthy,” Krugman says—but it would also “modestly raise taxes even on middle-income families.” Beyond that, its spending cuts are “mostly focused on defense.”

Having described the progressive plan, Krugman raises a question: Why aren’t we hearing more about this particular budget plan? And alas! Krugman gives a vague, and sweeping, and unintelligent answer—an answer which made the analysts cry, so much did it resemble a version of Low Maddowism:

KRUGMAN: But if the progressive proposal has all these virtues, why isn’t it getting anywhere near as much attention as the much less serious Ryan proposal? It’s true that it has no chance of becoming law anytime soon. But that’s equally true of the Ryan proposal.

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is the insincerity of many if not most self-proclaimed deficit hawks. To the extent that they care about the deficit at all, it takes second place to their desire to do precisely what the People’s Budget avoids doing, namely, tear up our current social contract, turning the clock back 80 years under the guise of necessity. They don’t want to be told that such a radical turn to the right is not, in fact, necessary.

Krugman asks a reasonable question. His answer just flat isn’t smart.

Why isn’t the progressive budget getting Ryan-level attention? Krugman offers only one answer, an answer which is sweeping and vague: The progressive plan isn’t getting a lot of attention because “many if not most self-proclaimed deficit hawks” are basically phonies. But who is Krugman talking about? Is he talking about journalists? Is he talking about “experts” at major think tanks? Is he talking about office-holders in the two major parties? Just last Friday afternoon, Krugman himself apologized for having ignored the progressive proposal (click here). Was Krugman himself part of the problem as of last Friday at noon?

Krugman’s sweeping answer this morning just isn’t very smart. It resembles the silly, sweeping claims Maddow now churns most nights on her eponymous program—sweeping claims about “the Beltway” or “the Beltway press.” Almost surely, Krugman nails part of the answer to his question—although it’s very unclear who he’s talking about. But there are other, blatantly obvious reasons for the lower degree of attention devoted to the progressive plan. What is gained when our smartest player makes a sweeping claim which just plain flat isn’t smart?

Why has Ryan’s plan gotten more attention? Duh! To all intents and purposes, Ryan’s plan is the official proposal of one of the two major parties! Presumably, that explains why Krugman himself has paid much more attention to Ryan’s plan than to the progressive proposal. Presumably, that explains why Krugman himself had said nothing about the progressive plan before last Friday. (“I’ve been remiss in not calling attention to the budget proposal from the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”)

We’d offer another obvious reason for the lower degree of attention:

The progressive plan proposes levels of taxation which may make perfect sense. But those levels of taxation lie well outside prevailing frameworks in our political discourse—frameworks which have guided the American debate over the few decades. Again: Those levels of taxation may make perfect sense. But career liberals and career progressives have largely sat out this discussion over the course of the past thirty years. For that reason—because of our own side’s massive lethargy—the progressive proposals will sound like tablets brought down from Mars to many mainstream observers.

Does the progressive proposal make good sense? We will assume it does—but it has been a good many years since Americans heard such proposals. (When’s the last time you read a serious evaluation of levels of taxation like those found in this plan?) And let’s be clear: This is the obvious fault of the career liberal world. But rather than make such an ugly remark, Krugman prefers to play the Maddow role, offering a claim so sweeping and vague that it’s hard to know who he’s talking about. It isn’t good for progressive interests when our smartest star argues this way.

In closing, might we offer another possible reason for the low level of attention paid to the progressive plan? It would go something like this:

Last Tuesday, Katrina vanden Heuvel posted this column at the Washington Post. (It didn’t appear in the hard-copy paper.) In fiery fashion, vanden Heuvel praised the greatness of the progressive plan:

VANDEN HEUVEL (4/19/11): There are at least 83 Democratic members of the House who believe that we cannot exclude alternatives that would solve this economic challenge more justly and fairly. They believe we must challenge the limits of our narrowing debate and expand, as President Obama once called it, “our moral imagination.”

They are the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), who last week introduced what they are calling the “People’s Budget,” an alternative both to President Obama’s proposal and the unconscionable Ryan Budget.

It lays out what a robust progressive agenda should look like. It protects the social safety net, promotes a progressive tax policy and makes significant cuts to the Pentagon by bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It actually generates a surplus by 2021, according to Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the CPC.

This is the kind of budget our president should be proposing. This is the kind of budget the progressive community should be rallying around. One that makes millionaires, billionaires and corporations pay their fair share. One that protects the poor and middle class. But it is the kind of budget that establishment Democrats and media elites are inclined to ignore and dismiss.

