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Print view: Amazing! For one brief shining moment, the editors had a tax plan:
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IT’S SO EASY! Amazing! For one brief shining moment, the editors had a tax plan: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 12, 2011

Bringing the global failure home/Krugman furthers the fail: In a recent blog post, Paul Krugman coined a superlative phrase. He described the “global intellectual failure” afflicting the world’s economists.

Krugman described a global failure—a failure of one of the planet’s “elites.” We assume he’s right in what he sees. His record is very good.

That said, intellectual failure is all around as you scan your country’s newspapers. This editorial, from yesterday’s Washington Post, is a truly remarkable document. (More on this museum-level effort next week.) Meanwhile, the discussion of Newsweek’s cover photo of Bachmann has been a giant, and varied, intellectual fail. But the people employed to pose as a press corps simply adore such bungled discussions. These discussions let them play familiar cards while sidling away from more substantial debates.

(Last night, we finally heard someone describe the foolishness of Bachmann’s stance on the debt limit, which she says she would never raise. The savant was Rick Santorum.)

To all intents and purposes, our modern journalistic culture is defined by the term, “global intellectual failure.” (Ranking liberals rarely seem to notice or mention this fact.) Unfortunately, Krugman extends one part of this fail in this, his latest column.

People, there he goes again! For the third time in recent weeks!

As far as we know, Krugman’s column is completely right on the merits. Once again, he argues that your nation is having the wrong discussion; we should be talking about unemployment, but instead we keep discussing debt. But people, there he goes again! In the following passage, he starts to explain how we got off on the wrong track.

The GOP has been part of the problem. But then, there’s that other key group:

KRUGMAN (8/12/11): So how did Washington discourse come to be dominated by the wrong issue?

Hard-line Republicans have, of course, played a role. Although they don’t seem to truly care about deficits—try suggesting any rise in taxes on the rich—they have found harping on deficits a useful way to attack government programs.

But our discourse wouldn’t have gone so far off-track if other influential people hadn’t been eager to change the subject away from jobs, even in the face of 9 percent unemployment, and to hijack the crisis on behalf of their pre-existing agendas.

Check out the opinion page of any major newspaper, or listen to any news-discussion program, and you’re likely to encounter some self-proclaimed centrist declaring that there are no short-run fixes for our economic difficulties, that the responsible thing is to focus on long-run solutions and, in particular, on “entitlement reform”—that is, cuts in Social Security and Medicare. And when you do encounter such a person, you should be aware that people like that are a major reason we’re in so much trouble.

Krugman notes that the GOP has played a key role in this process. But he focuses on a different group of prominent malefactors. According to Krugman, “other influential people” have been “eager to change the subject away from jobs.” You can encounter these “self-proclaimed centrists” on “the opinion page of any major newspaper” or on “any news-discussion program.”

These people “are a major reason we’re in so much trouble,” Krugman says, in his most damning comment. As he continues, he continues describing the damage these people have done:

KRUGMAN (continuing directly): For the fact is that right now the economy desperately needs a short-run fix. When you’re bleeding profusely from an open wound, you want a doctor who binds that wound up, not a doctor who lectures you on the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as you get older. When millions of willing and able workers are unemployed, and economic potential is going to waste to the tune of almost $1 trillion a year, you want policy makers who work on a fast recovery, not people who lecture you on the need for long-run fiscal sustainability.

Unfortunately, giving lectures on long-run fiscal sustainability is a fashionable Washington pastime; it’s what people who want to sound serious do to demonstrate their seriousness. So when the crisis struck and led to big budget deficits—because that’s what happens when the economy shrinks and revenue plunges—many members of our policy elite were all too eager to seize on those deficits as an excuse to change the subject from jobs to their favorite hobbyhorse. And the economy continued to bleed.

“Many members of our policy elite” are involved in this conduct, Krugman says. In his last paragraph, he refers to them as “the usual suspects.”

That said, who are these “usual suspects?” This is the third column Krugman has written on this subject in the past two weeks. He has yet to name, or to quote, a single one of these “usual suspects.”

Who are these “prominent pundits?” (The phrase he used to describe them in a previous column.) How are readers supposed to know? According to Krugman, these prominent, influential people are doing tremendous damage to your country. And they keep going unnamed!

