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HOW ABOUT HISPANICS! Score gains by Hispanic students make a sick joke of Bob Samuelson: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 2010

Four accounts of Social Security/lovable losers edition: On Monday, Paul Krugman compared our current economic plight to our plight in 1938. More specifically, he cited a poll from 1938—a poll in which the American public supported the wrong approach to their nation’s floundering economy.

“Consider Gallup polling from March 1938,” Krugman wrote. “Asked whether government spending should be increased to fight the slump, 63 percent of those polled said no. Asked whether it would be better to increase spending or to cut business taxes, only 15 percent favored spending.” Alas! Those were the wrong choices, Krugman said. But public polling shows the public tending to favor the same wrong choices today—though Krugman more specifically laid the blame for our current bad choices at the feet of “politicians and economists,” who “have spent decades unlearning the lessons of the 1930s, and are determined to repeat all the old mistakes.”

Krugman gave modern voters a semi-pass in this column. But as a general matter, we the people hold the same wrong ideas that we held in 1938! Seventy-two years have passed, but the bulk of the public wouldn’t know “Keynesian economics” if it hit them upside the head.

In the liberal world, we savage the “low-information” voters, the people we mock as Murcans. But doesn’t the bulk of the blame for this matter lie with us—with our failure to educate the American public on any issue, no matter how consequential? With our failure to take control of any part of the public discourse?

With our failure even to try?

Can we talk? For the bulk of the past fifty years, we liberals have been the lovable losers of American politics. On every issue of major consequence, the public has been fed a string of ludicrous views, claims which were churned in conservative think tanks; we liberals have been too lazy and too inept to attempt to counteract these deceptions. Whether it’s health care, taxes or Social Security, our public discourse is a large rolling joke—and you can throw in public education too. (More below.) Starting in the 1960s, these jokes have been scripted by wealthy, powerful interests, even as we lovable losers peacefully slept in the woods.

How clownish is our public discourse? Just consider four recent accounts of Social Security. We’ll start with Dana Milbank (Skull and Bones), one of the genuine, full-throated clowns of the modern mainstream press corps.

At the Washington Post, Milbank is currently being recast as an official “liberal columnist.” Despite this, he spoke on behalf of Alan Simpson this Sunday, specifically praising the gentleman’s “candor.” Yes, Simpson had used a bad word, comparing Social Security to “a milk cow with 310 million t*ts.” But so what, the hapless Postman complained. At least Simpson’s right on the merits:

MILBANK (9/5/10): Simpson is exactly the right man for the debt commission: a dealmaker. His proposal for Social Security is hardly the most radical. Who would liberals rather have representing the Republicans on the debt commission? The Senate nominee from Alaska, Joe Miller, who says "we've got to transition out of the Social Security arrangement"? Kentucky Senate nominee Rand Paul, who calls Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" from which people should "opt out"? Colorado Senate nominee Ken Buck, who calls Social Security "horrible, bad policy"? Or Nevada nominee Sharron Angle, who wants to "phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized"?

Compared with those scary story lines, Simpson's talk of bovines is PG-rated. What's changed since he floated that Mencken line 18 years ago is not him, but us. Let's stop looking for reasons to take offense and start listening to what the man is saying.

Simpson’s proposal for Social Security “is hardly the most radical,” this poor child opined. “Let's stop looking for reasons to take offense and start listening to what the man is saying.” But what is Senator Simpson’s proposal? What is this greatest dealmaker saying? Go ahead—search Milbank’s column! The silly, simple-minded fellow completely forgot to tell us! There isn’t a word in Milbank’s piece about any proposal Simpson has made, unless it was one fleeting claim. Simpson “argu[es] for limiting Social Security to those who need it,” Milbank fleetingly said.

If that’s the extent of Simpson’s view, then Simpson is adopting a progressive position. But is that really Simpson’s view? Is that really Simpson’s “proposal?” In fact, as far as we know, Simpson hasn’t made a particular proposal for Social Security. (We say that after a modest attempt to search for such a proposal.) Nor did Milbank make any attempt to flesh out Simpson’s alleged view. In a brilliant capture of modern “journalism,” the big silly clown from Skull and Bones made no attempt at all.

Luckily, Digby had already filled in the blanks, in a post two days earlier. She started with Bernie Sanders’ slightly sanguine claim that, starting in 2039, Social Security “will be able to pay out only about 80 percent of benefits.” Then, she offered this punishing claim about what Simpson proposes:

DIGBY (9/3/10): Now Alan Simpson and Pete Peterson both make a fetish out of saying that the reason they want to "reform" social security is so it will be there for their grandkids. It's the emotional thrust of their whole argument. They also offer constant reassurance that the "greedy geezers" will not suffer any loss. So why then, knowing that their grandkids are already going to see a benefit shortfall of 20%, are they trying to make the situation even worse and cause a shortfall of another 15 to 20%? It doesn't make sense. Doesn't logic call for them to find more revenue so their precious grandkids could have the same amount seniors get today? Or at the very least, if they can't bear to raise taxes even for their own noble cause, why won't they leave it at only a 20% shortfall rather than cut benefits even more?

