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Print view: How does the dumbest idea survive? The answer starts with us
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BACK FROM THE GRAVE! How does the dumbest idea survive? The answer starts with us: // link // print // previous // next //

The experts catch up with the Howler: While the cables yell about race today, let’s talk about the interests of black and brown and white kids, including kids who are poor.

For years, the New York Times (and other entities) have gushed about the rise in test scores achieved by Mayor Bloomberg. It’s important to know if those score gains are real and reliable.

Yesterday, a major report seemed to say they’re not.

Jennifer Medina reports the story in yesterday’s New York Times. It’s much as we’ve been suggesting for years. An expert panel has concluded that the state of New York’s statewide tests have been getting easier:

MEDINA (7/20/10): New York State education officials acknowledged on Monday that their standardized exams had become easier to pass over the last four years and said they would recalibrate the scoring for tests taken this spring, which is almost certain to mean thousands more students will fail.

While scores spiked significantly across the state at every grade level, there were no similar gains on other measurements, including national exams, they said.

''The only possible conclusion is that something strange has happened to our test,'' David M. Steiner, the education commissioner, said during a Board of Regents meeting in Albany. ''The word 'proficient' should tell you something, and right now that is not the case on our state tests.''

Large jumps in the passing rates, which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg trumpeted in his re-election campaign last year, led to criticism that the tests had become too easy.

You can read Medina’s full story, which includes a lot of information. We’ll only say this: If these tests were developed in a competent manner, New York should have been able to show that they were equally “hard” from one year to the next. The state should have produced a technical manual demonstrating this fact. Test development shouldn’t be guesswork.

Alas! Newspapers have rarely cared about this bone-simple matter. Just consider what happened last week, when DC’s new test scores dropped below last year’s results in the elementary grades.

Darn it! Passing rates had dropped in DC’s elementary schools, reversing several years of growth. In his news report on the story, our old pal Bill Turque casually quoted superintendent Rhee:

TURQUE (7/14/10): Rhee offered no immediate explanation for the drop in elementary scores, but she said school officials would "dig into the data" to determine the reasons. A preliminary analysis showed that the bulk of the decline was in the third and sixth grades. Some potential causes could be changes in personnel, shifts in student population or modifications to the test.

Say what? Why would “modifications to the test” produce a drop in test scores? If the tests are competently devised from year to year, that basically shouldn’t occur. But Turque was casual in his report, and the editors were soon saying this:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (7/15/10): Of course, that doesn't mean the District can be complacent. The first step is to figure out what caused the decline. Could it be something as simple as the switch this year to a different test? Or are there more fundamental issues with students' skills? Ms. Rhee, to her credit, didn't offer any excuses. She said her staff would study the data, and she is commissioning outside groups to assist the city's analysis. More information will be made available next month, and it will be interesting to see whether any of the city's charter schools, which overall had stable scores this year, had results comparable to those of the traditional schools.

What explains the drop in passing rates? “Could it be something as simple as the switch this year to a different test?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes—it could. But if the testing program is competently developed, that pretty much shouldn’t happen.

There they went again! Last week, the editors were remarkably casual about this proffered explanation. One week later, New York officials said something was wack with their tests.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again. Newspapers should insist on seeing competent technical manuals. Test developers should be able to prove that this year’s tests are equivalent to (equally hard as) last year’s version. Obviously, it makes no sense to compare passing rates from one year to the next if the tests have gotten easier (or harder). Decades into this pitiful game, our big newspapers are still quite weak on this basic, bone-simple idea.

Special report: Triumph of the dumbest idea!

PART 2—BACK FROM THE GRAVE (permalink): With good reason, Paul Krugman has been tearing his hair about the world’s dumbest idea.

When you lower tax rates, you get extra revenue! Clearly, it’s the world’s dumbest idea, although it’s been driving our discourse for decades. But Senator Kyl made some clumsy remarks, and Senator McConnell had to help his pal out (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/10). In the process, McConnell affirmed the world’s dumbest idea. In the process, the gentleman even seemed to say that his whole party believes it:

MCCONNELL: 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.

