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WHIPPED BY THE TOP ONE PERCENT! We liberals simply aren’t all that, although we can’t make ourselves notice: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, AUGUST 3, 2010

What is our nation’s IQ: Is our nation smart enough to conduct a public discourse? We asked ourselves that after watching Sunday’s Reliable Sources. (For transcript, just click here.)

In the first half of the hour-long program, Howard Kurtz asked four media players to discuss…well, what were they discussing? We’ve rarely seen a more pointless discussion—or one that was so poorly defined. None of Kurtz’s guests seemed to have anything much worth saying about the topic, which seemed to concern the way pundits and journalists now attack each other’s motives (or something). But then, none of them really seemed to know what topic was being discussed. Chip Reid (CBS News) seemed to have been bussed in from a home for broken-down former scribes, so hapless were his attempts to contribute. Meanwhile, Lauren Ashburn (“president, Ashburn Media Company”) helped define the program’s low-IQ feel with musings such as these:

ASHBURN (8/1/10): But you have these personalities that are larger than life, that are driving the national conversation. You have Bill O'Reilly, who is fighting on television, and then you also have him off-camera yelling at interns and talking just horribly to people. And that sets—excuse me. That sets the tone of dialogue in this country.

[…]

ASHBURN: I just want to back up a little. I'm not a historian, and I'm going to say that right now. But really, if you look back in history—I mean, this isn't civil war. You look at our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson brought in Philip Freneau here to the capital, gave him a State Department job, but it really wasn't a State Department job. He brought him in to run a newspaper, a partisan newspaper that would fight the Federalists. And there was a guy who also hit another senator with a cane. You know, we don't have that kind of stuff—

FRANK SESNO: On the Senate floor.

ASHBURN: On the Senate floor, right.

Bill O’Reilly yelling at interns “sets the tone of dialogue in this country?” Beyond that, remember when “there was a guy who also hit another senator with a cane?”

Ashburn is a regular guest on this program; except for her fortyish, blonde good looks, we can’t imagine why. She never says anything on this show that you haven’t heard a hundred times before, from pundits who look exactly like her, or from their equally telegenic Chip Reid-ish equivalents. But this was a long and empty discussion, in which no one seemed to have much to say about anything much at all. Except for the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik, all participants seemed to have been flown in from Neptune for the session.

We wondered: If five NFL linemen were randomly forced to discuss the Bolshoi Ballet’s current season, would you get a conversation that was more formless, less enlightening?

The next morning, we read this pitiful front-page report in the New York Times. At Slate, Jack Shafer often ridicules Times “trend stories.” (For a recent example, click this.) This is what Shafer means.

On the front page of our smartest newspaper, Trip Gabriel was pretending to assess the rise in student plagiarism. (Headline: “For Students in Internet Age, No Shame in Copy and Paste.”) We say he pretended to assess this trend because he made no real attempt to demonstrate its occurrence. Are students plagiarizing more often these days? This passage represents Gabriel’s only real attempt to support this troubling notion:

GABRIEL (8/2/10): Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it—many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses—but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.

In surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.

Perhaps more significant, the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes “serious cheating” is declining—to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.

Truly, that’s pathetic. The 29 percent is clearly an average of several surveys—but how about that earlier 34? Was that the result from one lone survey—a survey which could be an outlier? Gabriel’s text is unclear. And even if we take these data at face value, they represent a small decline in attitudes within this past decade alone. These data can tell us nothing at all about how much plagiarism may have occurred before the “Internet Age.” Is more plagiarism occurring today? Gabriel has no idea. But so what? The Times proceeded with his pseudo-analysis of an undocumented trend.

Having assumed a troubling trend, Gabriel set out to “explain” it. He quotes a long, airy theory from a Notre Dame anthropologist who seems determined to help us see that professors can be just as dumb as the kids. Next, we’re offered an inane remark from a German teen who plagiarized parts of her recent novel. But Gabriel didn’t accept these ideas without presenting some alternate viewpoints. Interesting! A senior at Indiana University says that relaxing the rules on plagiarism “fosters laziness.” She also opines that college kids plagiarize because they can’t do the work on their own. Later, a scold at Cal-Davis supports this idea:

GABRIEL: At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.

Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied—knowing it was wrong—who were “unwilling to engage the writing process.”

“Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice,” he said.

Interesting! According to Dudley (who we don’t mean to criticize), students know it’s wrong to copy. They do so because it’s easier than doing the work on their own!

(Dudley, who we don’t mean to criticize, had worked with 196 cases—on a campus of 32,000!)

Yesterday morning, Gabriel’s longer-than-life report appeared on the front page of our “smartest” newspaper. This morning, the Times is a riot of bizarre presentations, work we’ll explore tomorrow. But watching Kurtz, then reading the Times, a basic question popped into our heads:

Are we smart enough to run our nation? Amazingly often, the answer seems to be no.

Special report: Not all that!

PART ONE—WHIPPED BY THE ONE PERCENT (permalink): As you know, we’ve been working hard with E. J. Dionne, hoping to raise his consciousness and improve his general performance.

Last week, we got mixed results.

On the vaguely positive side, E. J. authored a street-fighting column in last Thursday’s Washington Post. “Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid?” he asked at the start of his piece. (On the Post web site, the column still appears beneath this heading: “American Political Stupidity.”) For our money, Dionne plainly discussed too many topics in this one short newspaper column. But as he started, he addressed our debate about taxation—possibly the dumbest part of the broken American discourse.

