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MONDAY, JULY 27, 2009

What does lowering the level of spending mean: Your DAILY HOWLER just keeps getting results! On Sunday’s This Week, Kruggers relented:

KRUGMAN (7/26/09): I think the health care plan, the basic outlines are extremely clear. We know exactly—there are four components. I won't go through the whole thing. There are four components in all the plans. We understand how they're all going work. He's been quite clear, or certainly his officials have been quite clear about how you're going to cut costs. He was perhaps not that good at conveying all of that in the press conference. I mean I like—I thought it was crystal clear but that's because I've been following the subject. But you can't accuse him of having vague ideas, vague policies. This is the clearest policy initiative I've ever seen in my life.

That’s what we said! But failure to explain such matters clearly can be deeply destructive. And the press corps has always had a hard time speaking clearly about budget matters—especially when inflation is involved, which it almost always is.

In the case of health reform, how will some such bill affect future health spending? Consider the puzzling highlighted passage from Sunday’s Post editorial:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (7/26/09): Instead of taking on these hard questions, Mr. Obama emphasizes wringing waste and inefficiency out of the system. Certainly it's there—Mr. Obama cited repetitious tests as one example—and it makes sense to change payment policies to reward better care and remove incentives for unnecessary procedures. Preventive care can save money in some situations: Mr. Obama pointed to the situation of the diabetic who obtains nutrition advice and avoids an unnecessary amputation. But mostly it doesn't. A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded, "Although some preventive measures do save money, the vast majority reviewed in the health economics literature do not."

More important, lowering the level of spending, although a good thing, is different from slowing the rate of spending growth. Without the second, the underlying problem persists; it will just pinch more slowly.

To his credit, Mr. Obama gets this. “I won't sign a bill that doesn't reduce health-care inflation,” he said Wednesday night.

According to the Post, “lowering the level of spending” is good. But it’s different from “slowing the rate of spending growth.” (“Slowing the rate of spending growth” seems to defined, in the next paragraph, as “reducing health-care inflation.”) The Post seems to think that this second possible effect is more important than the first. Sure, you can “lower the level of spending”—but “the underlying problem persists.”

Luckily, Obama “gets this.” We’ll be honest—we don’t. Yesterday, as we read this passage, we didn’t have the slightest idea what the Post was talking about. This morning, struggling further, we can imagine a paraphrase. But that passage is really quite murky.

(By the way: If we “slow the rate of spending growth,” mightn’t we say that the underlying problem persists—that it will just pinch more slowly?)

This is a big major problem. It’s easy to scare people away from major changes unless you can explain, quite clearly, what you’re trying to do. For us, that paragraph captures the cosmic murk surrounding the current welter of claims about “containing costs” and ”bending the curve.” In our experience, the press corps persistently has a hard time speaking clearly about matters like this.

That’s the Post, not the Administration, of course. Obama is quoted saying he will “reduce health-care inflation.” That’s a fairly clear formulation. Instead of rising at current rates, the cost of health services (somehow defined) will continue to rise, but not as fast.

Democrats and liberals need to learn how to explain budget matters quite clearly. By the way: Obama described his goal quite clearly last Wednesday night, and we thought his goal was a moral disaster. Instead of wasting six thousand dollars per family per year, he wants to waste only four. If he meant per family, that is.

If that’s the upshot of Rappaccini’s experiment, perhaps we should stick to the murk and the gloam.

For the “upshot” quotation: Click here, scroll to the final paragraph. Increasingly, we may all be forced to seek the alleged consolations of literature.

BAD FOR GOOD PEOPLE: In Sunday’s column about Walter Cronkite, Frank Rich portrayed the unfortunate connections which sometimes exist between American power and American journalism. In this passage, he described the cozy relations between Robert Strange McNamara—full name supplied!— and the Washington Post of his era:

RICH (7/26/09): If anything, the spirit of another recently departed lion of the establishment—Robert Strange McNamara, born five months before Cronkite in 1916—may live on more potently at the nexus of American power and journalism than that of the CBS anchorman.

When McNamara died this month, many recalled his status as Exhibit A of what David Halberstam labeled “the best and the brightest,” the brilliant and arrogant Kennedy-Johnson team that blundered into a quagmire. Far less was said about how McNamara, at his height, wielded that image to spin a dazzled Washington press establishment on his misplaced optimism about the war. The Washington Post’s obituary, pointedly or not, included a photo of a smiling McNamara enjoying cocktails with a powerful syndicated Post columnist (and Vietnam apologist), Joseph Alsop. The obituary also noted that McNamara served on The Post’s board—a sinecure he was awarded after he had helped send some 50,000 Americans to pointless deaths.

