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OUR MISTER BROOKS! Eve Arden wasn’t a whiz with math. How about David Brooks? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2010

The fruit of a forty-year script: We’re off on a mission of national import. For that reason, we will postpone, until Monday, our discussion of yesterday’s New York Times report concerning the Baltimore schools.

In our view, that report is the fruit of a forty-year script. Right from its very first paragraph, it’s almost perfectly novelized. We’ve read this script a million times. Because this report is a true masterwork, it deserves a careful review.

Special report: Newsroom culture!

EPILOGUE—OUR MISTER BROOKS (permalink): In fairness, “Our Miss Brooks” (Eve Arden) wasn’t a high school math teacher. (To study up on this early sitcom, just click here.)

That said, New York Times columnist David Brooks isn’t a whiz-bang with numbers either. Or so it seemed when we read his new column concerning those Bush tax cuts.

Are big major journalists bollixed by math? That’s what Andrew Alexander said in Sunday’s Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/10). Apparently hoping to prove the man’s point, Brooks writes the following about the approach he’d like Obama to take to the deficit problem. In his headline, Brooks describes what follows as his “tax reform vision:”

BROOKS (12/3/10): The Wyden-Gregg plan simplifies the tax code and reduces the number of rates from six to three. Most taxpayers would be able to use a one-page 1040 I.R.S. form. It preserves some deductions, like the mortgage interest deduction and the child tax credit, but eliminates many others. The Heritage Foundation calculated that the measure would reduce the federal deficit by $61 billion a year and create 2.3 million jobs. The Tax Policy Center found it would make the tax code more progressive and reduce the tax bill for most families making less than $200,000.

In my vision, the president would lay something like this at the feet of the Republicans and ask: Are you ready to have a conversation, or are you the party that can’t say yes?

Say what? Let’s start with the numbers:

Brooks proposes a plan which “would reduce the federal deficit by $61 billion a year.” Given the massive size of projected deficits, it’s hard to see how such a reduction addresses the alleged fiscal disaster which has Washington tearing its hair. That said, Mister Brooks makes no attempt to relate this figure to the size of those projected deficits. Reading his column, citizens are given no way to relate this crucial number to those which define the size of the problem.

Having puzzled at this basic number, let’s turn to that passage’s logic:

Brooks praises the Wyden-Gregg plan because it would be “more progressive.” That may be so (trust but verify!), but we were struck by the logic of his next words of praise: “The Tax Policy Center found it would…reduce the tax bill for most families making less than $200,000.” The word “most” is quite imprecise, of course. But if we’re trying to deal with disabling deficits, why would we adopt a plan which would lower the tax bill for “most families making less than $200,000?” If we lower taxes on all those people, wouldn’t that make our deficit problem worse? One more question: Doesn’t this imply that future revenue shortfalls can all be addressed by those in the top few percent?

Please understand: Brooks seems to propose that “most families” pay even less than they currently do under Bush’s tax rates.

Does Mister Brooks’ proposal make sense? Truly, we have no idea. At best, his column strikes us as D-plus work—the kind of work which typifies our groaning public discussions. Perhaps there’s a logic here which escapes us. But how can a reader tell if Brooks’ proposal makes basic sense? He provides a number defining the size of his solution—but none defining the size of the problem! And a decades-old dreamscape seems to be present: Brooks seems to suggest that we can solve this allegedly monstrous problem while asking almost everyone to pay fewer taxes, not more.

So it goes when our biggest journalists discuss the nation’s biggest problems. By happenstance, the Times presents seven letters today dealing with the debt-and-deficit problem; several letters, from regular Joes, seem a bit less dreamy. Two different writers flatly say that all Bush’s tax cuts should be repealed—that everyone should return to the Clinton tax rates. In this third letter, an enterprising woman in Georgia seems to agree:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/3/10): I am a card-carrying member of the middle class—a college-educated working mom with two children in college, two mortgages, some credit card debt and a decent 401(k). I make more than $50,000 but less than $100,000 and am better off financially than my parents. I am bewildered by all the ruckus about tax increases.

I work for a small business with fewer than 40 employees, and when the Bush tax cuts went into effect I went to every person in my company and asked how much his or her take-home pay had increased. The amount averaged $28 per month.

I would gratefully sacrifice my $28 per month to secure a better future for my children. When it’s explained in these terms, wouldn’t anyone do the same?

Frankly, we’re amazed this woman is still employed after grilling her fellow employees that way. But she too suggests that we’d be better off if we simply restored all the Clinton tax rates. Please note: Under Mister Brooks’ more magical plan, this woman would likely be asked to pay even less than she does under Bush’s tax rates.

(For the record, $28 per month adds up to $336 per year. Never mind how we got that.)

Would it make sense to return to the Clinton tax rates—presumably in a gradual way, so as to avoid threatening economic recovery? We’ve rarely seen the matter discussed! You see, Obama supports retaining the bulk of Bush’s tax cuts; for this reason, tribal journalists of the left routinely act as if this makes indisputable sense. Only Republicans can be wrong in this childish pseudo-journalism. In today’s letters, three private citizens make a fairly basic proposal—a proposal which is rarely discussed in the woolly provinces inhabited by our celebrity “press corps.” But then, your nation’s intellectual culture is broken—it’s broken on various sides.

Ah, those famous D-plus elites! One letter came from an academic. The professor suggested this:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/3/10): That raging question of whether to extend the Bush tax cuts can be rather easily economically (and politically) solved: the $700 billion bonus for the privileged, if the tax cuts were extended for the wealthiest 2 percent, should be given instead to the middle class.

An additional benefit: the middle class will spend a greater percentage of that $700 billion than the wealthy.

See there? The professor seeks to save $700 billion (over ten years) by restoring the upper-end Clinton tax rates. He thereby eschews the additional $3.2 trillion (or $2 trillion; or whatever) which would be gained by restoring all the Clinton rates. But note the additional bonus here: The professor wouldn’t apply that $700 billion to deficit reduction at all; he would apparently use this money to lower middle-class tax rates even further. He seems to propose lowering the bulk of Bush’s tax rates, with no deficit reduction at all.

Do you think the letters editors noted the apparent oddness of this proposal? Our public discussions rarely make sense. We will guess that they didn’t.

Back to Our Mister Brooks: On Sunday, Alexander claimed that major journalists are frightened by numbers, lousy with math. Five days have passed since he lodged this vile charge. Dare anyone say he was wrong?

South of the border: One of the letters, from Francois Furstenberg, raises an intriguing point about Senate procedures and the norms of the current public debate. Alas! This letter came from Canada, where discussions about American politics may be less murky, more clear.