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6 January 2000

Our current howler (part III): We know what you wrote last summer

Synopsis: Cuckoo’s Nest III? Richard Stevenson’s work on the surplus projection has gone down the memory hole.

Bush’s Tax Flim-Flam
David Corn, The Nation, 12/27/99

Candidates offer variety of ways to spend surplus
Richard Stevenson, The New York Times, 12/27/99

That Elusive Surplus
Editorial, The New York Times, 1/2/00


How wrong was Fred Barnes when he said that the press would jump on Bush for "minor errors?" Absolutely, groaningly wrong, as coverage of Bush's tax plan made clear. It is now clear that, in presenting the plan, the Bush campaign indulged in sheer sophistry. Surely Socrates spun in his grave. David Corn begins to explain it:

CORN: To dub this a tax cut for middle- and low-income Americans, Bush had to become a contortionist. His campaign material asserts that the cuts..."are especially focused on low and moderate income families." The proof? "Roughly $3 out of every $6 returned to taxpayers would finance changes that help low income families."

The Post's Pianin and Neal took this to mean that "roughly half of the overall relief would be targeted to middle- and lower-income families, according to campaign aides" (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/5/00). But that was not what this slippery claim meant. Corn's explanation continues:

CORN (continuing directly): "Roughly $3 out of every $6 returned to taxpayers would finance changes that help low income families." By that [Bush] means two provisions: the new 10 percent bracket and the doubling of the child tax credit. But read him carefully: The three bucks go to financing "changes" that apply to all taxpayers, not just low-income families...[M]any of the gains from these two changes will accrue to the well-off. The three-out-of-six-dollars figure is a curveball designed to mislead.

And "mislead" it did. The Post's Pianin and Neal, among other scribes, swallowed the slippery mess whole.

We know—because they frequently tell us—how much the press corps loves Truth. One would think such a press corps would howl at the moon when a trick like this is uncovered. In fact, a few scribes did gently chide the Bush campaign for its slippery misdirection. But by and large, the corps looked away. Moral? If you're going to spin, spin on matters like this—matters involving the working poor, about whom the press corps simply couldn't care less.

Meanwhile, can a rational citizen sensibly hope for a rational fiscal discourse? Not to judge by recent evidence. On December 27, a page-one article by the New York Times' Richard Stevenson provided another object lesson. The article was headlined "Candidates offer variety of ways to spend surplus:"

STEVENSON (paragraph 1): Thanks to projections of a large and growing federal budget surplus, the presidential candidates are proposing ambitious initiatives that reveal clear differences within and between the parties over taxes, spending programs and Social Security's long-term problems.

In the second paragraph, Stevenson talked about "the current forecast of a $3 trillion surplus over the next decade—of which $2 trillion would come from excess Social Security revenues." The other $1 trillion of the projected surplus would come from general revenues, Stevenson later made clear. In his lengthy article, Stevenson discussed what the various hopefuls would do with the two-part projected surplus.

What made the piece a trifle odd is a fact we've discussed here before. There is one widely-noted problem with the ten-year surplus projection. The problem lies with the projection of a $1 trillion surplus from general revenues. Stevenson's own paper explained the problem shortly after his article appeared:

THE NEW YORK TIMES: [N]one of the candidates emphasize what Congress will have to do to make these dollars materialize. These figures assume that Congress and the president will agree to steep budget cuts in domestic and military programs as envisioned by the Budget Act of 1997, with its notoriously tight caps on expenditures...

The editorial described the problem in some detail. Over the next ten years, if federal spending rises at the rate of inflation, and if Congress sets aside normal amounts for emergency spending, the projected $1 trillion non-SS surplus drops to less than $50 billion, the editorial said.

None of these facts were mentioned anywhere in Stevenson's lengthy article. In describing how candidates would spend the non-SS surplus, Stevenson never mentioned the shaky assumption on which the projection is based. Stevenson never asked the various candidates if they planned to stick to the spending caps in future budgets. Readers have no idea what the hopefuls would say, since this obvious question was politely not asked.

By the way, where did the New York Times editors get their information—the information Stevenson never mentioned? Where else—from another lengthy Stevenson article, explaining the facts of this case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/99). On August 10, Stevenson wrote a detailed piece, explaining the problems with the non-SS surplus projection. In short, Stevenson knows that the non-SS projection is based on extremely shaky assumptions. But he never mentions that fact in a lengthy article describing how the candidates would spend all that dough.

Readers, since the analysts returned from their holiday break, they've been carrying their chins around on their chests. Over the holidays, they were able to live as free people do, reading books and engaged with real people. Their return to our headquarters has been painful indeed, as they've struggled to pick up their daily endeavors. Once one has breathed the air of freedom—once one has engaged in normal discourse—it's quite a chore to return to the punishment of reading the New York Times every day.

Now the press corps is back in full swing, reporting on last night's Gore-Bradley forum. The pundits are back in interpretive mode—putting words in the mouths of the hopefuls and telling us about their demeanor (see below). But our ardent young analysts are still having a time making themselves return to their carrels. Our press corps provides a primitive discourse; in their endlessly primitive work, they put the reptilian side of the human mind on display. Our eager young analysts want to live to the hilt; they long for full-blown human experience. Reading the Times is a painful chore for young folk with sound minds and full souls.

 

Tomorrow: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin. On Hardball, the pundits like power.

Rasho-scribes: The Pundit Corps loves to show off its brilliance with sweeping subjective assessments. So it was this morning, as writers conveyed the flavor of last night's Dem debate. Here was the Post's first paragraph:

HARRIS AND BALZ: Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley sparred this evening over health care, gun control and leadership abilities in a debate that launched the final month of campaigning here in a spirited but civil tone.

But that's not quite how Richard Berke saw it:

BERKE: Despite the candidates' agreement on homosexuals in the military, the debate tonight was punctuated by edgy exchanges...

Oh. Meanwhile, the Washington Times saw this:

BOYER: Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley rang in a new year of presidential debates last night with their testiest confrontation of the Democratic primary...

Despite the obvious worthlessness of such subjective assessments, the Manners Police were out in force last night, assessing the hopefuls' debate deportment on various cable TV shows. Meanwhile, there was no effort to evaluate the factual exchanges about Bradley's health care proposal. Could current Medicaid recipients buy health care for Bradley's $150 "weighted average?" An opaque exchange between Bradley and Gore was ignored on all the programs we watched. Pundits love to talk about manners and style, although such assessments are groaningly worthless. Citizens who want to understand facts about things that matter will fumble along on their own.

 

Democrats Spar Over Guns, Health, Ability
John Harris and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 1/6/00

Both Democrats Endorse Gays In the Military
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 1/6/00

Gore promises pro-gay litmus test for military's Joint Chiefs of Staff
Dave Boyer, The Washington Times, 1/6/00