What Halberstam labeled the “nice genteel chumminess” between potentates like McNamara and the Beltway press establishment, though occasionally frayed by scandals like Watergate, remains intact.

For ourselves, we’ll reject linking “brilliant” to McNamara. But as we pondered the “nice genteel chumminess” Rich describes, we thought of the genteel chumminess—and business relations—which exist between the Washington Post and a figure who is now in the news. That current figure is Professor Gates, a business associate of the Post.

Professor Gates is editor-in-chief of The Root, a web site owned by the Washington Post. There’s nothing “wrong” with that relationship—or with The Root itself, of course. But there was something wrong with the Post’s decision to publish last Wednesday’s column by Professor Lawrence Bobo, who described Professor Gates as his best friend.. The column was absurdly one-sided, and epistemologically strange—every bit as strange as McNamara. No column was published by Crowley’s best friend, asking us to “imagine” the case in a way which favored him, quite absurdly. The Post was defending a business partner—and a member of an elite class.

Gates is a lion of the establishment too. Within our pseudo-journalistic world, this can lead to problems.

On Friday, the genteel chumminess continued. The Post published this column by Michael Kinsley; it too imagined the case one major way. Indeed, Kinsley’s opening paragraphs were so odd that we first assumed he had written a column in which he would alternate one-sided accounts of the incident, from the points of view of both participants. No such luck, Rashomon! Those first paragraphs were offered straight. (So too, Kinsley’s string of factual errors.) Oh, and by the way:

Kinsley no longer writes his column for Slate, but he served as the site’s founding editor. Back then, Slate was owned by Bill Gates. Today, it’s owned by the Washington Post.

The Vietnam war was a giant event; millions of people lost their lives. (Rich only mentions American deaths. Shall we list him as a bigot?) The incident at Professor Gates’ home is minor in comparison. But this event has also shown the “genteel chumminess” which exists between American pseudo-journalism and the public figures it pretends to cover.

In the current case, this is the fault of the Washington Post, not of Professor Gates.

Rich says this chumminess served us poorly during Vietnam. It has also served us very poorly over the past several decades. It has served us poorly in the past week, in the case destined to be known as “My-friend-Skip-Gates-gate.”

Good lord! Is anyone in America’s ruling class not a friend of Gates? We’ll assume Gates has so many friends for a simple reason—because he’s a decent, outgoing person, not someone who typically shoots up bars or sasses cops. (Associates describe him as proactively constructive in human interactions.) That said, the wealth and celebrity which belong to Gates have served as a deeply noxious force in the wider society over the past several decades. This has been especially true “at the nexus of American power and journalism,” where we note a genteel chumminess between potentates like Gates (Skip and Bill) and that Beltway press establishment.

(Melinda Gates, the wife of Bill Gates, serves on the board of the Washington Post. Not that you’d ever know it when the Post promotes the Gates’ educational theories, rightly or wrongly, as it frequently does. Nexus-of-power spoken here! For an especially silly example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06.)

Uh-oh! Human nature being what it is, smart/decent people will sometimes get less smart and less decent when they sit at this nexus. We’ve thought of that principle over this weekend as we’ve read some statements by Professor Gates—who may well be completely right in the factual assertions he renders. Consider a statement Maureen Dowd recorded as she supported the lion this Sunday:

DOWD (7/25/09): It escalated into a clash of egos—the hard-working white cop vs. the globe-trotting black scholar, the town vs. the gown, the Lowell Police Academy vs. the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Crowley told a Boston sports station that Gates “seemed very peculiar—even more so now that I know how educated he is.”

Gates told his daughter Elizabeth in The Daily Beast: “He should have gotten out of there and said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, good luck. Loved your PBS series—check with you later !’ ”

Further notes on that nexus: In this piece, The Daily Beast subjected Gates to an interview by his daughter. As one might have expected, it’s an embarrassment. (By the way: “Elizabeth Gates is a graduate of The New School University, where she cultivated her love for fashion and writing. A former intern at Vogue Magazine, her interest in image, art and fashion has driven her desire to contribute to the vast narrative of modern culture in America and abroad.”)

Officer Crowley should have told Gates that he loved his PBS series! You might assume Gates was just joking—unless you’ve read a bunch of his other statements. In fact, Gates seems unable to gargle or cough without promoting his PBS programs. Example: The Root asked Gates to describe what happened at his home on July 16. The analysts couldn’t help noting the slightly odd way the professor’s answer began:

THE ROOT (7/21/09): Can you describe, in your own words, what went on in and outside of your home? When did you suspect you were the victim of racial profiling?

