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Print view: On July 14, the Washington Post reported some facts about the debt limit crisis
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A TRULY AMAZING EVENT! On July 14, the Washington Post reported some facts about the debt limit crisis: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 21, 2011

Kristof brings in the snide/The news page eschews basic facts: This morning, Nicholas Kristof flies away to a lazy man’s retreat. Discussing the ongoing debt limit crisis, he turns to the snark and the snide.

His wonderful paper, the New York Times, continues to avoid reporting the most basic facts about this complex matter (see below). But great men like Kristof don’t stoop to explain. This morning, he brings in the snide:

KRISTOF (7/21/11): The first few times I heard House Republicans talk about our budget mess, I worried that they had plunged off the deep end. But as I kept on listening, a buzzer went off in my mind, and I came to understand how much sense the Tea Party caucus makes.

Why would we impose “job-crushing taxes” on wealthy Americans just to pay for luxuries like federal prisons? Why end the “carried interest” tax loophole for financiers, just to pay for unemployment benefits—especially when those same selfless tycoons are buying yachts and thus creating jobs for all the rest of us?

Hmmm. The truth is that House Republicans don’t actually go far enough. They should follow the logic of their more visionary members with steps like these:

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! As he continues, Kristof shares his wonderful sense of humor, amusing those who already think they understand this rolling mess. But what if readers don’t understand? Great men like Kristof don’t stoop to explain. But then, neither does the Times as a whole. It’s instructive to review our greatest newspaper’s overall effort this morning.

Consider the rest of the op-ed page:

Frank Bruni writes his second column (out of seven total) about same-sex marriage. It’s a perfectly valid topic, of course, and Bruni has been widely described as the Times’ “first openly gay columnist.” But the rest of Bruni’s work has been vapid, seeming to extend an extremely strange op-ed page prescription at the Times: Women and gays are basically there to be silly, this strange rule seems to proclaim. Adding to the oddness of today’s op-ed layout, Bruni’s piece lies next to this column, in which Jonathan Turley argues in favor of legalizing polygamy.

The fourth column on today’s op-ed page deals with the space shuttle program. It’s great to see there are no pressing, disaster-level problems staring us all in the face.

That said, is there some problem out in the country concerning this whole “debt limit” matter? Kristof uses the topic today to bring in the snark and the snide. No one else tries to clarify sh*t—but then, almost no one ever does at this, our greatest newspaper.

(People! Krugman explains something twice a week! How much clarity could a great nation need?)

That’s life on the Times op-ed page today. Consider the Times news and editorial pages, where a common role reversal occurs once again today.

To what role reversal do we refer? By normal standards, you review a paper’s news pages to gain access to basic facts. You turn to its editorial page to savor the board’s opinions. But as we have often noted, you’re often more likely to find basic facts on the Times editorial page! This paper’s news pages eschew basic facts. More often, the editors print them.

This morning, the editors opine on the ongoing “debt talks.” More specifically, they discuss the Gang of Six budget plan in a long editorial. And sure enough! The editors include some basic facts about this high-profile new plan—many more facts than have appeared in the Times’ news pages!

Go ahead—search through this paper’s news pages. For the second straight day, you will find virtually no facts about the Gang of Six plan. If you want to review a few meager facts, you have to turn to the editorial. At that location, you will find yourself exposed to some facts, even as the editors do their usual miserable job sifting through them. In this passage, the editors fumble their way through the plan’s apparent or alleged tax provisions:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (7/21/11): The Gang of Six plan calls for at least $1 trillion in new tax revenues by eliminating and reducing tax breaks and deductions. For conservative senators like Saxby Chambliss, Lamar Alexander, Michael Crapo and Tom Coburn to accept this reality shows how willfully blind the House majority has really become.

The senators’ willingness to compromise is commendable, but the agreement they have assembled is really more a collection of talking points than a budget plan, and contains some highly dubious provisions.

The tax sections are slippery, and their size depends on whether the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are finally allowed to expire.

It proposes to eliminate the alternative minimum tax, which was designed to collect income from the wealthy that had been sheltered in deductions and loopholes. This tax should be changed. Because it has never been adjusted to current economic reality, it has come to ensnare the incomes of Americans who are much farther down the wealth ladder, while failing to capture many of the superrich. Fairness and sound policy would also dictate eliminating tax breaks for the very rich, like the preferential rate for capital gains. But the gang’s plan says nothing specific about that.

Does the Gang of Six plan “propose to eliminate the alternative minimum tax?” Not if you’re reading the Times news pages, which haven’t yet gone into this meager amount of detail. In fact, an array of complex claims are in the air concerning the role the AMT plays in the Gang of Six plan. But if you read the Times news pages, you don’t yet know that the AMT is part of this plan at all.

