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CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’! Is California a high-tax state? A reader says Krugman’s mistaken:

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 27, 2003

ALL THE TEA LEAVES ARE BROWN: The California state budget is still a mess, but as Paul Krugman noted in last Tuesday’s column, that iconic “$38 billion deficit” is now a thing of the past. But many scribes keep hangin’ on; in his column, Krugman noted the “inexplicable” fact that major journalists still refer, in the present tense, to that famous $38 billion (see THE DAILY HOWLER 8/22/03). And sure enough, two days after Krugman’s column appeared, there was CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, interviewing Gray Davis on Late Edition. As we’ve told you many times, basic facts play almost no role in our puzzling, inept public discourse:

BLITZER: At the same time your critics…are pointing to mismanagement on your point. They point out—and we’ll put some numbers up on the screen—that when you took office in 1998, there was more than a $4 billion surplus in the California, $4.4 billion California surplus, but there is now a $38 billion deficit. They say that’s extraordinary, extraordinary mismanagement that warrants your recall.

DAVIS: First of all, there is no $38 billion deficit. I signed a budget a couple of weeks ago. It is balanced in the year we’re currently in. We do have an out-year problem of $8 billion. But we’ve made great progress going from $38 billion to $8 billion.

Where in the world has Blitzer been? Should major journalists be conversant with even the most basic facts? As we’ve said, the California budget is still a mess, with questions about whether the state’s new borrowing will even hold up in court. But kids: Davis did “sign a budget a couple of weeks ago.” Even after Krugman’s column, Blitzer didn’t seem to have heard.

Of course, the major press corps doesn’t do windows—and it hates wasting time on the facts. Facts are boring—and so confining! Instead, the press corps likes to write profiles of stripper candidates, and it likes to interview Gary Coleman. Result: Basic facts are hard to come by in our journalistic culture.

Which brings us back to another statement in Krugman’s column last Friday. Here’s what the Timesman said:

KRUGMAN: Meanwhile, California isn’t a high-tax state: through the 1990’s, state and local taxes as a share of personal income more or less matched the national average, and with the recent plunge in revenue they’re now probably below average.
This was part of Krugman’s claim that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “description of the state economy is pure fantasy.” We cited Krugman’s statement in last Friday’s HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/22/03).

An e-mailer tells us that Krugman is wrong here. Indeed, a review of the Tax Foundation’s annual tables suggests that California has become a bit of a “high tax state” on this measure in the past five years. As Krugman says, California was near the middle of the nation on this measure through most of the 1990s. In 1995, for example, the state ranked 24th nationally on state and local taxes as a percentage of income. But by 1999, the weather was changing; California now ranked 11th. According to the Tax Foundation tables, the Golden State has ranked 8th in the nation on this measure for the past three years.

We’re not expert on these measures; we’ll pass on all relevant clarifications. But as we’ve told you again and again, our national discourse is fact-o-phobic. For our part, we’d be willing to see a few less interviews with Gary Coleman, and a greater effort by the press to describe California’s economy and budget. So far, the coverage has been heavy on California dreamin’. When the press corps calls this election a circus, is a bit of projection going on?

FAIRNESS TO MATTHEWS: We think some readers have misunderstood Chris Matthews’ statement to Joe Conason last Friday. Fairly clearly, Matthews didn’t say that pundit Ann Coulter has been on his program one time at the most. He seemed to be saying something different; he seemed to be saying that Coulter appeared on his program one-time-at-the-most to discuss her bilious book, Slander. Here’s the fuller transcript of what Matthews said:

MATTHEWS: By the way, there’s something inaccurate in your book. There’s something inaccurate in your book, because you said that she was on my show, Hardball, eight times. I would be surprised if she was on once.

CONASON: No, that’s what Nexis shows, Chris. You’ll have to correct it with them.

MATTHEWS: No, no, no.

CONASON: That’s what it shows.

MATTHEWS: She’s not—

CONASON: That is what it shows. She’s been on your show—and you know—

MATTHEWS: Eight times? On one book? Eight times on a book?

Fairly clearly, Matthews was disputing the notion that Coulter had made eight appearances to discuss Slander. (This is the apparent claim in the incomparable Conason’s mandatory new book, Big Lies.) In fact, two of Coulter’s Hardball spots were devoted to discussing Slander, so Matthews’ initial statement—“I’d be surprised if she was on once”—is extremely strange (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/25/03). But Matthews didn’t seem to be saying that Coulter had never done his program at all. In truth, Matthews has faked basic facts for years. He seemed to do so again in this case. But some are overstating what he said in this instance. For our part, we don’t want to sit around and fake basic facts about him.

MUST-READ NYT: “Jose, Dino and Carlos all said they never would have graduated from high school without Harvey Milk,” Michael Winerip writes in today’s New York Times. “And it kills them now to see the school under attack.” Winerip produces another highly informative, heartfelt piece about a topic which has been mightily spun. (As you read and learn from the Winerip piece, note the heartless, foolish comments made by Mike Long in the New York Daily News.)

By the way, is there currently a better journalist at a major press organ than the NYT’s Winerip? The scribe is both technically competent and deeply humane. It’s hard to find that combination at our major news orgs; in fact, it’s hard to find either quality! For that reason, there’s good news and bad news in Winerip’s ascendancy. The good news: The Timesman keeps churning superlative work. The bad news? His work stands out because most of the work at our major news orgs is so lacking.

Final note: William Raspberry also got where the rubber meets the road in an important education column last week. Why do poor kids flounder in school? No, it isn’t because they have racist teachers. American children deserve your attention. If you want to ponder part of this problem, you know what to do. Just click here.

FRIDAY: As promised, our look at those rank Clinton-haters.