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INSINUATIONS! How big are Ryan’s deficit reductions? The Times keeps letting you guess: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2011

Who is Jacob Weisberg: When Paul Ryan’s budget plan appeared, Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate, hurried himself into action. He noted how honest, courageous and brave the honestbrave Ryan had been (click here).

Good God! These were Weisberg’s actual headlines: “Good Plan! Republican Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is brave, radical and smart.”

But uh-oh! An array of observers noted that Jake didn’t have the slightest idea what the fig he was talking about. Last Wednesday, Weisberg relented:

WEISBERG (4/22/11): After my last column, I got pummeled in the liberal blogosphere for asserting that the Ryan budget represented a big step in the direction of conservative honesty. I deserved some of the abuse. Though I criticized Ryan for his unsupported rosy assumptions (shame on you, Heritage Foundation hacks), I reacted too quickly and didn't sort out just how laughable Ryan's long-term spending projections were. His plan projects an absurd future, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in which all discretionary spending, now around 12 percent of GDP, shrinks to 3 percent of GDP by 2050. Defense spending alone was 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009. With numbers like that, Ryan is more an anarchist-libertarian than honest conservative.

According to Weisberg, he had failed to see that the plan he lavishly praised was actually laughable, absurd. For that reason, he deserved some of the abuse, the essayist nobly said.

Different people had different reactions to Weisberg’s retreat. Quite appropriately, Paul Krugman batted Weisberg around, failing to note that Ezra Klein had basically done the same thing (if not a bit more so). At the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen was much more forgiving (click here). But then, it’s highly unlikely that Krugman will ever be seeking employment at Slate.

(Jonathan Chait’s reaction to “Weisberg’s Folly” fell somewhere in the middle. Click this.)

Who the heck is Jacob Weisberg? First, some full disclosure:

As far as we know, Weisberg is a perfectly decent person. In August 2000, at the Democratic Convention, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with the tyro. You might even call it a brush with greatness; rounding out the foursome was Jonathan Alter, a good decent person, and (we think) the analysts’ Uncle Walter Shapiro (same judgment). Weisberg never foamed at the mouth or committed egregious offenses. We know of no reason to think that he isn’t a perfectly decent guy.

That said, we’ve been intrigued by Weisberg in the past dozen years. Here’s why:

Weisberg hails from ranking stock. He comes from an admirable, high-achieving Chicago family; his mother, Lois Weisberg, was even celebrated in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books! From Chicago, he trundled off to Yale, where he was offered a spot in Skull & Bones—by John Kerry, no less! Reportedly, Weisberg turned the spot down to protest the famous club’s exclusion of women.

From Yale (class of 1986), the road led straight uphill. Weisberg attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, then landed at the New Republic—and at Vanity Fair, and at a wide array of major publications.

When we lunched with him, he was 36. He had access to a wide array of very high media platforms; he could have made a difference. And since then, what is he best known for? For writing “Bushisms,” a collection of President Bush’s least perfect expressions.

In recent years, he has branched out. He now writes “Palinisms” too!

What happens to people like this? How did Weisberg become so fatuous? We know it’s rude to do such things, but let’s consider Weisberg’s wife, who is also (we would assume) a perfectly good decent person.

Weisberg is married to Deborah Needleman. Today, she’s editor of WSJ magazine (click here), the Wall Street Journal’s chic-chic approach to fashion, design and food. But she made her mark as founding editor of domino, “a style magazine centered on the home.” The widely-honored mag went under, but not before a publishing breakthrough. We’ll let the experts explain:

WIKIPEDIA: Domino: The Book of Decorating is the first book from the creators of domino. The book was edited by Deborah Needleman, Sara Ruffin Costello and Dara Caponigro. Domino: The Book of Decorating, is a style manual that brings together inspiring rooms, how-to advice and insiders’ secrets from today’s top tastemakers. Going room by room, the editors illustrate how great interiors come together, tapping ideas from domino magazine and culling insights from their own experiences. In a special feature called “The Domino Effect,” editors and contributors reveal the stories behind how their own rooms came into being. With an eye to making design accessible and exciting, this book aims to demystify the decorating process.

