6 January 2000
Our current howler (part III): We know what you wrote last summer
Synopsis: Cuckoos Nest III? Richard Stevensons work on the surplus projection has gone down the memory hole.
Bushs Tax Flim-Flam
David Corn, The Nation, 12/27/99
Candidates offer variety of ways to spend surplus
Richard Stevenson, The New York Times, 12/27/99
That Elusive Surplus
Editorial, The New York Times, 1/2/00
How wrong was Fred Barnes when he said that the press would
jump on Bush for "minor errors?" Absolutely, groaningly
wrong, as coverage of Bush's tax plan made clear. It is now clear
that, in presenting the plan, the Bush campaign indulged in sheer
sophistry. Surely Socrates spun in his grave. David Corn begins
to explain it:
CORN: To dub this a tax cut for middle- and low-income Americans,
Bush had to become a contortionist. His campaign material asserts
that the cuts..."are especially focused on low and moderate
income families." The proof? "Roughly $3 out of every
$6 returned to taxpayers would finance changes that help low income
The Post's Pianin and Neal took this to mean that "roughly
half of the overall relief would be targeted to middle- and lower-income
families, according to campaign aides" (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
1/5/00). But that was not what this slippery claim meant.
Corn's explanation continues:
CORN (continuing directly): "Roughly $3 out of every $6
returned to taxpayers would finance changes that help low income
families." By that [Bush] means two provisions: the new 10
percent bracket and the doubling of the child tax credit. But
read him carefully: The three bucks go to financing "changes"
that apply to all taxpayers, not just low-income families...[M]any
of the gains from these two changes will accrue to the well-off.
The three-out-of-six-dollars figure is a curveball designed to
And "mislead" it did. The Post's Pianin and Neal,
among other scribes, swallowed the slippery mess whole.
We knowbecause they frequently tell ushow much the press
corps loves Truth. One would think such a press corps would howl
at the moon when a trick like this is uncovered. In fact, a few
scribes did gently chide the Bush campaign for its slippery misdirection.
But by and large, the corps looked away. Moral? If you're going
to spin, spin on matters like thismatters involving the working
poor, about whom the press corps simply couldn't care less.
Meanwhile, can a rational citizen sensibly hope for a rational
fiscal discourse? Not to judge by recent evidence. On December
27, a page-one article by the New York Times' Richard Stevenson
provided another object lesson. The article was headlined "Candidates
offer variety of ways to spend surplus:"
STEVENSON (paragraph 1): Thanks to projections of a large and
growing federal budget surplus, the presidential candidates are
proposing ambitious initiatives that reveal clear differences
within and between the parties over taxes, spending programs and
Social Security's long-term problems.
In the second paragraph, Stevenson talked about "the current
forecast of a $3 trillion surplus over the next decadeof which
$2 trillion would come from excess Social Security revenues."
The other $1 trillion of the projected surplus would come from
general revenues, Stevenson later made clear. In his lengthy article,
Stevenson discussed what the various hopefuls would do with the
two-part projected surplus.
What made the piece a trifle odd is a fact we've discussed
here before. There is one widely-noted problem with the ten-year
surplus projection. The problem lies with the projection of a
$1 trillion surplus from general revenues. Stevenson's own paper
explained the problem shortly after his article appeared:
THE NEW YORK TIMES: [N]one of the candidates emphasize what
Congress will have to do to make these dollars materialize. These
figures assume that Congress and the president will agree to steep
budget cuts in domestic and military programs as envisioned by
the Budget Act of 1997, with its notoriously tight caps on expenditures...
The editorial described the problem in some detail. Over the
next ten years, if federal spending rises at the rate of inflation,
and if Congress sets aside normal amounts for emergency spending,
the projected $1 trillion non-SS surplus drops to less than $50
billion, the editorial said.
None of these facts were mentioned anywhere in Stevenson's
lengthy article. In describing how candidates would spend the
non-SS surplus, Stevenson never mentioned the shaky assumption
on which the projection is based. Stevenson never asked the various
candidates if they planned to stick to the spending caps in future
budgets. Readers have no idea what the hopefuls would say, since
this obvious question was politely not asked.
By the way, where did the New York Times editors get their
informationthe information Stevenson never mentioned? Where elsefrom
another lengthy Stevenson article, explaining the facts of this
case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/99). On August 10, Stevenson
wrote a detailed piece, explaining the problems with the non-SS
surplus projection. In short, Stevenson knows that the non-SS
projection is based on extremely shaky assumptions. But he never
mentions that fact in a lengthy article describing how the candidates
would spend all that dough.
Readers, since the analysts returned from their holiday break,
they've been carrying their chins around on their chests. Over
the holidays, they were able to live as free people do, reading
books and engaged with real people. Their return to our headquarters
has been painful indeed, as they've struggled to pick up their
daily endeavors. Once one has breathed the air of freedomonce
one has engaged in normal discourseit's quite a chore to return
to the punishment of reading the New York Times every day.
Now the press corps is back in full swing, reporting on last
night's Gore-Bradley forum. The pundits are back in interpretive
modeputting words in the mouths of the hopefuls and telling us
about their demeanor (see below). But our ardent young analysts
are still having a time making themselves return to their carrels.
Our press corps provides a primitive discourse; in their endlessly
primitive work, they put the reptilian side of the human mind
on display. Our eager young analysts want to live to the hilt;
they long for full-blown human experience. Reading the Times is
a painful chore for young folk with sound minds and full souls.
Tomorrow: The power to paraphrase is the power to spin.
On Hardball, the pundits like power.
Rasho-scribes: The Pundit Corps loves to show off its
brilliance with sweeping subjective assessments. So it was this
morning, as writers conveyed the flavor of last night's Dem debate.
Here was the Post's first paragraph:
HARRIS AND BALZ: Vice President Gore and former senator Bill
Bradley sparred this evening over health care, gun control and
leadership abilities in a debate that launched the final month
of campaigning here in a spirited but civil tone.
But that's not quite how Richard Berke saw it:
BERKE: Despite the candidates' agreement on homosexuals in
the military, the debate tonight was punctuated by edgy exchanges...
Oh. Meanwhile, the Washington Times saw this:
BOYER: Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley
rang in a new year of presidential debates last night with their
testiest confrontation of the Democratic primary...
Despite the obvious worthlessness of such subjective assessments,
the Manners Police were out in force last night, assessing the
hopefuls' debate deportment on various cable TV shows. Meanwhile,
there was no effort to evaluate the factual exchanges about Bradley's
health care proposal. Could current Medicaid recipients buy health
care for Bradley's $150 "weighted average?" An opaque
exchange between Bradley and Gore was ignored on all the programs
we watched. Pundits love to talk about manners and style, although
such assessments are groaningly worthless. Citizens who want to
understand facts about things that matter will fumble along on
Democrats Spar Over Guns, Health, Ability
John Harris and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 1/6/00
Both Democrats Endorse Gays In the Military
Richard Berke, The New York Times, 1/6/00
Gore promises pro-gay litmus test for military's Joint Chiefs
Dave Boyer, The Washington Times, 1/6/00