When you cut tax rates, you get increased revenue! In last Friday’s column, Krugman marveled at the way this dumbest idea keeps coming back from the grave:

KRUGMAN (7/16/10): [T]he real news here is the confirmation that Republicans remain committed to deep voodoo, the claim that cutting taxes actually increases revenues.

It’s not true, of course. Ronald Reagan said that his tax cuts would reduce deficits, then presided over a near-tripling of federal debt. When Bill Clinton raised taxes on top incomes, conservatives predicted economic disaster; what actually followed was an economic boom and a remarkable swing from budget deficit to surplus. Then the Bush tax cuts came along, helping turn that surplus into a persistent deficit, even before the crash.

But we’re talking about voodoo economics here, so perhaps it’s not surprising that belief in the magical powers of tax cuts is a zombie doctrine: no matter how many times you kill it with facts, it just keeps coming back. And despite repeated failure in practice, it is, more than ever, the official view of the G.O.P.

We don’t blame Krugman for tearing his hair, though he does oversimplify things just a tad. In truth, no one has ever “killed” this idea with facts, except to people who aren’t in its thrall (nor could Krugman be asked to do so in a short newspaper column). When it comes to this zombie idea, true believers—and paid dissemblers—will always offer alternate facts, thus explaining away that big rise in debt under Reagan, to cite one example. (There was a recession! And Congress wouldn’t cut spending!) On last weekend’s Fox News Sunday, Rep. Mike Pence offered several such thoughts when Chris Wallace asked him to explain the deficit’s growth under Reagan. In standard “press corps” fashion, Wallace puttered around a bit, then moved on to something else. (Transcript tomorrow.)

When you cut tax rates, you get extra revenue! It’s possible that President Reagan believed this claim in some manner or fashion, although he never behaved like he did; if lowering tax rates produces more revenue, why did he lower the marginal tax rate to 28 percent? Why didn’t he go to 27 percent, thus producing even more revenue? No, to 26? On a few occasions, President George W. Bush seemed to say he believed this dumbest idea—but when he campaigned for president in 1999 and 2000, the gentleman said, for a good solid year, that his proposed tax cuts would cost the treasury some $1.3 trillion over the first ten years.

Bush’s tax cuts would lower revenues by $1.3 trillion! Bush kept saying that after reaching the White House, until his tax cuts became law.

Duh! As a candidate, George W. Bush never claimed that revenues would grow as a result of his tax cuts. He always said precisely the opposite—that his tax cuts would lower receipts. (He said this was the most sensible way to use the projected surplus.) But then, Candidate Bush was hardly alone in making this non-disingenuous statement. In 1996, Candidate Dole had said the same thing; he specifically rejected the idea that his tax cuts would somehow “pay for themselves.” And in 1990, the first President Bush had signed a famous deficit reduction deal. How did he reduce the deficit? In part, by raising taxes, thus bringing in extra revenues!

In his column, Krugman marveled at the way this dumbest idea has stayed alive for the past thirty years. And it’s true! In the face of all this straight talk from Republican candidates and presidents, it’s astonishing that this dumbest idea persists today—that people think we need some sort of “facts” in order to kill it off. In fact, every major Republican pol in the past thirty years has denied this dumbest idea in the world. In the face of this bone-simple history, how does this nonsense survive?

In large part, this dumbest idea persists because of liberal ineptitude.

The hapless work of the mainstream press corps also lets this dumbest idea survive—but let’s leave that for tomorrow. For today, let’s consider our own hapless conduct. Let’s start to consider a troubling topic—thirty years of hapless performance within the liberal world.

How does the dumbest idea stay alive? Consider what happened when big liberal players swung into action last week.

Last week, some major liberals fought back when this dumbest idea was voiced. But uh-oh! Through absolutely no fault of their own, they stand at the end of thirty years of hapless liberal conduct, and it showed in their work. It isn’t Rachel Maddow’s fault that the liberal world still doesn’t know how to discuss this ludicrous claim. But when Maddow discussed this topic last week, she worked from a script which simply groaned with errors of fact and logic.

So it has been among liberals for the past thirty years. As a result, this dumbest idea simply refuses to die.

