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THE BIGGEST NON-EXPLANATION! Where Krugman sees a pretty good bargain, we see an unexplained scandal: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 2010

The joy of sects: For our money, David Brooks writes an interesting column today about Obama. (Note: “Interesting” doesn’t mean we agree with very word.) He ends with this portrait of our devolving culture—and he uses a very bad word:

BROOKS (3/12/10): In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

In our country, “many people live in information cocoons,” Brooks says. “They only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect.”

That, of course, is increasingly accurate. Yesterday, in one of the sects, a feral fellow named Brother Beck was making his usual claims about the rise of American communism, tying in California’s traitorous teachers unions. According to Beck, “the top political spender in California last year” was “the unions, the teachers unions. They spent $211.8 million,” he said. “I’m sure it's just a coincidence. It has nothing to do with communism or social justice.”

That’s what one sect’s adepts were hearing. They also heard Brother’s endless warnings about that very bad movement—“progressivism.” David Brooks is clearly a dangerous man, describing Obama in terms of his “moderate progressivism.” In one of our sects, there’s no such thing. Its adepts are helped to see this each day.

This morning, the Times reports on some push-back against this sect. To read that report, just click here.

Brother Beck is of course in a class by himself. No other sect leader even comes close, even on the Fox-and-talk right. That said: In our own milder but very dumb sect, did you know that Sister Maddow enthusiastically supports “a cumbersome, weird, intrusive” new law which “represents a new restriction on access to abortion in this country?” No really, it’s true—she does support that! But first:

We wanted to show you some of the crap we got handed in our milder sect this week. We refer to Maddow’s groaning discussion of Bart Stupak this Wednesday night.

Let’s face it: We liberals are pretty much All With Stupid when Maddow mounts her high horse about Stupak. Sadly, Maddow’s the kind of pseudo-progressive who simply can’t accept the idea that someone may simply disagree with her outlook, judgment or views. By law of the sect, there must be bad motives involved in such heresy. Result: On Wednesday, Maddow implied, again and again, that Stupak has pursued his quest about federal funding simply because it’s a way to get famous—to get his face on TV. She said this again and again, as she commonly does. Eventually, she said this:

MADDOW (3/10/10): There is one way in which this quixotic nonsense crusade is working for Bart Stupak and the way it’s working is that Bart Stupak gets to go on TV all the time now. Jackpot!

Look who’s talking! the analysts cried, issuing brittle laughter.

Outside the sect, there must be bad motives! When we progressives get stuck With Stupid, there’s no such thing as someone like Stupak just having a different view.

Maddow’s instant reliance on motive is the sign of a very light brain. But as always within this sect, fake facts were on the way too! Does anyone on cable TV fake “quotes” as much as Maddow does? Early on, she faked a quote from Stupak this evening, much the way her Uncle Orrin had faked that quote from Senator Conrad. Here’s how the fake quote went down:

Sister wanted to mock Stupak’s claim that “at least 12 of us who voted for health care...have indicated to the leadership and others that unless you fix this abortion language, we can’t vote for a final version of the bill.” (That is a very bad thing if it’s true.) How did she do it? Of course! She pretended that her dishonest foe had been caught rearranging his number:

MADDOW: Well last month, Congressman Stupak said it was 15 to 20 unnamed members of the House who he said had major concerns about the bill.

STUPAK (videotape): But at least to the House members I’ve talked to, probably about 15 or 20 of them in the last 24 hours, they`ve said there are other problems with this bill.

MADDOW: Fifteen to 20 members have problems with this bill, 15 to 20. Don’t worry about who they are. Well, now his 15 to 20 is supposedly down to 12. But, again, don’t worry who they are. Mr. Stupak says 12 members now would vote against health reform because they agree with him, that the bill should be used to try to restrict access to abortion.

Maddow spent some time mocking the change in Stupak’s numbers—the change in his numbers which hadn’t occurred. Uh-oh! Assuming even minimal competence, Sister Rachel was pretty much lying to her adepts again. Below, you see the fuller quote which she had clipped to create her change in the numbers. Responding to a question from Fox fly-weight Bill Hemmer, Stupak had described the number of House members who had other problems with the bill, aside from the abortion issue:

HEMMER (2/24/10): Whether it's reconciliation, or whether it's even the language that you want, I mean— As it stands now with all these moderate Democrats saying, “Hey, this is not the place we want to go right now,” could it even pass in the House do you think?