PROFESSOR GATES: I just finished making my new documentary series for PBS called “Faces of America.” It was a glorious week in Shanghai and Ningbo and Beijing, and on my trip, I took my daughter along. After we finished working in Ningbo we went to Beijing and had three glorious days as tourists. It was great fun.

We flew back on a direct flight from Beijing to Newark. We arrived on Wednesday, and on Thursday I flew back to Cambridge. I was using my regular driver and my regular car service. And went to my home arriving at about 12:30 in the afternoon.

If Kinsley had bothered to read that interview, he would have known that Gates flew back from China the day before the incident, unlike what he wrote in his column. But lords like Kinsley no longer prepare before dispensing comment to us. And people like Gates do tend to self-promote, as you see at the start of that answer. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people—by all accounts, Gates isn’t. But human nature can be like that. And you’ve paid a giant price for that culture of celebrity over the past twenty years.

Celebrity is bad for good people. Sometimes, famous people like Gates may start to wonder if “fate and history” have chosen them for great events. (See Dowd’s column, near the part where Gates is discussing his next PBS project.) If we’ve learned anything from the past twenty years, we should have learned this—in the age of televised mega-celebrity, wealth and fame have helped create a self-involved, fatuous opinion class. We thought of that problem when we read further in Gates’ interview with The Root.

What happened at Gates’ house that day? Sorry—we don’t know. But Gates and Crowley agree on some basic facts—including the fact that Officer Crowley instantly asked Professor Gates (whom he didn’t know) to step out on the porch. Some police types have now explained that conduct; apparently, it would be a routine request in an investigation of this type. (According to several experts we’ve read, the procedure is designed to protect the police officer.) Is that explanation correct? We don’t know, but it makes perfect sense. But this is what Professor Gates told The Root about that request:

GATES: My home is owned by Harvard University, and so any kind of repair work that’s needed, Harvard will come and do it. I called this person, and she was, in fact, on the line while all of this was going on.

I’m saying, “You need to send someone to fix my lock.” All of a sudden, there was a policeman on my porch. And I thought, “This is strange.” So I went over to the front porch still holding the phone, and I said, “Officer, can I help you?” And he said, “Would you step outside onto the porch.” And the way he said it, I knew he wasn’t canvassing for the police benevolent association. All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct. I said, “No, I will not.”

My lawyers later told me that that was a good move and had I walked out onto the porch he could have arrested me for breaking and entering.

Gates’ “instinct” may have made perfect sense. But did his lawyers really hand him that last nugget? The statement seems to make little sense—except it makes the professor right, as professors of this stature tend to end up. But then, it has never quite made sense to think that Gates found it “strange” when a police officer appeared at his door that day. There was nothing “wrong” with what Gates had just done—but he had just broken into a home (his own). Unless Gates is the type of professor who’s a bit absent-minded, it’s odd to be told that this didn’t enter his head when an officer suddenly appeared at his door. But note how Gates’ explanation, given five days post-incident (to his daughter), continues from there. By all accounts, Professor Gates is a thoroughly decent person. But in part, this account reflects the mental world of an upper-class elite—an elite which has done amazingly little for you, or for your interests, over the past twenty years:

GATES (continuing directly): He said, “I’m here to investigate a 911 call for breaking and entering into this house.” And I said, “That’s ridiculous because this happens to be my house. And I’m a Harvard professor.” He says, “Can you prove that you’re a Harvard professor?” I said yes, I turned and closed the front door to the kitchen where I’d left my wallet, and I got out my Harvard ID and my Massachusetts driver’s license which includes my address and I handed them to him. And he’s sitting there looking at them.

Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.

So he’s looking at my ID, he asked me another question, which I refused to answer. And I said, I want your name and your badge number because I want to file a complaint because of the way he had treated me at the front door. He didn’t say, “Excuse me, sir, is there a disturbance here, is this your house?”—he demanded that I step out on the porch, and I don’t think he would have done that if I was a white person.

We’re sure that Gates is a decent person. (Most people are.) But wealth and fame are bad for good people. And those paragraphs are pretty much awful.

As in the statement recorded by Dowd, Gates seems to have a clear idea of how he should be addressed by a cop. Five days after the unfortunate incident, he still seems to think it was strange—and insidious—that he was instantly asked to step onto the porch. Most absurd is that statement in the middle. It deserves a reprise:

GATES: Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.

