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Print view: Brooks and Collins blathered about a problem they don't understand
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POTEMKINS ON PARADE! Brooks and Collins blathered about a problem they don’t understand: // link // print // previous // next //

It’s not that simple at all: Why has it been so easy for plutocrats to rule the discourse in so many policy areas? Why has it been so easy to deceive the public with an array of deceptions, misdirections and cons? We strongly recommend this post by Digby—though we think her post is bad wrong.

Digby discusses a recent effort by Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Roughly twenty-five years into the modern discussion of Social Security, Van de Water has offered a paper in which he “trie[s] to correct some of the misinformation that critics of Social Security have been spreading about the program.” The timing is comical on its face, but that isn’t Van de Water’s fault—and that isn’t the problem with his effort. Indeed, even at this late date, the liberal world badly needs to know how to counter the deceptions and spins which have been relentlessly spread about this essential program.

Digby offered the following post by Van de Water, saying we liberals should memorize it. Because she posted this full essay, we will post it too:

VAN DE WATER (10/5/10): In a new paper, I’ve tried to correct some of the misinformation that critics of Social Security have been spreading about the program.

Here are the facts. Social Security is a well-run, fiscally responsible program. People earn retirement, survivors, and disability benefits by making payroll tax contributions during their working years. Those taxes and other revenues are deposited in the Social Security trust funds, and all benefits and administrative expenses are paid out of the trust funds. The amount that Social Security can spend is limited by its payroll tax income plus the balance in the trust funds.

The Social Security trustees—the official body charged with evaluating the program’s long-term finances—project that Social Security can pay 100 percent of promised benefits through 2037 and about three-quarters of scheduled benefits after that, even if Congress makes no changes in the program. Relatively modest changes would put the program on a sound financial footing for 75 years and beyond.

Nonetheless, some critics are attempting to undermine confidence in Social Security with wild and blatantly false accusations. They allege that the trust funds have been “raided” or disparage the trust funds as “funny money” or mere “IOUs.” Some even label Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” after the notorious 1920s swindler Charles Ponzi. All of these claims are nonsense.

Every year since 1984, Social Security has collected more in payroll taxes and other income than it pays in benefits and other expenses. (The authors of the 1983 Social Security reform law did this on purpose in order to help pre-fund some of the costs of the baby boomers’ retirement.) These surpluses are invested in U.S. Treasury securities that are every bit as sound as the U.S. government securities held by investors around the globe; investors regard these securities as among the world’s very safest investments.

Investing the trust funds in Treasury securities is perfectly appropriate. The federal government borrows funds from Social Security to help finance its ongoing operations in the same way that consumers and businesses borrow money deposited in a bank to finance their spending. In neither case does this represent a “raid” on the funds. The bank depositor will get his or her money back when needed, and so will the Social Security trust funds.

As far back as 1938, independent advisors to Social Security firmly endorsed the investment of Social Security surpluses in Treasury securities, saying that it does “not involve any misuse of these moneys or endanger the safety of these funds.”

Moreover, Social Security is the “polar opposite of a Ponzi scheme,” says the man who quite literally wrote the book about Ponzi’s famous scam, Boston University professor Mitchell Zuckoff. The Social Security Administration’s historian has a piece on this topic as well.

Unlike the frauds of Ponzi—and, more recently, Bernard Madoff—Social Security does not promise unrealistically large financial returns and does not require unsustainable increases in the number of participants to remain solvent. Instead, for the past 75 years it has provided a foundation that workers can build on for retirement as well as social insurance protection to families whose breadwinner dies and workers who become disabled.

“See how simple that is?” Digby writes, at the end of Van de Water’s post. But it simply isn’t that simple. It isn’t that simple at all!

You can memorize that piece all you like. If you work from those talking-points, frameworks and explanations, you will quickly be over your head when confronted with the frameworks and claims the public has endlessly heard. If you debate this matter, you’ll soon hear that the left hand has borrowed from the right—and you’ll hear about those useless IOUs. Van de Water mentions the latter in this post, but he does a very poor job explaining how to discuss them.