STUPAK: Well, despite the abortion language, no, there are other problems with this bill. The president has tried to bridge the House and Senate bill. But at least the House members I have talked to, probably about 15 or 20 of them in the last 24 hours, they have said there are other problems with this bill.

Duh. Stupak said he had spoken to 15 to 20 moderate Democrats who have said there are other problems with the bill, aside from the abortion language. He hadn’t changed his number at all—but Sister wanted to mock him. And so, assuming minimal competency, she went ahead and mocked you too.

As she so often does. Consider the question of Stupak’s rent, which she also discussed on Wednesday.

Last Thursday, Sister Rachel began to complain that Stupak’s rent had been subsidized by the organization known as “The Family” when he lived at their C Street house. Pushing her “newly famous” theme, Sister said this about that:

MADDOW (3/4/10): Now that Congressman Stupak is newly famous, he does not want to be associated with C Street anymore even though he lived there for years.

But here’s the rub—here’s the issue...Everyone who has been living at C Street, including Bart Stupak, has been getting a sweetheart deal. This is a $1.8 million townhouse. There are rooms. These are rooms in this really swanky town house that come with meals, the come with maid service, meeting rooms, common spaces—it’s a very nice place.

How much do you think that’s worth on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., just blocks away from the Capitol building? How about $600 a month? Six hundred bucks a month, really? I paid that for a not-very-nice room in a third floor walk-up on a not-very-safe block of Guerrero Street in the Mission in San Francisco in 1995.

That’s what Bart Stupak was reportedly paying to live in a swanky Capitol Hill mansion last year. Bart Stupak was not just paying to live there. Somebody else was presumably helping to pay his rent while he was living there. You can’t pay that kind of way-below market rent unless you’re being subsidized by someone. That’s an in-kind donation to a member of Congress.

You know how sect leaders are! If you disagree with their views, they try to throw you in prison! In this case, Maddow said that Stupak was “reportedly” paying $600 to live at C Street last year, thus receiving “an in-kind donation.” (She made variants of this claim on March 5 and March 10.) But as it turns out, the “report” in that word “reportedly” was this news report in the Los Angeles Times—a long, informative news report which appeared in 2002! (Having been called by the Stupak office, Maddow slipped this semi-disclaimer into her March 5 program—but only barely.) In short, Stupak was reportedly paying that rent for his room eight years ago, not last year! But so what? All over America, members of a sect think they’ve been told, three times now, that he was paying that rent last year. Just for the record, here’s how Sister fudged up the claim in Wednesday’s report:

MADDOW (3/10/10): The Family has, in the past, acknowledged subsidizing the rent for members of The Family who live in the house, reportedly charging about 600 bucks a month. Even though Mr. Stupak denies being a member of The Family, it seems clear from news reports, at least, that he was paying below market rent to live there.

And if he wasn’t, all he has to do is answer the questions that we have put to him repeatedly: Who did you pay your rent to, Congressman Stupak? How much did you pay? And do you know who was subsidizing the rest? Did you report that subsidy as an in-kind donation? Did you report it as income to the IRS?

These questions don’t go away because you moved out when the heat got to you. Mr. Stupak, you have succeeded in using this abortion stunt to get on TV a lot. If you really want Americans to know who you are, tell us who has been paying your rent.

Good god, that’s awful! By the way: “In the past,” has The Family “acknowledged subsidizing the rent for members who live in the house?” As far as we know, Sister hasn’t sourced that claim. Given the way Sister works, that may well be a fudged-up version of something that’s said in that Los Angeles Times news report, which seems to get pluralized here.

Does this dog-and-gong-show conduct matter? Each person must decide. For ourselves, we’re not sure we’ve ever seen anyone present so much flat-out misinformation on cable. (Clearly, Sister’s the queen of the pseudo “quotation.”) People like Hanmity are more clever; he typically tries to stay “technically accurate.” By contrast, Sister simply hands you the bogus “quotes,” and the facts which are off by eight years.

And of course, the assertions of motive. After all, no good person could disagree with someone as pure as this.

That said, did you know that Sister supports “a cumbersome, weird, intrusive” new law which “represents a new restriction on access to abortion in this country?” That’s the way she thundered on February 23, describing the Nelson language in the Senate health bill. Now, according to Sister’s reporting, the Nelson language will become law if the House passes the Senate bill. (The language can’t, and won’t, be changed, she has now told us.) But how weird! Last night, interviewing Nancy Pelosi, Sister forgot to ask her why she’d vote for such a new restriction.

