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Print view: It's bad for the world when our MVP sounds like Rachel and KO
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KRUGMAN GOES (SEMI) TRIBAL! It’s bad for the world when our MVP sounds like Rachel and KO: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2010

About those new PISA results: A few months back, Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” touched off a wave of complaints about our floundering schools.

Guggenheim cited some international tests, so everyone else went there too. Gail Collins bungled thusly in the New York Times:

COLLINS (9/30/10): On a more sweeping level, the film has sparked a great debate about American education. The United States now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading and math. It's not so much that schools here have gotten worse. It's just that for the last several decades, almost everybody else has gotten better. Finland, what's your secret?

In fact, even on the tests Guggenheim cited, the U.S. didn’t “rank near the bottom” in reading.

Guggenheim cited results from the 2006 PISA, a major international test of fifteen-year-olds. This week, the new PISA results were released, from the 2009 testing. (The tests are conducted every three years.) On Tuesday, the New York Times focused on Shanghai’s results—and it posted a grossly misleading graphic about how the U.S. did (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/9/10).

We thought it might be worth noting how the U.S. actually did in the PISA’s three basic subjects. (For full data, just click here.)

In reading, the U.S. finished twelfth among the 34 OECD nations. The U.S. scored ahead of Great Britain, Germany and France. (The U.S. also scored ahead of Spain, Italy, Denmark and Sweden.)

In science, the U.S. scored 17th out of 34. That pretty much places us in the middle. Never mind how we got that.

In math, the U.S. scored 25th out of 34. According to our calculations, this was our worst performance.

This year, the PISA testing focused on reading. Next week, we’ll return to a painful but instructive question: How well did various demographic groups in the U.S. perform?

Such questions are painful but instructive, especially after last autumn’s orgy of teacher-bashing. For today, we’ll offer a tantalizing preview: If American kids of Asian descent were viewed as a separate country, their score would have been third-highest among the 34 OECD nations.

Somehow, our infernal teachers unions haven’t screwed them up—yet.

KRUGMAN GOES (SEMI) TRIBAL (permalink): In 1961, Gidget went Hawaiian. Has Paul Krugman gone (semi) tribal?

Krugman is the liberal world’s most valuable player—has been so for a very long time. But this morning, he grouses in the following way, sounding like Rachel and KO:

KRUGMAN (12/10/10): Which brings me back to Mr. Obama’s press conference, where—showing much more passion than he seems able to muster against Republicans—he denounced purists on the left, who supposedly refuse to accept compromises in the national interest.

Well, concerns about the tax deal reflect realism, not purism: Mr. Obama is setting up another hostage situation a year down the road. And given that fact, the last thing we need is the kind of self-indulgent behavior he showed by lashing out at progressives who he feels aren’t giving him enough credit.

The point is that by seeming angrier at worried supporters than he is at the hostage-takers, Mr. Obama is already signaling weakness, giving Republicans every reason to believe that they can extract another ransom.

Professor! Like Achilles, beat back your great anger!

Boo-hoo-hooing like Rachel and KO, Krugman complains about the way Obama denounced liberal purists this week. (Liberal purists like Krugman himself, as he notes early on.) Was Obama’s behavior “self-indulgent?” That’s certainly possible. But did Obama denounce his own splendid tribe more harshly than he denounced The Other? This claim is grossly self-indulgent—although, since Tuesday, this claim has been made all over the liberal web.

Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Obama denounced us, his own supporters, more harshly than he denounced The Other! But please note: As we see from that passage from Krugman, Obama repeatedly denounced the GOP as “hostage-takers” during his press conference—hostage-takers who were fully prepared to do real harm to the hostages.

By normal standards, this was extremely harsh presidential rhetoric. Was it worse when Obama dared to “denounce” some of us wonderful liberals as “purists?” Actually no, it really wasn’t—unless we have become so self-indulgent that we’ve lost the capacity to reason. Unless we’ve become so thoroughly tribal that we can’t even hear the insults aimed at the other tribe.

(Within the thoroughly tribal mind, such insults get processed as “facts.”)

