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Our MVP goes a bit tribal today. To us, it's not a good sign
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THE ROAD FROM HERE! Our MVP goes a bit tribal today. To us, it’s not a good sign: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 22, 2010

Curse of the New York Times: How much will the health reform bill really cost? How will it really affect future deficits? These are very significant questions. Why then would the New York Times publish such twaddle as this?

The twaddle in question comes from Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the CBO under President Bush (2003-2005). His piece appeared in Sunday’s Times. Below, you see his first five paragraphs.

Holtz-Eakin makes a serious charge. But when we perused his “Gimmick No. 1,” we almost quit right there:

HOLTZ-EAKIN (3/21/10): On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office reported that, if enacted, the latest health care reform legislation would, over the next 10 years, cost about $950 billion, but because it would raise some revenues and lower some costs, it would also lower federal deficits by $138 billion. In other words, a bill that would set up two new entitlement spending programs—health insurance subsidies and long-term health care benefits—would actually improve the nation’s bottom line.

Could this really be true? How can the budget office give a green light to a bill that commits the federal government to spending nearly $1 trillion more over the next 10 years?

The answer, unfortunately, is that the budget office is required to take written legislation at face value and not second-guess the plausibility of what it is handed. So fantasy in, fantasy out.

In reality, if you strip out all the gimmicks and budgetary games and rework the calculus, a wholly different picture emerges: The health care reform legislation would raise, not lower, federal deficits, by $562 billion.

Gimmick No. 1 is the way the bill front-loads revenues and backloads spending. That is, the taxes and fees it calls for are set to begin immediately, but its new subsidies would be deferred so that the first 10 years of revenue would be used to pay for only 6 years of spending.

According to Holtz-Eakin, if you strip out the gimmicks and the games, the bill would actually raise federal deficits by $562 billion, presumably “over the next ten years” (his framework from paragraph 1) But look at Holtz-Eakin’s very first gimmick, “Gimmick No. 1.” You may think it’s bad policy to structure a bill in the way he describes. But how could the practice he describes create a bogus ten-year deficit estimate? “Back-loading” spending into the second decade may affect the budget ledger in that decade. But the budget ledger of the first ten years would remain unchanged. It would simply be what it is. (For the record, the CBO projects larger surpluses in that second decade, though they warn that numbers start getting shaky when you go that far out. For what it’s worth, we think Holtz-Eakin’s use of the term “backloading” is a bit slippery here.)

Doggone it! As best we can tell, “Gimmick No. 1" is irrelevant to Holtz-Eakin’s basic claim. And before very long—just two paragraphs later—the scrivener was reduced to this:

HOLTZ-EAKIN: Another vivid example of how the legislation manipulates revenues is the provision to have corporations deposit $8 billion in higher estimated tax payments in 2014, thereby meeting fiscal targets for the first five years. But since the corporations’ actual taxes would be unchanged, the money would need to be refunded the next year. The net effect is simply to shift dollars from 2015 to 2014.

According to Holtz-Eakin, this gimmick shifts a very small number of dollars from 2015 to 2014. But since this tiny shift occurs four and five years out, how would that affect the total deficit “over the next ten years?”

We have no idea what an expert would say about Holtz-Eakin’s fuller discussion. But who the heck is currently editing twaddle at the Sunday Times?

THE ROAD FROM HERE (permalink): Last weekend, Ezra Klein linked to this new Kaiser survey, which Kaiser insists on calling a “poll.” (Parts of the survey are a poll.) But yikes! Quoting three paragraphs, Ezra took this gruesome passage in stride:

KAISER SURVEY (3/19/10): The public does not understand some important elements of the reform legislation, according to the poll. Only 15 percent of Americans, for instance, know that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said the legislation will decrease the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years. And 55 percent believe the CBO has said the legislation will increase the deficit over that period.

That’s stunning, though thoroughly typical. By the way: If only 15 percent of voters know this basic fact about the bill, that means that the large majority of the bill’s supporters fall into that camp.

You know? The brilliant folk in our tribe?

That fact is stunning, yet thoroughly typical. When we read it, we thought of The Blogger We Read First Each Day, although we don’t necessarily agree with her instincts on various matters. (That doesn’t mean her instincts are wrong.) In recent days, this most-favored blogger mocked the stupidity of those dumb-ass tea-baggers, then showed that she herself didn’t know the first farking thing about the way the health bill would proceed. (When would it go to Obama? On this amazingly basic point, she had to come back and self-correct.)

We also thought of The Pawnbroker, the celebrated but no-longer-shown 1965 film (click here). But then, we often think of that movie these days when we read the increasingly angry work of our liberal tribals.

Quick summary: The Pawnbroker told the story of a man who lost his soul through his reaction to profoundly disgraceful events—disgraceful events in which he himself quite plainly had not been at fault. We think of this film when we see the joy with which we liberals now advance our tribal condescensions and hatreds.

