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A LAND WHERE NOTHING HAS TO MAKE SENSE! Over and over, Alonso is praised in ways which don’t really make much sense: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2010

We’re all George W. Bush now: No, this isn’t a criticism of yesterday’s proposed budget deal.

Instead, this is a criticism of the public debate about those Bush-era tax rates—the tax rates which will apparently be extended for the next two years.

Let’s start with Paul Krugman’s latest column, which appeared on Monday (click here). Krugman said Obama should reject a deal extending all the Bush tax rates. If everyone reverts to the Clinton tax rates, that might not be such a bad thing. Or so Krugman seemed to say.

Krugman’s piece is a bit unclear; for example, he never says what he would regard as the best way to tax ourselves moving forward. But we were struck by his claim that reversion to the Clinton tax rates wouldn’t hurt the recovery all that much. We were even more struck by the following passage, in which he seems to suggest that we can’t afford the resolution Obama has long advocated, in which we make the bulk of Bush’s tax cuts permanent. Please note: In the highlighted passage, Krugman is talking about revenue loss from extending all the Bush rates, not just the rate which applies to upper-end income:

KRUGMAN (12/6/10): But while raising taxes when unemployment is high is a bad thing, there are worse things. And a cold, hard look at the consequences of giving in to the G.O.P. now suggests that saying no, and letting the Bush tax cuts expire on schedule, is the lesser of two evils.

Bear in mind that Republicans want to make those tax cuts permanent. They might agree to a two- or three-year extension—but only because they believe that this would set up the conditions for a permanent extension later. And they may well be right: if tax-cut blackmail works now, why shouldn’t it work again later?

America, however, cannot afford to make those cuts permanent. We’re talking about almost $4 trillion in lost revenue just over the next decade; over the next 75 years, the revenue loss would be more than three times the entire projected Social Security shortfall. So giving in to Republican demands would mean risking a major fiscal crisis—a crisis that could be resolved only by making savage cuts in federal spending.

And we’re not talking about government programs nobody cares about: the only way to cut spending enough to pay for the Bush tax cuts in the long run would be to dismantle large parts of Social Security and Medicare.

That “$4 trillion in lost revenue just over the next decade” represents the revenue lost by extending all the Bush tax rates. In this column, Krugman seems to imply that we can’t afford to extend the bulk of Bush’s tax rates—not just the one tax rate which applies to upper-end income.

We were very much struck by this passage; it represents a rumination which has seldom appeared in the past year’s debate. In the past year, we liberals have granted ourselves the tribal pleasure or criticizing the morals and motives of The Very Bad Other Tribe. This has led to puzzling discussions like the one which appears in today’s New York Times editorial (click here). In this piece, the editors recite The Standard Liberal Position on The Unaffordable Bush Tax Cuts, repeatedly saying that “the country can’t afford to continue tax cuts for the rich indefinitely.” Understand what this means: This means that we can’t afford the $700 billion in lost revenue caused by the Bush tax cut on income above $250,000. But we can afford the $3.2 trillion in lost revenue caused by all the other Bush tax rates—the tax rates Candidate Obama said he would make permanent.

Again, we find this puzzling. When Candidate Bush proposed his tax cuts in late 1999, Democrats and liberals generally said that his tax cuts were unwise, unaffordable. Democrats maintained this position throughout Campaign 2000. But golly Ned—it almost seems that we’re all George W. Bush now! We want to retain the bulk of his pleasing tax cuts, the ones which affect all income under $250,000. We want 98 percent of the public to enjoy all his cuts, exactly as he crafted them. Even as we look ahead to our alleged fiscal disaster, we’ll accept roughly 80 percent of the revenue loss which follows from those pleasing tax rates.

Can we afford that level of revenue loss? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea; yesterday, Krugman seemed to suggest that we can’t. But this question has rarely been discussed in the childish debate of the past year. As a candidate, Obama accepted the bulk of the Bush tax rates; all good liberals have followed behind him. In 1999, we said these tax cuts were unaffordable. By 2008 and 2010, they were our tax cuts too!

It almost seems that we’re all George Bush—in our preference for lower tax rates, in the utterly childish way we conduct our public discussions.

Special report: The fruits of a forty-year script!

PART 2—A LAND WHERE NOTHING HAS TO MAKE SENSE (permalink): Are Baltimore’s schools doing better since 2007, when Andres Alonso became superintendent?

At the start of last Thursday’s report, Sabrina Tavernise seemed to suggest that some such thing has occurred (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/10).

“For years, this city had one of the worst school systems in the country,” she mournfully wrote, noting that “proficiency levels [in Baltimore] were far below the national average.” Of course, proficiency levels in Baltimore’s schools are still far below the national average, or at least they were in 2009, the last year for which we have serious data which can be compared to national norms. Despite this obvious logical problem, Tavernise soon implied that things have started turning around on Alonso’s watch. “Not everyone likes Dr. Alonso’s methods,” she wrote in paragraph 3. “But few are arguing with his results.”

Which “results” was she talking about? Go ahead—just read her report! See if you can figure that out!