Were those highlighted claims meant literally? Is Simpson really trying to reduce future benefits to 60 or 65 percent of what is currently promised? Has Simpson made some sort of proposal in which he rejects the idea that we should (for example) leave the future benefit shortfall at a mere 20 percent? As far as we know, he hasn’t done that. Like Milbank, Digby opined on Simpson’s (alleged) proposal, without explaining what it is. Needless to say, her account of Simpson’s alleged proposal was vastly different from Milbank’s.

But so it tends to go when we “Murcans” discuss public policy. By way of contrast, consider this informative outlier piece, written by Ezra Klein in Sunday’s Washington Post. Klein didn’t attempt to praise or condemn proposals which don’t really seem to exist. Instead, he laid out a string of facts about Social Security, creating a piece which flies in the face of the Endless Standard Scripted Nonsense the public has been fed about this program over the past thirty years. During that period, nonsensical claims have been fed to the public—nonsensical claims which were skillfully crafted inside a warren of plutocrat spin shops. And as these deceptions were sold to the public, the liberal world happily slept in the woods. After thirty years of peaceful slumber, we trash low-information voters for not knowing more about the program. We never seem to look at ourselves—at our own side’s lazy, clown-like failure to confront thirty years of (skillful) deception.

To see the fruit of those thirty years, we’ll take you back to Simpson.

Back in June, Simpson engaged in a deeply inane, eight-minute discussion with Alex Lawson, of Social Security Works. In recent days, the tape of the session has been removed from the web. This is a shame; it destroys the chance to see the depth of the inanity which has grown from our past thirty years. In the exchange, Lawson was unfailingly polite (though he sometimes stumbled into the weeds); Simpson was full of anger, hostility, attitude, sarcasm. Beyond that, Simpson spilled with the talking-points which have disinformed the American people over the past thirty years. We’re not sure if we’ve ever seen such a major official make so many ludicrous claims in such serial fashion.

To review the transcript, just click here. Ignore the minor bungling at the start of the transcription.

Simpson ticks off all the golden oldies—the claim that Social Security will “go broke” in 2037; the claim that no one is talking about any “cuts” to the program; the claim that the system’s trust fund is just “a bunch of IOUs.” There was more: “When I was your age, there were sixteen people paying into the system and one taking out, and today there are three people paying into the system and one taking out,” Simpson said, in a completely irrelevant tribute to the favorite speech of the late Tim Russert. Needless to say, he quickly recited the famous old howler about the way the system’s developers had set the retirement age at 65 because “they thought you would die at 57… Now the life expectancy is 78, whatever it is, and so we have to adjust that and make it work for the future people like you in the United States.”

All these acts of misdirection are completely, totally standard. But Simpson was a true virtuoso this day. Incredibly, he even said the following about Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Greenspan commission, which crafted adjustments to the system to keep it solvent into the future. In this exchange, Simpson makes a claim so cosmically bizarre that we’ve never seen it before:

LAWSON (6/16/10): But in my understanding from actually looking at the 1983 commission, they actually started pre-funding the retirement of the baby boom by building up that huge surplus.

SIMPSON: They never knew there was a baby boom in ’83.

LAWSON: But actually they knew there was going to be demographic issues when the set up Social Security, so they actually predicted—

SIMPSON: They never dreamed that the life expectancy from 57 years of age to 78 or 75 or whatever. Who would dream that? No one!

Incredibly, Simpson claimed that the Greenspan commission, in 1983, “never knew there was a baby boom,” and had no way of anticipating the changes in life expectancy. If Simpson’s words mean what they say, he was making an utterly ludicrous claim. He said the Greenspan commission still believed that life expectancy was 57—that they had no way of knowing it might rise to 75

Simpson’s discussion this day was deranged. It’s a shame the tape is no longer available, since his tone of voice is just as bizarre as the ludicrous things he said. But Simpson is the Republican chair of Obama’s debt commission—and most of the misleading things he said have been completely conventional in American discourse over the past thirty years. His claims define the things the public has heard about the seminal program. (This is why 60 percent of the public tells pollsters that they will never receive any benefits at all.)

Simpson’s ludicrous claim about the Greenspan commission seems to be a new invention. But most of the things he said this day have been completely conventional. These claims have defined public discourse for the past thirty years—and the whole liberal world has slept in the woods as these conventional claims turned into Standard Public Belief. Today, we savage the “low-information voters” who believe the things they have heard, even as our greatest heroes made no attempt to intervene in the rolling deception.