Alas. We even thought of The Pawnbroker (though just a tad) when we read this morning’s column by Paul Krugman—the person we’d least like to see going tribal.

Krugman offers a baseball-themed column. (It’s headlined, “Fear Strikes Out.”) We agree with much of what he says, though the analysts wailed when they thought they found him banging the drum too loudly. At the top end of the spectrum, Krugman is by far our side’s Most Valuable Player. That’s why the analysts wailed when they reached these highlighted points, among others. We’ll restore our deletion below:

KRUGMAN (3/22/10): But that's not the point I want to make today. Instead, I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, the closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism...

And that cynicism has been the hallmark of the whole campaign against reform.
Yes, a few conservative policy intellectuals, after making a show of thinking hard about the issues, claimed to be disturbed by reform's fiscal implications (but were strangely unmoved by the clean bill of fiscal health from the Congressional Budget Office) or to want stronger action on costs (even though this reform does more to tackle health care costs than any previous legislation). For the most part, however, opponents of reform didn't even pretend to engage with the reality either of the existing health care system or of the moderate, centrist plan—very close in outline to the reform Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts—that Democrats were proposing.

Instead, the emotional core of opposition to reform was blatant fear-mongering, unconstrained either by the facts or by any sense of decency.

Shorter Krugman: Our tribe good, their tribe bad. But does Krugman perhaps overstate a tad in a few of his points? For example: Were conservative policy intellectuals strangely unmoved by the CBO analysis? Possibly—he didn’t explain. But some challenges to that “clean bill of fiscal health” did seem to make perfect sense. In a world where no one understands the first fracking thing about this bill—see the Kaiser data—would we be better off if our MVP simply explained basic matters, in a way we rubes could ingest and pass on to others? Must our big star go tribal too? By the way: “Moderate centrism” is essentially in the eye of the beholder; the fact that the Democratic bill resembled a program enacted in Massachusetts is unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already part of the tribe. It’s mildly interesting to know that Mitt Romney passed a bill much like Obama’s. But does that mean the bill is “centrist?” Yes, it does—to those in our tribe.

As Krugman continued, he said what follows—and here too, the analysts shifted uncomfortably. Question: Should our smartest player recite the cant any pseudo can recite?

KRUGMAN (continuing directly): It wasn't just the death panel smear. It was racial hate-mongering, like a piece in Investor's Business Daily declaring that health reform is ''affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.'' It was wild claims about abortion funding. It was the insistence that there is something tyrannical about giving young working Americans the assurance that health care will be available when they need it, an assurance that older Americans have enjoyed ever since Lyndon Johnson -- whom Mr. Gingrich considers a failed president -- pushed Medicare through over the howls of conservatives.

A bit later, Krugman returns to the “death panel smear,” reasonably calling it the “death panel lie” (though the word “lie” is almost always tricky). In our view, he isn’t quite tough enough on Sarah Palin in that later passage—and he isn’t nearly tough enough on Senator Grassley. That said, is it morally wise and intellectually smart to raise the issue of “racial hate-mongering,” if you have to go all the way back to July 2009 to come up with your example, citing an article by a person no one has ever heard of (Michael J. Hayutin) in a publication few people read? (For background on that journal, click here.) And by the way: Are we really sure that the “wild claims about abortion funding” were all advanced by the other side’s tribals? As best we know, Krugman has never tried to explain the abortion funding matter; in part for that reason, we ourselves still don’t understand it, just as The Blogger We Read First Each Day didn’t understand a very basic procedural matter. But as we operate in that fog, we’ve gotten the impression that a few “wild claims about abortion funding” may have been advanced by our side’s evangelists—by Sister Maddow, to cite one tub-thumping example. Is it really good for our team when “The Pride of the Liberals” starts playing these wild tribal games?

Alas! Increasingly, our analysts think they see our own tribe playing the same tribal games we’ve long critiqued in others. Right at the top of this morning’s column, that was our reaction to Krugman’s “quotation” from Newt Gingrich, a “quotation” which has sent thrills up the legs of many tribals this weekend. But uh-oh! Et tu, MVP? Here’s how today’s column began:

KRUGMAN: The day before Sunday's health care vote, President Obama gave an unscripted talk to House Democrats. Near the end, he spoke about why his party should pass reform: ''Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.?

And on the other side, here’s what Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House—a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader—had to say: If Democrats pass health reform, ''They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation.

I'd argue that Mr. Gingrich is wrong about that: proposals to guarantee health insurance are often controversial before they go into effect—Ronald Reagan famously argued that Medicare would mean the end of American freedom—but always popular once enacted.

