Stalking the wild budget numbers: How much would it cost the federal budget to extend all the Bush tax ratesthe current tax rates, that is? How much would it cost to extend just the rates which affect the middle-class? Last Thursday, we noted a nagging problem in the way this topic is reported by two of our biggest newspapers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/10).
Heres the problem: According to standard accounts, extending the Bush tax rates for the highest earners will add $700 billion to federal deficits in the next ten years. But thats where the agreement ends. How much would it cost if we only extend the tax rates on income below $250,000? We noted that the Washington Post and the New York Times tell this overall story quite differently. They use quite different numbers:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/2/10): Both sides have long agreed that tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000 should be extended. That is more than enough. It would preserve $3.2 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years. Republicans, however, insist that the high-end cuts also be extended, bringing the total 10-year cost to $4 trillion.
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/28/10): [W]hy is Mr. Obama, having appointed the debt commission, proposing a permanent extension of the tax cuts for households making under $250,000 a year? Now, this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree," he said in Indiana on Tuesday. "The only place where we disagree is whether we can afford to also borrow $700 billion to pay for an extra tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, for millionaires and billionaires. I don't think we can afford it right nownot when we are going to have to make some tough decisions to rein in our deficits." Missing from Mr. Obama's analysis: any explanation of how we can afford to borrow more than $2 trillion to pay for making the rest of the tax cut permanent.
Say what? According to the Times, extending the tax rates for income below $250,000 would cost $3.2 trillion over ten years. Extending the tax rates for income above that figure takes the cost to $4 trillion. Wed say this is the standard accountthe account which is most commonly seen in the nations press. But the Post seemed to say that extending the rates for income under $250,000 would cost only $2 trillion. Last Thursday, we noted how strange it is when our two biggest political papers seem to use such different numbers to describe so basic a matter.
Your DAILY HOWLER keeps getting results! In a front-page report in Sundays Post, Shailagh Murray continued to use the $2 trillion figure. But then, near the end of her piece, she tried to semi-explain:
MURRAY (12/4/10): The GOP plan to extend all the tax cuts is estimated to cost $4 trillion, while the plan Obama favored would cost $2 trillion
Republicans have complained that Democrats hid the true cost of permanently extending middle-class benefits by including only a short-term fix to the alternative minimum tax, one of the most expensive provisions, shielding millions of middle-class households from higher tax bills.
An honest tally of the Democratic bills, GOP Senate aides said, would raise the 10-year cost of both proposals to at least $3.3 trillion over 10 years, compared to about $4 trillion over 10 years to extend all the Bush provisions, including the AMT.
As we had recalled from September, the White House has whittled down the projected cost of its proposal by a bit of figure-finagling. Almost everywhere, journalists use the figures recommended by those GOP aides, in which extension of all the Bush tax rates would cost roughly $4 trillion over ten years, with Obamas proposal costing $700 billion less.
For some reason, the Post editors keep using the Obama numbers, which strike us as manipulated. But there you see the explanation for the oddness we noted last week, in which these two big papers use vastly different numbers as they discuss a major budget mattera matter which has been at the center of our public discourse for months.
No one cares about any of this, of course. Is it $2 trillion, or $3.2 trillion? What difference could it possibly make? The difference is only $1.2 trillion! Given the norms of our broken discourse, thats considered close enough for journalistic work.
Are you sure you understand this? More on this bollixed matter tomorrow, using Paul Krugmans new column.
Special report: The fruit of a forty-year script!
On page one of the National section, Tavernise penned a lengthy profile of the Baltimore City Public Schools under superintendent Andres Alonso, who took charge of the system in 2007. Her report was granted a rather large profile. Almost 1400 words long, it was accompanied by three large photos.
Nothing we say here is meant as a criticism of Alonso, who has only been on the job for three years. (Whatever one thinks of Alonsos ideas, miracles cant happen that fast.) Instead, we offer criticism of Tavernise, whose report is a masterwork of elite propagandaand the fruit of a forty-year script.
Lets start with the basic question: Have Baltimores schools improved under Alonsos direction? We dont have the slightest ideaand in the days since this report appeared, weve reviewed Baltimores passing rates on Marylands annual statewide tests and on the more reliable National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP).
But then, Tavernise herself has no idea if any such progress has occurred during Alonsos short tenure. Instead of simply saying as much, she skillfully works from a decades-old scripta script designed to reassure readers about the performance of urban schools in certain approved circumstances. In line with that familiar old script, she showers praise on Alonsos head, hailing his many reforms, implying that they have accomplished great things.
But are Baltimores schools really doing better? Have Alonsos programs really worked in some way? Tavernise provides no serious evidence in support of this claim, which she plainly states and implies. She does provide evidence of a sad fact: All too often, journalists at our greatest newspaper cant read, write, reason or cipher.
Alas! Judged as a piece of journalism, Tavernises report is wrong from the starttechnically inept, slickly bungled. Right from the start, Tavernise paints a familiar old portrait, taken from a heartwarming script: Things were very bad in Baltimore. But things are much better now!
But are things better in Baltimores schools? What follows is Tavernises opening presentation. Sadly, this makes little sense:
TAVERNISE (12/2/10): For years, this city had one of the worst school systems in the country. Fewer than half its students graduated, enrollment had fallen precipitously and proficiency levels were far below the national average.
