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Print view: Number, please! We pity the fool who is forced to rely on the Post's ever-changing facts
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WE PITY THE FOOL! Number, please! We pity the fool who is forced to rely on the Post’s ever-changing facts: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 26, 2011

Charlie’s clash of the titans: David Brooks is snarking hard in this morning’s New York Times. We’ll take a bit of a guess: He may be making up for some very bad conduct on last Friday’s Charlie Rose show.

On that program, Rose produced an eighteen-minute clash of the titans—a discussion of the budget mess which matched Brooks with his colleague, Paul Krugman. Brooks told a bit too much of the truth that night. Today, he may be making up for that indiscretion.

Whatever! We thought that Charlie Rose segment was very much worth noting. We’ll direct your attention to four aspects of the titans’ discussion. To watch the whole segment, click here:

What would Krugman do: At one point, Rose asked Krugman a simple question—if someone died and made him boss, what would he do about our budget problems? We’ve often wondered about that very question as we read Krugman’s columns and blog posts, which are often written in reaction to specific unfolding events.

How would a King Krugman handle this problem? We were glad Rose asked. We thought Krugman’s answer was very much worth recording:

KRUGMAN (7/22/11): What the long-run solution to the U.S. budget problem is, is controlling health-care costs. It means more of the kinds of things that were already in the Affordable Care Act. A lot of serious, serious efforts to bring the rate of growth of health-care costs down, bending the curve—horrible metaphor, but bending the curve. Which we know can be done because other countries do it, and then we need revenue. In the end, we’re going to need three, four percent of GDP in additional revenue. You can get some of that by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, but we’re going to need more than that.

So in fact I have a prediction. If David and I are still around here 25 years from now, I predict that we will have a much more controlled health-care system that sort of matches the cost performance of other countries, and we’ll have something like a value-added tax to increase revenue. And that is how America will be solvent in the end.

For the record, we assume that Krugman is talking about letting all the Bush tax cuts expire, not just those on the highest earners. In the end, he says that even that amount of new revenue won’t be enough. Unless we’re mistaken, “three, four percent of GDP” is a lot of new revenue. Current US GDP is something like $15 trillion. Using your multiplication skills, you can compute the amount of recommended new revenue from there. (Start by computing one percent. Then, multiply by three or by four.)

We were surprised by Krugman’s assessment. By the way: In our manufactured public discourse, voters constantly hear about the alleged need for spending cuts. They virtually never hear about the alleged need for new revenue. One side has played this game very hard, for decades. The other side has sat and stared.

Brooks on all the hatred: Brother Brooks got way out of line when Charlie asked about something he called “the dysfunctionality of government.” In his first answer, Brooks pretty much trashed the Republicans. In his follow-up answer, he began walking that heresy back:

ROSE: There are two questions. One, if you look at the dysfunctionality of government, as in this case, who’s responsible?

BROOKS: I don’t pretend—I wouldn’t say it is symmetrical here. I do think the president and the Democrats have been much more flexible than the Republicans have been. I say that with a little pain maybe, but that’s just simply the case. The president, to his credit, has made his allies extremely uncomfortable. And if you are around Washington yesterday when the entire Senate Democratic caucus erupted in fury, you saw that firsthand. And so I think the Republicans are—it’s a good short- term negotiating strategy, but they are not seizing a deal which should be out there for them.

I’m sort of mystified why, if the president is offering $3 trillion reduction in the size of government, why they are not seizing upon that and potentially settling either for nothing or maybe $500 million. It’s just mystifying to me why they don’t take this deal.

ROSE: Well then, take a guess. What’s the answer?

BROOKS: Well, there are a lot of things. One, they will tell you, “We go home and nobody wants any more taxes. We ran on that. We’ve pledged it.” Second, and I think this part is bipartisan, the hatred is so strong, there is great personal resistance to doing a deal with the devil. And they regard Obama or Boehner and Cantor as the devil. There’s just sort of this emotional resistance to getting in a room, shaking their hand and having your picture taken. And so even beneath the substance of it, there is a great deal of emotional resistance. And when, even when the president makes an offer which is a pretty good offer for Republicans, they’re always looking for the weaknesses in it.

