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Print view: Bruce Bartlett spoke on a New York Times blog. What's wrong with the paper's front page?
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BARTLETT’S QUOTATION! Bruce Bartlett spoke on a New York Times blog. What’s wrong with the paper’s front page? // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 29, 2011

History marches on/Love Canal edition: We're hard at work on chapter 6 for our companion site, How He Got There. Did you know that the fateful episode in Campaign 2000 occurred in December 1999?

We think this history should be recorded for the use of possible future generations. (On Friday, we'll give you an opening dose from this chapter.) If you want to contribute to this ongoing effort, you know what to do: Just click here.

The hopeless old and new guards: Wow. Having said that:

There’s some good news—and there’s some bad news—about Jack Shafer’s piece at Slate.

The good news involves the comments by a wide range of Slate readers. Shafer’s piece is amazingly weak, although it makes one actual point. That said, we can’t recall a case where the comments to a hopeless piece so skillfully dissected its flaws.

Slate’s readers were sharp in the past two days. Slate itself, not so much!

In his hopeless post, Shafer critiques Al Gore’s piece about climate change in the new Rolling Stone. In his piece, Shafer offers seven “pointers” to Gore; his first pointer actually makes good sense, once you’ve averted your gaze from its overwrought language. “Vilify your enemies by name,” Shafer advises in pointerly fashion, noting that Gore fails to name specific news orgs or specific journalists who have done the type of work he decries in his piece.

This is a perfectly valid “pointer”—but things go straight downhill from there. Shorter Shafer: Gore thinks civilization may come to an end. In response, Shafer complains that Gore wrote a sentence that is a bit too long.

To lose all faith in human capacity, we suggest that you read Shafer’s piece. To regain a bit of that faith, read the many spot-on comments appended to his work. How good were the various comments? At least two commenters thank the other commenters for offering such cogent critiques. One example: “It's always nice when you read a poorly thought out article to see that Slate readers have already thoroughly pointed it out. So bravo, Slate commenters. I have no idea why this shoddy article was written, but at least I don't feel the compulsion to list out, point by point, exactly why it's shoddy, and that's time in my life that you've given me.”

We had a similar reaction as we read Shafer’s piece—and as we read the comments.

What can it mean when an org like Slate is posting such hopeless work? We’re not sure, but yesterday Salon was bringing the apocalypse on from a different direction.

Shafer is from the press corps’ old school. At Salon, a new kid on the block—Alex “Kid” Pareene—was offering this critique of Michele Bachmann’s kick-off error. Truly, the highlighted passage is hopeless:

PAREENE (6/28/11): We had fun with her Waterloo, Iowa, "gaffe" yesterday, but by Michele Bachmann's standards it actually wasn't that bad. (The illuminating part of her statement was that she wants to live in "John Wayne's America." That's not far from being a white supremacist dog whistle.) But a whole day of nonstop coverage of how dumb and silly Michele Bachmann is is actually pretty much great news for Michele Bachmann. She feeds on this!

She can say the media seized on a simple mistake, distorted her words, messed up the story they were "correcting" her on (John Wayne Gacy was born in Chicago, not Waterloo, Iowa, as various outlets initially reported), and she'd be pretty much right about all of it. And right or wrong, a conservative base that already hates the lamestream media will grow fonder of her the more the press highlights her loopy extremism.

As Pareene notes, Bachmann’s error wasn’t all that bad—and we’re judging by normal standards. As things seem to have shaken out, John Wayne’s parents lived in Waterloo, Iowa at one time. We would suggest that people believe all sorts of mistaken things about their families and their home towns and regions; it’s better if candidates don’t make mistaken statements, but it’s also better if the “press corps” doesn’t rush to make its own mistakes in the course of correcting such errors (“as various outlets” did). Beyond that, as Pareene rightly notes: “Rightly or wrongly, a conservative base that already hates the lamestream media will grow fonder of her the more the press highlights her loopy extremism.” We’ll even help him out with his judgment: The conservative base is judging rightly when it reacts that way to such trivial press corps conduct. And by the way, many centrist voters will react that way too.

Starting in 1999, the focus on trivia has come to dominate the way the “press corps” pretends to cover elections. We hate to be the ones to tell you, but this isn’t good for your country. That said, we were much more struck by the statement we’ve highlighted in Pareene’s piece. Was Bachmann’s statement about John Wayne “not far from being a white supremacist dog whistle?” Pareene’s assessment is just astoundingly dumb. It’s also amazingly bad politics from a progressive perspective.

