NUMBERS, PLEASE! Even at this late date, the Post and the Times cant agree on the most basic numbers: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2010
Funniest, worst reports ever: On Monday, a gang of New Yorkers succumbed to a con; they agreed to pay $50 (each) to hear Steve Martin talk about art. In this mornings New York Times, Felicia Lee reports the fall-out.
Martin has escaped to Miami. So far, police arent involved.
Its one of the funniest news reports ever. This is one of the worst.
Good lord! Weve read a lot of scripted reports about urban school systems down through the years. This is a masterwork of the genre; its scripted in myriad ways. Well discuss the piece tomorrow, complete with praise for Diane Ravitch. But heres one quick point: If you read the report today, can you spot a basic analytical element which hasnt been included?
Weve always said it: You really cant run an urban system without (reliable) annual testing. From this truly awful report, can you start to see why we say this?
PART 4NUMBERS, PLEASE (permalink): Good grief! Unfortunate aspects of press corps culture were put on vivid display in last Sundays Washington Post.
One example: Did you know that big journalists are frightened by numbers? Did you know that they find their cluelessness charming? So wrote Andrew Alexander, the papers ombudsman, citing an array of experts who seemed to agree with his view.
Perfectly seriously, Alexander suggested the Post should provide remedial math to its tribe of bungling scribes. We thought of this as we struggled through David Broders column that morning.
Others have criticized one part of this columnBroders suggestion that Republicans should test Obama to see if he is truly sincere in his stated desire for bipartisan solutions to various pressing problems. Good grief! There was no suggestion that Obama should possibly question the GOPs sincerity on these matters. To Broder, the possible lack of sincerity seemed to come from one side only. For Digbys take on this strange Village Acid Trip, you know what to do: Just click here.
Many observers noted Broders weird imbalance regarding sincerity. We were also struck by what he said when he discussed those Bush tax cuts. Nothing he says here is actually wrong. But we chuckled at the highlighted statement:
Almost everyone agrees [that the Bush tax cuts] should be renewed for the 98 percent of American families earning below $250,000 a year, The Pundit Dean wroteand thats basically accurate. That said, the analysts chuckled when then they read this part of Broders column. You see, they had already read the featured editorial which sat on the Washington Posts facing page. Uh-oh! In that top-of-the-page editorial, the editors of Broders own newspaper plainly departed from the view he said almost everyone shares.
The editorial was titled, Fiscal Fantasies. According to Broder, almost everyone shares a view about extending the bulk of the cutsbut the editors just arent on that ship:
Broders statement was basically accurate; almost everyone does seem to agree that we should extend the bulk of the cuts, to the extent that this ever gets debated. (For better or worse, Obama was right when he said this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree.) All the same, we had to chuckle. On page A20, the editorial board challenged the notion that we should permanently extend these cuts. On page A21, The Dean threw the editors under the bus. Almost everyone agrees with those extensions, he declared, consigning the editors to near non-personhood.
We chuckled at the conflictbut we were struck by the editors numbers. Why oh why did the editors say that extending the cuts for households making under $250,000 would force the government to borrow two billion dollars (presumably over the next ten years)? Almost everyone else uses a different number when this proposal is discussed. In todays paper, the New York Times discusses this proposaland uses that larger number:
In the New York Times, extending the cuts on people earning less than $250,000 would cost $3.2 trillion in the next ten years. In the Washington Post, this would cost only two trillion dollarsand the Post seems to suggest that we cant even afford to do that.
Our question: Does anyone know why the Post and the Times are using such different numbers? (Updating Everett Dirksen: A trillion here, a trillion therepretty soon, were talking about real money!) We couldnt tell you, although we recall a period, in late September, when Democrats began to float the two trillion number, making extension seem more affordable; for several days, this became the standard figure in Lori Montgomerys reporting in the Post. (For one example, click here. As we recall, the Democratic proposal turned out to include some disingenuous tweaking of certain basic procedures.) Ironically, the Times, which uses the larger number, is OK with extending those vastly expensive cuts. The Post, which uses the smaller number, strongly suggests that such an extension is part of a fiscal fantasy. (According to the Post, this debate is being conducted on a bizarrely narrow playing field: whether to extend all of the tax cuts or just most of them.)
Broder was basically right; almost everyone seems to agree with extending those cuts. This sets aside the more basic question: Even if most people agree, does this policy really make sense? Well only remind you of this: When Candidate Bush first proposed these sprawling tax cuts, Democrats largely opposed his proposal, saying the cuts were unaffordable. Now, in a much more difficult fiscal world, Democrats and liberals want to retain about eighty percent of his cuts. On a permanent basis.
Is this good policy? Who the heck knows? Such discussions simply arent part of modern press corps culture! On liberal cable, Rachel Maddow attacks the GOPs hypocrisy: How dare they pose as fiscal conservatives while proposing tax cut extensions which will cost $700 billion? So she persistently thunders. Maddow doesnt mention the larger factthe GOP is really proposing tax cut extensions which will cost four trillion dollars! In his turn, Broder doesnt discuss the merits of the extensions, now that almost everybody agrees on the matter. (Bipartisan agreement!) And our two biggest newspapers cant even agree on the cost to the budget. One says the extensions will cost two trillion dollars, one says its 3.2 trillion.
For the record, that standard number is some 60 percent larger than the Posts number. Never mind how we figured that out!
Gaze upon our modern culture! In truth, the merits of this ginormous proposal simply dont get discussedand big players cant even came close to agreeing on the basic numbers! Heaven forbid that they should explain where their dueling numbers come from! You see, math is very hard, and modern press culture is remarkably slipshod. As your nation sinks into the sea, journalists play various tribal cards, agreeing not to discuss the merits of a proposal to which their favorite pols have acceded. And oh yes! Newsrooms seem phobic about numbers, as Andrew Alexander has said.
As he ended Sundays column, Alexander turned inspirational. Scrutinize every number, he urged. Question every statistic. (While youre at it, climb every mountain!) But how about explaining those numbersthe numbers which are being used to describe the cost of the tax cut extension?
That would make sense in a different worlda world where journalists try to examine the merits of major proposals. In truth, we dont live in any such world. Aint newsroom culture grand?
An irony returnsand is semi-applied: In this mornings editorial, the Times returns to a major irony, applying it rather tribally:
The Times returns to an irony here: The Deficit Commission is calling for nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. But that is the same amount that will be added to the debt by extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts!
In a slightly more rational world, that might sound like a suggestion that we cant afford to extend all those cuts on a permanent basis. But in the world of the New York Times, this irony is aimed at the GOP only. In this tribal world, we cant afford the chunk of the tax cut extensions favored by the GOP. The much larger chunk of those extensions is favored by Obama. And so, it seems that we can afford those massive permanent extensionsalthough, in line with newsroom culture, the editors dont explain why.
Aint life in the nations newsrooms grand? It has been this way for many years, as your nation has slid toward the sea.