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GOVERNOR FLUMMOXED! A famous cult has its way once again. Why is Rendell still surprised? // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2008

Times gets tooken: Let’s recall what the New York Times said in yesterday’s news report, written by Tamar Lewin:

LEWIN (12/3/08): Over all, the report found, published college tuition and fees increased 439 percent from 1982 to 2007, adjusted for inflation, while median family income rose 147 percent. Student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade, and students from lower-income families, on average, get smaller grants from the colleges they attend than students from more affluent families

Had those figures really been “adjusted for inflation?” We expressed doubt, and Kevin Drum quickly said that the figures hadn’t been adjusted (just click here). And sure enough! At some point today, the New York Times posted the following correction. The fault lay with some unnamed editor, it said, not with Lewin herself:

Correction: December 4, 2008
Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about the increasing cost of higher education gave an incorrect context for two figures: the 439 percent increase in college tuition and fees and the 147 percent increase in median family income since 1982. Those figures were not adjusted for inflation. The error was repeated for the data in an accompanying chart. A corrected chart appears at nytimes.com/national.

That “incorrect context” served to (vastly) overstate the actual rise in college costs. Yes, the rise in costs is significant. But the rise is nowhere near as large as the Times mistakenly said.

Some quick background: To us, that 147 percent figure didn’t seem right; beyond that, the fact that the chart showed the Consumer Price Index rising 106 percent struck us as a logical contradiction. But at any rate, those numbers weren’t adjusted for inflation. The rising cost of college really is a big problem—but this report, and that graph, vastly overstated its size.

A few remarks about the way we often get handed our data:

Where the problem began: This problem began with the very high-minded National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the Gates-sponsored group which produced the report in question. For unknown reasons, the group presented data which hadn’t been adjusted for twenty-five years of inflation—and the report’s rather murky text seems to have fooled at least one major paper into thinking the figures had been adjusted. Why did this happen? We have no idea. But when major groups produce murky work, there will sometimes be a reason. In this case, producing data which weren’t adjusted for inflation heightened the sense of the vast price hike to which the group wanted to call attention. (Omigod! Have college costs really increased by 439 percent?) Groups will imaginably do such things to heighten the drama—to exaggerate the apparent size of the problem they are pimping. Did the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education deliberately offer misleading work? We have no idea. But they scored news reports in the Post and the Times, with both papers pimping their tricked-up (unadjusted) data. The Times even declared that the data had been adjusted, thereby getting flat-out tooken. The Post perhaps chose to play its safe. It didn’t say if the data had been adjusted, although it obviously should have.

The heartbreak of inflation: It’s astounding to see the way the press gets bollixed by so basic a thing as the need to adjust for inflation. From 1994 through 1996, this country suffered an endlessly bungled Medicare debate—a bungled discussion which lasted two years because the mainstream press just couldn’t seem to handle the need to adjust for inflation. We’ve discussed this episode in great detail; it was one of the gruesome issues which led us to start THE HOWLER in the first place. Quick reminder: In that Medicare discussion, the Clinton White House was basically playing it straight; by way of contrast, the Gingrich-led RNC was inventing a brand new language, a language designed (and focus-grouped) for the purpose of confusing the issue. Simply put, Republicans kept presenting dollar amounts which hadn’t been adjusted for inflation. The press corps was too dumb to see through the ruse—and they, of course, ended up insisting that Clinton wasn’t telling the truth. In our view, this episode displayed the basic approach your press corps had adopted by the mid-1990s: Every issue was now a pretext for reciting Group Judgments about major pols’ character. And no matter what ever happened on Earth, their Group Judgment was by now preordained. The press corps’ assessment would always be the same: Clinton, and then Gore, were Big Major Liars. They kept this up—and kept this up—until they’d put Bush where he is.

Getting back to the current matter: It’s hard to know why a big public interest group would build a report around data which hadn’t been adjusted for twenty-five years of inflation. But that’s what the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education did, and the Post and the Times both got tooken. The Times got tooken the worst, explicitly saying that the figures had been adjusted for inflation. The Post didn’t say one way or the other, although they obviously should have. But they too presented a misleading chart—a chart which vastly overstated the size of the real growth in prices.

We still plan to return to our very special “Back-to-school week” series (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08). When we do, we’ll return to our starting point for the series, as promised. We’ll return to Nicholas Kristof, who lectured Obama about public schools, typing one paragraph of advice—advice he’d taken straight from a report by a high-minded education concern. Eventually, we’ll go back and see what Kistof recommended. But do you see the mischief that can result when journalists accept the types of high-minded data these high-minded groups may hand them? Did Kristof really know whereof he spoke? We tend to doubt that too.

Once again, be sure to look at Kevin’s post. While you’re there, why not review the very first comment? In it, we repeat a high-minded judgment we ourselves have repeatedly drawn.

