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Daily Howler: Ohhh jeeez! We'd had our fill of this channel's dishonesty maybe like ten years go
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HONESTY! Ohhh jeeez! We’d had our fill of this channel’s dishonesty maybe like ten years go: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, APRIL 2, 2009

Most successful con of our time: Here at THE HOWLER, we learned the logic of Social Security from reading Dean Baker’s invaluable book—more precisely, from reading Social Security: The Phony Crisis, the invaluable book Baker co-wrote with Mark Weisbrot. On Tuesday, Baker offered this blog post about the current decline in SS receipts—the decline the Washington Post had reported on that day. (For our own post, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/31/09.) Will this recession-driven decline in receipts speed the day when the SS trust fund is depleted? Baker says it will, but it won’t be that bad. (Careful! When Baker refers to the year 2040, he is presumably using CBO projections. The official projections of the SS trustees are gloomier.)

But we aren’t writing about Baker’s post’ we’re writing about his commenters. Good God! In the modern world, you can count on death and taxes—and on immediate comments like this, just the third one his readers recorded. The first two comments were made by a reader who didn’t know what “trust fund” meant. For the record, the third commenter didn’t know either. We’ll clarify what he said:

THIRD COMMENT (3/31/09): Hasn't the surplus [i.e., the SS trust fund] already been spent? In other words, hasn't the [trust fund] been gutted and in its place, is there not an IOU instead of actual funds?

You can count on death and taxes. And you can count on hearing those scripted complaints. They reflect the most successful piece of political propaganda of the past fifty years.

These ideas have been crammed into everyone’s minds. Everybody knows to say it! The Social Security trust fund “is just a pile of worthless IOUs.” (“The money isn’t there—it’s already been spent.”) Indeed, Baker’s fifth commenter posted a near-variant:

FIFTH COMMENT: Boy, every politician that looks at that Trust Fund automatically start to slobber.

Politicians can’t keep their hands off that money! For that reason, it’s already been spent!

It’s true, of course, that the SS surpluses of the past twenty years (the so-called trust fund) have been borrowed and spent. (That’s the system Congress put in place when it raised payroll taxes in the 1980s.) But then, the federal government borrows lots of money, from lots of sources, and all of that money has been spent! Duh. The government doesn’t borrow money so members of Congress can sit and stare at it. They don’t just let it sit in a vault until they have to pay it back. The government borrows money from the SS trustees and from Chinese banks—and all the money gets spent! That’s why the money is borrowed!

Could we conduct a thought experiment about this remarkable bit of misdirection?

The federal government has borrowed lots of money from Chinese banks down through the years. When those loans come due and must be repaid, do you think the feds will say this to the Chinese: The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it? There’s just a pile of worthless IOUs in your account? Of course they won’t say any such thing—they’ll repay what’s due, then borrow some more. (Assuming we haven’t gone into balance.) But the same process obtains with the money that’s borrowed from the SS trust fund.

You may not like the fact that the government borrows—but that’s a separate question. There’s nothing magical about the money borrowed from the SS trust fund—nothing that sets it apart from all the other money the government borrows. And yet, a remarkable piece of propaganda was invented decades ago, and it has now wormed its way into the hearts of the populace. Baker’s post proves it again: You simply can’t discuss Social Security without someone reciting the points which have fueled this long campaign. Indeed, young people are sure they’ll never see a penny of Social Security because of this long, slick effort.

This must be the greatest piece of political propaganda of the last fifty years—the greatest bit of misdirection conceived in that period. Everyone has heard the talking-points. Volunteers rush forward to state them.

So how about it? Is it true? Is the trust fund “nothing but worthless IOUs?” Here’s the answer to that question: People! Go ask the Chinese!

Special report: Still dumbing us down!

PART 4—HONESTY: Are you really involved in a “Truman show” when you watch GE’s cable news programs? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/09.) Last night, our analysts mordantly chuckled when one host interrupted his “show” with a programming note about the other. (Surprise! “Our own Richard Wolffe” had been this host’s first guest!) What was coming up in the next hour? MSNBC’s “5 million dollar man” delivered some Trumanesque promo :

OLBERMANN (4/1/09): Have I mentioned yet that we have a big announcement coming up? It is big. It is an announcement.