Question: Can someone invent a time machine so the kids can go back to the 50s and live through the civil rights years? You’re right: Most would hide beneath their beds a million miles from the action, but at least they’d get the need for high racial drama out of their systems. In the wider political context, statements like Pareene’s tell the public that they should disregard everything any progressive ever says, especially on matters of race. It’s also disrespectful to the various people who dealt with the real white supremacist whistles.

Some of those people actually died, so Pareene can enjoy his high drama.

If this is the way we reason and think, how did our country get this far? Watching the old and new guards reason, we constantly ask ourselves that.

More on Shafer: Two specific points about the old guard:

We assume it isn’t Shafer’s fault, but Slate’s headline refers to Gore as a “washed-up politician.” (“Al Gore, Press Critic/A washed-up politician finds a new venue for his ideas.”) Given the fact that Gore won the freaking Nobel Peace Prize after having washed ashore, that’s an amazingly stupid description. It echoes Chris Matthews’ recent thumbnail, in which he only remembered the fact that Gore once grew a beard. These people are amazingly churlish. If you couldn’t see them work, you’d assume they didn’t exist.

This second point is Shafer’s fault. Like old guard icon David Broder, Shafer found himself very bored by Gore’s very boring discussion:

SHAFER: Although the primary target of Gore's piece is the press corps, his pen wanders, giving his article the flow of several op-eds about separate topics stitched front-to-end like the victims of The Human Centipede. Gore begins complaining about press coverage of global warming but then marbles his essay with a couple of history lessons and sections complaining about campaign-finance regulation, the economic crisis, the number of hours people watch television, and the "powerful special interests" who have "rigged" the political game. I needed two cups of strong coffee and a tap from a cattle prod to finish it: Your dosage may vary.

The boredom is general within the old guard. This was Broder’s reaction to Gore’s convention speech, which was a giant hit among actual voters: “I have to confess, my attention wandered as he went on through page after page of other swell ideas, and somewhere between hate crimes legislation and a crime victim's constitutional amendment, I almost nodded off.”

Voters loved Gore’s convention address. Like Shafer, The Dean almost nodded off.

These people are constantly nodding off. Question: How did your country get this far with an old guard like this at the top?

Special report: No need to know!

PART 2—BARTLETT’S QUOTATION (permalink): The federal budget lies at the heart of current American politics.

A “debt limit” battle is underway. If it isn’t resolved in the next few weeks, it may trigger a serious crisis. Beyond that, a massive fight is unfolding about future federal spending. As such, the federal budget lies at the heart of current American politics.

Unless you read our biggest newspapers, in which case you see little attempt to explain these issues at all.

Do you live in a rational world, as the western world has long claimed? Actually no, you do not. Just consider Bruce Bartlett’s quotation.

Bartlett was quoted by David Leonhardt in last Wednesday’s New York Times. Leonhardt, this year’s Pulitzer winner, was writing about current efforts “to get the deficit under control.” Midway through his column, he crafted a catchy distinction:

LEONHARDT (6/22/11): Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world's highest health costs (by far), the world's largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70—and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.

To put it in budgetary terms, the deficit we imagine comes largely from discretionary spending. The one we have comes partly from discretionary spending but mostly from everything else: tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

What’s really causing our federal deficits? Not the things we imagine, Leonhardt said. In this passage, he draws on a well-known fact: We the people are often quite clueless about the federal budget. We the people imagine a world in which waste/fraud/abuse and foreign aid cause our federal deficits.

That’s the world we imagine. But in the world which really exists, the deficit doesn’t stem from those causes. As he continued, Leonhardt quoted Bartlett as he explained where the actual deficit comes from—the actual federal deficit, not the one we imagine:

LEONHARDT (continuing directly): To put it in budgetary terms, the deficit we imagine comes largely from discretionary spending. The one we have comes partly from discretionary spending but mostly from everything else: tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Taxes may be the toughest issue politically, but the mechanics of raising taxes are not all that difficult. As the 1990s demonstrated, the economy can grow rapidly even after a modest tax increase. As the last decade showed, a big tax cut doesn't necessarily prevent mediocre growth.

Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department official, has pointed out on The New York Times's Economix blog that average federal tax rates are ''lower for most taxpayers than they have been since the 1960s.'' The government could raise about $60 billion a year by letting the high-end Bush tax cuts lapse and tens of billions more by reducing tax breaks for companies and individuals.

In that passage, Bartlett explains one of the actual sources of the actual federal deficit. Several thoughts passed through our heads.

First, a question, the same one we posed yesterday: Assuming that Bartlett and Leonhardt are right, how many voters actually know that average federal tax rates are “lower for most taxpayers than they have been since the 1960s?” We would guess that few voters know this fact—and that almost no voters could discuss this fact with any sophistication or detailed information. (For ourselves, we could not. By the way, how many is “most” here?) Beyond that, we would guess that very few liberals would know where to go to gain such detailed information.

How have federal tax rates changed through the years? (This would include effective tax rates, in which we adjust for deductions.) Where would you go to find such information—to share information with a friend who may not be inclined to vote as you do? For ourselves, we can’t really say. We’ll guess that you can’t either.

(By way of contrast, do you know where to go to get current batting averages? We could take you to such a site in one or two clicks. We’d have you there in ten seconds.)

We would guess that very few people have any real knowledge about those changed federal tax rates. This brings us to our second observation: Please note where Leonhardt got Bartlett’s quotation. Bartlett’s quote comes from “The New York Times's Economix blog,” a part of our greatest newspaper.

Question: How many people ever look at that blog, as compared to the number of folk who look at the Times’ front page? Second question: If we live in a rational world, and if we are facing a series of crises, why in the world isn’t such information being skillfully frisked right on the Times front page?

Question: At this point, shouldn’t well-informed people know basic facts about our federal tax rates? Given the role that is played in the current debates by the issue of federal taxes, shouldn’t well-informed people know about the ways these rates have changed down through the years? We would say the obvious answer is yes. But you will see this topic explored on the Times’ front page about the time the cow jumps the moon.

Even at this time of fiscal crisis, the game isn’t played that way! Information plays almost no role in the way our big newspapers function, as we will note in more detail over the next two days.

How hapless are the public discussions conducted by our greatest newspapers? Consider another point from Leonhardt’s piece—a point Leonhardt made early on. In these, his opening paragraphs, Leonhardt explains a troubling fact about the ongoing debt discussions. “I’m guessing you haven’t heard about” this, Leonhardt safely says:

LEONHARDT: Republicans say they won't raise taxes. Democrats are reluctant to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So discretionary spending—the roughly 35 percent of government that includes other social programs and the military—will have to be a big part of any deal in coming weeks to raise the debt ceiling.

But there is a little problem with discretionary spending.

According to the government's official forecasts, discretionary spending is already slated to shrink significantly. Military spending will fall by 25 percent, as a share of the economy, over the next decade. Domestic programs will shrink even more, and by 2021 they will account for their smallest share of the economy since the 1950s.

I'm guessing you haven't heard of these plans, however. That's probably because plans is a bit of an exaggeration. Assumptions is a better word: per Congress's orders, the baseline budget numbers unrealistically assume that future discretionary spending will grow only with inflation, rather than with population growth and economic growth, too.

As a result, Vice President Joe Biden, Republican leaders and the other deficit negotiators not only have to cut discretionary spending to make progress. They have to cut it even more than the Congressional Budget Office, the keeper of the official numbers, already assumes that spending will be cut.

Ouch! As Biden and now Obama try to cut discretionary spending, they are hacking away at a baseline which already assumes large cuts!

“I'm guessing you haven't heard” this, Leonhardt mordantly writes. That would rank as the world’s safest guess. You live in a world where the biggest newspapers never get around to discussing such facts, except in the occasional cite by the occasional Pulitzer winner in a stand-alone weekly column. The Times will discuss a fact like that in a front-page report about the time the cow returns from the moon. That fact is light-years beyond the horizon of the things which get discussed in our most important news pages. That fact is very basic. But it’s a hundred times too complex for the Times news pages.

How many voters understand the way those federal tax rates have changed? Trust us—no one can explain such facts, and no one knows where to find them. But then, you live in a Potemkin political culture, a culture which stages Potemkin discussions when things get discussed at all.

Almost nothing gets discussed in our most important news pages. The results of this broken political culture can now be seen all around.

Tomorrow: Outlook gives it a try!

Friday: A list of (ignored) basic topics