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COMPARED TO WHAT! Obama’s plan saves four trillion bucks. Four trillion compared to what? // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 27, 2011

Are we in it for the long haul: Andrew Leonard is asking good questions about our ongoing political mess. To read his piece at Salon, you know what to do: Just click here.

But first, a quick bit of background:

New York magazine has published an interesting profile of Paul Krugman, the liberal world’s most valuable journalist. Working from that profile, Leonard moves to a basic political question: Could Obama have passed a bigger stimulus package if he had asked for more? This is a proxy for a wider set of questions about the way Obama tends to do politics.

Leonard is skeptical about the idea that Obama could have gotten more. For ourselves, we have no Ouija board, so we aren’t sure what would have happened. But we think this passage raises an important set of questions:

LEONARD (4/26/11): But who is really being naive here? Krugman's position is that Obama starts too far to the right and leaves himself little negotiation room—that he reduces the politics of the possible. But you have to wonder whether Obama would have gotten any significant legislation accomplished if he had come out of the gate pushing for a much bigger stimulus, single-payer healthcare, and the nationalization of Citigroup.

Which scenario is more likely—the current Republican party buckling to Obama's progressive vigor, or centrist Democrat senators fleeing for the hills, denying the White House 60 votes on any of its agenda items? I know where I'd lay my money down.

Leave aside the question of who is “being naïve here.” In our view, Leonard is asking a very good question. This leads to an important point about American political history over the past thirty years.

Might Obama have made out better if he tried for a bigger stimulus package—if he proposed single-payer? (He didn’t run on single-payer, of course. No major Democrat ever has.) For ourselves, we have no way of knowing—but this question doesn’t seem to enter the minds of many fiery liberals. At the start of her recent Outlook piece, liberal activist Sally Kohn was whining hard about Obama. In our view, her whining wasn’t gigantically smart:

KOHN (4/17/11): The list of liberal laments about President Obama keeps getting longer: He extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Health-care reform didn't include a public option. In the frantic final hours of the budget negotiations, instead of calling the GOP's bluff, he agreed to historic cuts in progressive programs. And Wednesday, in response to conservatives' focus on the deficit, Obama said that we have to "put everything on the table."

What is the problem here? Is it a lack of leadership from the White House, a failure to out-mobilize the tea party or not enough long-term investment from liberal donors?

Kohn listed four laments about Obama—and three possible problems. Other possible problems didn’t seem to enter her head. She didn’t mention the need for sixty votes in the senate—a situation which left Obama relying on senators Nelson and Lieberman in the health care debate. And she didn’t mention something else:

The groaning lack of progressive politics over the last thirty years. The groaning lack of progressive frameworks and understandings within our political culture.

People like Kohn seem to think that a president can arrive in DC and magically transform American politics—magically change the way a sprawling electorate understands public issues. We’re sorry, but it just isn’t like that! In the New York piece, Krugman says this about Obama: "It's not a values difference. I think Obama was and is committed to the welfare state.” We don’t know if that’s true about Obama. On the other hand, we’re fairly sure that the term “welfare state” is a major political killer within the American context.

Why does our side still use it?

For the past thirty years, the conservative and corporate worlds have massively out-worked the left—to the extent that there is a left in this country. (In many cases, “the left” has been purchased. This is part of the conservative/corporate plan.) They have aggressively spread conservative frameworks; on our side, we’ve massively slept. But many of our most fiery liberals don’t seem to see this long-range problem. Yesterday, we were hugely struck by the highlighted Digby comment:

DIGBY (4/26/11): Greg Sargent makes the point, which I think is correct, that the Democrats are trying to thread the needle between the public's conviction that the deficit is an immediate existential crisis and the fact that they don't want their programs cut. But I can't help but point out that the public's perception is the result of Democratic Party political malpractice in that they allowed Pete Peterson to go unanswered for the past two years—indeed, they actively helped him.

For ourselves, we’ve never understood why Digby is so obsessed with Peterson. (And with his teen-aged grandson. We’re always amazed when they drag in the kids.) We can think of many people we would demonize first. But good God! Who are we kidding here? Nothing Peterson said in the past two years has affected the public’s perception at all!

In large part, the public’s perceptions have built up over the past three or four decades—a period in which there was no action whatsoever from anyone “on the left.” (At the top of the press corps, Krugman is the most notable exception, by far.)

True story: We have had our keisters kicked over the past forty years. Few progressives have been active at all. Others have simply been purchased. (They’ve been neutered, in Grover Norquist’s comical, accurate rendering.) We have often been played for fools by official “liberals”—by various famous people whom we still dumbly revere.

People like Kohn think short-term yelling will work. But we face a much longer haul.

Three cheers for Robin Wells: In New York, Benjamin Wallace-Wells helps explain the genesis of a well-written book:

WALLACE-WELLS (4/24/11): Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”

That book is extremely clearly written; it’s extremely approachable. If we had two brain cells to bang together, we would use its presentations in outreach to others.

But we liberals tend to avoid such conduct. Outreach to “those people?” Yuck!

Special report: Do you understand!

PART 3—COMPARED TO WHAT (permalink): Quite appropriately, coverage of Paul Ryan’s budget plan has largely focused on Medicare—on his transformation of the venerable program into a voucher system.

