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THE WORLD’S DUMBEST IDEA! Plainly, it’s the world’s dumbest idea. How has it prevailed? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 20, 2010

Which part of fifty percent doesn’t the Times understand: Sometimes, you just have to throw up your hands and laugh, pledging your faith in the gods.

Last week, the Washington Post and ABC News released their latest national poll. (To survey all results, click this.) They didn’t keep us in suspense—this was the very first question:

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president?

Repeat: That was the poll’s first question! For that reason, if you click on that link, you can quickly spot the result: 50 percent of respondents said they approved of the job Obama is doing; 47 percent disapproved. As you can see if you click on the link, this represents a two-point drop from the poll in early June, in which 52 percent voiced approval.

Fifty percent of respondents said they approved of Obama’s performance—until Sunday’s New York Times began appearing on doorsteps.

Alas! In the paper’s op-ed section, fifteen of the usual suspects were asked to say what Obama should do “to stop the drop in his public approval ratings.” (To ponder the views of all fifteen, . Be sure to bring your Sominex.) But good God! As you can see if you click on this link, this is the way some unnamed editor or editors introduced this sprawling feature:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS (7/18/10): Though BP managed to stop the spread of oil from its broken well last week, President Obama has been able to do little to stop the drop in his public approval ratings, which now, according to a new ABC News-Washington Post poll, hover just above 40 percent. Add these numbers to the comment by Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, that Democrats could lose control of the House in the November elections, and it equals trouble for the president in 2012. So what does Mr. Obama need to do to shore up his base, woo back independent voters and win a second term? The Op-Ed editors asked political experts to suggest a few plans of attack.

Which part of fifty percent doesn’t the New York Times understand? (Second problem: As noted, the “drop” Obama can’t seem to stop was measured at two points in this poll.)

At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert went the extra mile, imagining one possible explanation for the editors’ pitiful bungle. We’ll suggest you just shake your head at the world in which you live. (All our analysts stood around, cheering their Uncle Eric.)

Presumably, nothing will turn on this puzzling bungle, offered right at the top of a sprawling feature in Sunday’s Times. And yes, we all make mistakes on occasion. But as of today, the editors still haven’t corrected their bungle, as Boehlert suggested. Although, in fairness, the Times has moved to renounce this unfortunate error:

NEW YORK TIMES CORRECTION (7/20/10): A report on Friday about the British Open misspelled the surname of a golfer who made a quadruple bogey. He is Anders Hansen, not Hanson.

Speaking of quadruple bogeys, how about naming the editor or editors who published that Sunday piece?

A philosophical question looms: If Obama’s rating is 50 percent, is it hovering just above 40 percent?” Two days later, the nation’s most important editors still can’t seem to decide.

Then too, we marveled at this: Then again, we marveled several times watching last night’s Countdown. Lawrence O’Donnell was in the chair, giving KO a much-deserved break. Eventually, he played this sound-bite from Obama, seeming to think that it represented a death-shot at the GOP:

OBAMA (7/19/10): For a long time, there has been a tradition, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, to offer relief to the unemployed. That was certainly the case under my predecessor, when Republican senators voted several times to extend emergency unemployment benefits. After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who did not have any problems spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help.

Here at THE HOWLER, we would extend those unemployment benefits, paid for or not—and we wouldn’t be inclined to extend the Bush tax cuts for high-end earners. But as we watched this videotape, we were struck by how poorly Obama’s statement had been crafted. If you’re an average citizen who doesn’t follow these issues in great detail, tell us why you didn’t hear this as you watched the president:

OBAMA AS HEARD BY MANY CITIZENS: After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the Republicans are now refusing to continue these very same policies.

O’Donnell heard Obama’s statement as a brilliantly-crafted death shot at the GOP. We heard the statement quite differently. We thought it was crafted quite poorly. (This morning, the Morning Joe gang took LO’s side. We rest our case.)

From there, LO fell to trashing an ad which a conservative group is running against Harry Reid in Nevada. O’Donnell and his guest, Chris Hayes, marveled at the ad’s inconsistency:

O’DONNELL: And back to Nevada with this new ad Karl Rove’s team has put out on Harry Reid. It is hard to surprise me in politics. But I did not expect from that side of our politics there would be any argument that the stimulus was too small, which is the case that they’re trying to make against Harry Reid in Nevada, that the Nevada stimulus was too small. Are they getting too cute for their own electorate out there?

