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Print view: Casting herself as Alonso's booster, Tavernise extends a long, hoary tradition
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IN PRAISE OF THE WORST ONE PERCENT! Casting herself as Alonso’s booster, Tavernise extends a long, hoary tradition: // link // print // previous // next //

The problem extends to us and our tribe: Did Obama strike a good budget deal? That’s a matter of judgment, of course—but many Democrats are angry. In this morning’s New York Times, David Herszenhorn quotes two concerned Dem solons:

HERSZENHORN (12/8/10): Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, paused for eight seconds when asked what Mr. Biden’s main argument was in favor of the plan.

“I am really not sure what his main argument was,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

She added, “We have got this huge debt and deficit. We know it. This adds a trillion dollars to it. It’s a problem.”

Mrs. Feinstein said she might be persuaded to support the plan if she concluded that it would spur economic growth, an argument that Gene Sperling, counselor to the Treasury secretary, made to senators at the lunch.


Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, complained about the “nonsensicalness” of continuing lower tax rates for the wealthy. Ms. Landrieu was one of only a handful of Democrats to support the original Bush tax cuts in 2001.

Landrieu and Feinstein both seem concerned about the fiscal implications of “continuing lower tax rates for the wealthy.” Herszenhorn calls Landrieu out, noting that she voted for these lower tax rates back in 2001.

Of course, Feinstein voted for the Bush tax cuts too (click here). But that was then! This is now.

(Dems who supported the 2001 tax cuts: Breaux, Carnahan, Cleland, Feinstein, Johnson, Kohl, Landrieu, Lincoln, Miller, Nelson of Nebraska, Torricelli. Akaka and Bingaman voted present. Five others didn’t vote.)

In fairness, things were different in 2001, when Landrieu and Feinstein both voted aye on Bush’s Big Fat Expiring Tax Cuts. At the time, budget surpluses were being projected as far as the eye could see; the thoughtful president sold these cuts as a way to unload all that cash. “Senate Democrats who fought the plan immediately signaled that they will use their new majority status to possibly delay or repeal parts of it,” the Washington Post reported, on the day after the vote. “They said the bill has hidden costs that will ultimately force the nation to begin running deficits again.”

“Ultimately” arrived rather fast.

Are Landrieu and Feinstein sincere in their current concerns about all that new deficit spending? On last evening’s Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell said Landrieu was just playing Bayou State politics, showing that she will defy Obama in every possible way. We have no idea of that’s true, but the nonsense surrounding this whole shebang does include our own tribe.

Is Feinstein sincere in her stated concern about that new trillion in deficits? (Over two years.) We don’t know, but Obama has been proposing a plan which involved $3.2 trillion in new deficits over the next ten years. (That would be the cost of extending the bulk of the Bush tax cuts, which Obama has always favored, as opposed to returning to Clinton’s tax rates.) Last night, on The One True Liberal Channel, loud noxious hosts loudly complained about all the new deficit spending, though they’d never said a word about Obama’s own deficit-laden proposal. But this has been the norm among our rather unintelligent tribe. Here was Joan Walsh, reacting to the new budget deal in yesterday’s Salon:

WALSH (12/7/10): I know they weren't the best of friends when they left Washington, but I bet former President Bush and Dick Cheney at least had a phone call tonight congratulating one another on one of the great heists in history. In 2001, they knew they couldn't make their budget-busting tax cuts for the rich permanent, so they agreed to phase them out in 2010, leaving the political consequences to another administration.

Over the past year, liberals have pretended that the tax cuts for the rich are “budget-busters,” a rather silly but mandated bit of analysis. Yesterday, before the new deal was struck, Katrina vanden Heuvel played the same card in the Washington Post:

VANDEN HEUVEL (12/7/10): On the economy, the president has abandoned what Americans are focused on—jobs—to embrace what the Beltway elites care about—deficits. His freeze of federal workers' pay, of more symbolic than deficit-reducing value, only reinforced right-wing tripe: that federal employees are overpaid; that overspending is our problem, as opposed to inane tax cuts for the top end; that we should impose austerity now, instead of working to get the economy going.