Is “the hatred” equally strong on both sides of the aisle? We don’t know, but if it is, that doesn’t explain why the Dems are being so much “more flexible”—why they would exhibit so much less resistance to “doing a deal with the devil.”

We think Brooks’ statements here deserve examination. We will only note that this demonization of major Dem leaders dates back to the demonization of Clinton, then Gore—a demonization which career liberals leaders, to this very day, largely prefer to avoid. If you’re a liberal, your “leadership” is largely in the bag—has been for a long time.

A talking-point shot down: At one point, Brooks recited a highly misleading talking-point; Krugman shot it down. This talking-point is everywhere. Do liberals know how to approach it?

BROOKS: To be fair to [Republicans], they would say, “Hey, we’ve had government at a certain level of GDP for decade after decade, it’s been roughly the same. Over the last couple of years, it has leaped up significantly. So if we want to bring it back to that level, to the 2008 level, are we radicals?” That is the argument they would make.

KRUGMAN: All of that is the recession. All of that is that the ratio of government to GDP is higher because GDP is down. And safety net programs, unemployment insurance and Medicaid and a few other programs that respond to hard times, are up. If you take that out, there has been no increase in the size of government. This is entirely myth.

Government spending has leaped up significantly! When Republicans make that familiar claim, they fail to note that the level of taxation has dropped down significantly at the same time—also in significant part because of the recession. Their talking-point is highly selective—but do liberals now how to respond? (In this July 6 blog post, Krugman went into more detail about what all that new spending is.)

Krugman’s emerging theme: A profoundly counterintuitive theme has been emerging from Krugman’s journalistic work. When Charlie asked about all the “deficit panic,” he expressed this theme again:

ROSE: You said the disappearance of unemployment from elite policy discourse and its replacement by deficit panic has been truly remarkable. It’s not a response to public opinion. In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 53 percent of the public named the economy and jobs as the most important problem we face, while only seven percent named the deficit. But those seven percent are in the Tea Party.

KRUGMAN: … Too many of those seven percent are actually inside the Beltway. That we have too many people who are, you know, who are serious and responsible in their own minds, who are actually, you know, fighting, fighting the wrong war right now. What we really need to do is do something about nine percent unemployment. And yes, we do have a long-run budget problem, but we have nine percent unemployment right now.

[…]

People who believe that if we resolve the budget problems, that that will somehow cause a surge in the economy, I have been calling those people who believe in the confidence fairy. It’s not going to happen. If you want to fight unemployment, fight unemployment. And if fighting the long-run deficit comes at the expense of doing something about unemployment, if it makes it worse in the short run, then you’re actually—you’re actually probably worse than even the long- run budget picture, because nothing hurts your long-run budget picture worse than an economy whose growth rate is depressed by a prolonged period of economic weakness.

So it’s all wrong. What passes for being reasonable and wise and serious inside the Beltway is in fact deeply foolish.

Say what? Our most respectable pundits and journalists are “in fact deeply foolish?” This is a highly counterintuitive claim, and Krugman has been taking this theme even farther in recent months, arguing that academic authorities in the world of economics are routinely behaving like total fools too, even in their high-profile professional work.

Such a claim is highly counterintuitive. It contradicts every presumption we have about the way our society works. And yet, we ourselves have often found this claim to be true—when we’ve reviewed the work of our “educational experts” over the past forty years, for example.

Man [sic] is the rational animal! This iconic claim lies at the heart of the western world’s self-understanding. This iconic claim is painfully inaccurate—but the authority figures about whom Krugman increasingly speaks will never say so.

They sit at the top of a broken discourse—and they have no plans to leave.

Special report: Banana republic press corps!

PART 2—PITY THE FOOL (permalink): We pity the voter who’s trying to follow the debt limit/budget debate.

More precisely, we pity the voter who tries to get relevant facts from the Washington Post or the New York Times, two of our greatest newspapers.

How hard can it be to get basic facts from these, our most famous political papers? Consider what happened last Friday night, when “a visibly angry” Barack Obama held a press conference shortly after John Boehner walked away from the budget talks. (In news reports the next day, each paper used the term “visibly angry” to describe Obama’s demeanor.)