“The fairy tale of supply-side economics insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich,” he correctly wrote. Then, he made his basic claim—a very significant basic claim, a claim he would fail to establish:

DIONNE (7/29/10): The simple truth is that the wealthy in the United States—the people who have made almost all the income gains in recent years—are undertaxed compared with everyone else.

Consider two reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. One, issued last month, highlighted findings from the Congressional Budget Office showing that "the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and 2007."

The other, from February, used Internal Revenue Service data to show that the effective federal income tax rate for the 400 taxpayers with the very highest incomes declined by nearly half in just over a decade, even as their pre-tax incomes have grown five times larger.

The study found that the top 400 households "paid 16.6 percent of their income in federal individual income taxes in 2007, down from 30 percent in 1995." We are talking here about truly rich people. Using 2007 dollars, it took an adjusted gross income of at least $35 million to make the top 400 in 1992, and $139 million in 2007.

Is it true? In the United States, is it true that “the wealthy” are “undertaxed compared with everyone else?” That was Dionne’s basic claim—and it’s a very important topic. But in last Thursday’s jam-crammed column, did Dionne establish this claim before moving on to a whole different topic? We’d say he plainly did not. In the passages quoted above, Dionne establishes that the income of the richest one percent is outstripping that of the rest of us shlubs. He establishes that very high earners (the top 400 households!) are paying less, in federal income tax rates, than they did in the past. But what rates do middle-class people pay? How much have middle-class tax rates come down? What rates do middle-class people pay, as opposed to that 16.6 percent rate? Not a word was spoken about these points. If you weren’t inclined to agree with Dionne, his presentation wouldn’t likely convince you. In all honesty, he didn’t even argue his case, let alone establish it.

And alas! Dionne’s comment thread was full of “rebuttals” from readers who were sure he was wrong—readers who lustily complained about his infernal “class warfare.” Most of these comments made little real sense—but then, the same could be said of Dionne’s failed attempt at an argument. And sure enough! Before too long, by rule of law, we arrived at this:

johne3179 (7/29/10): I agree with E. J. about the stupidity. However, it is E. J. and those who think that raising the effective rate will increase tax collections. The facts are otherwise. We have to remember that while the tax is applied at the individual level, it is the entire economy that is taxed. With every tax rate reduction at the top level since John Kennedy's reduction of the rate, actual tax collections have risen, not fallen. As counter intuitive as that may seem at first blush, keeping tax rates on those who earn the most (and pay the most) at lower rates creates more spending and stimulus to the economy—resulting in greater tax collection overall. We need to apply tax policy at the national level on the national economy and not wrongly focus tax policy at the individual level. The expectation that raising the tax rate on those earning more than $250,000 a year will increase tax collections is what is stupid and is an uniformed point of view. Every CBO report on the effect of tax cuts on the top personal rates shows an increase in taxes paid, because of the overall increase in the size of the economy (and GDP) that is the result of the cuts. It would be very stupid to raise those rates under our current economic conditions. The conservatives have it right and E. J. is…well, stupid!

When we lower our tax rates, we get higher revenues! (“The expectation that raising the tax rate…will increase tax collections is what is stupid.”) According to the commenter’s profile, he is a 68-year-old Virginia man. He has heard this claim for the past thirty years, at least since the rise of Ronald Reagan, with hapless liberals—liberals like us—failing to refute it.

When we lower our tax rates, we get higher revenues! This “zombie idea” (to quote Paul Krugman) has been driving the discourse for at least thirty years. As Krugman notes, we liberals haven’t been able to kill this zombie idea, though it comes close to being the dumbest idea a person could possibly think of. If we liberals are willing to assess ourselves honestly, we might let Dionne’s underfed column give us a hint why this is.

We liberals love to blame the shlubs who believe such foolish ideas. We rarely stop to blame ourselves—or to blame liberal stars like Dionne, who can’t seem to take down this nonsense. But can we talk? Dionne’s piece was extremely poorly argued; it gave every sign of having been thrown together in a dash. E. J. spent a few poorly-chosen paragraphs on his claim about under-taxation, then dashed ahead to ruminations about the Electoral College. This is sad, because he linked to these data at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities—remarkable data which paint a remarkable picture of the massive growth in inequality over the past thirty years.

These remarkable data were released in late June. Have you seen major liberals present them in a capable way? No—and you never will.

Some liberals praised this piece by Dionne—a piece which argued its case very poorly. But then, our side has spent the past many years mocking the other side’s massive dumbness, failing to spend a whole lot of time marveling at our own. We relentlessly fail to examine the reasons why we get eaten alive by the more skillful, more disciplined players of the pseudo-conservative world. In effect, we liberals have spent the past thirty years getting our keisters whipped by the top one percent—by their tribunes, rather. But so what? We liberals are thoroughly stuck on ourselves. Simply put, we’re too dumb to see how dumb we are. We’re too dumb to see how truly pathetic this perpetual butt-whipping is.

In truth, we liberals aren’t all that—though you’d never know it from listening to us. As Pogo suggested, the problem is quite often us. All week long, we’ll consider the ways we libs seem determined to fail.

Tomorrow: In which we defer to power