Last Wednesday, Maddow did a fourteen-minute segment on this general topic, a segment you can watch in full here. In what follows, we offer this segment’s central portions. In the following passage, Maddow begins to discuss the Bush tax cuts, the topic McConnell had used as a way to voice the world’s dumbest idea:

MADDOW (7/14/10): Republicans want to be the anti-deficit and anti-debt party right now, but they also want to run on George Bush’s tax policies. And that is the giant awkwardness at the heart of Republicanism right now. Because George W. Bush`s tax policies did to the deficit what the “I only eat fried cheese” diet does to your cholesterol.

In 2001, the first Bush tax cuts cost $1.3 trillion. Two years later, Republicans passed another round of Bush tax cuts at a cost of $350 billion. Neither of those tax cuts was paid for. They just added them on to the deficit.

So far, so good—only one semi-error, and a colorful comparison. (There was no deficit when Bush passed his first tax cuts. We were running a surplus.) But that would quickly end:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Republican Senator Orrin Hatch admitted to the Associated Press back in December that during the Bush years, “it was standard practice not to pay for things. It certainly added to the deficit, no question.” In 2005, the Congressional Budget Office looked to the impact of the Bush tax cuts and estimated that they added $539 billion to the deficit that one year alone.

If it wasn’t for the Bush tax cuts, the U.S. in that year would have had a budget surplus, not a deficit.

Oof! If that dollar figure sounded large to you (as it did to us), that’s because it actually was. Fairly clearly, Maddow’s staff was working from this post by Ezra Klein, a post Maddow herself would cite a bit later (see below). But as you can clearly see in Klein’s post, the CBO had actually said that Bush’s tax cuts accounted for 48 percent of that $539 billion; Maddow’s statement was wrong by a factor of half. Meanwhile, for whatever it’s worth, here is the AP report in which Hatch made his comment about “not paying for things.” For whatever it’s worth, Hatch was talking about failing to pay for spending programs; he wasn’t discussing tax cuts. For all we know, he might have said that those tax cuts paid for themselves!

A speculation: These are the kinds of bungles and errors churned by a slightly incompetent staff. But as she continued, Maddow displayed a more serious deficiency. For our money, she showed that she, like the rest of the liberal world, doesn’t know the most obvious, bone-simple way to challenge this dumbest idea:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Do you remember how George Bush sold the tax cuts in the first place? He essentially said, “Don’t worry about it. Don`t worry about it. We can afford to cut taxes. We got a surplus. It will be fine.”

BUSH (videotape): The growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I’m here asking for a refund.

MADDOW: Whooooooo! We got that and more! We got a huge deficit to show for it!

Viewers got to enjoy the big fun of watching Maddow yell “Whooooooo,” thus helping us know to adore her. But from the point of view of persuasion, Maddow missed the point of Bush’s statement, like a world of liberals before her. People! In that speech to the Congress in February 2001, President Bush was plainly saying that his proposed tax cuts would reduce future revenues! (By $1.3 trillion over ten years, he had constantly said as a candidate.) Plainly, President Bush wasn’t claiming that tax cuts would produce higher revenues. Duh! He was (quite correctly) saying that his cuts would drive revenues down.

(Because of that “growing surplus,” it was OK to do this, Bush said. Even after lowering revenues by $1.3 trillion, we would remain in the black.)

The fact that Bush overshot his mark is easily explained away by use of facts. Everyone has heard the explanations, some of which are perfectly valid. (He had to spend in the wake of 9/11! And the economy lagged!) Once you get involves in such technical arguments, it’s very hard to prevail. But in that earlier moment, addressing the Congress, Bush himself was telling the world that his tax cuts would reduce future revenues! When McConnell gave voice to the dumbest idea—when he said that these tax cuts produced higher revenues—he was contradicting everything Bush had said from December 1999 on!

We liberals are too dumb to say this. Again, this isn’t a problem with Rachel Maddow. The liberal world, as a whole, doesn’t know how to make this obvious point when this dumbest idea returns from the grave. Thirty years of liberal sloth has left us in this sad predicament.

