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THE YEARS OF WRITING SALACIOUSLY! Collins said she’d analyze Ryan’s plan. Six long weeks have passed: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MAY 19, 2011

The astonishing role of The Stupid: As citizens, we seem to have a very hard time coming to terms with how stupid our political culture now is.

We talk a lot about press corps bias, much less about The Dumb.

How dumb is our high journalistic culture? That culture is astoundingly dumb. From the realm of economics, two quick recent examples:

Last Sunday, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote a piece for the New York Times about high-end taxation. Some of what he wrote was informative; much of what he wrote was pap. We were most struck by the sheer absurdity of what follows. In this passage, Sorkin explained how hard it can be to get by on a mere quarter million:

SORKIN (5/15/11): The Fiscal Times, a publication financed by Peter G. Peterson, the very public deficit hawk and former commerce secretary under President Richard Nixon, commissioned BDO, an accounting firm, to look at how households that make $250,000 fared in different parts of the country, mostly in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods.

The takeaway, according to the study: ''It's not exactly Easy Street for our $250,000-a-year family, especially when they live in high-tax areas on either coast.''

Even when including in its estimates an additional $3,000 from investment income, the report said, families ''end up in the red—after taxes, saving for retirement and their children's education, and a middle-of-the-road cost of living—in seven out of the eight communities in the analysis.”

According to the Fiscal Times, it’s hard for families earning a quarter million to stay afloat in many locales. The oddness of this finding didn’t seem to occur to Sorkin. Question: If families can’t make it on $250,000, what happens to families with average incomes? Neither Sorkin nor the Fiscal Times seemed to ask themselves that.

(Versions of this Fiscal Times report have been floating around for at least six months. For our original take on this report, see THE DAILY HOWLER 12/21/10.)

Sorkin’s report was strangely clueless—and Sorkin’s a major scrub-faced player in the upper-end press. But then, this front-page report in the Washington Post was a bit clueless too. The report discussed a plan to eliminate tax breaks for major oil companies as part of the effort to reduce federal deficits. Here’s the way it started, front-page headline included:

RUCKER/MONTGOMERY (5/11/11): Senate Democrats push to end tax breaks for big oil companies to cut deficit

Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Tuesday to save $21 billion over the next decade by eliminating tax breaks for the nation's five biggest oil companies, a move designed to counter Republican demands to control the soaring national debt without new taxes.

With the proposal, Democrats sought to reframe the debate over debt reduction to include fresh revenue as well as sharp cuts in spending. For the first time, Democratic leaders suggested an equal split between spending cuts and new taxes—"50-50," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

That represents a larger share for taxes than has been proposed by either President Obama or the bipartisan commission he appointed to recommend how to cut the national debt.

Democrats hoped to save $21 billion over the next decade, part of their effort to “cut the national debt/cut [the] deficit.” But how big are projected annual deficits over the next ten years? In a lengthy front-page report, Rucker and Montgomery never made any attempt to say.

Without that information, can readers even begin to judge this proposal as an attempt at deficit reduction? Actually, no—they pretty much can’t. This problem didn’t seem to occur to the Post’s front-page editors.

Routinely, it’s stunning to see the role played by The Dumb in our budget discussions. But let’s be honest: Stupid and dumb are the default settings for our national debate in almost all areas. That said, very few people seem to identify The Dumb as a basic problem. In our current political culture, we tend to rail about issues of bias and ideology. But we rarely tell voters a crucial fact: A vast amount of what they read is almost defiantly dumb.

Final example:

This morning, a New York Times editorial discusses the budget dealings of the so-called Gang of Six, which now has five members. Early on, the editors describe Tom Coburn’s recent “nuanced” approach to taxes:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (5/19/11): That's why the decision on Tuesday by Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican of Oklahoma, to leave the ''Gang of Six'' deficit talks before that could happen was so unfortunate. It's not that we regularly agreed with Mr. Coburn's very conservative outlook—far from it. But he recently showed courage by acknowledging that the budget cannot be put in long-term balance without new money. Few other Republicans are willing to admit that truth out loud.