In vanden Heuvel’s simplistic construction, “tax cuts for the top end” are really “our problem,” as opposed to all that right-wing tripe. But those tax cuts would have created $700 billion in additional debt over the next ten years. In truth, that’s a relative drop in the bucket when compared to our overall deficit picture, or when compared to the $3.2 trillion in additional debt created by extending the other tax cuts, which liberals have widely supported. But we liberals have tended to play the fool about this, even on our One True Liberal Channel, where loud screeching hosts were concerned last night about $900 billion in new deficits. The bulk of that spending had been proposed by Obama all along, without a word from their lips.

That said, it will be a struggle to shake clarity out of what has occurred. For one example, we were puzzled by Robert Reich’s fiery reaction in Salon:

REICH (12/7/10): The deal the President struck with Republican leaders is an abomination.

It will cost $900 billion over the next two years—larger than the bailout of Wall Street, GM, and Chrysler put together, larger than the stimulus package, larger than anything that’s come out of Washington in years.

It makes a mockery of deficit reduction. Worse, the lion’s share of that $900 billion will go to the very rich. Families with incomes of over $1 million will reap an average of about $70,000, while middle-class families earning $50,000 a year will get an average of around $1,500. In addition, the deal just about eviscerates the estate tax—yanking the exemption up to $5 million per person and a maximum rate of 35 percent.

Reich is shocked, shocked by that $900 billion in deficit spending! He says it is an abomination. It makes a mockery of deficit reduction—unlike the $3.2 trillion in new deficit spending good liberals have all been supporting. Beyond that, Reich’s claim that “the lion’s share of that $900 billion will go to the very rich” seems to be flatly false—or, at best, grossly misleading.

Whatever one thinks of the provisions Reich describes, will “the lion’s share of that $900 billion go to the very rich?” Pretty much not, if we’re sticking with English. In this morning’s New York Times, David Kocieniewski says this: “At least a quarter of the tax savings will go to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population.” Or if it’s Ezra Klein you trust, here’s how he limned it for KeithO:

OLBERMANN (12/7/10): To put this in a little perspective, it’s nearly $900 billion in terms of price. How much of that is for unemployment insurance, jobless benefits, the very thing that pumps money into the economy, where it’s most needed, most effective and obviously most immediately impacting and absorbed?

KLEIN: Sure. So, $56 billion are for jobless benefits, a 13-month extension. About $300 billion are for the middle-class tax cuts—tax cuts under $250K; about $130 billion for the rich and the estate tax. Then there’s $120 billion for a payroll tax cut, that’s a pretty progressive measure; $40 billion for the tax extenders, that’s earned income tax credits. That’s education tax credits. Those are pretty good, too. And then depending on how you count it, there’s either $30 billion or $180 billion for a tax break to help businesses invest in 2011 and 2012. They have them pull investment up.

So, there’s a lot going on with a lot of price tags in it.

It’s hard to credit Reich’s claim after reviewing those numbers, though we don’t understand some of that either. Rather than try to clarify, KO hurried right along, leaving himself plenty of time for subsequent screeching and very loud yelling. Earlier, Klein had seen the glass well more than half full, offering this upbeat account on his blog at the Post:

KLEIN (12/7/10): If you look at the numbers alone, the tax cut deal looks to have robbed Republicans blind. The GOP got around $95 billion in tax cuts for wealthy Americans and $30 billion in estate tax cuts. Democrats got $120 billion in payroll-tax cuts, $40 billion in refundable tax credits (Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and education tax credits), $56 billion in unemployment insurance, and, depending on how you count it, about $180 billion (two-year cost) or $30 billion (10-year cost) in new tax incentives for businesses to invest.

Klein omitted one part of the deal in that post—the estimated $300 billion for the middle-class tax cuts. That said, we’d guess there’s a bit of enthusiasm in evidence there, although we aren’t really sure. But enthusiasm was widely observed on liberal cable last night.

A lot of screeching and yelling followed the announcement of yesterday’s budget deal. This included high-minded complaints from Democratic solons who voted for this mess in the first place. For today, we’ll offer two suggestions:

In many venues, you will encounter more heat than light in the coming days. Be careful. (More tomorrow.)