Perhaps it’s just as well, given the confusing way the editors sift this topic.

Question: Did the editors say the AMT should be eliminated? Or did they say it should simply be “changed” in some way? As is so often case at this paper, there’s really no way to be sure. Meanwhile, the editors’ account of the AMT strikes us as rather confusing (which isn’t to say that it’s “wrong”). For example: The AMT “has never been adjusted to current economic reality?” In fact, the AMT is adjusted pretty much every year, as part of the annual (or semi-annual) “AMT fix” newspapers routinely discuss. (This annual or semi-annual “fix” is specifically designed to stop the AMT from “ensnaring the incomes of Americans who are much farther down the wealth ladder.”) More puzzlement: The editors seem to criticize the AMT because it “fails to capture many of the superrich.” But the AMT was never designed to “capture” all the highest earners. As originally intended, it was supposed to impose a minimum tax on those who have so many deductions that they end up owing no taxes at all, or at most a very small sum.

On balance, we find the editors’ discussion of the AMT rather confusing. But as is so often the case at the Times, this editorial contains more facts about the hot new budget plan than two days’ worth of Times news reporting. On the op-ed page, meanwhile, it’s the standard “what them worry” about onrushing disaster.

Should polygamy be legal? That’s a legitimate question too—although Fox is going to smash the Times for putting the Bruni and Turley columns side-by-side today. (It proves what Mr. O always said! From the one, we go straight to the other!) But is it possible that this question could be resolved after the August 2 potential disaster? In the meantime, could someone possibly help readers understand basic facts about an onrushing crisis?

Special report: Never explain!

PART 3—A TRULY AMAZING EVENT (permalink): On Thursday morning, July 14, a truly amazing event occurred:

Information appeared in the Washington Post concerning the debt limit mess!

More specifically, the Post explained some of the things which might occur if the debt limit doesn’t get raised by August 2. This amazing report appeared at the top of the Washington Post’s front page. Showing how easily it can be done, Zachary Goldfarb began his report with a blindingly obvious question:

GOLDFARB (7/14/11): What happens if President Obama and Congress don't strike a debt deal?

Duh! By last Thursday, this question had been lurking behind the debt limit fight for weeks, if not for months. Major Republicans had told the public that nothing of consequence would occur if the August 2 target date passed. But our biggest news orgs had made little attempt to address this implausible claim.

Now, at long last, the Washington Post was addressing this blindingly obvious question in a front-page news report! What would happen if the debt limit didn’t get raised? “On Aug. 3,” Obama would be “forced to make a set of extraordinarily difficult choices about what to pay or not pay,” Goldfarb said as he continued. “By then, the government's savings account would be nearly empty and the president would be relying on daily tax revenue to pay the nation's bills.”

As he continued, Goldfarb discussed the kinds of choices Obama would face, describing the range of federal services which might have to be dumped. We’ll recommend Goldfarb’s whole report—a report which should have appeared in the Post weeks, if not months, before. But in the following highlighted passages we highlight below, Goldfarb sketched the basic numbers underlying this onrushing mess.

In a dimly rational world, such numbers seem to invalidate the claim that there would be no major problem if the debt limit stays where it is. The key element of this debate is captured in those two percentages:

GOLDFARB: Some skeptics in Congress and conservative economists say that Obama has overstated the risk of not raising the debt ceiling and that tax revenue could pay for up to 60 percent of government operations.

"You do not have to default and you don't have to shut down the government if you choose not to," said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland. If Congress raises the debt ceiling without a long-term plan for reducing the federal deficit, he added, "they'll never solve the problem, and we'll end up like Greece."

Obama's advisers have said that prioritizing some payments over others is impractical and would be chaotic. Money comes in and flows out at an inconsistent rate.

"You would have to make heinous choices about which bills you would pay," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.

On Wednesday night, several Republican leaders were briefed on the Bipartisan Policy Center report as concern grew in the party about the potential impact of not raising the debt ceiling.

According to the center's analysis, the government would have to cut 44 percent of spending immediately.

According to the analysis Goldfarb was using, the federal government would have to cut 44 percent of spending immediately. In Goldfarb’s own formulation, “skeptics in Congress” have been reassuring the public by saying that Obama could continue to “pay for up to 60 percent of government operations.”

Exactly! In a dimly rational world, that is precisely the problem.

What would happen if forty percent (or 44 percent) of federal services suddenly stopped? This is a blindingly obvious question—but it didn’t occur to the hapless Chris Matthews when he interviewed Rep. Steve King, the Iowa Republican, on July 13, one night before Goldfarb’s piece appeared (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/11). A chimp or a chipmunk would have known to pose this obvious question to King, who kept implying that nothing especially bad would occur if the August 2 target date passed.