At least it’s better than the Stupak language, which would “all but ban abortion in this country by making it something that insurance just doesn’t cover any more in America.” Sister said that on February 23 too. Our question: Do you think Sister believed either one of those formulations? Or had Sister decided that it would be good for us to believe those claims?

We saw no sign that Sister believes that claim about the Senate bill as she kissed Pelosi’s keister last evening, pretending to rage about Bush’s misconduct while forgetting to ask about the areas where Pelosi herself “reportedly” played along with what occurred. But then, that’s the joy of sect.

Sorry. Sister is a cosmic joke, one of the many let loose on cable. She was massively unprepared for her current post. That said, she does lead a growing sect. Brooks discussed her today.

How Sister settles the facts: If your IQ is 9, you didn’t squirm when Sister handed you what follows. This is almost impossible, it’s just so defiantly dumb:

MADDOW (3/10/10): Without naming names, Mr. Stupak has claimed to have 12—at least 12 Democrats willing to join him in scuttling the entire health reform bill for this abortion cause. The Stupak Dozen, right?

Well, today here’s some news. We spoke with a senior House leadership aide, whose job is to not just pay attention to Bart Stupak because he wants people to pay attention to him, but to actually fact-check Bart Stupak to see if he really does have those 12 votes he says he has.

And it turns out that when Bart Stupak says “at least 12,” what he really means is not really 12 at all. This senior leadership aide is telling us today that after an informal whip count on the Hill, quote, “We do not see more than four or five members standing with Bart when this bill is actually brought to the floor." Four or five.

So Bart Stupak’s unnamed posse of 15 to 20 became Bart Stupak’s unnamed posse of 12 and now it looks like it’s become Bart Stupak’s unnamed posse of four, maybe five plus Bart.

It’s hard to believe work that dumb could get on local access. Stupak told George Stephanopoulos that “at least twelve Democrats have said that they could not vote for health care” if the bill included the Nelson language. But a leadership aide told Sister it’s really four or five, plus Stupak himself.

To Sister, this assessment is of course true. If your IQ is 9 (or less), you didn’t squirm when she said that. (By the way, Sister kept thundering that Stupak’s alleged allies are “unnamed.” Did she name that leadership aide?)

For the record: Like Sister, we have no idea what the real number might be. As far as we know, if there are any such defections at all, they could kill the bill. Just like a tarantino.

Special report: A land where no one explains!

PART 4—THE BIGGEST NON-EXPLANATION (permalink): Do you understand how the legislative process called “reconciliation” works? We were surprised by the following passage in Senator Conrad’s op-ed column in the Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/11/10). Misleadingly “quoted” by Orrin Hatch, Conrad took to the Post to explain:

CONRAD (3/6/10): Some question how the then-Republican majority used reconciliation to pass a $1.3 trillion tax cut in 2001 and another $350 billion tax cut in 2003, all entirely unpaid for. These were clear abuses of the process. The authors of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, which established reconciliation, never envisioned it would be used to worsen the deficit. After Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, we restored fiscal discipline and added an explicit rule requiring reconciliation be used only for deficit reduction. So it is particularly ironic to hear many Republicans criticize Democrats' use of reconciliation today, when it is being used properly, while they vehemently defended their use of the process when it was being abused.

Interesting. Like you, we’d never heard of that amendment to the reconciliation rules after Dems took control of the Congress. Of course, we incomparably realized what this seemed to mean—before 2007, there wasn’t an “explicit rule” which required that reconciliation “be used only for deficit reduction.” (According to Conrad, the authors of the original act “never envisioned” that it could be used to worsen the deficit. Apparently, they didn’t rule that possibility out.) Jackie Calmes didn’t mention this 2007 measure when she wrote this informative report on the process for the New York Times a few weeks ago—about nine months after our biggest newspaper should have started explaining this process. Reconciliation was discussed by liberals all through the last year as a possible way to pass health care. But our big newspapers didn’t explain how the process worked—and our discussions were quite often unintelligent, uninformed.