But that's not the point I want to make today. Instead, I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, the closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism. Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality? (Actually, we know who: the people at the Tea Party protest who hurled racial epithets at Democratic members of Congress on the eve of the vote.)

By the way: For our money, Reagan didn’t argue that claim quite “famously” enough. Despite our side’s acknowledged brilliance, we have failed to let average people know about the absurdly failed claims of the kooky-con past. That said:

In this passage, our biggest slugger seems quite assured about what Gingrich said and meant. But do you notice a problem with the “quotation” he cites—a “quotation” which comes from the Post’s Dan Balz, and seems to exist nowhere else? Presumably like Krugman, we ourselves have no idea what Gingrich said in his fuller statement. But do we not notice that the “quotation” Balz offers is oddly, prematurely clipped? That Balz threw in his own paraphrase, rather quickly? We, like Krugman, have no idea what Gingrich may have said in his fuller statement. But we’ve seen “quotations” like that one for years, used to pimp the tale of the moment. And we recall the day when Balz, who isn’t above surfing the cultural tide, told us the following. Balz was reciting the script of the hour, a script that everyone was suddenly reciting in the war against Gore:

BALZ (12/10/99): Gore prefers the cut-and-thrust of traditional politics and has often defined himself by criticizing his opponents. It was Gore, after all, who in 1988 introduced Willie Horton into the presidential campaign.

Except Gore never mentioned Willie Horton, and he never mentioned Horton’s crimes. The claim to the contrary was a long-standing RNC spin-point—a claim so baldly misleading that it basically qualified as a flat “lie.” But so what? Journalists were all pimping it in 12/99 because the Bradley campaign was now driving it on, although Bill Bradley knew it was a “lie”—had explicitly said so in the past. Was it possible that Balz (and/or his editor) didn’t know these basic facts? In other words, we at THE HOWLER don’t trust Dan Balz. We trust, but first we verify.

Our MVP plays tribal today, churning out the same kinds of cant any liberal blogger could offer. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of the American people know the most bone-simple facts about our side’s health reform bill! That figure is a massive indictment of the brightness and competence of our liberal tribe. We tribals love to scream at The Other—calling them dumb, as The Blogger We Read First Every Day did. But our side has been lazy, store-bought, inept for many long years. We might more profitably focus on that before we trash the dumbness of regular people.

Also in today’s New York Times, the editors offer a high-minded editorial. In a long closing section, they tell us that the newly-passed health reform bill provides just “A START AT COST CONTROLS.” In part, that’s true because of the editors—because of their groaning silence, all through the past year, about this country’s massive over-spending on health care. Question: Can we expect legislation to address a problem our biggest paper has refused to discuss?

That blogger laughed at the stupid tea-baggers, who are just so massively dumb. Here at THE HOWLER, we sometimes muse about how under-informed our own liberal leaders can be! The liberal world has done nothing in the past year to focus on that groaning problem of over-spending—of what seems to be corporate looting. Presumably, the giant silence from our less-than-bright liberal world enables the following corporate and professional elites. Presumably, these are some of the groups who are draining off—looting?—that money:

Groups who are draining off the money:
The docs
The hospitals
Big Pharma
Big Insurance
The equipment makers
The trial lawyers
Those who invest in these groups

Presumably, those are the groups who are draining that money. That blogger enjoys telling us how stupid the very dumb tea-baggers are. But how stupid is Big Liberalism when our “leaders” don’t tell the tea-baggers (or us; or anyone else) about this corporate looting? When we prefer to cavort and play tribal war games?

In 2005, our MVP wrote columns about that massive over-spending. This morning, he seems to have gone a bit tribal. He whips us full of pride—the pride of the upper-class yankee. Our side? We’re the Very Good People. Their side? Very Bad.

Sorry, but that may move us a bit toward dumb—toward the dumb which has always moved the world.

Thinking of our new health system, we recall what Gurov and his lady both knew at the end of Chekhov’s great tale. (“Both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.”)

The most difficult part is just beginning! That’s somewhat true of our (embarrassing) health reform bill, which only begins to CONTROL THOSE COSTS—the costs our “leaders” agree to ignore as we mock the nation’s average voters for their amazing dumbness.

At its heart, that bill is still embarrassingly weak. How quickly will we be able to improve it? Very slowly, we would guess, if even our MVP is now inclined to the tribal.

Regarding Gurov: In The Lady with a Lapdog, Chekhov’s roué is finally able—rather late in life, to his own amazement—to love and respect a (young) woman. Age issues to the side, we strongly recommend this deeply insightful tale.

Regarding Gingrich: We have no idea what he actually said—what his fuller statement would or wouldn’t say, would or wouldn’t seem to imply. That said: Absent further information, we’d be strongly disinclined to repeat such a baldly clipped “quotation.” Do we really trust the method of Balz? Have we not seen this movie before?