On the web, many liberals have been self-indulgent this week, crying about Obama’s insults; we’ve displayed our sensitive tribal mindsets all through this peculiar week. But since Krugman is our team’s most valuable player, it would be quite bad for progressive interests if he ended up the same way. Professor Krugman, beat back your great anger! Professor! Step back from that ledge!

That said: We’ve been amazed, all this week, by the way many liberals have reasoned. Are we so tribal that we can’t even notice the simplest facts? Let’s review three bone-simple concepts, concepts which have been widely ignored all during this overwrought week:

Majority doesn’t rule any more: In appropriate contexts, every liberal knows to complain about the new logic of the Senate, in which a majority doesn’t rule—in which it takes sixty votes to get a measure passed. Despite this, aggrieved liberals have complained all week long about the way Obama failed to act when he had those “big majorities.” Here was Rachel Maddow, one of the dumbest players in American public life:

MADDOW (12/7/10): The president today also turned withering fire on liberals, on the Democratic base, for expecting too much—turned that withering fire on liberals for expecting too much from a White House that for another hot minute has big Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Maddow was training liberals to be resentful—and to be stupid. (Imagine! The president turned withering fire on us!) One statement here was perfectly accurate: At present, Obama does have “big Democratic majorities” in both the House and the Senate. But so what? At present, majority doesn’t rule in the Senate! Maddow, who endlessly plays the fool, still can’t—or won’t—process this fact.

A Democratic super-majority isn’t a liberal super-majority: For a few brief shining moments, Obama did have a 60-seat Democratic super-majority (although you had to count Lieberman). But that resulted from a political miracle—and that Democratic super-majority wasn’t a liberal super-majority. At present, the small states tend to be very red; for that reason, it’s impossible to elect sixty Dems to the Senate without including a bunch of people who come from beet-red states. Two examples: That Democratic super-majority included Senators Lincoln and Pryor; they hail from Arkansas, a state which favored McCain by twenty points in 2008, when Obama was still well-liked. Here’s a basic fact of life: Democratic senators from red states aren’t going to toe the progressive line. If professional “liberals” still can’t grasp this fact, why shouldn’t such nitwits resign?

Elections really do matter: Guess what? Democrats and liberals got beaten with sticks in last month’s elections! Anyone but a tribal ninny would understand what this means: When Democrats get beaten so badly, it’s harder to persuade Republican senators, or Democrats from red states, to adopt progressive positions. But many of our tribal liberals seem to have no sense of this fact. To Maddow, Obama still has, for “another hot minute,” “big Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate!”

Go ahead! In a rational frame of mind, ask yourself why that wholly irrelevant fact is still supposed to matter.

As we’ve often noted, Maddow tends to be utterly clueless about domestic politics. Consider the foolish question she asked last night, looking ahead to 2012. The hyper-sensitive liberal was introducing Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee, who was forced to be polite. Why doesn’t Obama end those tax cuts for the rich today? she asked. What could possibly make it easier after another two years?

MADDOW (12/9/10): Trying to win that fight this year with big majorities in the House and Senate, and public opinion already on his side, the president readily has admitted that he failed.

OBAMA (videotape): The fact of the matter is, I haven’t persuaded the Republican Party. I have not been able to budge them.

MADDOW: “Have not been able to budge them.” The reason that what’s going on right now in Democratic politics is so important is because, if you can’t win now, when do you think you’re going to be able to win in the future? That’s why Democrats have their hair on fire about this, despite all the insults to them about the fact that they do. That’s why Democrats have their hair on fire about this issue and it’s why it makes sense that they do.

What is this White House going to be able to do in the future to win in these economic fights, these political fights when political circumstances worsen from what they are now?

“Despite all the insults!” Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo!

Still talking about those “big majorities,” Maddow can’t imagine why Obama might have a better chance to defeat tax cuts for the rich in December 2012. Saying, “I’m not a legislative strategist,” Goolsbee offered an economic argument for that possibility. But here’s one other possible difference: In December 2012, Obama could be coming off a big election victory, rather than a massive defeat.