(By the way: Did Bush’s 2001 tax cuts “worsen the deficit?” In a sense, but not as such! In 2001, there were no deficits to be worsened; these tax cuts had always been proposed as a way to dispose of the large budget surpluses being projected for the next decade. Even after these tax cuts passed, the CBO and the OMB continued projecting ten-year surpluses—though almost all the projected surplus from general revenues had now been expended, the CBO said. But how often have you seen that explained? In Sunday’s New York Times, Mann and Ornstein said this of the 2001 tax cuts: “Democrats were furious at the use of reconciliation to increase deficits sharply through tax cuts.” That construction is hard to defend. But it creates the type of simplified story-line on which our novelized discourse turns, even when that discourse is being driven by non-partisan “experts.” Click here to see that statement in their large graphic. Conrad was more careful in his constructions, though only a bit.)

In our journalistic culture, things rarely get explained. More often, novelized narratives get themselves hatched, and everyone agrees to churn them. Many things haven’t been explained in our long debate about health care; this includes much of the dispute in the House about abortion coverage which (apparently) could still sink the whole deal. But for our money, the biggest thing which has gone unexplained pops up today in Paul Krugman’s column, in a passage where we’d have to disagree with Krugman’s overall judgment.

Let’s be clear: Within the world of the big mainstream press, Krugman has been the reigning MVE (Most Valuable Explainer) for the past dozen years. It’s hard to imagine our discourse over that time without Krugman’s work. But on balance, we’d disagree with what Krugman says in the following passage, as he ticks off the second in a list of myths about proposed health reform. For our money, Krugman is acquiescing in the greatest non-explanation of the entire past year:

KRUGMAN (3/12/10): The second myth is that the proposed reform does nothing to control costs. To support this claim, critics point to reports by the Medicare actuary, who predicts that total national health spending would be slightly higher in 2019 with reform than without it.

Even if this prediction were correct, it points to a pretty good bargain. The actuary’s assessment of the Senate bill, for example, finds that it would raise total health care spending by less than 1 percent, while extending coverage to 34 million Americans who would otherwise be uninsured. That’s a large expansion in coverage at an essentially trivial cost.

We mentioned the actuary’s prediction last week, when it popped back up in the discussion courtesy of Ron Brownstein. Under reform, health care spending will continue to grow at the rate that’s projected without reform (plus one percent)—but 34 million extra people will have insurance coverage! At the time, we said you could look at that prediction two ways. Krugman takes the rosier view about what the actuary said.

On balance, we’d disagree with that. This takes us back to the largest thing which has gone unexplained this past year.

Let’s suppose the actuary is right. Let’s suppose our health care spending continues to grow as currently projected, but 34 million people are added to insurance rolls. Would that really be “a pretty good bargain?” In a sense, but not as such! Let’s do a small thought experiment:

Suppose we already had universal coverage, like all comparable nations. Suppose we already had such coverage in 2007, when these spending figures obtained (OECD data):

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007
United States: $7290
Canada: $3895
France: $3601
Germany: $3588
United Kingdom: $2992
Italy: $2686
Spain: $2671
Japan: $2581 (2006)

If we had universal coverage, and those figures obtained, would anyone think we were getting “a pretty good bargain?” In a rational world, those figures would define a national scandal, even if we had universal coverage, as all those other nations do.

Good God! Even if we had universal coverage, those figures would define a world in which we were spending two to three times as much as all comparable nations—nations which get equivalent outcomes. Why would anyone call that a good bargain? In fact, two obvious questions would obtain: Where is all our money going? Who is ripping us off?

Isn’t that pretty much the situation which will obtain if our spending continues to “sky-rocket” at the rate which has been projected—even if we do end up with much wider coverage?

We understand what Krugman is saying today—but to us, he’s abandoned an earlier post. Back in 2005, it was Krugman who wrote the important series of columns noting the lunacy of our health care spending level. In one of those columns, he used a good word—“amazing”—to describe our level of spending (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/09). “[N]ow is a good time to ask why other advanced countries manage to spend so much less than we do, while getting better results,” Krugman said in one column that year.

Those were very important columns about a truly “amazing” situation. Four years later, a major health debate broke out—and everyone agreed to avoid discussing the ludicrous situation Krugman described that year.

Many things have gone unexplained in the course of our health care pseudo-discussion. By far, this was the largest and most important. All elites have agreed not to ask where Americans’ money is going. One example: By far, this was the most unexplained topic in T. R. Reid’s quite informative book.

Into whose pocket has all that dough flown? Don’t ask! They’ve agreed not to tell.