Digby is a classic tribal liberal, a fact she displays in her reaction to this largely unhelpful presentation. She likes this piece because it’s persuasive to her; it doesn’t seem to enter her head that it won’t be persuasive to the tens of millions of disinformed voters who don’t already agree with her outlook. This of course is the nature of tribal thinking. The tribal player must never stoop to consider the outlooks or understandings (even when bungled) of those on the other side.

Over the last quarter century, many voters have been fooled by a skillful set of cons about Social Security. Careful, skilled work went into the creation of these skillful cons; it isn’t “simple” to defeat them, and Van de water shows little real skill at this task in this piece. In its essence, this is a piece written by a liberal for other liberals. But it leaves a vast array of skillful cons unaddressed.

Van de Water does some work in his full paper that is more helpful. But his helpful points are buried in a blizzard of useless verbiage. Thirty years into this debate, our side has barely tried to respond—and when we do try, we show little real skill at the task.

Despite that, one of our biggest players is mightily pleased by this fumbling effort. She says we should memorize this work, it’s so good. “See how simple that is?” she exults.

To this, we have a mordant reaction: Given how easy we are to please, can you see how simple it is to control the discourse with a set of skilled plutocrat cons?

Special report: Surviving Superman!

PART 3—POTEMKINS ON PARADE (permalink): Does America’s upper-end pundit corps hate American kids? It’s stunning to see the way they discuss public schools, pretending to understand a topic that really know nothing about.

Consider the languorous, know-nothing chat conducted by Lady Collins and her colleague, David Brooks.

In this, their weekly “Conversation,” the pair of Timespersons made pixels die as they discussed the public schools—as they pretended to muse about the interests of America’s children.

To all appearances, the pair know nothing about this topic. They do know the conventional lines of debate which have emerged from our “educational experts”—and, as always, the experts have been flogging One Key Major Theme. In this, his first statement of the day, the pundit Brooks cleared his throat and moved directly to it:

BROOKS (10/6/10): I confess I don’t think either charters or teacher unions are the primary issue here. If I had to summarize the progress we’ve made in education over the last decade, it’s that we’ve moved beyond the illusion that we could restructure our way to a good education system and we’ve finally begun to focus on the core issue: the nature of the relationship between the teacher and the student.

People learn from people they love. Anything that enriches the space between a student and a teacher is good. Anything that makes it more frigid is bad. This doesn’t mean we have to get all huggy and mushy. It means rigorous instruction has to flow on threads of trust and affection.

Charter schools are useful only if they grope their way toward enhancing these sorts of relationships. The virtue is not that they are freed from bureaucratic restraints. The virtue only arises from their ability to take advantage of that freedom to enhance relationships.

“People learn from people they love.” As a discussion of America’s massive educational challenges, that is so stupid it hurts.

Brooks was talking right out of his ass—but he seemed to know that he spoke for The Group. He discussed the progress “we” have made over the past decade; he referred to the things “we” have learned in the process. In Faddington Square, where his Group Ideas dwell, the current focus of the swells involves the idea that we need better teachers. And so, everything this empty suit says relates to the chords of affection found between students and teachers.

It’s the only thing he’s heard about. He knows nothing more about schools. “Anything that enriches the space between a student and a teacher is good,” he poetically says, speaking directly out of his ass. “Anything that makes it more frigid is bad.”

Brooks doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Then too, as Tonto once asked: Who is this “we,” kemosabe?

“We!” Has Brooks ever dirtied his pretty pink hands inside the walls of a low-income school? Has he ever spent any time examining the real state of play of these institutions? Here at THE HOWLER, if we had to summarize the progress we’ve made in education over the last decade, we would mention the large score gains in reading and math recorded by black and Hispanic kids on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Presumably, those score gains were pushed along by our teachers. Question: Does Brooks even know that these large score gains exist?

In the world of Brooks, of course, “we” are the “educational experts”—the hapless Potemkins who reliably fail to see what’s happening in the schools. For decades, our hapless “educational experts” have flounced about from fad to fad—with the nation’s “education correspondents” repeating each Standard Bromide. Now, Brooks had poetically channeled their latest—and Collins agreed, of course:

COLLINS (continuing directly): I agree, that very personal relationship is key, but how does a big system make sure that kind of experience is available to every kid? Or even most?