We were eager to learn about this proposal—but vanden Heuvel never got past that vague description of its contents. In standard fashion, vanden Heuvel said the plan “promotes a progressive tax policy” but she forgot to say what that policy is.

Luckily, vanden Heuvel’s column included a link under “People’s Budget.” We clicked it, and came to this piece in the Huffington Post. The piece is written by Reps. Honda and Grijalva—but their piece doesn’t exactly explain the proposed tax policy either. Example: “Our budget heeds America's call to end the Bush Tax Cuts and the estate tax and create fair tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires.” But what are those “fair tax brackets?” Like vanden Heuvel’s column before it, the piece didn’t say.

(By the way: Does the progressive plan really “call to end the estate tax?” That’s what the Honda-Grijalva piece still says as of today.)

Luckily, the Honda/Grijalva piece included a link under “Congressional Progressive Budget Proposal.” It took us to this very brief post, which simply swims in jargonized language and doesn’t mention taxes at all.

Are you beginning to get the picture? We had to click several more times to learn the basics of the progressive tax proposal. (As punishment, we’ll let you click around to learn about it yourselves.) And uh-oh! On Friday night, even Maddow climbed down from earlier standard complaints about the way “the Beltway press” had been ignoring the progressive plan. In a rare non-propagandistic moment, she told Matt Miller about the way career progressives fight fight fight for their plans:

MILLER (4/22/11): You know, the sort of establishment press act as stenographers to power. And you have the mainstream Democratic position obviously represented by the president and you have the opposition represented by Paul Ryan. And that sort of defines what the boundaries of debate are going to be because the media faithfully reflects those two poles of debate.

So, if you’re coming from outside those poles, or in this case, you know, what’s interesting about the Progressive Caucus is they’re more fiscally conservative than the current debate but they’re more socially liberal in terms of the investments they make in education, in infrastructure and jobs, and they’re more progressive in terms of what they’re doing on upper-income earners in the tax code. The Beltway, because they’re not the official spokesman of the party like the president is, they tend to get ignored. And so they have to be a little bit more creative publicity-wise to get attention for their ideas.

MADDOW: I will say that we get lobbied all the time in stuff to cover. And you would think that a show like mine would get lobbied all the time to cover all the liberal things. The sum total of lobbying that we’ve had on the progressive—on covering the progressive budget has been liberal wonks tweeting about it. It’s sort of been—that’s sort of been it. So, I hear you about the publicity.

Miller made the obvious point: The Obama and Ryan plans are the official proposals of the two major parties. Of course they’ll get the bulk of attention; on what planet would that be different? But we were most struck by Maddow’s remark about the lack of outreach by the progressive caucus. Even she hadn’t been approached or lobbied about this plan! To our ear, this meant that the Washington Generals were back on the court, where they’ve been pretending to play for the past several decades.

Simple story: Our side doesn’t play the game hard. Might we even share a secret? On the highest career levels, our side doesn’t much seem to care! Our career leaders haven’t played very hard for the past thirty years; plainly, that is part of the reason why this plan isn’t getting covered. No one has bothered creating the frameworks which might make a plan like this seem more mainstream. Rather than discuss this obvious fact, we liberals now sit around complaining (vaguely) about the (unnamed) “establishment press,” or about (unnamed) “deficit hawks.”

By the way: As of last Friday night, Miller himself had ignored the progressive budget plan! In his columns for the Post (click here), he too had focused on the Obama and Ryan plans; he had devoted exactly one parenthetical remark to the progressive proposal (text below). But just as Krugman does today, he criticized everyone else for ignoring this plan—a plan he himself had ignored.

Progressive interests are not advanced when our biggest stars play this way.

Miller squeaks: As of last Friday night, this represented Miller’s full discussion of the progressive budget plan:

MILLER (4/20/11): Yes, I know: The Democrats’ plans are no better on the debt (though it must be noted that the Congressional Progressive Caucus plan wins the fiscal responsibility derby thus far; it reaches balance by 2021 largely through assorted tax hikes and defense cuts). But at least Democrats aren’t rattling markets by hypocritically holding the debt limit hostage while planning to add trillions in fresh debt themselves.

Quite literally, Miller had offered one parenthetical comment about the progressive plan. But so what? Giving Maddow’s viewers a thrill, he complained about the way the “establishment press” had been ignoring this plan. They were acting “as stenographers to power,” he pleasingly said.