Who is Paul Krugman talking about? We’d have to say that this trio of columns represents a giant intellectual failure—and a giant failure of modern press corps culture. Paul Krugman didn’t invent the culture in which polite, high-ranking professional journalists avoid naming the names of other such royals, even those who are doing great harm to their country—but he has been enacting this culture with a remarkable zeal. This morning, he says these folk are “the usual suspects”—but his readers have yet to hear the names of any such suspects! And yes, this does create confusion, even among those who are following closely:

After one of Krugman’s earlier columns, we assumed he was talking about Thomas L. Friedman, the press corps’ reigning Butter Cow of ponderous, jowly self-parody. But everywhere else, liberal blogs seemed to assume that Krugman meant David Brooks.

Thomas L. Friedman and Brooks both work for the Times; Krugman may be working under restrictive covenants forbidding him from naming Times colleagues. (In the fall of 2000, he wasn’t allowed to use the word “lie” in writing about the flagrant misstatements of Candidate Bush.) But according to Krugman, other such “influential people” are found on the opinion pages of all major American newspapers—and you can see them on any news-discussion program! Surely, there’s someone whose name he could name, in an effort to let people know what the fuck he’s talking about.

But no! Paul Krugman won’t do it! Darlings, it just isn’t done!

Krugman only gets 800 words—though 800 words become 2400 when the same column is written three times. That said, why should people be named, and quoted, in the course of such discussions? Duh! It’s hard to know if paraphrased claims are really fair until actual quotations are offered or referenced. And screeds like this tend to get lost in the mist until real names get named, focusing the senses.

Who is Krugman talking about? As part of a giant intellectual fail, no one currently knows.

A long-standing part of press culture: Dearest darlings, it just isn’t done! Consider what happened in December 1999, when a White House candidate was misquoted by Ceci Connolly and Katharine “Kit” Seelye in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

On December 1, 1999, Candidate Gore was misquoted, about Love Canal, by the pair of press corps tyros. Later that day, a young reporter at the AP was assigned to do a report on the rapidly growing flap—a growing flap which had been triggered by a misquotation. In the course of her work, this young reporter discovered that Gore had been misquoted, in a highly significant way. Being intelligent, she thought she had an important story.

In 2003, a research group at the Kennedy School of Government interviewed this young journalist. And sure enough! Hadley Pawlak explained what happened when she tried to correct an obvious error by her journalistic betters.

Long story short: Pawlak’s editor had to step in and tell her the facts of life:

KENNEDY SCHOOL (2003): The story Pawlak now envisioned was not about Gore’s propensity to exaggerate, but the fact that the nation’s two leading newspapers had quoted him incorrectly and, consequently, misrepresented his meaning. “And maybe it could go even further,” Pawlak remembers thinking. “Maybe we could explore how easy it was for things to get out of control...One word difference by these two newspapers gets this whole thing blown out of control.” Her editor, however, thought otherwise, and told her, as Pawlak recalls it, “the AP is not in the business of correcting the Times and the Post.”

Darlings! It just isn’t done!

(While we’re at it, enjoy a wonderful irony: In the lengthy report by the Kennedy School, Pawlak’s editor never gets named!)

The Kennedy School goes on to describe the way Pawlak’s report got rewritten, bringing it in line with the pre-existing Post/Times line of attack. That said, the Kennedy School failed to notice a groaning fact; in the rewritten version of Pawlak’s report, Gore was misquoted again, in an all-new, second way! This second misquotation of Gore added to the growing claim that Gore had been lying again.

This high-profile incident turned the press corps’ AL GORE, LIAR theme to stone. For the next eleven months, this punishing theme was a staple of mainstream campaign coverage. Almost surely, it was the most consequential press corps narrative of the entire Bush/Gore campaign. Almost surely, this misquotation of Gore ended up sending Bush to the White House.

A young reporter tried to correct the mistake. But darlings! It just isn’t done!

Special report: Still amazed after all these years!

PART 4—IT’S SO EASY (permalink): “It’s so easy,” Buddy Holly once noted.

Today, it’s so easy to get misled by the American “press corps.”

Just consider the op-ed page of Tuesday’s New York Times. Two different columns mused about the expiration of those Bush tax cuts. From these passages, a reader would get an obvious misimpression:

NOCERA (8/9/11): Has any president in American history left behind as much lasting damage as George W. Bush? In addition to two unfinished wars, he also set us on the path to our current financial mess. The Bush tax cuts, which turned a surplus into a growing deficit, have been disastrous. As James Fallows pointed out in a prescient 2005 article in The Atlantic predicting a meltdown, they reduced tax revenue “to its lowest level as a share of the economy in the modern era.” (In its downgrade report, S.& P. suggested that it did not believe that Congress would let the cuts expire at the end of 2012, as they’re supposed to.) Then, in 2003, Bush pushed through prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients. David M. Walker, then the comptroller general, described 2003 as “the most reckless fiscal year in the history of the Republic,” adding some $13 trillion in future entitlement costs.