In 2012, would Obama be able to win a fight about those tax cuts for the rich? We have no idea. But many things are going to change in the next two years. (According to this morning’s New York Times, Obama may have launched a whole new proposal about tax rates by that time.) At any rate, it’s hard to imagine where he would get sixty votes at this time, despite Maddow’s relentless reference to those (irrelevant) “big majorities.”

Can our liberal team reason at all? Relentlessly, Maddow seems to represent the soul of our tribal cluelessness. Just consider this clueless response to poor Goolsbee, who was forced to be polite:

GOOLSBEE: In this case, no matter what you say, Rachel, the fact is, no one expected that in this environment where we’re facing in January the possibility that John Boehner was simply going to come forward and pass these out of the House and get only the Republican things, nobody thought that the president was going to get two or two and a half times as much as for his priorities as those high-income tax cuts. So, I think it’s a little unfair to criticize him so vehemently on that.

MADDOW: Well, I don’t—I don’t think anybody is criticizing the things that the president was able to get. I think the criticism is that he wasn’t able to get more than that. And that the Republicans got so much of what they wanted!

As she continued, Maddow referred again to the irrelevant fact that “there are still 58 Democrats in the Senate.” As we’ve noted, it takes 60 votes—and guess what? Last weekend, the Senate tried to terminate the Bush tax cuts for people who are truly rich—for income above a million dollars.

The measure was introduced in the Senate—and it got 53 votes.

Why did “the Republicans got so much of what they wanted?” Good God! In the fall of 2008, Maddow told a puzzled David Frum that she didn’t necessarily want “a more grown-up politics.” Last night, posing her questions to Goolsbee, she sounded like Peter Pan. Earth to Maddow: The Republicans have gotten “so much of what they want” because they kicked our keisters last month, winning a mammoth electoral victory. Who on earth, except a child, would be puzzled by such obvious facts?

Why can’t Daddy (sorry—“the president”) get us more of what we want? Why should Republicans get what they want? Maddow reasons like a child—and this morning, our MVP sounds a tiny bit like her. In our view, such movement represents a very bad turn for this nation’s dwindling chances.

How does the politics work: To people like Maddow, opposing those tax cuts for the rich was a giant political winner. But does American politics actually work that way?

In this post, Digby reports a televised statement by Jonathan Alter—and she says it may well be true. Quoting Digby: “Jonathan Alter just said that Russ Feingold went to the White House and begged them not to bring it up before the election because his constituents didn't want tax hikes. I have no idea if it's true. We do know that the Blue Dogs in the House did this, so it's not hard to believe.”

Like Digby, we don’t know if Feingold made that request. (Alter first made this claim in Newsweek last month.) But various scribes have reported that other liberal senators made the same plea, hoping to salvage their re-elections. Why didn’t dumb-ass Obama insist on a vote before the election to end those tax cuts for the rich? Various people have wondered this week. Back in September, reporter Ryan Grim explained at the Huffington Post:

GRIM (9/23/10): The White House has been pushing hard for such a vote, circulating polling showing that a majority of Americans, including wide margins of independents, support extending the middle-class tax cuts. Ultimately, though, Democrats up for election feared an assault from the GOP that the party was raising taxes on "small businesses," even though a vanishingly small portion of those who would face a tax hike are real small businesses. But, in an age of 30-second commercials, it only takes one to stare into the camera and lament the effect of the tax change on hiring.

Two members of Democratic leadership—Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)—are facing tight races, as are Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Grim implied that the vote was avoided, at least in part, because it might have hurt Reid’s chances! In the November 9 New York Times, reporter Jackie Calmes directly reported that Boxer and Murray “implored Mr. Reid” not to force that pre-election vote.

We don’t know why the vote was postponed. But today, ingénues like Maddow keep insisting: Given his “big majorities,” it should be easy for Daddy (sorry, for Obama) to get this measure passed by the Senate! You see, ending those tax cuts makes good sense to them. “Why won’t Daddy give us the presents we want,” these silly born losers inquire.

Why should Republicans get what they want? Could it be because they just kicked our asses? On cable TV, we’re led by a child. This puts our nation in danger.