HAYES: Look, I don`t think that they—one thing it shows is this, right—is that the professionals have sort of come in to kind of layer, as they say in campaigns, right, the Sharron Angle operation. The professionals don’t have any real care for ideological commitment or consistency. They want to hammer Harry Reid with whatever sort of cudgel is lying around. So I think that it shows that they understand that the contingencies of the—where things are in the economy, they have to hit people with whatever they have.

Presumably, Reid will end up beating Angle. But there’s nothing “inconsistent” in this ad, though the boys didn’t seem to realize. But then, our side duznt allwaze reeson reel gud, a point we’ll explore in one part of the series which commences below.

O’Donnell’s writers seemed to be working from this post by Sam Stein, which they of course didn’t credit. Stein says the ad is wrong in its central factual claim; that may well be the case, since the “recent data” to which the ad refers are drawn from this detailed news report—a news report published in February 2009, just six days after the stimulus passed! (Stein didn’t report the comical time-lag in this ad’s “recent data.”) But rather than focus on this laughable factual problem, our side is back to claiming that, if you opposed the stimulus bill in the first place, you are being “inconsistent” if you think your state should get its fair share of the stimulus money once the bill becomes law. Sorry—that’s just massively silly. But it’s good enough for us.

Often, our side duznt reesun reel gudd. Remember when we used to argue that conservative governors were being crackpots if they didn’t take all their stimulus money? But then, Countdown is largely tribal entertainment. Last night, the entertainment was good.

Special report: Triumph of the world’s dumbest idea!

PART 1—THE WORLD’S DUMBEST IDEA (permalink): For decades now, the American discourse has been ruled, in substantial part, by the world’s dumbest idea.

Last week, the Republican leader in the senate voiced this stunningly stupid idea. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was bringing aid to Senator Jon Kyl, a flailing and floundering colleague (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/10). Helping Kyl escape a bad jam, McConnell boldly stepped to the plate and expressed the world’s dumbest idea:

MCCONNELL (7/13/10): There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.

Senator Kyl had expressed the view that there’s no need to “pay for” tax cuts—no need to fashion spending cuts to offset the revenue that is lost in a major tax cut. Now, McConnell went one step beyond. Quick example: If a nation cuts its tax rates in half, will it be left with (something resembling) half as much future revenue? Not at all, McConnell now said! After all, Bush’s tax cuts increased federal revenue! McConnell thus recited the dumbest idea—an inane idea which has ruled our world for roughly the past thirty years.

If you cut tax rates, you increase federal revenues! This monumentally stupid idea has been at the heart of American discourse for several decades. But then again, so have these other familiar ideas—ideas which are almost as dumb:

Social Security will go bankrupt in [insert year here]!

European-style health care has failed everywhere it’s ever been tried!

The top one percent of earners pay [insert number here] percent of federal taxes—a vastly disproportionate share!

The flat tax IS progressive!

For decades, variants of these stupid ideas have played central roles in our discourse. But the mother of all such dumb ideas is the one McConnell just spoke.

If we lower the tax rates, we get increased revenue! Let’s marvel at the sheer stupidity involved in this well-pimped notion. For starters, let’s conduct a thought experiment involving President Bush’s tax cuts in the past decade:

In Bush’s initial tax cut package (2001), the marginal tax rate was cut from 39.6 percent to 35 percent. But if lowering the tax rate produces more revenue, why would President Bush have stopped there? Surely, he would have cut the tax rate to 34 percent, thereby producing even more revenue! No—he would have cut it to 33 percent! To 32! No—to 31!

Simple story: Quite plainly, no one believes, as a general matter, that cutting tax rates produces more revenue. More precisely, no Republican president has ever behaved as if he believed such a thing. In 1986, President Reagan cut the marginal rate to 28 percent. But why in the world did he leave it there? Why didn’t he cut it to 27 percent? Why not 26?

Do Republican politicians really believe the world’s dumbest idea? Actually, no—they don’t. In a recent post, Steve Benen said this: “The Bush/Cheney Office of Management and Budget and the Bush/Cheney Council of Economic Advisers rejected the notion that tax cuts can pay for themselves out of hand.” Steve didn’t provide any links or quotes. Luckily, the Washington Post once did, in this 2007 editorial which we cited in real time.