According to Wikipedia, Needleman “lives in Manhattan and Garrison, NY, with her husband, Jacob Weisberg.”

To state the obvious, there’s nothing “wrong” with any of this. But in your lifetime, American “journalism” has been savaged by the possibility of fame and financial success, leading to fabulous lifestyles. The potential rewards are simply too great. As a result, the route to fatuity is clear.

Back in the 1990s, Weisberg was said to be very smart. (To read all about it, click here.) Today, he pimps his Palinisms, having grown tired of Bush.

And he rushes off to praise Faire Ryan. He has become extremely dumb—extremely dumb by choice.

Luckily, Weisberg lives in two places as he types his tripe about dumbstupid Palin and honestbravenoble Ryan. We don’t know what drove Weisberg’s decisions in life. But make no mistake: The search for “journalistic” wealth and fame has savaged progressive interests down through the years. “Journalists” sell their souls to achieve these rewards, forgetting to tell you that this is the game. Other “journalists” simply turn dumb in response to these riches.

How dumb was Weisberg by 2004? To read about the horrible work he filed from that year’s New Hampshire primary, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/22/04. (The former feminist was still pimping moronic Naomi Wolf references as he discussed the new candidates’ clothes!) In that same post, we reviewed a remarkable piece he wrote in October 1999, during Campaign 2000. It was one of the strangest and most influential pieces written in that whole campaign—an on-line savaging of Candidate Gore which the whole press corps plagiarized.

These people conspired to get dumb together. In part, your nation’s current predicament is the plain result. By the way, career liberal heroes are still playing us rubes as they position themselves for those grand rewards.

The liberal world has never come to terms with this blatantly obvious fact. Most likely, we never will. We seem to prefer the tribal life, in which we pretend that these grasping hacks are actually On Our Side.

Special report: So you understand?

PART 2—INSINUATIONS (permalink): By how much would Paul Ryan’s budget plan reduce future deficits? How about the competing plan authored by President Obama?

For better or worse, deficit reduction has been the key point in ongoing budget discussions. Each plan is premised on the need to reduce future deficits. But as we noted yesterday, the Washington Post and the New York Times have rarely discussed the amount of deficit reduction involved in the two budget plans—or at least, they’ve rarely done so in their news reporting.

How strange! If you read the Washington Post, you have occasionally seen this formulation in the budget reporting: 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. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/25/11.)

If you read the New York Times, you’ve seen those same numbers reported—once. But for the most part, the Times has made no attempt, in its reporting, to quantify the amount of deficit reduction involved in these two major plans.

In fairness, it’s hard to know just what would happen in one of these plans were adopted. In various ways, the plans are incomplete; important particulars have not been spelled out. And even if the plans had been presented in full detail, budget projections are always precarious. No one knows what will occur if a certain proposal goes into effect. Experts produce their best estimates.

That said, it’s amazing to see how little effort the Post and the Times have made with this critical matter. How much would either one of these plans reduce future budget deficits? If you aren’t grossly confused by now, you simply haven’t been reading our greatest newspapers!

Much of the apparent confusion stems from insinuations. Consider the Times, which has made little attempt to report the amount of reduction which might result from these plans.

How much would Honest Paul Ryan’s plan reduce future budget deficits? In its news reporting, the Times hasn’t really tried to discuss that question. But on April 6, the paper’s lead editorial seemed to insinuate grandly. Ryan’s plan had been released just the day before:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/6/11): If the House Republican budget blueprint released on Tuesday is the ''path to prosperity'' that its title claims, it is hard to imagine what ruin would look like.

[…]

Compared to current projections, spending on government programs would be cut by $4.3 trillion over 10 years, while tax revenues would go down by $4.2 trillion. So spending would be eviscerated, mainly to make room for continued tax cuts.

The deficit would be smaller, but at an unacceptable cost.

Say what? Do you understand that? According to the editors, spending would drop by $4.3 trillion. Revenues would drop by almost exactly the same amount. The editors didn’t explain where these numbers came from—but:

“The deficit would be smaller,” they said.