Mr. Coburn adopted a nuanced position that allowed him to say he was against an increase in tax rates. But he was not against eliminating certain breaks and broadening the tax base, which could result in rich people paying more. By current Republican standards, that constitutes a breakthrough, one that negotiators of both parties could combine with measures to reduce the growth of spending—and get closer to a balanced budget.

Naturally, he was pilloried for it. The no-tax-no-how core denounced him, as did right-wing blogs.

Indeed, Coburn’s position on taxes has been extremely “nuanced.” He wasn’t willing to raise tax rates; in fact, he wanted to lower rates. But the editors say he was willing to take certain steps “which could result in rich people paying more.” Did that mean that rich people might pay more taxes on the same amount of income? Or would they only be paying more taxes because they were earning more money? Coburn kept trying to cloud the issue, in part because of GOP pathology regarding tax increases.

That said, we haven’t seen any news org successfully tackle the ins and outs of this basic conceptual matter. Simply put, work like that is beyond the skill level of the mainstream press. In today’s editorial, the editors say that Coburn knew that budget-balancing would require “new money.” That is a thoroughly mumble-mouthed way of discussing these basic concepts.

Our public discussions are quite underwhelming. So are many major journalists. In fact, our culture is being destroyed by The Dumb, but we continue to screech about bias and ideology. Few people ever mention The Dumb as a basic political problem, although The Dumb is a basic player in these perilous times.

You can’t run a modern society on The Dumb. Citizens need to be warned about this fact. Beyond that, citizens need to be challenged about a basic citizen’s duty:

We all have a basic citizen’s duty. Even when it feels very good, we can’t let ourselves and our tribal mates succumb to the joys of The Dumb.

THE YEARS OF WRITING SALACIOUSLY (permalink): Gail Collins made a promise. Or so it seemed at the time.

Lady Collins appeared on the Maddow show on Wednesday, April 6. One day earlier, Honest Paul Ryan had released his well-intentioned new budget plan.

In the Washington Post’s opinion pages, Ryan’s plan was already being shredded in columns by Dana Milbank, Matt Miller, Harold Meyerson, E. J. Dionne. Somehow, though, Rachel had gotten it into her head that “the Beltway media” were simply refusing to analyze the plan (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/11).

Result? Three separate times, Maddow asked Collins to explain the press corps’ refusal to analyze Ryan’s plan. In this, the first of the three Q-and-A’s, Collins reassured her troubled friend. She said it was going to happen:

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?

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.

“It’s going to happen,” Collins said, agreeing to ignore the fact that Ryan was already getting shredded. And it got better! When Rachel asked her question for the third time, Lady Collins almost seemed to make a personal pledge:

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.

From that, a citizen might even have thought that Lady Collins was planning to talk about Ryan’s disastrous plan. His numbers were “all wrong,” she said. His budget plan was “a big mess,” involving all sorts of “terrible things.”

Lustily, the analysts cheered. But they’d been misled again!

Six weeks have passed since Lady Collins seemed to declare her intentions. In that time, she has written thirteen new columns, touching on various tedious topics, along with some that are not. Along the way, we’ve had some good times, including the time she typed this:

COLLINS (4/23/11): Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho is so on the side of private enterprise ranchers that he just signed a law naming the gray wolf a ''disaster emergency.'' I would love to go into this, but he's actually not new in office. I just brought it up because I like being able to say ''Butch Otter.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Oh boy, that was good!

Alas. Since the time she appeared with Maddow, Collins has mentioned Mitt Romney’s dog in a column. She has mentioned Governor Otter, but only because of his comical name, which she likes being able to say. But apparently, Collins doesn’t like being able to say “Paul Ryan.” Ryan’s name has never been mentioned in Collins’ columns, from that day right up to this.

Since talking to Maddow, Collins has written thirteen columns. Ryan’s plan hasn’t been mentioned at all—although, in fairness, Collins has discussed more serious issues than tends to be her wont.

This morning, Collins provides a service. She reminds us of something she does like discussing, aside from Romney’s abused Irish setter.