Then, when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, her exclusive sit-down interview with Colin Powell, who absolutely rips into this new GOP budget plan.

As is his normal practice, Olbermann wasn’t quite being truthful with those pleasing remarks. Except in The Land of the Hyperbolic, Powell didn’t “absolutely rip into this new GOP budget plan” in his session with Rachel Maddow —although the promise of such entertainment may have kept a few rubes around as the evening moved forward. Of course, our analysts didn’t know that yet; they simply chuckled at the focus Olbermann placed on the upcoming interview. How many liberals give a rat’s keister about Powell’s view of the House budget plan? We’ll guess the answer is zero. For ourselves, we were wondering if he would be asked about his pre-Iraq UN presentation. Others were wondering if he would be asked about his possible involvement in war crimes.

Powell was going to “absolutely rip into the new GOP budget plan?” We chuckled at the careless way these cable actors will sometimes promote their programs. (Such small mistakes first tipped Truman Burbank that he was involved in a “show.”) At any rate, Powell didn’t “absolutely rip” the House GOP plan. In the one Q-and-A on the subject, Powell didn’t seem to know what was in the plan—and Maddow didn’t bother to tell him. But these liberal cable news shows exist to make money for the corporation; in the case of MSNBC’s current shows, that money is made by the sale of comfort food to us liberals. If it sounds good to liberals and Democrats, say it! Surely, no real progressive gives a fig about Powell’s view of Boehner’s new plan. But Powell ripping-the-plan sounded good, so a big corporate crap-monger pimped it.

Olbermann, of course, has become a clown—a parody of the cable “news” barker. He rarely wastes his time with the truth. But uh-oh! Last week, we were sorry to see Maddow’s honesty slide into a similar zone. Sorry—and deeply annoyed.

When you watch these liberal “shows,” do GE’s anchors feel the need to tell you things which are accurate?

Consider the long, loud segment Maddow did last Thursday night, concerning that same GOP budget plan (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/1/09). On this day, House GOP leaders had announced their intention to release a full budget plan. Maddow spent a very long segment explaining how foolish this strategy was. These leaders had stupidly “taken the bait,” Maddow repeatedly said.

The segment was long and extremely gruesome—an insult to her viewers’ intelligence. The snark was flying thick and fast as Maddow rolled her R’s, clapped her hands and shouted clownish paraphrases of sensible things Obama had said—gesticulating colorfully as she did so, of course. (As you know, “There’s a lot of different ways to talk about stuff and Americans absorb things in a lot of different ways.”) But the basic premise of her long segment was just as odd as her personal conduct. In Maddow’s telling, the House GOP had acted like fools in deciding to offer their own budget plan. They had “taken the bait” from Obama, the cable performer now said.

That’s right! Obama had challenged Republicans to present a plan—and the House GOP had “taken the bait.” Here’s how Maddow started her segment. Snark began filling the room :

MADDOW (3/26/09): If you open up your Politics 101 instructional manual to the chapter called, “How to not fall for the oldest tricks in the book,” you will find there a line that reads: “When your opponent is baiting you to do something, at least consider not taking that bait.”

Today, with one hastily-called afternoon press conference, Republicans in Congress flunked that portion of Politics 101.

Huh! According to Maddow, the House Republicans had taken some sort of bait—had “fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book.” As she continued, she explained what sort of “bait” they’d swallowed—shouting a very loud paraphrase of Obama, a fisher of men, as she did:

MADDOW (continuing directly): First of all, here was the bait:

OBAMA (videotape): The critics tend to criticize but they don’t offer an alternative budget. To a bunch of the critics out there, I’ve already said, show me your budget. Show me what you want to do and I`m happy to have that debate.

MADDOW: I dare you! I double-dog dare you! Go on!! DO IT!!!!

Republicans, forgetting all the lessons of how to succeed in politics and the things that most people learn on elementary school playgrounds, chose to respond by doing exactly what the president was daring them to do.

BOEHNER (videotape): Two nights ago, the president said, “We haven`t seen a budget yet out of Republicans.” Well, it’s just not true because, here it is, Mr. President!