Do you understand why that would be true? If spending and revenues drop by the same amount, why would deficits be smaller? We don’t understand the logic there—but on the same day, Jackie Calmes presented a different pair of numbers in a front-page news report.

Good for Calmes! In the first sentence cited below, she explains, in murky fashion, part of the ongoing problem. But then, she gives numbers which contradict those of the editors, explaining where one of them came from:

CALMES (4/6/11): Because details remain sparse, the Congressional Budget Office could not estimate precisely the potential savings for Mr. Ryan's plan, which the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee is expected to approve Wednesday. House Republicans say the budget would cut $5.8 trillion from projected spending in the 10 years through the 2021 fiscal year, and $6.2 trillion more than Mr. Obama's budget would. But the Republican projections could not be independently confirmed. Longer term, the budget office said, the plan would allow the government to run a surplus by 2040.

The Republican plan also would slash individual and corporate income taxes by more than $4 trillion below current projections, somewhat offsetting the spending cuts and limiting the overall reduction in the deficit. Details on tax cuts and the closing of loopholes would ultimately be filled in by committees with jurisdiction over domestic programs and taxes.

Using a rather polite term of art, Calmes reports that the CBO “could not estimate precisely the potential savings” (i.e., cuts) which might be produced by Ryan's plan. She then presents two numbers, noting that one of these numbers came from the House GOP itself; she further notes that Ryan’s tax cuts would “somewhat offset” his spending cuts. Here’s our question: From reading that report, mightn’t the average reader assume that the GOP was claiming roughly $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction—$5.8 trillion in spending cuts “offset by” $4 trillion in tax cuts? That’s pretty much what we would have guessed. But if that’s the case, why were Times readers soon confronting news reports which said this:

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.

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.

At THE HOWLER, we have no idea. Incidentally, one day before Landler’s piece appeared, the editors did it again:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (4/13/11): Here are two numbers to keep in mind when thinking about the House Republicans' budget plan: They want to cut spending on government programs over the next decade by $4.3 trillion. And they want to cut tax revenues over the same period by $4.2 trillion.

Government spending needs to be brought under control. But slashing vital services just to pay for more tax cuts is bad public policy and bad economics.

The editors provided those numbers again; they were “numbers to keep in mind.” By now, the editors seemed to make a bit more sense about the implications of those numbers. The GOP was “slashing vital services just to pay for tax cuts,” the editors now said.

Again, the grandees failed to explain where their numbers came from. Nor did they explain why readers were seeing different numbers when they read their own paper’s front page. Two days later, the front page said this:

THOMAS (4/15/11): Mr. Ryan, on the other hand, proposes to slash spending by $5.8 trillion but—in contrast to the British approach—would allow most of the spending reductions to be offset by $4.2 trillion in tax cuts, rather than applied to closing the deficit gap.

Heaven help the Average Bloke who subscribes to our greatest newspaper! Thomas was virtually begging readers to assume that “the deficit gap” would be closed by something like $1.6 trillion.

Two days earlier, in his budget speech, Obama had said this about Ryan’s proposal: “It's a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next 10 years.”

Do you understand how much reduction the Ryan plan might produce? In its reporting, the New York Times had made no real attempt to sift through the confusion. Granted, the newspaper can’t be asked to provide a perfect quantification. But the paper has made almost no attempt to sift through all this rolling mess.

Meanwhile, the Times has given readers an array of apparent insinuations from which they might happily choose preferred outcomes. Reading the newspaper’s editors, liberals will say that there is no reduction in Ryan’s plan at all. From news reports, readers might guess that the reduction would be $1.8 trillion. Or it might be $4 trillion, as Obama pretty much said! (“$4.4 trillion,” said Landler.)

This is the way our greatest newspaper has floundered and flailed in the past few weeks. Tomorrow, we’ll fumble farther along with this muddle—and we’ll present a whole new question. This question will raise a different basic point—another point we don’t understand.

Do you understand this mess? We’ll take a quick guess: You don’t.