If you eliminated tenure completely my guess would be that you’d have a duplication of the charter school story—some big successes and even more disasters, in which schools got worse as the more expensive, experienced teachers were replaced by newcomers and some principals hired friends or people with political connections.

The teacher union leaders, particularly Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, have been cooperative about looking for ways to make it easier to get rid of bad teachers. That’s partly because the Race to the Top has put pressure on states to reform. But it’s also because the vast majority of teachers have no sympathy for their colleagues who are either incompetent or lazy.

Collins began to “guess” what would happen if you eliminated tenure completely. But go ahead—read this full “Conversation.” Neither pundit voiced any idea about low-income schools that went outside the framework of teacher quality. And good lord! As he continued, Brooks began waxing again:

BROOKS (continuing directly): You’re right about Randi Weingarten. She has been a remarkable leader in a tough position. She’s got to look after her members. It’s her job. But she also has to look after the students. It’s her duty. I think she had tried to balance the normal union preference for the status quo with the reformer’s desire for change.

One point I try to make to Republicans is that you can’t reform education without teachers. They have to be on board. Nonetheless, if you look at the calcifying forces that decimate relationships between students and teachers, I think you’d have to include, union rules that put job preservation over instruction and accountability, intrusive bureaucratic strictures, and a testing regime that doesn’t measure some of the most important things—like creativity, industry, ambition and observation skills.

Poor Brooks! He mourned “the calcifying forces that decimate relationships between students and teachers.” Essentially, that is perfect crap, spoken by a company man who doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about. You might as well ask our next-door neighbor to discuss the Bolshoi Ballet.

On balance, Brooks and Collins crafted a safe conversation, coloring neatly between the lines of the Current Official Debate. In essence, Brooks said the teachers unions have been a problem; Collins said they haven’t. The high lady made a similar “argument” in last Thursday’s column, when she broke her personal rules, stooping to discuss a real issue. But alas! When the lady considered the unions, this was the best she could do:

COLLINS (9/30/10) Then there’s the matter of teachers’ unions. Guggenheim is the man who got us worried about global warming in “An Inconvenient Truth.” In his new film, the American Federation of Teachers, a union, and its president, Randi Weingarten, seem to be playing the role of carbon emissions.


But there’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back. Finland, which is currently cleaning our clock in education scores, has teachers who are almost totally unionized. The states with the best student performance on standardized tests tend to be the ones with the strongest teachers’ unions.

“There’s no evidence that teachers’ unions are holding our schools back,” Collins proclaimed. After all, Finland has unions! That fact, of course, can’t settle the current disputes about the conduct of our teachers unions, but it seemed good enough for Collins. After that, she fell back on a geographical correlation—our unionized states tend to have better scores! Sigh! For reasons which stretch through American history, our unionized states tend to be in the north; our low-scoring states tend to be in the south. There is no particular reason to see this as anything more than coincidence—except when clueless-but-very-high pundits pretend to discuss public schools.

In last week’s column, Collins said that Guggenheim’s film had managed to spark “a great debate.” A few days later, she and Brooks proved that this isn’t the case. Do we want a great debate about the nation’s public schools? Yesterday, we offered three prescriptions for such a discussion. Today, we’ll scan three more.

In bold, three more prescriptions for a “great debate”—a debate you will never see:

Discuss the full range of issues and problems: Guggenheim’s simple-minded film focuses on teacher quality, nothing more. But go ahead—re-examine the painful scores achieved by black and Hispanic students on the 2006 PISA science test, the international test which is ballyhooed hard by Guggenheim’s simplistic film (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/4/10). Scores like that don’t emerge from thin air—and they aren’t the sole creation of teachers. They come from poverty, and from brutal history; they emerge from the low literacy levels within this nation’s low-income homes. (Finland is a middle-class, high-literacy nation.) If we want to continue improving the scores of our deserving low-income kids, we have to look to something more than “the calcifying forces that decimate relationships between students and teachers.” We might look at these things:

We might look at preschool education. (At the age of three, kids from low-literacy backgrounds are already far behind their middle-class peers. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/28/06.)

