The pitiful state of expertise/Deflated reputation edition: The state of expertise in your country is extremely poor.
No, we’re not talking about the pitiful column Thomas L. Friedman phoned in last night. (Self-parody plainly rules at the Times.) We’re not talking about the way Standard & Poor’s is saying it shouldn’t have to report all its computational errors. (“S.&P., Accused of Faulty Math, Fights Error Disclosure Rule.” For a comical time, click here. )
Please forget about Thomas L. Friedman. Instead, consider what happened when a different Pulitzer winner tried to fact-check a pair of familiar claims.
The Pulitzer winner to whom we refer is Politifact, the prize-winning web site. In this pitiful and undated post, P-fact attempted to check a pair of claims by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). Coburn had spoken on Meet the Press. These are the things he said:
COBURN (7/24/11): David, everybody's talking about the symptoms of our problem instead of the real disease. The government's twice the size it was ten years ago. It's 30 percent bigger than it was when President Obama became president.
The problem is, is we're spending way too much money, and it's not hard to cut it without hurting entitlement benefits. But we don't have anybody that wants to do that without getting a tax increase.
“The government's twice the size it was ten years ago. It's 30 percent bigger than it was when President Obama became president.” At present, these are very familiar talking-points (see below). They are used to spread panic about an alleged mammoth increase in federal spending.
On that Meet the Press program, David Gregory let these claims go. For better or worse, Politifact decided to fact-check Coburn’s statements.
Alas! In its pitiful first post, Politifact said this: “Coburn is entirely right about federal outlays doubling over 10 years.” But uh-oh! Soon, the site was retracting its judgment. Incredibly, this was the start of its explanation:
“UPDATE: After we posted this story, a number of readers wrote or tweeted us to point out that we hadn’t adjusted federal outlays either for inflation or for the size of the economy.”
They hadn’t adjusted for inflation! The state of expertise in this country is extremely poor.
After adjusting for inflation, Politifact offered a new assessment. They bumped Coburn’s claims back to “half-true,” for reasons they explain in their second post. (We think they’re still being generous.) But good God! What does it mean when a Pulitzer-winning fact-check site doesn’t know enough to adjust for inflation before getting tweeted by readers?
It means you have a Potemkin press corps, manned by Potemkin journalists.
Sorry, but no: You can’t sensibly compare such amounts over time without adjusting for inflation. Would you compare the temperature in Moscow to the temperature in Dallas without adjusting for Celsius v. Fahrenheit?
In some cases, you might even want to adjust for population growth as you compare spending over time. And a full assessment of Coburn’s claims would involve a wide range of factors. But who would make a ten-year spending comparison without making that most basic adjustment? What does it mean when our brightest “news orgs” conduct their business this way?
At this site, we have sometimes noted how much trouble our “journalists” have with that basic concept—inflation. The inability to handle this basic factor lay at the heart of a topic which helped launched this site—the press corps’ groaning failure, in the mid-1990s, to deal with the brain-dead, two-year debate about GOP Medicare cuts. Inflation’s a very basic factor—and yet, it seems to confound the “press corps” on a regular basis. It caught Politifact by surprise in just the past few weeks.
(We’d be more precise, but the fact-checking site doesn’t traffic in dates.)
Has federal spending risen by thirty percent since Obama took office? At present, the claim is very familiar; it’s used to spread the idea that wild-eyed spending has occurred since Obama took office. It isn’t just Coburn making that claim! Just last weekend, the Washington Post published this letter from a corporatist spin-tank:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (8/6/11): Richard Cohen fretted that Tea Party activists have "shrunk the government." He need not worry. Federal spending has gone from $2.9 trillion in 2008 to $3.8 trillion in 2011. Thirty percent spending growth in three years is hardly shrinkage. Even under the Boehner plan, federal spending will continue to increase every year for at least the next decade.
Ryan Young, Washington
The writer is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute
Should the Post have published that letter? We’re not sure! Should the Post mix Fahrenheit temps with Celsius? But then, the New York Times went the Post one better last month, publishing this op-ed column by Grover Norquist:
NORQUIST (7/22/11): Read My Lips: No New Taxes
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge has received increased attention as the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling approaches. My organization, Americans for Tax Reform, created the pledge in 1986 as a simple, written commitment by a candidate or elected official that he or she will oppose, and vote against, tax increases. Over the years many candidates and elected officials have signed the pledge, including 236 current members of the House of Representatives and 41 current senators.
The problem to be solved is not the deficit; it is overspending. Federal spending in the 2008 fiscal year was $2.9 trillion, and Washington will now spend $3.8 trillion in the fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30. Raising taxes is what politicians do instead of reforming and reducing the cost of government. Advocates of larger government prefer to talk about deficits rather than spending. Why? Because there are two solutions to a deficit problem: spend less or raise taxes. The issue, in other words, isn't the pledge; it's Washington's inability to deal with its own overspending. There is only one fix for a spending problem: spend less.