Milbank and Digby seemed to speak through high hats. Soon, though, Digby was marveling at the fact that we are about to lose to various “clowns” in November’s elections. With little doubt, that assessment is accurate, however savvy such statements may be as a matter of politics. But alas! Over the past three decades, the biggest clowns in the tale have been us. On a wide array of topics, skilled architects of public deception took control of the public discourse. Their skilled deceptions were endlessly repeated; these deceptions now rule public belief.

As this rolling deception occurred, the “liberal world” didn’t say shinola. But then, for the past many years, your “liberal journals” and “liberal pundits” have largely been Potemkins.

Digby loves to rail at the clowns; she mocks the Murcans who support them. But the biggest clowns in this story are us; we have been the lovable losers in these decades-long acts of deception. Some of our “leaders” were simply too dumb; some of our “leaders” were simply too store-bought. But almost all our “leaders” have failed.

Tribal wiring keeps our small brains from noting this obvious fact.

Special report: Who cares about black kids!

INTERLUDE—HOW ABOUT HISPANICS (permalink): Tomorrow, we’ll finish our two-week back-to-school series. But Monday’s column by Robert Samuelson was truly a work of gross deception, a rank journalistic act (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/10).

From 1971 to 2008, black kids have made large score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In his column, Samuelson worked very hard to keep you from knowing that basic fact. That said, his deceptions are quite conventional. Samuelson is a dour, sour conservative. But you were fed the same deceptions in June, when the fiery, progressive Nation did its “education issue.”

Tomorrow, we’ll ponder this group agreement, in which the public gets deceived about the progress of black and Hispanic kids. Today, let’s add to yesterday’s post, reviewing the progress made on the NAEP by Hispanic students. Samuelson chose to stress the allegedly gruesome lack of progress made by 17-year-old students. For that reason, we’ll focus on this age group.

Remember the picture Samuelson drew about the failure of educational reform. This was his nugget presentation:

SAMUELSON (9/6/10): Since the 1960s, waves of "reform" haven't produced meaningful achievement gains. The most reliable tests are given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reading and math tests, graded on a 0-500 scale, measure 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds. In 1971, the initial year for the reading test, the average score for 17-year-olds was 285; in 2008, the average score was 286. The math test started in 1973, when 17-year-olds averaged 304; in 2008, the average was 306.

Wow! In reading, the score gain has been one point! In math, the gain is just two!

In fact, black 17-year-old students have gained 29 points in reading during that period, twenty points in math (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/10). According to a highly conventional rule of thumb, this may represent two to three years of academic growth. Samuelson’s piece was thus grossly deceptive about the score gains achieved by black students. But how about Hispanics?

Score gains by 17-year-old Hispanic students haven’t matched those recorded by blacks. That said, the following note must be offered: There has been a lot of immigration during this period, bringing obvious challenges to American public schools. Many students have entered our schools with language challenges, for example. This complicates any assessment of scores by Hispanics in a way which doesn’t exist when it comes to the test scores of blacks.

That said, Hispanic score gains are much larger than a person would ever dream from reading Samuelson’s column. In reading, 17-year-old Hispanic students gained 14 points from 1975 (first testing) to 2008. (Click here, scroll down to page 17, Figure 5. Adjust for “accommodations.”) In math, the same 14-point score gain exists, although the reliable starting point is 1978. (Scroll down to page 37, Figure 11.)

These score gains aren’t as large as the gains of black students. Even so, they dwarf the one- and two-point gains Samuelson chose to stress, as he told the public that education reform has been a big pile of crap. For what it’s worth, score gains by Hispanic kids are much larger at younger ages. In math, for example, Hispanic 9-year-olds gained 32 points from 1978 to 2008. In reading, Hispanic 9-year-olds gained 30 points, measured from 1975. (We’re adjusting for “accommodations.”) Remember: Some language problems are involved here, perhaps reducing those large score gains (depending on immigration patterns). And when we talk about 17-year-old students, the declining drop-out rate may also tend to reduce score gains. If journalists cared about Hispanic kids, they would be exploring these points with some actual experts, not with the gangs of Potemkin hacks one normally meets in our major newspapers.

Samuelson’s piece was stunningly deceptive—but so was much of the work in the Nation. The liberal world is deeply involved in this scam, and it has been in every such scam over the past thirty years. Tomorrow, we’ll ask ourselves why that is—and we’ll invite you to feel a ton of contempt for the ratty, disingenuous people who comprise the “career liberal” world. For the ratty, disingenuous people who don’t give a fig about black kids. For the ratty, self-dealing people who quit on black kids long ago.

In the meantime, the Washington Post should retract that column. We’ll write them a nice note this weekend. But don’t worry—the liberal world is scamming you on this point too.

You live inside a vast hall of mirrors. If you still doubt that, read Samuelson’s piece—then scroll through the actual facts.