Sorry. In the course of her long and fawning report, Tavernise presented no data intended to show that proficiency levels have risen during Alonso’s brief time at the helm; this empirical question was simply deep-sixed in her long, high-profile report. But so what? Tavernise fawned over Alonso all the same, praising the “results” his reforms have supposedly produced. Routinely, this alleged progress is conveyed anecdotally:

A member of Baltimore’s city council says that Alonso has good ideas. The pastor of a local church supports his outreach to the community. A teacher says that Alonso “has ‘gone more to the root of the problem,’ instead of focusing solely on test scores.” And near the end of the piece, we’re offered this nonsense by Tavernise herself: “Parents, for their part, appreciate the changes.”

Parents appreciate the changes! Apparently, all parents agree!

Sorry! None of these anecdotal accounts tell us if Alonso’s reforms have actually “worked”—if they’re producing stronger readers, children who are better at math. (Note: In our view, educational miracles can’t be expected after just three years.) But then, almost nothing makes sense in last Thursday’s report, in line with a forty-year tradition. This tradition governs the way the nation’s pseudo-journalists pimp favored city school programs.

It’s a journalistic tradition: When journalists write about city schools, they write from a land where nothing they say has to make any real sense. Early on, note the way Tavernise describes Baltimore, embellishing Alonso’s supposed success, making her tale more dramatic:

TAVERNISE: [Baltimore] is a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms. It is a fraction the size of New York City, where Dr. Alonso was a deputy to Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and more troubled than Washington, whose many private schools and status as the nation’s capital have complicated overhaul efforts.

In that passage, Tavernise claims that Baltimore is “a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms.” She seems to support this dramatic claim in two ways—but neither presentation makes much sense. Is Baltimore “a fraction of the size of New York?” Yes, it is. But so is every American city—and this would seem to make reform in Baltimore a substantially less daunting task. Meanwhile, her comparison to Washington is quite hard to decipher. Washington’s “many private schools and status as the nation’s capital have complicated overhaul efforts,” Tavernise claims. But if that is true about Washington, then why is Baltimore “a particularly stark laboratory for reform?” Tavernise never quite explains, although she goes on to make glancing reference to Baltimore’s drug trade and high murder rate, in a typically muddy passage. But then, clarity has rarely been required when journalists pimp approved elite scripts about favored big-city schools—and now, about superintendents who promote the types of “reform” endorsed by our highest elites.

As she continues, Tavernise notes that the Baltimore system “is 88 percent black,” and that “84 percent of students are on free or reduced-price meals.” These are unremarkable figures for American city school systems, but Tavernise seems willing to let readers think different. But then, how silly can things get when journalists promote favored scripts about city schools? By the rules of a very old game, things can get this silly:

TAVERNISE: Some of the system’s schools were beyond repair, and Dr. Alonso closed them, all 26. Many new ones were opened in their place.

Alonso has closed 26 schools; we’ll assume he used his most careful judgment in all such decisions. But how can Tavernise possibly know that “all 26” were “beyond repair?” How can she know that other schools weren’t “beyond repair” too? Obviously, she can’t know these things—but that doesn’t stop her from implying that Alonso’s judgments were perfect. You see, Tavernise is pimping this superintendent in accord with a long, ugly tradition—a clownish successor to the practice once known as “journalism.”

Other puzzling bits of illogic litter—define—this piece. Routinely, Tavernise praises Alonso’s decisions; she does so without offering any way for readers to know if these decisions were good, bad or indifferent. We’ll look at some of this fawning tomorrow—and we’ll address a basic question: Why Alonso is being accorded this fawning, non-journalistic treatment?

Remember: At no point does Tavernise ever claim that Alonso’s programs have actually improved the “proficiency rates” to which she alludes at the start of her piece. Are Baltimore’s children reading better? Sabrina Tavernise has no idea. Frankly, she doesn’t seem to care—although, in line with a long tradition, she does seem prepared to pretend.

Tomorrow—part 3: Why favor Alonso?

Thursday—part 4: Three or four basic lessons

There certainly is a free lunch: As noted, Tavernise reports that “84 percent of [Baltimore] students are on free or reduced-price meals.” She seems to suggest that this stamps Baltimore as “a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms;” in this way, she heightens the drama about Alonso’s implied success.

This makes for a good novelized tale, but it’s grossly misleading. Here are the figures for some of the other major cities which take part in the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment. (Click here, scroll to page 11.) Most cities don’t take part:

Percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch
Boston: 79 percent
Baltimore: 84 percent
Chicago: 87 percent
Cleveland: Listed at 100 percent
Detroit: 81 percent
Los Angeles: 84 percent
Milwaukee: 77 percent
New York: 87 percent
Philadelphia: 87 percent
Washington, DC: 70 percent

Baltimore’s percentage is quite typical—unless you’re reading a novelized tale about a favored man’s exploits.

This is not Alonso’s fault or doing. The fault here lies with Tavernise, and with her High Gotham editors. They work in line with a long tradition—a tradition devised in an amoral land where nothing much has to make sense.