MADDOW: And with those words, the bait was officially swallowed and congressional Republicans found themselves officially on the proverbial hook.

Sensibly enough, Obama had asked his Republican critics to present their own budget plan. Now, the House GOP had said it would do so. You’d think a news person would compliment a group of pols for putting their ideas on the line. But to Maddow, this was the dumbest thing ever done. The rest of us learn to avoid this sort of blunder in grade school, the cable host said.

Let’s be clear: Maddow wasn’t criticizing the House GOP for failing to present a full budget. (They had promised to present their full budget numbers in a week.) Quite plainly, she was criticizing them for being stupid enough to present an alternative budget at all. This was the world’s dumbest move, she insisted, gesticulating and clapping her hands, thereby entertaining us rubes. And then, she made a claim which heightened the snark—a pleasing claim which was baldly false. In a slightly less rarified world, we’d say that she lied in your faces:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Last week on this show, you might remember we hosted Lawrence O’Donnell, a veteran of the Senate Finance Committee staff. I asked Lawrence if he thought that Republicans would take the bait and propose their own budget. His analysis was: No way! They’d never be that dumb!

O’DONNELL (videotape, 3/16/09): The normal minority tactic—which you see Mitch McConnell basically is saying he’s going to do—is to try to pick apart the budget the president offers and that the Democrats bring to a vote in the Senate. And that, tactically, is normally the way to go because when—if the Republicans were to come up with their own budget, just as an example, there would probably be zero beside the words "health care reform." And so, they would set themselves up for being criticized.

MADDOW (live, 3/26/09): Right. That’s the strategy here. Unless you are really, really, really confident that you can compete on policy—that when people compare the concrete things you are proposing with the concrete things that the party in power is having to propose because they’re actually responsible for having to govern the country—unless you’re really sure that your ideas will look better in comparison? Maybe just lie low! Get your own act together before you put anything out there to be criticized. That’s the advantage of being in the minority and that’s Strategy 101.

But today, Republicans decided they just couldn’t resist the dare.

You can watch the tape of last Thursday’s program to see Maddow patiently telling us how this “Strategy 101" works ( just click here ). The House GOP were the world’s dumbest bunnies for rejecting the “normal minority tactic,” she said. Instead of picking apart Obama’s plan, they had stupidly “taken the bait”—had agreed to offer a plan of their own. How dumb did this make the House GOP? Just one week earlier, Maddow herself had asked O’Donnell if they would “take the bait,” she now triumphantly said.

Except that isn’t what Maddow had said (on March 16). She hadn’t said that at all.

What had Maddow actually said when O’Donnell appeared on her March 16 program? She had sensibly suggested, again and again, that Republicans had an obligation to present their own budget plan. Three separate times, she seemed to say this; three separate times, O’Donnell told her that this isn’t the normal tactic. You can read the transcript of this exchange ( just click here ). But this synopsis of the March 16 segment appeared on the Maddow Show web site:

GOP’s missing plan
GOP in exile: Senate Republicans continue to criticize President Obama’s budget plan, but they don’t even have a plan of their own to counteroffer. What’s going on with the Republican Party? Rachel Maddow is joined by MSNBC political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell.

In fact, Maddow had criticized the GOP for failing to present its own plan. And one week later, on March 23, she sensibly criticized them once again for failing to present their own budget. This is what Maddow had really been saying for several weeks at this point :

MADDOW (3/23/09): And have you heard the Republican response to President Obama’s proposed budget? This will surely help.

(video clips)

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R-NH): The practical implication of this is bankruptcy for the United States. There`s no other way around it.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): That is not sustainable. It poses a threat to the basic health of our economy.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL): We’re on the fast road to financial destruction.

(end video clips)

MADDOW: “The fast road to financial destruction.” Senator John McCain calls the budget "a threat to the nation."

And you guys’ alternative idea is what exactly?

Yes. The plans being proposed by the Obama administration to try to save the economy are big and controversial, and they need to be improved and refined—and maybe in some cases scrapped altogether—through a process of rigorous, smart, informed, civic-minded, honest debate. We actually have to get good at the process of making economic policy right now, because the economic problems we`ve got require really good, really smart, well thought-out responses.