On the larger scale, beware complaints about all that shocking new deficit spending! Darling Rachel has loved to complain that the tax cuts for the rich (totaling $700 billion over ten years) would “blow a hole in the budget.” Truth to tell, that has always been a fatuous claim; given the scale of unfolding problems, that $700 billion is pretty much a drop in the bucket. But this pleasing claim has been widely offered by our increasingly low-IQ tribe. Our tribe has made little effort to put that figure in a larger perspective. It’s more fun for the tribe when we don’t.

Talk-show conservatives have played the fool for decades now. Whatever one thinks of this budget proposal, our tribe has been rapidly catching up. That’s bad for the national interest.

Special report: The fruits of a forty-year script!

PART 3—IN PRAISE OF THE WORST ONE PERCENT (permalink): An unfortunate tradition has held for the past forty years: Things can get remarkably silly when major journalists decide to promote favored big-city school systems.

This tradition has been in place for decades. Consider a three-part series from the Baltimore Sun in early 1980.

At the time, cities like Baltimore were trying to improve the image of their school systems, hoping to stop middle-class flight to the suburbs (flight by whites and blacks). Sometimes, local newspapers would adopt the booster role, apparently trying to help.

That may be why [Name Withheld], a smart, decent guy and a good journalist, wrote his three-part series in the Sun, entitled “Schools That Work.”

For three straight days, the pieces appeared, praising sixteen Baltimore schools. But by normal standards, a bunch of these Baltimore schools didn’t “work;” some of these schools just weren’t “working” at all. Incomparably, we wrote the following letter, which the Sun published:

Series Sparks Debate on Quality of Baltimore Schools

I am writing to comment on your recent three-part series, “Schools That Work,” by [Name Withheld]. As is made clear in the series, these are not supposed to be Baltimore’s highest-achieving schools; they are schools whose students have shown more growth from fall to spring in standardized testing than other Baltimore schools starting from a similar point.

In his first article, Name Withheld acknowledges that some of these schools therefore display “pure achievement scores that are around, or slightly below, the average for the city.” But despite the disclaimer, banner headlines on his opening set of articles describes theses schools as “Baltimore’s best...schools that work…standouts at helping their students learn.”

These laudatory characterizations were repeated, complemented by upbeat graphics and pictures of smiling children, through the course of the series.

I am sure that the schools on this list have hard-working, effective faculties who perform one of society’s most demanding tasks for little thanks or reward. But in the interest of keeping debate on the city’s schools in perspective, it should be noted that the actual achievement levels of many of these “schools that work” are levels in which concerned observers can’t take satisfaction or pride.

According to the Maryland Accountability Report for 1978 (the most recent year for which city test scores are publicly available, and the first of two years which researchers for this series studied), two of these “schools that work” recorded fifth grade Iowa Test reading scores of 4.1 and 4.0—scores which fall in the first, or lowest, percentile nationally on a 99-percentile scale.

A third school on the list scored in the second percentile nationally; a fourth school scored in the third percentile…

Schools whose achievement levels are among the very lowest in the nation cannot sensibly be described as “schools that work…standouts at helping their students learn…schools where kids are learning to read and multiply” simply because they seem to have done somewhat better than other Baltimore schools whose achievement rates are even lower.

Our nation’s urban schools deserve our concerned, competent attention. They will likely receive neither if our understanding is shaped by such distorted characterizations as were presented throughout this series.

Gack! The Baltimore Sun had been praising schools which scored in the worst one percent! To its credit, the Sun stepped up to the plate and published our incomparable letter. But as early as 1980, that series helped show how silly things can get when journalists play the booster roles in support of favored schools—or in support of favored school systems, favored principals or favored administrators.

Or, as has happened in recent years, in support of favored types of “reform.”

Last week, the New York Times played that booster role in support of Andres Alonso, who became superintendent of Baltimore’s schools in 2007. Nothing we say here is meant as criticism of Alonso, who didn’t write last week’s clownish report. But that report, by Sabrina Tavernise, continued a long and gruesome tradition in which journalists mislead or deceive the public about the workings of low-income schools.