People! Collins likes to talk about sex! She likes to stick her long itchy nose deep into other folks’ underwear drawers. And when she gets her long nose there, she sometimes types unfortunate things, like the things we’ve highlighted:

COLLINS (5/19/11): Which brings us to sex. What is it with Republicans lately? Is there something about being a leader of the family-values party that makes you want to go out and commit adultery?

They certainly don't have a lock on the infidelity market, and heaven knows we all remember John Edwards. But, lately, the G.O.P. has shown a genius for putting a peculiar, newsworthy spin on illicit sex. A married congressman hunting for babes is bad. A married congressman hunting for babes by posting a half-naked photo of himself on the Internet is Republican.

A married governor who fathers an illegitimate child is awful. A married governor who fathers an illegitimate child by a staff member of the family home and then fails to mention it to his wife for more than 10 years is Republican.

A married senator who has an affair with an employee is a jerk. A married senator who has an affair with an employee who is the wife of his chief of staff, and whose adultery is the subject of ongoing discussion at his Congressional prayer group, is Republican.

We haven't even gotten to Newt Gingrich yet!

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That said, we feel sorry for a child who has Collins pimping him as “illegitimate” in the nation’s most legitimate newspaper. Does anyone know what decade it is in the place from which Collins types?

(Perhaps she draws inspiration from Maddow, who won’t stop talking about the way John Ensign was “shtupping” his “mistress.” Will someone, anyone, save us all from the minds of progressive church ladies?)

Collins has shown her less sensitive side in such discussions before. That said, let’s focus on today’s point of emphasis:

“Let’s talk about sex,” Collins says, early on. As usual, the analysts jibed.

Collins loves to talk about sex, the juicier the better. Ryan’s plan could throw millions of people into the street, but problems like that are beneath the ken of such high-ranking ladies. Instead, Collins sticks her big long nose into underwear drawers, weirdly suggesting that Republican sex-bungles differs from those of Democrats. Are the recent sex-bungles of Ensign and Schwarzenegger really different from those of Edwards and Spitzer? Are they really worse, somehow?

It takes a remarkable person to say so. A high lady raised her hand.

That said, the world has always been lucky in one key respect. The world is lucky because its high ladies are willing to tell the proles what to do. Continuing this ancient tradition, Collins has some advice for Mitch Daniels today. She sticks her long nose in his drawer two times, dispensing some high-class advice:

COLLINS: Daniels is apparently worried that a presidential run might prove embarrassing to his wife, who ditched him and the kids and ran off to California to marry a doctor and then later recanted everything and came back. I think it is pretty safe to say that this topic might come up.


As to Governor Daniels, the voters are unlikely to give a fig about the interesting past of his wife, Cheri. But if he wants to protect her from the embarrassment of being asked about it 24/7, perhaps he could just declare her off limits. The news media has generally respected those kinds of rules when it comes to presidential candidates' children, as long as said offspring don't show up on reality shows or as teen-abstinence ambassadors for a shoe store foundation.

Of course, a wife who is off limits would not be able to campaign for her husband. I think that would be terrific. Finally, we could end the tradition that a presidential candidate's spouse is running for something, too. If we want a first family to obsess over, we should just hire a king and queen.

“I think it is pretty safe to say that this topic might come up.” So Lady Collins says, having just raised the topic herself.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about what we saw last weekend when we visited an older friend who is struggling with serious medical issues. For us, this trip had a special resonance because Paul Krugman wrote about Ryan’s plan on the first day of our visit (click here). But Lady Collins still hasn’t discussed Ryan’s plan, despite the promise she seemed to make to poor Rachel that night.

Collins is going to talk about sex. This lady likes hot entertainment. Indeed, many liberals are rediscovering the joys of political sex, having spent a previous decade arguing that we shouldn’t waste out time on such matters. You see, the steamy sex in question is Republican sex now!

“Really persistent sexual misbehavior says something about the character of the person involved.” So a high lady rules today. The analysts authored a rain of jibes, eventually asking this:

What does persistent attention to underwear drawers say about a columnist’s character?