I would like to think that our political process gives us a good venue for doing that. That’s what it’s designed for, right? But instead...we’re yelling about financial Armageddon and not proposing any alternative to it.

With national challenges this big, we need better politics to address these challenges. Is there any hope of that?

That was a thoroughly sensible presentation. The host had a perfectly sensible complaint: Republicans were savaging Obama’s proposals without proposing any alternatives. But then, this was the same approach she had taken on March 16, with O’Donnell. This is a thoroughly sensible approach. We agree with this position.

For more than a week, she’d been sensibly saying it: Republicans should present their own plan. But uh-oh! Three nights later, snarking wildly, Maddow went on the air and pretended that she had been saying something completely different. She now said the House GOP leaders were the world’s biggest fools—because they had done the very thing she had said they should do all along! As she snarked and shouted and clapped her hands—as she rolled her R’s and paused for her puns—she told us rubes that she’d asked O’Donnell, ten days before, if the GOP would “take the bait.” But that wasn’t what she had said at all. Her position had been just the opposite.

Some of you will want to believe that Maddow really meant something different last Thursday—that she was criticizing the House GOP leaders because their plan wasn’t yet complete. We know how much you want to believe that—but that simply isn’t what she was saying. Go ahead—watch the tape of this long, snarky segment. We think you’ll see she was mocking the Republican leaders for offering a plan at all. That simply isn’t the normal tactic, she all-knowingly said. She didn’t mock them for leaving out numbers. She mocked them because their proposals and policies would be less attractive than Obama’s.

We started this web site, long ago, because we refused to take it any more (refused to be a fool, in Don Corleone’s words—because we were sick of seeing overpaid corporate hacks come into our home each weekday night and lie right straight in our faces. We were tired of seeing them make up silly sh*t; we were tired of seeing them mug and clown and prance around on the air each evening. Las tweek, Maddow’s loud, high-decibel conduct was highly reminiscent of those bad old days—the bad old days of the Wars Against Clinton and Gore, the wars the “career liberal” world accepted. In those days, General Electric’s cable arm was working hard against Big Dems; for whatever reason, the GE channel is now pimping hard in the other direction. But last week, Maddow was selling the same kind of sh*t her network sold you ten years ago. The targets had changed, but the clowning continued. As did the blatant misstatements.

For the record, Maddow’s long segment on March 26 was exceptionally unenlightening. Maddow sells herself as a policy geek, but she and her staff aren’t strong on domestic politics; her work on the current budget wars has been weak in a wide range of ways (more tomorrow). Most amazing, though, was the stunning way she mugged and clowned all through that long segment. The only thing that was more striking was the way she lied in your face. We had seen that earlier segment with O’Donnell. We recalled what this mugging host said.

Sorry, but no: Maddow didn’t ask O’Donnell “if he thought that Republicans would take the bait and propose their own budget.” Her position had been just the opposite; she had said, again and again, that Republicans should offer a budget. But last Thursday, she and her staff had dreamed up some new snark—some new comfort food they’d decided to sell you. House GOP leaders were very dumb to “take the bait” and propose a budget, Maddow now snarked. And, to take the snark a bit higher, she pretended she’d said this same thing all along. But she hadn’t done that—not even close. Frankly, she’d said just the opposite.

Sorry, kids: Olbermann may be a fallen man. But as of last Thursday night, Maddow was sinking too. Last Friday night, she extended this pattern with a remarkably disingenuous segment about that OCO nonsense. (“I like saying OCO,” she now self-indulgently said.) She’d made a mistake last Tuesday night (everyone does)—but she didn’t seem to want to say so. We don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone work so hard to avoid correcting an error.

We’ll take a quick look at that tomorrow. It too was a notable segment, because it was so disingenuous.

In the 1990s, MSNBC warred against both Clintons, then it went to war against Gore. It sells its comforts to us liberals now—but very few procedures have changed. This is a money-grubbing, corporate outfit.—and they don’t give a fig about your national culture. They make big bucks selling snark to rubes. We long to believe what they tell us.

Tomorrow: Epilog: Why does this matter?