Such schools deserve our competent attention. They won’t get it if our understanding is shaped by foolish portraits like the one Tavernise wrought.

As we’ve noted, Tavernise’s high-profile report was a masterwork of propaganda. It follows a very familiar old script, in which a charismatic principal (or superintendent) enters a floundering school (or school system) and magically turns things around. Unfortunately, Tavernise presented no data intended to show that “proficiency rates” have gotten better during Alonso’s short tenure in Baltimore. But right from her opening paragraph, she gave the impression that this has occurred, as we’ve noted in the past few days.

How silly can things get when journalists cast themselves in this booster role? In addition to the problems we’ve already noted, consider what happened when Tavernise decide to pimp Alonso’s brilliant judgment concerning suspension of students. At our nation’s biggest newspaper, nonsense like this is now thrown at us rubes when favored school systems—or favored types of “reform”—come into play:

TAVERNISE (12/2/10): Next he took on the culture of the schools, which relied heavily on suspensions for discipline, a practice Dr. Alonso strongly opposed. “Kids come as is,” he likes to say, “and it’s our job to engage them.”

Now school administrators have to get his deputy’s signature for any suspension longer than five days. This year, suspensions fell below 10,000, far fewer than the 26,000 the system gave out in 2004.

Instead, schools handled discipline problems more through mediation, counseling and parent-teacher conferences, and offered incentives like sports and clubs. Mental health professionals were placed in every school with middle grades.

“There was a lot of punishment energy focused on the kids,” said Michael Sarbanes, executive director of community engagement. “We were trying to overcome a perception that had built up over years that we don’t want you.”

Here, as in several other areas, we’re simply asked to assume that Alonso’s change in practice represents an improvement. (Warning: As with drop-out and graduation rates, “number of suspensions” can be a tricky statistic.) Were 26,000 suspensions too many? Are 10,000 suspensions more sensible—more conducive to the school system’s ultimate success? There is no way a New York Times writer, or reader, can really judge such a matter. (We note that Tavernise went back six years to get that higher number.) That said, ironists chuckled as Tavernise continued along, moving directly to her foolish account of Alonso’s infallible judgment when it comes to school closings. We mentioned this nonsense in yesterday’s piece—but note where the whole thing led:

TAVERNISE (continuing directly): Some of the system’s 198 schools were beyond rescue, and Dr. Alonso closed them, all 26. Many new ones were opened in their place.

In one school that was closed, Homeland Security Academy, a middle school with a security-industry theme, students regularly set fires in the bathrooms.

“There were two and three fires a day and you couldn’t really teach,” said Deanna Delgado, who taught English there.

Question: Might this school be open today if someone had suspended (or expelled) the students who were setting those fires? Would Delgado perhaps have been able to teach if a couple of kids had been bounced from that school? If they got their “mediation” somewhere else? There’s no way to answer these questions, of course. But the analysts chuckled darkly as Tavernise ran these items together, not seeming to see the possible inter-connection—not seeming to see how hard it is to judge these kinds of decisions.

Are children reading and doing math better because of Alonso’s reforms? Throughout her long piece, Tavernise makes no such claim—although her readers may not have noticed, so heavily does she fawn over Alonso’s judgment and his alleged “results.” All through her piece, Tavernise seems to vouch for Alonso’s judgment, even in matters where she has no way of knowing if such judgments have been good, bad or indifferent. “Few are arguing with his results,” she says in her third paragraph—although she produces no data, none at all, designed to show that kids are actually reading better since Alonso came on board.

Fewer children are being suspended. But are these children reading better, doing math better? Tavernise offers no clue.

Nothing we say is meant as a criticism of Alonso, who didn’t write this pitiful, boosterish piece. For ourselves, we would guess that some of his “reforms” and judgments have been good, and that others possibly haven’t; we would also guess there are major types of reform he hasn’t considered or tried. But since Tavernise offers no data showing gains in “proficiency rates,” why is she pimping Alonso so hard? Why is he getting such favorable treatment? Why is she such an undisguised booster?

The answer is clear at one early point. A key name comes in here: Joel Klein.

Tomorrow—part 4: Why pre-favor Alonso? And some lessons learned