Should the Times have published that piece? We’re not sure. Is it a good thing when a newspaper’s readers are misled and thus confused?
These claims are technically accurate—and they’re highly misleading. But then, such claims rule all aspects of our public discourse, in much the way Al Gore explained among the Aspens last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/9/11). It’s easy to play the public for fools when the state of expertise is so poor. This has been the reliable norm for a very long time.
This practice doesn’t work out real well. If you doubt that, take a good look around.
Special report: Still amazed after all these years!
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/6/11): The Truth About Taxes
A week later and we are still amazed at how the Republicans in Congress pulled it off. They held the economy hostage, won some cheap political points, and all of us will spend the next decade paying the ransom as government programs—$900 billion over 10 years in the first round—are slashed and the recovery is put at risk.
The only glimmer of hope is that the battle is not completely over—if President Obama is finally willing to fight.
Under the terms of the ill-conceived debt agreement, Congress has to propose another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction measures by December. Just to ensure that rationality does not have a chance, Republican leaders said they would not put anyone on the deficit-cutting “super-committee” who might entertain the idea of raising taxes.
A week later and we are even more amazed by the failure of Mr. Obama and the Democratic leadership to stand up to this intransigence. If they do not start pushing back, with the same ferocity, the results will be disastrous.
We know—it’s just a figure of speech. But given the arc of American politics, why would the editors be “amazed” when spending cuts win, and tax hikes lose, in a pivotal budget fight? Why would anyone be surprised by that sort of outcome?
For decades, one side has fought an aggressive messaging war about the need for no new taxes—ever, in any circumstance. In “response,” the other side has endlessly fiddled and diddled. What messaging stands in opposition to that famous old battle cry, “No new taxes?” Have you ever heard the messages which were designed to counter this cry?
In fairness, the editors seem to know about the power of that hoary old anti-tax message—the messaging which has driven our politics over the past thirty years. Sure enough! In their next paragraph, they alluded to same—and they pandered a bit to us rubes:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): Standard & Poor’s made its judgment about both the political standoff and the all-cuts, no-new-revenues deal on Friday when it lowered the country’s long-term debt rating one notch, down from AAA. And while “no new taxes” pledges are almost always big political winners, Americans are also figuring out that the country cannot keep on this way. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, 63 percent support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year to help address the deficit.
“No new taxes” pledges are almost always big political winners! Why then were the eds amazed when this messaging won out again?
Before they were done with this editorial, the editors would recommend a large tax increase—before they panicked and took it all back. But why is it so hard to talk about tax hikes in this country?
Why is it hard to talk about taxes? Just look at the paragraph in which the eds applaud us, the American people, for starting to figure it out.
“No new taxes” is almost always a winner, the editors say. But after that, they praise us rubes, saying this:
“Americans are also figuring out that the country cannot keep on this way. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, 63 percent support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year to help address the deficit.”
They praise us for supporting tax hikes—on upper-end earners only! But do you remember what Brother Krugman told Charlie a few weeks ago?
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 [Brooks] 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.
Say what? Given the poverty of our “discourse,” it’s no longer clear what someone means when he discusses “the Bush tax cuts.” Given the power of liberal avoidance, the phrase is often used, at this point, to refer to the upper-end tax cuts only. That said, Krugman seemed to be saying that we will need a lot more revenue in the future. Of course, that’s what Bruce Bartlett said on Hardball just a few days later:
BARTLETT (7/27/11): The Republicans keep saying that tax cuts are the key to prosperity. Well, the 2000s is evidence that that’s not true. And also we raised taxes in 1982. They said it would be a recession. We raised taxes again in 1993. They said it would be a recession. We had booming economies in the 1980s and 1990s. I think if we went back to the taxes we had the 80s and 90s, we’d be a lot better off.
I don’t think there is any question that we would have positive economic effects if we went back to the Clinton-era tax rates.
Rather clearly, Bartlett was talking about all the Clinton-era tax rates, not just those on high earners.
Do we need to return to the Clinton-era tax rates? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know; like everyone else in this brain-drained land, we’ve rarely seen the question discussed. We live within a political culture which is built around the avoidance of serious tax debate. No one is willing to conduct frank discussions—least of all the New York Times editors, who found themselves “amazed” last week when spending cuts won out again.
Those editors! They praised us rubes for the way we’re willing to restore the Clinton tax rates on high earners only. But would that restoration be enough? Krugman and Bartlett don’t seem to think so—and the editors seem to get weak in the knees whenever they think about anything else.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way the editors bailed when they made their own tax increase proposal. “Not that many new taxes!” So the editors seemed to cry.
Why be amazed when spending cuts win if that is the other side’s message?
Tomorrow: An instant retraction