Visit our incomparable archives: In August 1999, we posted three reports—short, medium and long—about the mid-90s Medicare discussion. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99, then click on the report you want.) By the way: Al Franken had explained the whole silly mess in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. He included a wonderfully comical and revealing anecdote, typed at Margaret Warner’s expense—and he assured us that nothing in the anecdote had been embellished. This anecdote only appears in “The Speaker’s new language,” our magnum Medicare opus.

By the mid-1990s, the die had been cast. Years later, George Bush reached the White House.

GOVERNOR FLUMMOXED: Uh-oh! Ed Rendell made an offhand comment this week—and a powerful cult went to work. His comment concerned Janet Napolitano, Obama’s choice for head of Homeland Security. In today’s Times, Gail Collins—a high priestess in this powerful cult—quotes Rendell’s offhand remark:

COLLINS (12/4/08): Rendell, who is governor of Pennsylvania, was chatting about Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, at a governor’s meeting (where else?) while lounging in the vicinity of a live mic....He was explaining that Napolitano was “perfect” for homeland security “because, for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.”

There you have it—Rendell’s offhand comment, made in passing to personal friends with an open mike nearby. In today’s Times, Collins devotes her entire column to this remark. In the process, she helps us see, once again, the way a major cult works in our lives.

The Cult of the Offhand Comment lives! We see this in Collins’ column.

Collins starts her column quoting Rendell, this week’s chosen mark. Silly boy! For unknown reasons, he’s amazed to find Collins wasting her time with his pointless comment:

COLLINS: Ed Rendell can’t believe that he’s being asked about the fact that he said that Barack Obama’s nominee for head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, has “no life.”

“We’re facing the greatest crisis since the Depression, and you want to talk about this?” he complained.

Silly boy! You’re goddamned right she wants to talk about that! She also wants to give the world a good, unintentional laugh:

COLLINS (continuing directly): This is exactly the kind of comment people used to make during the bad old days in New York, when cops ticketing cars for double-parking were always told that they should be out arresting murderous drug dealers. But what better time to have a diverting discussion about a governor’s misadventure with an open microphone? Really, there’s not much chance that we’re going to forget the big picture.

Rendell didn’t know this, but you surely do: These people live for “diverting discussions.” And we simply had to laugh at Collins’ last remark. There’s not much chance that we’re going to forget the big picture? Too funny! As everyone but Rendell surely knows, “forgetting the big picture” lies at the heart of this cohort’s upper-class culture. The cult has made this point quite clear for a good number of years:

In 1999 and 2000, they wasted two years on “diverting discussions” about Gore’s bald spot and troubling clothes—and about deeply troubling statements which he hadn’t made.

George Bush ended up in the White House. They then spent the summer of 2001 creating a set of “diverting discussions” about an intern named Chandra Levy.

After September 11, 2001, they swore that everything had changed. But within a few years, they were having “diverting discussions” about the fact that John Kerry wind-surfs—and about the cheese he once chose to put on his steak. And about his loud-mouth wife.

By 2006, scientists were reaching consensus about the global climate crisis. When Gore’s movie brought this point front and center, Frank Rich produced a “diverting discussion” about every manner of trivia found in the film. One year later, Dana Milbank typed a new diversion, about all the big words Gore would use.

This year, the bottom fell out on the nation’s finances. We assumed this would finally sober this cohort up, since their own 401Ks were now involved. But today, we get a diverting discussion about this utterly poiintless comment. The Cult of the Offhand Comment lives—and diversion is what this group always craves.

You can work your way through Collins’ column observing the foolish judgments she renders. How foolish would the lady be in service to her powerful cult? Try just this one passage, in which she describes Rendell’s offhand remark. Forgive the repetition:

COLLINS: Rendell, who is governor of Pennsylvania...was explaining that Napolitano was “perfect” for homeland security “because, for that job, you have to have no life. Janet has no family. Perfect. She can devote, literally, 19-20 hours a day to it.”

This seemed to be the summation of Napolitano’s qualifications. Rendell himself has been on the list of Cabinet Mentions, and this is a good example of the way people around the world explain why another person got the prize instead: It was all about some random characteristic I happen to lack.

“This seemed to be the summation of Napolitano’s qualifications?” Well actually, no—it didn’t. “This is a good example of the way people around the world explain why another person got the prize?” Actually, yes it is—if you’re writing a novel. But Collins persisted in nonsense like this until she reached the “point” of her column. We won’t waste your valuable time explaining what her “point” is. But it turns on the notion that Condoleezza Rice, a long-time press darling, has a “public image” that is “so extreme” that “people must be wondering if she plans to immolate herself on the White House lawn during the inauguration.” Trust us—no one is wondering that. In the real world, people are wondering what will happen to the economy—the “big picture” Collins’ “diverting discussion” is designed to help us forget.

Collins types from inside Versailles, where they live for pleasing diversion. Rendell still seems surprised by this fact. Why is this man still surprised?

Tomorrow: Uncle Gene’s latest. And, as we warned you, it will be “Einstein leaves Carrboro!” After rereading, we are now prepared to recommend Brian Greene’s second book—with a few comments, of course.