Did Crowley “have a narrative in his head” about a black person inside someone’s house—a black person who had broken and entered? Of course he did; he had that narrative in his head because a citizen had just reported such an event. That’s why Crowley was there! As a police officer, Crowley is paid to arrive at the scene of such reports and risk his life by chatting pleasantly with whomever he happens to find inside such houses. In this case, he found a well-known Harvard professor—a well-known professor he didn’t know. At the end of last week, this professor told his daughter that Crowley should have praised him for his most recent TV program. Presumably, Gates was joking then; he didn’t seem to be joking when he told The Root what Crowley should have said to him at the door. And, of course, he still felt sure that Crowley must have made that initial request because he, Gates, was black: “I don’t think he would have done that if I was a white person.”

It’s always possible that could be true. And gigantic emotions turns on race, for reasons which are perfectly obvious. But in all candor, that remark isn’t star-professor smart—and at that aforementioned nexus, others will reason that same way. It’s the destructive culture of their High Pundit Class: They’re paid to simper in silly ways about all sorts of topics, most of them pointless. Consider Judith Warner’s column in today’s New York Times.

The Times is usually good enough to keep Warner locked on-line. This morning, they turn her loose in hard copy. Soon, she is “reasoning” like a child about a very serious topic. She describes “perhaps the most telling moment” in the Gates/Crowley encounter:

WARNER (7/26/09): “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside,” Gates allegedly told him.

Gates denied referring to Crowley’s mama. “The idea that I would, in a vulnerable position talk about the man’s mother is absurd,” he told Gayle King of Sirius radio. “I don’t talk about people’s mothers … You could get killed talking about somebody’s mother in the barbershop, let alone with a white police officer … I think they did some historical research, and watched some episodes of ‘Good Times.’ ”

I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s very likely that Crowley really does believe he heard the insult to his mother. And that’s because Gates wasn’t the only one in that house, on that day, whose thoughts were traveling well-worn grooves chiseled by race. Both men were, consciously or not, following scripts in their heads, stories of vulnerability and grievance much more meaningful than their actual exchange.

It’s hard to get much dumber than that. And yet your army remains in Iraq to this day because people like this reasoned this way all through the 1990s (and beyond), as “liberal leaders”—and famous professors—looked uncaringly on.

Please note the way an establishment lion get treated at that nexus:

Crowley alleges a comment by Gates; Gates denies he said it. Like us, Warner has no earthly way of knowing if the comment was made. But at the nexus of American power and journalism, Professor Gates is a lion of the establishment. For this reason, once he has denied the remark, Warner must, by the laws of the clan, assume the remark wasn’t made. Reasoning like an absolute ninny, she then starts explaining why it’s “very likely” that Crowley thinks he heard the remark. (Request: Will someone invent a time machine, go back and strangle Freud in his crib?) But how about this: Is it possible that Crowley “really does believe he heard the insult” because the “insult” really was spoken? Not at the nexus of power it isn’t! At the nexus of power, a lion’s denial settles the factual matter. Warner bows to her lord, and moves away, looking for psychiatric explanations for this thing the office thought he heard. When she comes upon such a theory, she pronounces it “very likely.”

It’s possible that Crowley is lying, of course. Warner skips that possibility too. Missing is any psychiatric explanation for why the professor has “very likely” forgotten saying the thing he must have said. At the nexus of power, the professor’s claim has to be factually accurate. From that point on, the officer’s claim cannot be.

Warner is a long-standing ninny. But this is the way your High Pundit Class reasoned its way through the 1990s. Most consequentially, they reasoned this way for twenty months during Campaign 2000. Endlessly, they invented brainless psychiatric theories, explaining why Candidate Gore said various things—various things he hadn’t said. They also invented psychiatric theories explaining the candidate’s clothing. (Bill Turque and Brian Williams, come on down!) The dead of Iraq look up from the ground into these various nincompoops’ faces. These people still sit at the nexus of power, serving selected lions.

The dead of Iraq look up from the ground into these nincompoops’ faces. So do the abused men and women who are exposed to racial profiling by police, sometimes at gigantic cost, including the loss of their lives. Of course, this is a problem no one on cable TV was discussing until a lion at the nexus of power said he was such a victim. As Gates continues speaking with his daughter, he goes on—and on, and on and on—about the four hours he was forced to endure in this recent incident. We’ll be honest: Thinking of the dead of Iraq; thinking of victims of deeply consequential racial injustice; thinking of the way this professor’s cohort routinely failed to help in the past several decades—we found the professor’s comments there to be border on the disgusting.