We might look at curriculum and instructional materials found within the schools, starting with kindergarten. (When they arrive for kindergarten, many low-income kids are way behind in basic skills. Are appropriate adjustments made? In fourth grade, many low-income kids are working on first grade level, we’re told. How are they being instructed?)

Might we also consider the way low-income kids are raised in the home, long before they get to school? Consider:

In December 2005, William Raspberry retired from the Washington Post, taking his 39 years as a columnist with him (and his Pulitzer Prize). He returned to his hometown (Okolona, Mississippi) to expand and sustain the “Baby Steps” program, a program designed to help low-income parents raise more literate kids (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/21/06). Five years later, what has Raspberry learned from this effort? Might programs like Baby Steps bear fruit for the delightful, deserving kids who were born into loving, low-income homes? Darlings! Must we tell you? Raspberry has been dropped by The Club since undertaking this déclassé effort! In recent years, Raspberry and his Baby Steps program have been discussed in the (Tupelo) Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. But the better class of national papers haven’t dirtied their hands.

Presumably, teacher quality is part of the issue as we confront our massive educational challenges. But it’s only one part of the issue, and the nation’s philandering pundits show few signs of grasping this fact. To all appearances, neither do the Potemkin “experts” the nation’s elites keep on hand to frame preferred narratives. Needless to say, the nation’s film-makers don’t have the first earthly clue.

Discuss the wide range of players who fail: At present, journalistic pseudo-elites enjoy discussing the alleged failure of teachers, an offensive group who ought to be glad we’re willing to pay them at all (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/10). At the same time, they break their backs to avoid discussing the failures and frauds of powerful players—the failures and frauds of the Big Major Players who are part of their own high class. Who are some of these major players? These:

State education elites: The state of New York just copped to a statewide test score fraud; your major newspapers are breaking their backs to avoid exploring its genesis. (In real time, teachers warned that it was occurring. As head of the New York Times editorial board, Collins mocked what they said.)

High-ranking national players: In New York City, Chancellor Klein should have known that this fraud was occurring. You will never see him questioned about why he said and did nothing. Unmistakably, Michelle Rhee seems to have lied about her own success as a teacher as she fashioned her own post-teaching career. Everyone has agreed to look away and pretend that she didn’t do this.

High-ranking, elite pseudo-journalists: Wendy Kopp parades about, spreading ridiculous tales about the success of the Ivy League kids who form her Teach for America program. Her representations are absurd, a disgrace—and they confuse the public debate. But when she went on Charlie Rose, the Manhattan gentleman floundered and fawned. Kopp’s bogus tales have been widely accepted; they’re a key part of the union-trashing narrative which now rules our “great debate.” Deferring to every damn-fool thing she said, Rose conducted one of the worst interviews of all time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/10/08).

Top education correspondents: At the Washington Post, Jay Mathews is one of the nation’s leading “education correspondents.” In 2006, he turned out to be such a rube that he featured a low-income school at the top of the Post’s front page, bragging about its tremendous success. In fact, the school turned out to have the second-lowest reading scores in the whole state of Virginia! Mathews had been conned by Virginia’s statewide test score scam—but his fellow elites agreed not to tattle. Their reaction? They kept their traps shut about the statewide fraud; they hid the fact that Mathews got conned.

In short, many players have floundered and failed, even as test scores have improved. Modern pundits attack teachers only. It’s the official scam.

Stop the moral preening: As these bozos pretend to proceed, they rarely fail to help us see their own exquisite moral greatness. Guggenheim has crafted a destructive, simple-minded thesis—a thesis which advances the teacher-bashing and union-bashing preferred by current elites. But his interviews—and apparently, his film—are built around his own moral greatness. Poor Guggenheim! He feels so bad as he drives his kids to private school in Los Angeles! As these people make jokes of our discourse, could they at least refrain from making us marvel at their personal greatness?

Tomorrow, we’ll offer three more prescriptions. Bringing in the eternal note of sadness, we’ll even ask where the “liberals” have been.