CHINN AND FRIEDEN (8/9/11): The longer-term spending and revenue commitments are no better. Certainly spending, in particular on Medicare and Medicaid, needs to be restrained. But the deficits cannot be reined in without tax increases, and the “framework” does little or nothing in this regard. The S. & P. decision to downgrade reflects, in large part, the expectation that Republicans will not allow the Bush tax cuts to expire.

Say what? From those highlighted passages, a reader would surely get the impression that Republicans, or the wider Congress, can refuse to let the tax cuts expire at the end of 2012, as is currently scheduled.

Basically, that isn’t true. Under current law, the cuts are scheduled to expire; Obama could veto any legislative change to that plan. But when you read the New York Times, you’re pretty much asking to be misled.

People who read the New York Times think they’re reading our brightest newspaper. Just to make a long report short, let’s see how the newspaper’s editors finished their lengthy, featured editorial in last Sunday’s edition.

Good lord! The editors seemed to propose that all the Bush tax cuts should expire! That would produce $3.8 trillion in new revenue over a decade, they said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/11/11). But just like that, the editors bailed! They panicked, turned tail and ran.

Yesterday, we showed you most of the passage which follows. Today, we show you one additional sentence. As we do, we invite you to focus on the way the editors bailed:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (8/7/11): Here is the bottom line. There is no economically sensible or politically honest way to address the deficit without also increasing revenues and reforming the tax code. The major challenges are these:

LET THE BUSH CUTS EXPIRE Mr. Obama vowed to let the high-end tax cuts (for people making more than $250,00) expire in 2010. But in a preview of the debt fight, he agreed to extend the cuts for two more years when Republicans held unemployment benefits and other measures hostage.

Letting all of the cuts expire at the end of 2012 would save $3.8 trillion over the next decade. Letting the tax cuts expire for those making more than $250,000 would save $700 billion. That would make a real dent in the $2.4 trillion in total deficit reduction envisioned in the debt limit deal.

A sensible and fair approach would be to let the high-end tax cuts expire as scheduled, but keep the other tax cuts for another year. That would keep more cash in the hands of people most likely to spend it and prop up consumer demand while the economy is weak. It would give Congress and the administration time to undertake tax reform.

LET THE BUSH CUTS EXPIRE, the editors boldly seemed to say. But in that last sentence, they took it all back! What do they really want to do? They want to let the high-end tax cuts expire. Then, they want the Congress to get all busy “undertak[ing] tax reform.”

The editors may have some great ideas. They go on to share their basic ideas, including the notion that “all tax rates [should] be lowered, improving incentives to work.” But how would these brilliant, tax rate-lowering ideas actually get through the Congress? If they generate a whole bunch of new revenue, how in the world would they pass?

The editors never tell us. Nor do they say how much new revenue should be produced by “tax reform” in the magical world they’re inventing. The editors dream lovely, if imprecise, dreams. But they seem to have little sense of the real world in which they’re living.

Why do spending cuts always win in our budget debates? In part, because of the type of work displayed in this editorial! One side has been yelling “no new taxes” for decades; this dictum now has the force of law within one major party. The other side fiddles and diddles in silly-bill ways, then announces that it is “amazed” by the way spending cuts always win!

How could the editors pass their “reforms?” They don’t seem to realize that this is an issue. All year long, leading liberals have explained, on-line, that new revenues will be hard to obtain—unless the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire as scheduled, without legislative adjustment. And this has to mean all the Bush tax cuts. No tinkering could be allowed, since it would have to be passed by the Congress.

The editors still don’t seem to have heard. They dream their dreams about what would be best. They seem to be bold, then they take it all back. They don’t explain how much new revenue they think will be needed. They don’t explain how any of their wonderful dreams would ever get passed by the Congress.

Over time, how much new revenue will we need? Would that $3.8 trillion be too much? The eds skip lightly past such points, thus failing to start a discussion.

People like these are easy prey for the hard-drivers who win these debates. Then, the editors gather about and announce they’re “amazed” by the outcome.

It’s easy to get misled by this elite bunch. Meanwhile, the other side is pounding hard, driving their dumb ideas home.