Back to Obama on Friday night: As he began his visibly angry press conference, he described the deal he had been offering Boehner. If you had been reading our biggest newspapers, you probably would have been puzzled by some of the things you saw Obama say—especially by the things he said about his proposal for additional revenues:

OBAMA (7/22/11): Good evening, everybody. I wanted to give you an update on the current situation around the debt ceiling. I just got a call about a half hour ago from Speaker Boehner, who indicated that he was going to be walking away from the negotiations that we've been engaged in here at the White House for a big deficit reduction and debt reduction package.

And I thought it would be useful for me to just give you some insight into where we were and I think that we should have moved forward with a big deal.

Essentially what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense. We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs; Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. We believed that it was possible to shape those in a way that preserved the integrity of the system, made them available for the next generation and did not affect current beneficiaries in an adverse way.

In addition, what we sought was revenues that were actually less than what the Gang of Six signed off on. So you had a bipartisan group of senators, including Republicans who are in leadership in the Senate, calling for what effectively was about $2 trillion above the Republican baseline that they've been working off of.

What we said was, give us $1.2 trillion in additional revenues, which could be accomplished without hiking taxes—tax rates, but could simply be accomplished by eliminating loopholes, eliminating some deductions, and engaging in a tax reform process that could have lowered rates generally, while broadening the base.

So let me reiterate what we were offering. We were offering a deal that called for as much discretionary savings as the Gang of Six. We were calling for taxes that were less than what the Gang of Six had proposed and we had—we were calling for modifications to entitlement programs would have saved just as much over the 10 year window.

In other words, this was an extraordinarily fair deal. If it was unbalanced, it was unbalanced in the direction of not enough revenue.

According to Obama, he had offered Boehner a deal which involved $1.65 trillion in spending cuts and $1.2 trillion in additional revenues. That’s roughly a 4-3 ratio.

For starters, you might have been surprised by Obama’s claim that this was “an extraordinarily fair deal”—a deal that “was unbalanced in the direction of not enough revenue.” (You might have been surprised by that claim because previous reported deals had tended toward ratios of 3-1 or 5-1, spending cuts over new revenues.) But more specifically, you might have been surprised by Obama’s claim that his request for $1.2 trillion in new revenue was actually less than the amount of new revenue the Gang of Six had proposed.

At Friday evening’s conference, Obama said the Gang of Six had proposed $2 trillion in new revenue. But all week long, you had read in your nation’s most famous newspapers that the Gang of Six had proposed one trillion dollars, or roughly $1 trillion, in new revenues. For example, you had read these things in the New York Times just one day before the press conference:

HULSE (7/21/11): That plan is the one put forward Tuesday by the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who worked for months to reach an agreement and whose work was lauded by Mr. Obama as a sign that a deal was possible. The plan included a net increase in government revenue of about $1 trillion over a decade.

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/21/11): The Gang of Six plan calls for at least $1 trillion in new tax revenues by eliminating and reducing tax breaks and deductions. For conservative senators like Saxby Chambliss, Lamar Alexander, Michael Crapo and Tom Coburn to accept this reality shows how willfully blind the House majority has really become.

Hulse’s piece was a front-page news report; his account was largely echoed by an editorial that same day. But then, if you double-checked your facts in the Washington Post, you still were told that the Gang of Six had proposed (roughly) $1 trillion in new revenue. Again, we’ll match a front-page news report with an editorial:

MONTGOMERY (7/20/11): The proposal, crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Six," calls for $500 billion in immediate savings and requires lawmakers in the coming months to cut agency spending, overhaul Social Security and Medicare, and rewrite the tax code to generate more than $1 trillion in fresh revenue.

[…]

[The Gang of Six plan] calls for raising more than $1 trillion over the next decade by reducing a variety of popular tax breaks and deductions, including breaks for home mortgage interest and employer-provided health care. While some of those savings would be dedicated to debt reduction, the rest would go toward lowering tax rates for everyone, with top individual and corporate rates dropping to at least 29 percent, down from 35 percent.

