Times gets tooken: Lets recall what the New York Times said in yesterdays 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 hadnt 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 didnt 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 werent adjusted for inflation. The rising cost of college really is a big problembut 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 hadnt been adjusted for twenty-five years of inflationand the reports 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 werent 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 dramato 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 didnt say if the data had been adjusted, although it obviously should have.
The heartbreak of inflation: Its 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 debatea bungled discussion which lasted two years because the mainstream press just couldnt seem to handle the need to adjust for inflation. Weve 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 hadnt been adjusted for inflation. The press corps was too dumb to see through the ruseand they, of course, ended up insisting that Clinton wasnt 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 upand kept this upuntil theyd put Bush where he is.
Getting back to the current matter: Its hard to know why a big public interest group would build a report around data which hadnt been adjusted for twenty-five years of inflation. But thats 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 didnt say one way or the other, although they obviously should have. But they too presented a misleading charta 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, well return to our starting point for the series, as promised. Well return to Nicholas Kristof, who lectured Obama about public schools, typing one paragraph of adviceadvice hed taken straight from a report by a high-minded education concern. Eventually, well 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 Kevins post. While youre 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 reportsshort, medium and longabout 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 Warners expenseand he assured us that nothing in the anecdote had been embellished. This anecdote only appears in The Speakers 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 weekand a powerful cult went to work. His comment concerned Janet Napolitano, Obamas choice for head of Homeland Security. In todays Times, Gail Collinsa high priestess in this powerful cultquotes Rendells offhand remark:
COLLINS (12/4/08): Rendell, who is governor of Pennsylvania, was chatting about Napolitano, the governor of Arizona, at a governors 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 itRendells offhand comment, made in passing to personal friends with an open mike nearby. In todays 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 weeks chosen mark. Silly boy! For unknown reasons, hes amazed to find Collins wasting her time with his pointless comment:
COLLINS: Ed Rendell cant believe that hes being asked about the fact that he said that Barack Obamas nominee for head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, has no life.
Were facing the greatest crisis since the Depression, and you want to talk about this? he complained.
Silly boy! Youre 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 governors misadventure with an open microphone? Really, theres not much chance that were going to forget the big picture.
Rendell didnt know this, but you surely do: These people live for diverting discussions. And we simply had to laugh at Collins last remark. Theres not much chance that were going to forget the big picture? Too funny! As everyone but Rendell surely knows, forgetting the big picture lies at the heart of this cohorts 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 Gores bald spot and troubling clothesand about deeply troubling statements which he hadnt 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-surfsand 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 Gores 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 nations 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 livesand 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 Rendells 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 Napolitanos 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 Napolitanos qualifications? Well actually, noit didnt. This is a good example of the way people around the world explain why another person got the prize? Actually, yes it isif youre writing a novel. But Collins persisted in nonsense like this until she reached the point of her column. We wont 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 usno one is wondering that. In the real world, people are wondering what will happen to the economythe 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 Genes latest. And, as we warned you, it will be Einstein leaves Carrboro! After rereading, we are now prepared to recommend Brian Greenes second bookwith a few comments, of course.