NOT THAT MANY NEW TAXES! Fearful editors praised us rubes, then bailed on their own tax plan: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 10, 2011
The pitiful state of expertise/Deflated reputation edition: The state of expertise in your country is extremely poor.
No, we’re not talking about the pitiful column Thomas L. Friedman phoned in last night. (Self-parody plainly rules at the Times.) We’re not talking about the way Standard & Poor’s is saying it shouldn’t have to report all its computational errors. (“S.&P., Accused of Faulty Math, Fights Error Disclosure Rule.” For a comical time, click here. )
Please forget about Thomas L. Friedman. Instead, consider what happened when a different Pulitzer winner tried to fact-check a pair of familiar claims.
The Pulitzer winner to whom we refer is Politifact, the prize-winning web site. In this pitiful and undated post, P-fact attempted to check a pair of claims by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK). Coburn had spoken on Meet the Press. These are the things he said:
“The government's twice the size it was ten years ago. It's 30 percent bigger than it was when President Obama became president.” At present, these are very familiar talking-points (see below). They are used to spread panic about an alleged mammoth increase in federal spending.
On that Meet the Press program, David Gregory let these claims go. For better or worse, Politifact decided to fact-check Coburn’s statements.
Alas! In its pitiful first post, Politifact said this: “Coburn is entirely right about federal outlays doubling over 10 years.” But uh-oh! Soon, the site was retracting its judgment. Incredibly, this was the start of its explanation:
“UPDATE: After we posted this story, a number of readers wrote or tweeted us to point out that we hadn’t adjusted federal outlays either for inflation or for the size of the economy.”
They hadn’t adjusted for inflation! The state of expertise in this country is extremely poor.
After adjusting for inflation, Politifact offered a new assessment. They bumped Coburn’s claims back to “half-true,” for reasons they explain in their second post. (We think they’re still being generous.) But good God! What does it mean when a Pulitzer-winning fact-check site doesn’t know enough to adjust for inflation before getting tweeted by readers?
It means you have a Potemkin press corps, manned by Potemkin journalists.
Sorry, but no: You can’t sensibly compare such amounts over time without adjusting for inflation. Would you compare the temperature in Moscow to the temperature in Dallas without adjusting for Celsius v. Fahrenheit?
In some cases, you might even want to adjust for population growth as you compare spending over time. And a full assessment of Coburn’s claims would involve a wide range of factors. But who would make a ten-year spending comparison without making that most basic adjustment? What does it mean when our brightest “news orgs” conduct their business this way?
At this site, we have sometimes noted how much trouble our “journalists” have with that basic concept—inflation. The inability to handle this basic factor lay at the heart of a topic which helped launched this site—the press corps’ groaning failure, in the mid-1990s, to deal with the brain-dead, two-year debate about GOP Medicare cuts. Inflation’s a very basic factor—and yet, it seems to confound the “press corps” on a regular basis. It caught Politifact by surprise in just the past few weeks.
(We’d be more precise, but the fact-checking site doesn’t traffic in dates.)
Has federal spending risen by thirty percent since Obama took office? At present, the claim is very familiar; it’s used to spread the idea that wild-eyed spending has occurred since Obama took office. It isn’t just Coburn making that claim! Just last weekend, the Washington Post published this letter from a corporatist spin-tank:
Should the Post have published that letter? We’re not sure! Should the Post mix Fahrenheit temps with Celsius? But then, the New York Times went the Post one better last month, publishing this op-ed column by Grover Norquist:
Should the Times have published that piece? We’re not sure. Is it a good thing when a newspaper’s readers are misled and thus confused?
These claims are technically accurate—and they’re highly misleading. But then, such claims rule all aspects of our public discourse, in much the way Al Gore explained among the Aspens last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/9/11). It’s easy to play the public for fools when the state of expertise is so poor. This has been the reliable norm for a very long time.
This practice doesn’t work out real well. If you doubt that, take a good look around.
PART 2—NOT THAT MANY NEW TAXES (permalink): The editors are still amazed—still amazed after all these years. On Sunday, they authored these puzzling thoughts about the debt limit deal:
We know—it’s just a figure of speech. But given the arc of American politics, why would the editors be “amazed” when spending cuts win, and tax hikes lose, in a pivotal budget fight? Why would anyone be surprised by that sort of outcome?
For decades, one side has fought an aggressive messaging war about the need for no new taxes—ever, in any circumstance. In “response,” the other side has endlessly fiddled and diddled. What messaging stands in opposition to that famous old battle cry, “No new taxes?” Have you ever heard the messages which were designed to counter this cry?
In fairness, the editors seem to know about the power of that hoary old anti-tax message—the messaging which has driven our politics over the past thirty years. Sure enough! In their next paragraph, they alluded to same—and they pandered a bit to us rubes:
“No new taxes” pledges are almost always big political winners! Why then were the eds amazed when this messaging won out again?
Before they were done with this editorial, the editors would recommend a large tax increase—before they panicked and took it all back. But why is it so hard to talk about tax hikes in this country?
Why is it hard to talk about taxes? Just look at the paragraph in which the eds applaud us, the American people, for starting to figure it out.
“No new taxes” is almost always a winner, the editors say. But after that, they praise us rubes, saying this:
“Americans are also figuring out that the country cannot keep on this way. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, 63 percent support raising taxes on households that earn more than $250,000 a year to help address the deficit.”
They praise us for supporting tax hikes—on upper-end earners only! But do you remember what Brother Krugman told Charlie a few weeks ago?
Say what? Given the poverty of our “discourse,” it’s no longer clear what someone means when he discusses “the Bush tax cuts.” Given the power of liberal avoidance, the phrase is often used, at this point, to refer to the upper-end tax cuts only. That said, Krugman seemed to be saying that we will need a lot more revenue in the future. Of course, that’s what Bruce Bartlett said on Hardball just a few days later:
Rather clearly, Bartlett was talking about all the Clinton-era tax rates, not just those on high earners.
Do we need to return to the Clinton-era tax rates? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know; like everyone else in this brain-drained land, we’ve rarely seen the question discussed. We live within a political culture which is built around the avoidance of serious tax debate. No one is willing to conduct frank discussions—least of all the New York Times editors, who found themselves “amazed” last week when spending cuts won out again.
Those editors! They praised us rubes for the way we’re willing to restore the Clinton tax rates on high earners only. But would that restoration be enough? Krugman and Bartlett don’t seem to think so—and the editors seem to get weak in the knees whenever they think about anything else.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way the editors bailed when they made their own tax increase proposal. “Not that many new taxes!” So the editors seemed to cry.
Why be amazed when spending cuts win if that is the other side’s message?
Tomorrow: An instant retraction