This proposal strikes us as a very bad idea. But even here, we the people manage to get confused about basic facts; sometimes, we’re helped along by our major journalists. Last night and this morning, MSNBC was playing tape of Ryan at a town hall meeting in his home district. In the first exchange on the tape, a young man is shown saying this:

MALE CONSTITUENT (4/26/11): You want to take a publicly administered program such as Medicare and turn it over to a private corporation... [video edit] Tell me how my grandma’s going to benefit from that, please.

RYAN: It’s a fair question.

MSNBC didn’t show Ryan’s answer. We’ll guess he started by asking this man how old his grandmother is. Ryan’s very bad proposal affects no one who is over age 54 at present—and this constituent seemed to be in his twenties.

Grandma might be in line for a voucher from Ryan. But we’ll guess this young man might be better advised to worry about himself—and about his mother and father.

(To judge this constituent’s age for yourself, just click here. The question starts about 1:30 in—after Rachel chuckles and vamps about the tough questions Ryan got, thus helping us learn to adore her.)

Just a guess: Eventually, most people will know that Ryan’s proposal excludes those who are currently 55 or older. In itself, this is part of the proposal’s strangeness; under Ryan’s proposal, a transition period would occur in which one spouse might receive the current version of Medicare while the second spouse got stuck with a voucher. That said, the Ryan and Obama plans are both premised on the need to reduce future budget deficits. And to date, the press corps’ coverage of this seminal matter has been a groaning mess.

As we’ve noted, this mess reveals the pitiful way our journalistic and intellectual culture functions. It’s hard to wrap the mind around how very dumb we actually are as a (floundering) people.

Good lord! By how much would honestbrave Ryan’s plan reduce future budget deficits? If you read the New York Times, there’s an answer to suit every taste! The editors have seemed to say that there would be no deficit reduction over the next ten years. Meanwhile, on the paper’s front page, readers have been told that Ryan’s plan achieves $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction in that ten-year period—while other reports have seemed to suggest that it’s really $1.8 trillion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/26/11).

Reading the Times on this seminal topic recalls the joke about New England weather: If you don’t like the size of Ryan’s deficit reductions, just wait a while!

By the way: Let’s assume that Ryan’s plan really would produce $4 trillion in deficit reduction. (That’s the amount of deficit reduction Obama seemed to attribute to Ryan’s plan in his own budget speech. Text below.) Tell the truth: Do you have the slightest idea how much new debt would accrue in the next ten years even with that amount of reduction? Put another way: Under current projections, how much new debt will we acquire in the next ten years if no budget plan gets passed?

It’s always possible that we’ve missed something, although we’ve searched the Nexis archives on several occasions. But in the Washington Post and the New York Times, we have seen no attempt to answer this bone-simple question. On this, our current top political topic, we’re basically flying blind. Our biggest newspapers make little attempt to provide even bone-simple information and analysis. Truly, it’s hard to comprehend the depth of our culture’s intellectual squalor—but that squalor has been with us, largely unnoticed, for a considerable time.

This brings us to something else you don’t understand. Here it is:

When Obama gave his budget speech, he described the amount of deficit reduction which would occur under his plan. Aw heck! Let’s reprint what he said about both major budget proposals:

OBAMA (4/13/11): A serious plan doesn't require us to balance our budget overnight…But it does require tough decisions and support from our leaders in both parties now. Above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five years, ten years, twenty years down the road.

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, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.

[…]

To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I'm president, we won't.

So today, I'm proposing a more balanced approach to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years. It's an approach that borrows from the recommendations of the bipartisan Fiscal Commission that I appointed last year, and it builds on the roughly $1 trillion in deficit reduction I already proposed in my 2012 budget.

Obama wants to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over twelve years. This raises a point we don’t understand, a question we can’t answer:

Four trillion dollars compared to what? To what is Obama comparing his budget proposal when he makes that statement?

We’re baffled by that question. Here’s why:

Normally, budget proposals get compared to what would happen “under current law.” That is, the new proposal gets compared to the level of spending and taxing and debt acquisition which will occur if things proceed as scheduled—if no change in current law occurs.

This procedure can be misleading. Sometimes, “current law” includes assumptions which everyone knows to be bogus. But unless we’re completely deranged, budget proposals of this type are normally “scored” in comparison to what would happen under current law.

Presumably, that isn’t the case when Obama says that his plan would produce $4 trillion in deficit reduction. Unless we’re completely deluded, a great deal of deficit reduction would occur under current law. Unless we’re massively confused, current law calls for the end of the Bush tax rates at the end of next year. If this occurs—if we return to the tax rates of the Clinton era—this would produce a great deal of deficit reduction all by itself.

Could Obama’s relatively modest proposals really produce $4 trillion in deficit reduction as compared to that? We would assume that the answer is no. But here’s the basic problem:

Go ahead! Fire up whatever search engine you like! Search the past month of the New York Times or the Washington Post. Try to find where these mighty newspapers answered a bone-simple question.

Obama has said that his budget plan would reduce deficits by $4 trillion. But go ahead—try to answer this question:

Four trillion dollars compared to what?

We don’t know the answer to that. Our question:

Do you understand?

Tomorrow: Politifact rules