Alas! Parading about on the stump, Candidate Giuliani had begun expressing the world’s dumbest idea. When he did, the editors correctly swung into action, recalling a string of contrary statements from major Bush officials. We’ll suggest that you read the whole editorial. But in this chunk, Bush officials turn their backs on the world’s dumbest idea:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (12/1/07): You don't have to turn to Democrats to refute this point; just read the studies and comments by Republican economists, including many from the Bush administration. President Bush's Treasury Department, analyzing the "dynamic" effects of making the Bush tax cuts permanent, found that even under favorable assumptions, the positive economic impact would make up for no more than 10 percent of the tax cuts' cost.

"I certainly would not claim that tax cuts pay for themselves," Edward P. Lazear, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, testified last year. He's not alone. In the 2003 Economic Report of the President, the council concluded that "although the economy grows in response to tax reductions (because of the higher consumption in the short run and improved incentives in the long run) it is unlikely to grow so much that lost revenue is completely recovered by the higher level of economic activity.”

How unlikely? N. Gregory Mankiw, another former Council of Economic Advisers head in the Bush White House, concluded in 2005 that cuts on capital gains taxes could generate enough extra growth to recoup half the lost revenue in the long run; cutting taxes on wages could recover just 17 percent of the costs. An analysis conducted by the Congressional Budget Office under the direction of Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who had been an economic adviser in the Bush White House, found that, under the rosiest of scenarios, a 10 percent reduction in the personal income tax rate would generate enough economic growth to replace 22 percent of lost revenue in the first five years and 32 percent in the second five.

You would still lose revenue with all these tax cuts. You just wouldn’t lose quite as much as you might have thought through a simple-minded (“static”) analysis.

"I certainly would not claim that tax cuts pay for themselves!” For the record, Candidate Dole had said the same thing in the 1996 campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/08). In that campaign, Dole proposed a 15 percent cut in all income tax rates; he said his proposal would earn back about one quarter of the lost revenue through increased economic activity.

Repeat: Candidate Dole didn’t claim that his tax cut would “pay for itself.” Instead, he and his experts claimed that his tax cut would pay for 27 percent of itself. (Adam Nagourney, New York Times, 8/5/96: “Aides to Mr. Dole offered only sketchy details today on how he would pay for the package. But the aides said $145 billion, or about 27 percent, of the cost of the tax cuts would be covered by new revenue created by the economic growth resulting from the cuts.”)

Duh. No sane politician has ever believed in this, the world’s dumbest idea! Two more examples:

As president, did George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) believe that tax cuts produce extra revenue? If so, why did he raise tax rates in 1990, as part of his famous deficit reduction package? Why didn’t he cut tax rates instead? Wouldn’t that have produced extra revenue?

As a candidate, did George W. Bush (Bush 43) claim or believe that his tax cut proposal would produce extra revenue? Please! All through Campaign 2000, Candidate Bush said that his tax cut package would reduce the projected ten-year budget surplus by $1.3 trillion. (Reasoning more accurately, Candidate Gore said the actual number was $1.6 trillion or $1.9 trillion over ten years, depending on when you started counting.) At no point did Bush ever claim that his tax cuts would make the projected surplus get larger. But then, no politician has ever believed that tax cuts produce extra revenue.

Can we talk? McConnell’s statement to the side, no politician has ever believed the world’s dumbest idea. But so what? This may be the world’s dumbest idea, but it was crafted by some of the world’s most successful propagandists. Like the other dumb ideas we have listed above, this dumb idea emerged from highly capable, conservative “think tanks.” It has been hammered into the public’s head over the past thirty years.

Lower tax rates produce higher revenues! Plainly, it’s the world’s dumbest idea; no big Republican really believes it. But so what? Wherever American politics happens, there are three major teams on the field—the conservative world; the liberal world; and the mainstream press corps.

One of these teams is really quite skilled. The other two teams are lazy and dumb—have been so for quite a long time. How has this dumbest idea prevailed? Tomorrow, let’s consider the hapless work of the mainstream press corps.

Tomorrow—Part 2: Watching the mainstream press corps fail.
Thursday—Part 3: Watching the liberal world fail.
Friday—Part 4: Watching your nation fail. (With a pleasure-strewn epilogue.)