So far, we’ve looked at a few minor errors by Maddow—and at the liberal world’s general cluelessness when it comes to basic argument. But for the record: As Maddow continued, the errors became rather stunning. If you watch this segment on tape, you will see Maddow struggling with props which wouldn’t cooperate as she tried to construct a big graph (a perfectly sensible thing to do). We’ll edit those problems from the transcript, but we can’t eliminate the ginormous technical bungling displayed by one of our brightest liberals as our side again showed how inept it is at rebutting this dumbest idea.

A bit of background: Maddow is a former Rhodes Scholar. In terms of sheer IQ, she’s probably one of the brightest players the liberal world puts on the field. (Unfortunately, she also likes to shriek, entertain and clown, and she enjoys tribal warfare.) For that reason, when you see her argue in the following way, you’re looking at a systemic problem of the liberal world. If the liberal world had developed any chops in the past thirty years with this topic, Maddow would probably know them.

Alas! This is the best we liberals know how to do, thirty years into this world-class lunacy. And this gets very bad:

MADDOW: As our friend Ezra Klein today wrote today at the Washington Post, what is helpful about all of this magical thinking about math and deficits is that the Republicans are at least making these claims openly now—guys like Marco Rubio and the House Republicans and Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell. They’re writing this stuff down. They are saying it on tape, and that lets us show what they are really offering

So here it is, including the math. Here’s what Republicans are campaigning on.

Right now the national deficit stands at about $1 trillion. That’s what we’re, that’s where we’re at right now if nothing happens. What happens if Republicans get elected and they do what they say they’re going to do?

Well, first they say they want to permanently extend the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. So, all right—that’s fair enough. Permanently extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. That would add $2.3 trillion to the national deficit.

As you saw from Marco Rubio, Republicans also want to repeal the alternative minimum tax, the AMT. They also want to permanently end the estate tax and the gift tax. Doing those three things would tack on another $1.1 trillion or so on to the deficit.

The first thing that wasn’t a tax cut in Marco Rubio’s 12-point plan was repealing Obamacare, repealing health reform. You hear that from a lot of Republicans right now, including the top Republican in the House, John Boehner. If you did that, you would add another $19 billion—you would add another $138 billion to the deficit.

The next idea from Marco Rubio was another Republican favorite, to prevent cap and trade energy legislation from becoming law. If you do that, you add another $19 billion to the deficit.

So that is a grand total of $3.5 trillion. That is what Republicans are proposing to add to the deficit. Right now our deficit is around $1 trillion. Republicans are proposing to add $3.5 trillion more to it.

“Right now our deficit is around $1 trillion. Republicans are proposing to add $3.5 trillion more to it?” Truly, that is just astounding—a perfect marker of liberal indolence over the past thirty years.

In this painful passage, Maddow starts with this year’s “national deficit,” which “stands at about $1 trillion.” By the time she’s done, she has made it sound like the deficit—she keeps using that term—will be $4.5 trillion if Republicans get their way. But in this long, embarrassing passage, Maddow is mixing well-known apples and oranges; she is conflating the annual deficit with the accumulated national debt. Egad! She is adding additional debt over eight or ten years to the current annual deficit, producing a bizarre projected deficit which corresponds to nothing which exists in the real world.

Nothing much turns on this groaning error, an error a college freshman might make. (In this bone-simpler primer, Klein had warned against making this bone-simple error. Two weeks later, Maddow made it.) But good lord! Thirty years into this ludicrous story, this is the way our brightest liberal goes on TV and argues. Maddow doesn’t seem to understand this topic at all; neither does her staff. But then, Olbermann did little better when he tackled this topic last week. And good lord! Wait till you see what Ezra said about McConnell’s statement!

Simple story: The liberal world has been lazy, and massively dumb, for a very long time now. (The other side is persistent and skilled.) Tearing his hair, Krugman asked how this dumbest idea stays alive. Thirty years of liberal indolence is a large part of the answer.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way the mainstream press corps handled this dumbest idea last week. But first, we’ll look at KO and Ezra. The answer to Krugman’s important question plainly begins with us.