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (7/21/11): Mr. Norquist's comments come at a moment of remarkable and welcome fluidity in what had seemed to be a solid wall of Republican opposition to raising any tax revenue at any time for any reason. The surprising reemergence and expansion of the Senate Gang of Six this week was accompanied by a flurry of statements from Republican senators endorsing a proposal that included $1 trillion in new tax revenue.

According to all accounts in these two famous papers, the Gang of Six plan would have involved $1 trillion, or roughly $1 trillion, in new revenue. Now, Obama was saying that the Gang of Six plan had involved two trillion dollars! On that basis, he was saying that his own proposal for $1.2 trillion in new revenues was smaller than the Gang’s proposal. According to Obama, he had been “calling for taxes that were less than what the Gang of Six had proposed.”

Pity the fool who tries to resolve a conflict like this by reading the Post or the Times! The next day, each newspaper simply changed its account of what the Gang of Six had proposed; the papers offered no explanation for why their number had suddenly changed. If you read the Washington Post or the New York Times, you aren’t supposed to notice such things. But by the next morning, each paper had simply changed its figure, bringing its account in line with what a visibly angry man said:

MONTGOMERY (7/23/11): White House officials said that there was no handshake agreement on taxes, and acknowledged that they upped their revenue request after the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Six" released a plan to raise $2 trillion in taxes over the next decade. But they said Obama offered Thursday to drop the extra $400 billion if Boehner would accept smaller cuts to entitlement programs.

In the end, Obama told reporters he had offered Boehner "an extra-fair deal" on "the biggest debt-reduction package that we've seen in a very long time." Obama said it would have raised taxes significantly less than the Gang of Six plan, which was endorsed by the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/23/11): Mr. Obama, in fact, had already gone much too far in trying to make his deal palatable to House Republicans, offering to cut spending even further than the deficit plan proposed this week by the bipartisan ''Gang of Six,'' which includes some of the Senate's most conservative members.

[…]

The ''bargain'' would require that alongside these cuts, tax revenues would go up by $1.2 trillion, largely through a rewrite of the tax code to eliminate many deductions and loopholes. That's substantially less in revenue than the $2 trillion in the ''Gang of Six'' plan.

Pity the fools! They aren’t supposed to notice such things when they read the Post and the Times. But in this Post news report and this Times editorial, readers were now told that the Gang of Six had proposed two trillion dollars in new revenues. As far as we can tell, neither paper offered any explanation for the overnight change in their facts.

For today, we’ll leave the story right here—while noting that this pseudo-journalistic conduct is nothing new at the Post and the Times. Before the week is done, we’ll return to the halcyon days of yore; more specifically, we’ll return to August 2000, when these Potemkin newspapers (and the Associated Press) pretended that they were explaining the size of Candidate Bush’s tax cut proposal. From one day to the next, the numbers would change at these famous newspapers, without anyone making the slightest attempt to explain the reason for the ever-changing, contradictory accounts. Indeed, contradictory accounts of this seminal matter would even appear, side-by-side, on the very same page of a given day’s newspaper! Editors at these famous newspapers didn’t notice—or just didn’t care.

As we deathlessly said at the time: If voters weren’t completely confused by that point, it could only mean one thing. It meant they weren’t reading the Post!

Let’s return to last weekend’s change in the numbers. In this case, some readers may feel that they understand the conflicting accounts of how much new revenue the Gang of Six did propose. We’ll guess that very few readers could really explain this in anything like a full-blooded way—we certainly know we couldn’t—although the conflict does seem to involve those “baselines” to which Obama briefly alluded.

That said, there was no way for the average reader of the Post or the Times to understand the sudden change in the numbers which occurred at both newspapers last Saturday. That reader is supposed to flip his newspaper’s pages each day, nodding assent as he sees basic numbers change without explanation.

When papers are willing to function this way, it isn’t clear why they bother including numbers in their news reports or editorials at all. But one thing is abundantly clear: Whatever such work is supposed to be, it plainly isn’t “journalism.” Rather, it’s the type of Potemkin “journalism” which signifies a banana republic.

It’s the type of which emerges from the pages of a banana republic press.

Tomorrow: Part 3 (so many choices!)