In 2007, the school board hired Andres Alonso, a Cuban immigrant with a Harvard degree and strong views on how to change things. In three years, he pushed through a sweeping reorganization of the school system, closing failing schools, slashing the central office staff by a third and replacing three-quarters of all school principals.
Not everyone likes Dr. Alonsos methods, and many find that his brassy self-confidence can grate. But few are arguing with his results. Since he was hired, the dropout rate has fallen by half, more students are graduating and for the first time in many years, the system has gained students instead of losing them.
Wow! It sounds like something great is happening! (Few are arguing with his results!) Sadly, that presentation makes no apparent sense.
Start with that opening paragraph.
For years, Tavernise somewhat hazily says, Baltimore had one of the worst school systems in the country. Then, getting a bit more specific, she says that Baltimores proficiency levels were far below the national average during those fallow years.
So how about itis it true? Did Baltimore really have one of the worst school systems in the country in the years before Alonso arrived? That is a matter of judgmentand of semantics. That said, Baltimores proficiency levels were almost surely far below the national average in the years before Alonso arrivedover the previous several decades, in fact.
But uh-oh! Might we note an unfortunate fact? Baltimores proficiency rates are still far below the national averageor at least, they were in 2009, the last year for which we have data. In 2009, Baltimore took part, for the first time, in the Trial Urban District Assessment, a relatively new component of the NAEP; the city scored near the middle among the roughly dozen big-city systems which took part in that years assessment. (By way of example: Baltimore scored behind New York and Boston, ahead of Cleveland and Detroit.) But proficiency rates in almost all those big-city systems were far below the national average, even in 2009. If that is our criterion, then almost all those systems currently rank among the worst school systems in the country, Baltimore included.
If we use the data from our most-respected testing program, Baltimore still has very low proficiency rates. And there is no way to chart improvement (or lack of same), given Baltimores one-time participation in this program.
Well then, how about Baltimores proficiency rates on the state of Marylands annual testing? On face, the systems proficiency rates have improved under Alonsobut proficiency rates were also improving in the years before Alonso arrived, at roughly as fast a pace. The kicker here is the uncertainty which now surrounds testing programs in the various states. In fact, proficiency rates have improved all over Maryland in the past ten years; Baltimores gains have basically tracked the year-to-year gains (with occasional losses) recorded all over the state. Do those steady gains in proficiency rates represent real academic growth? Or do they possibly represent changes in the difficulty of the testsa problem which has plagued state testing programs all over the nation? There is no easy way to sayand Baltimores gains before 2007 were as strong as those recorded in the years since Alonso arrived. At any rate, Tavernise never cites any data from the Maryland testing program. And she never reports a basic fact: Baltimores proficiency rates were steadily improving on these tests before Alonso arrived.
Can we talk?
In her opening passage, Tavernise works from a forty-year-old script, in which a charismatic principal (or superintendent) is said to have dramatically changed a floundering big-city school (or school system). But at no point does she offer any data indicating that Baltimores proficiency rates have improved under Alonso. Instead, she offers that silly third paragraph, in which she deals with a notoriously tricky statistic (drop-out/graduation rate), using alleged improvement as a marker of Alonsos supposed success. That said: If fewer kids are dropping out during their high school years, does that mean that theyand their younger siblingsare actually reading and doing math better? At no point does Tavernise give any reason for believing that any such thing has occurred. Instead, she offers that silly third paragraph, in which she states, three different ways (see below), that the drop-out rate is now lower.
Has Alonso raised proficiency rates? At no point does Tavernise make such a claim. But reports like hers have never been designed to produce real analysis. For at least the past forty years, reports like this have been offered as acts of civic boosterism, designed to reassure the public about favored schools, school systems, superintendents and reform plans. In this case, its Alonso who is being favored and puffed, although that isnt his fault.
Few are arguing with his results, Tavernise saysalthough she describes no results at all, beyond an alleged reduction in drop-out rate. More specifically, Tavernise never specifically claims that Baltimores proficiency rates have improved in the past three years. Well guess that few readers noticed this omission, since Tavernise skillfully implies that this type of improvement has occurred. But then, Tavernise is engaged in propaganda, not proof, in line with an ugly old press corps script which has worked to harm children for decades.
Can Baltimores children read, write, reason? Why demand such performance from them, when our nations most famous journalists reason as Tavernise does?
Tomorrowpart 2: Why puff Alonso?
The rule of three: Again, here is the principal passage where Tavernise describes Alonsos results. Truly, this is just sad:
TAVERNISE: Not everyone likes Dr. Alonsos methods, and many find that his brassy self-confidence can grate. But few are arguing with his results. Since he was hired, the dropout rate has fallen by half, more students are graduating and for the first time in many years, the system has gained students instead of losing them.
A casual reader may think he is reading a list of Alonsos results. But if the dropout rate has fallen, then, presumably by definition, more students are graduating. Presumably, this will also explain, or help to explain, why the system is gaining students.
Presumably, its a good thing when the dropout rate declines. But Tavernise seems to have turned one result into three! Why would a journalist do that? Is this really cheerleading?