Progressive viewers get played for fools when they get handled this way.

Special report: Do you understand?

PART 1—NUMBERS, PLEASE (permalink): Do you understand Obama’s budget plan? How about the Ryan plan, the courageoushonestbravesincere plan adopted by House Republicans?

Frankly, we don’t understand those plans, not even a little bit. For starters, consider the way these plans have been described by our two of our biggest newspapers.

Last Monday, the Washington Post described the dueling plans in a front-page news report. Zachary Goldfarb discussed the way the plans would reduce future deficits:

GOLDFARB (4/18/11): Obama's upcoming trips, which also include a visit to Reno, Nev., come after the unveiling last week of his plan to reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes. By reducing the annual budget, the government would slow the growth of the nation's debt over time.

House Republicans passed a budget Friday that would reduce the federal deficit by $4.4 trillion in 10 years with program cuts alone. No Democrats voted for the plan.

Obama’s plan would “reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years”—or at least, that was its intention. According to Goldfarb, Ryan’s plan actually would “reduce the federal deficit by $4.4 trillion in 10 years.” Goldfarb’s language is a bit clumsy in certain ways, but this has been the Washington Post’s standard account of the way these plans would reduce future deficits—to the extent that the Post has tried to quantify this matter. (In an April 14 front-page report, Lori Montgomery said the same thing, tossing in an additional detail: “The House GOP plan would cut deficits by about $4.4 trillion over a decade. Obama proposed to reduce borrowing by $4 trillion over 12 years, including $3 trillion over the next 10 years.”)

Obama’s budget speech had occurred on April 13.

Obama’s plan would reduce federal deficits by $4 trillion over 12 years. Ryan’s plan would reduce federal deficits by $4.4 trillion over 10 years. So the Washington Post has said. The New York Times has said the same thing in its own reporting—to the extent that our greatest newspaper has quantified this matter at all.

On April 14, Mark Landler did the New York Times front-page report about Obama’s speech. He used the same numbers the Post has used, though he attributed at least one of these numbers to Obama himself:

LANDLER (4/14/11): Mr. Obama said his proposal would cut federal budget deficits by a cumulative $4 trillion over 12 years, compared with a deficit reduction of $4.4 trillion over 10 years in the Republican plan.

Landler correctly quoted Obama’s claim about his own plan’s deficit reduction. The claim that Republicans would reduce future deficits by $4.4 trillion came from somewhere else. (For the relevant text from Obama’s speech, see below.)

But uh-oh! Strange as it seems, we can find no other place where the New York Times has tried to report the amount of deficit reduction sought or produced by these plans. An array of contradictory numbers have appeared in various editorials and opinion columns (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/18/11). But nowhere has our greatest newspaper attempted to report the amount of deficit reduction contemplated by these plans.

What is the closest the Times has come? On April 18, John Harwood included the following passage in a front-page analysis piece. In context, it’s fairly clear that the term “both sides” means “Republican and Democratic leaders.” Or something like that:

HARWOOD (4/18/11): Already, both sides have backed similar long-term goals of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, the level advanced by Mr. Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission.

Strange as it seems, that is the closest the Times has come to reporting the amount of deficit reduction proposed by, or likely to occur under, the two major plans.

We’ll leave this matter right here for today—though this doesn’t even begin to explain the source of our greatest confusion. Tomorrow, we’ll outline an even more potent source of incomprehension. But for today, please note this one striking fact about the way these budget plans have been covered:

These plans are wholly premised on the need for deficit reduction. But in our most important newspaper, there has been virtually no attempt to report the amount of deficit reduction these dueling plans might produce. More than two weeks after Ryan’s courageoussincerehonest plan appeared, the Times has made almost no attempt to report how much reduction it might achieve. Regarding the Obama plan, the Times has only quoted the big round number used by Obama himself.

How much deficit reduction would be achieved by these dueling plans? Sorry! You live in a very primitive culture—a culture whose avatars only pretend to attend to facts and information.

Numbers, please! So the analysts cry. But your culture doesn’t run on such fuel.

What Obama said: Regarding those numbers, this is what Obama said in his budget speech:

OBAMA (4/13/11): Now, to their credit, one vision has been presented and championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party's presidential candidates. It's a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.


So today, I'm proposing a more balanced approach to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years.

That’s what Obama said the Ryan plan “aims to” do. Would either plan achieve its goal? So far, the New York Times has made little attempt to offer any numbers.