A chimp or a chipmunk would have known to pose that obvious question to King. Matthews, a multimillionaire “journalist,” was as always less well prepared.

Alas! On last Wednesday’s Hardball, King told Matthews that we could still pay the troops if the debt limit stays where it is. He said we could pay our debt service too; he even seemed to say that we could keep sending out Social Security checks. For the sake of argument, let’s assume those claims are true. A poo-flinging chimp, or even a chipmunk, would have spotted the obvious logical problem with King’s blithe assurances:

Even if we could continue to pay those bills, many other federal payments (and many basic federal services) would presumably have to cease.

On Thursday morning, the very next day, an amazing event occurred. On the front page of the Washington Post, Goldfarb began to describe the essential services which would likely grind to a halt if the August 2 target date passed. But Matthews, an utterly hopeless incompetent, didn’t raise this obvious problem when he spoke with King on Wednesday night. This is the way our most hapless tool responded to King’s blithe assurances; we resume the interview where it left off in yesterday’s DAILY HOWLER:

KING (7/13/11): I think what I’ve done today, with Michele Bachmann and Louie Gohmert, introducing the Promises Act, it says, it directs this: That we pay our military first. They’re in uniform. Their lives are on the line and their families are living paycheck to military paycheck and they become a political pawn instead. They should be guaranteed to be paid first for all time.

And we need to service our debt. And that needs to also be guaranteed for all time. That consumes right now about 15.2 percent of our revenue stream before you touch the part that we’re borrowing. So we can do this. And Social Security needs to be paid, as does the military. And so that’s what we’re trying to do is to lend some confidence to the markets.

MATTHEWS: So wait a minute. What’s your, let me— Let me get you straight. You don’t believe we go into default.

KING: No.

MATTHEWS: You believe that Geithner is lying, the president’s lying, McConnell’s wrong. Everybody in the country is worried about this, but you have some superior knowledge. What basis do you have for your judgment? Where do you get—

KING: Yes, I do!

MATTHEWS: —the information from?

KING: [Joking] I do have superior knowledge! Thanks for recognizing it!

MATTHEWS: Where have you got it from?

KING: I have watched this come out of the White House and I’ve watched this transition. I’ve listened to the administration, the executives that are part of this administration. Many of them will say what the president wants them to say. You have to put that through a filter before you can figure out what the truth is. That’s not a mystery. It’s not unique knowledge, but it’s common knowledge.

MATTHEWS: So they’re all— So Jack Lew, the OMB director, the treasury secretary, everyone around the president, the business community that’s now scared to death, Tom Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber, all those people are lying, and you’ve got the truth.

KING: Yes.

MATTHEWS: You and Bachmann have the truth!

On their face, King’s blithe assurances make little sense. It’s extremely hard to believe we can drop 44 percent of federal services without a giant problem ensuing. But Christopher Matthews, a hopeless incompetent, was too unprepared to introduce this obvious logical framework. Instead, he turned to the least convincing of all arguments, especially in the current environment: He turned to the argument from authority. He asked why viewers should believe Rep. King instead of the deathless Jack Lew.

Here at THE HOWLER, we do believe Lew (and the others) on balance; we do believe giant problems will ensue if the debt limit stays where it is. But Matthews, as always, was unprepared to make the obvious logical argument. He got all snide when he called Bachmann’s name—and if you were already on the Obama team, this made for some good entertainment. (When we played this tape for a group of federal managers, Matthews’ snarky evocation of Bachmann produced a pretty good laugh.) But if you don’t really know what you think about this matter; if you don’t already think you know who is telling the truth in this matter; Matthews’ argument wouldn’t likely help you see the obvious problem with King’s blithe assurances.

A few days later, Queen Digby announced that eighty million people are fools; on balance, they think there won’t be any huge problems if the debt limit stays where it is. Royalty has its rewards, of course. But when major broadcasters perform in the way Matthews does; when the Washington Post waits until July 14 to publish a report like Goldfarb’s; when the New York Times publishes no such reports at all, right up to the present day; then how are all those foolish voters supposed to know what the truth really is?

People like Digby semi-love to hate. The desire to hate and insult The Fools lies at the heart of our brave new pseudo-liberalism. This approach pleases the Masters of the Universe, who strive to divide and conquer.

But does the real problem in this exchange lie with those eighty million fools? With the forty million more who said they didn’t know? On balance, we’d say the real problem lies elsewhere. We’d say it starts with people like Matthews, with those of his high store-bought class.

Tomorrow: How are we fools supposed to know? A list of things the Post and the Times still haven’t bothered reporting.