(Or should we perhaps be more sympathetic? By his own account, Gates was forced to spend four hours speaking with Harvard professors!)

(For the record, the professor who supervised our senior thesis is a smart, sane prince of a man.)

In fact, Gates’ last PBS program was in large part silly pap, the kind of program a professor may start to produce after becoming a bit too famous and fawned-to. This professor now says he will do a new program about the problems of profiling. Of course, everyone mentally alive on the planet has known that this is a major problem—has known it for a very long time. To watch Glenn Loury hit Gates rather hard about his born-again outrage, you know what to do—just click here. (“I find laughable, and sad, Professor Gates’s declaration that he now plans to make a documentary film about racial profiling...Where has this eminent scholar of African-American affairs been these last 30 years?”)

We wouldn’t be that judgmental ourselves. (And what would he know—he’s at Brown!) But similar thoughts have come to mind as we’ve watched the wealthy/famous/influential lion professor complaining this week.

Your fancy professors have done very little on your behalf in these past thirty years, as you as your society has been pillaged, mocked and looted. They have routinely avoided the fray; instead, they’ve had great fun in Beijing with their daughters, by whom they will later be grilled in the “press.” In this case, the press corps’ performance goes well beyond clownish. Here’s the first “question” in that “interview.” No, we’re not making this up:

Daddy, how did it feel to read in the police report that although you had been cooperative with Sgt. Crowley, while he was standing uninvited in your home, your behavior had been reduced to “loud and tumultuous” after asking to see to his badge? Were you surprised at the inaccuracy of the police report?

No, we didn’t make that up. Almost no one could have. No one but a pampered child of America’s upper class.

You think the chummy treatment of McNamara was strange? In this case, the lion’s best friend “imagined” the tale in the Washington Post—and the lion was interviewed by his own daughter! But then, at that nexus, your culture has long been deranged—barely sane. The people who behave this way have just about destroyed your society in the process.

Final note:

In that interview with his daughter, Professor Gates seems to accuse Officer Crowley of committing serious crimes. Here is his answer to that first question:

GATES (continuing directly from above): Well, the police report was an act of pure fiction. One designed to protect him, Sgt. Crowley, from unethical behavior. I was astonished at the audacity of the lies in the police report, and almost the whole thing from start to finish was just pure fabrication. So yes, I felt violated all over again.

Gates goes into a bit more detail as he proceeds. We’re not legal eagles ourselves. But to our ear, he seems to be alleging a very serious crime. Or don’t we care if a police officer invents “audacious lies” about a citizen? If he presents “pure fabrication?”

Now, we’re told that this professor will go have a beer with this apparent possible criminal, hosted by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. Bowing and scraping at the nexus of power, the lords and ladies who invented Bush and Iraq will agree that they haven’t noticed the oddness in this tale.

For ourselves, we’ll withdraw an earlier framework. Given the serious charges Gates has made, it would seem that someone in this incident has had more than a recent “bad day.” (We don’t know who. Weren’t there!) Someone seems to be telling very serious lies—perhaps committing serious crimes. We’ll let Lady Warner flit about, dreaming up psychiatric theories that “very likely” explain the whole thing. For ourselves, we’ll be damned if we know why a former law professor wants to host such a smooth-over meeting. In our book, someone has done something grossly wrong. Like you, we don’t know who it is.

How they reason at the nexus: To see Warner at her gruesome worst, read this passage, in which she admits she doesn’t know “precisely” what was going through Crowley’s mind:

WARNER: We don’t know precisely what was going through Crowley’s mind. But his report and later statements seem to attest to a greatly outsized sense of vulnerability and victimization.

Crowley demanded that the small, slight, cane-carrying professor come outside, he said, because he feared not living to make it home to his wife and children. A remark by Gates—“That’s none of your business”—appeared to sting him to the quick. And then there was that matter of his mama. “Speaking about my mother,” he said sadly to a sympathetic local pair of radio talk show hosts, “it’s just beyond words.”

Warner doesn’t know “precisely” what Crowley was thinking. Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t know at all. But the lady thinks Crowley’s possible concern for his safety in such a situation represents “a greatly outsized sense of vulnerability and victimization.”

It takes a special kind of tool to author such a remark. Sometimes, small, slight people have guns. To read Crowley’s actual statement, click here.

What went through Crowley’s mind? We don’t know. Did he lie on his report? Don’t know that either. Did Gates make that remark about Crowley’s mother? Don’t know, don’t much care. Luckily, at the nexus of power, we have lords and ladies to fill us in on all such niceties. The dead of Iraq are in the ground because these lords “reason” these ways.