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30 March 2001

Our current howler (part II): Krugman ignored

Synopsis: A review of Paul Krugman’s budget critiques helps show what might have been.

Confused? No Wonder
Anna Bernasek, The Washington Post, 3/25/01

Bashing the Boomers
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 3/7/01

The Money Pit
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 3/18/01

Don’t start spending that $1,600 rebate yet
Walter Shapiro, USA Today, 2/7/01

"Outlook" wasted its valuable space when it published Anna Bernasek’s report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/01). Bernasek kept accusing the Dems and the Reps of being dishonest about Bush’s tax cut. According to Bernasek, we the people are deeply "confused" because of those slick, slippery pols. But when she gave an example of their vile, naughty conduct, this was the best she could manage:

BERNASEK: If you’re confused, it’s no wonder. Everyone’s talking in different terms. When Bush says an average family will get back $1,600 a year under his tax plan and the Democrats argue that it’s more like $900, they’re not lying, they’re just defining things their own way. Bush means a family earning the average income—$50,000—with two kids. The Democrats mean a family making the median—$40,000—with one kid. What’s an average family today, anyway? According to the Census Bureau, it has 3.18 people, which could mean either one child and two parents, or one parent and two children.

According to Bernasek, Bush had given one description of his tax cut, and the Democrats had offered another. She never suggested that either presentation was false; she just wailed and moaned about the "confusion." In Bernasek’s world, you get to call public officials naughty names if you’re forced to read more than one statement.

What a shame! As with any complex budget plan, many things are true of this tax cut. Bernasek could have used her time to help readers sort out the key info. And did she think some pol was being dishonest? She could have told us who that was, and she could have told us what he had said. No such luck! Instead, Bernasek recited tired old cant, and engaged in demagogic name-calling. Her piece was an utter, complete waste of time. Say hello to our addled public discourse.

It’s intriguing to see Outlook present such work because, on March 7, a highly visible writer penned a real critique of the tax cut. It was Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times—and Krugman named the person he thought was dishonest, and he detailed just what had been said. As luck would have it, Krugman discussed one of the very claims mentioned by Bernasek:

KRUGMAN (3/7): We keep hearing about the "typical" family that will receive a $1,600 tax cut. Now it’s true that under Mr. Bush’s plan a median-income family of two adults and two children under the age of 17 would get a $1,600 cut starting in 2006. Most of that, however, comes not from lower tax rates but from an increased child credit. A couple whose children are grown (or even college-age) get only $600, a widow or widower gets only $300. So for middle-income baby boomers, there just isn’t much of a tax break. (You can also start to see why 88 percent of families will get less than that "typical" $1,600 break, in most cases much less.)

Unlike Bernasek, Krugman names a person who’s being dishonest—he singles out President Bush. And he tells you just what Bush has said, and what he thinks is wrong with the statement. By the way—there’s no doubt at all, reading the column, that Krugman is calling Bush dishonest. If Bush’s claims were true, Krugman says at one point, "Mr. Bush would be able to justify his plans with honest accounting." And on March 18, Krugman—discussing the size of the cut—wrote this about Bush’s intentions:

KRUGMAN (3/18): The important point is that the estimated cost of the tax cut hasn’t exploded because of new information; it has exploded because the original estimates were simply dishonest. Mr. Bush knew from the start that he was misleading the public about the budget impact of his proposals, just as he knows that he is misleading people now about whose taxes will be cut and by how much.

Repeatedly, Krugman has pointed to claims by Bush which he specifically says are dishonest. He has named the names, and he has cited the claims—the two things that Bernasek didn’t do.

But are Krugman’s claims accurate? Even here at the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, the fact is we simply aren’t sure. Example: according to Krugman, 88 percent of families get less than the $1600 under Bush’s plan (see 3/7 passage, above). Is that accurate? On February 7—shortly after Bush made his $1600 claim—USA Today’s Walter Shapiro wrote this:

SHAPIRO: A voter might assume that virtually every taxpayer would obtain this $1,600 windfall from the Bush tax plan. The president certainly encouraged that impression by promising, "The average relief for a family of four with two children will be $1,600."

There is only one problem with this arresting political visual: It’s as deceptive as a "you’ve already won" sweepstakes mailing. At the request of this column, Citizens for Tax Justice, a respected liberal tax-reform group, analyzed the Bush plan to see what percentage of taxpayers would get annual rebates smaller than the $1,600
ballyhooed by the president. The answer: A whopping 88% of all tax filers would not receive the illusionary $1,600 tax savings.

(The White House disputes these calculations, stressing that the 88% figure includes tax filers who already pay no income tax and single individuals. Yet Bush spokesman Claire Buchan said she was unable to provide alternative numbers.)

Here’s the problem: Krugman says that 88 percent of families will get less than the ballyhooed $1600. Shapiro’s column suggests that the "88 percent" includes single filers as well. Who’s right? If Bernsaek had wanted to perform a service, she could have sorted this sort of thing out. She could have picked out important claims about the plan, and helped us to know what was true.

Make no mistake—very few readers of the Washington Post can explain Bush’s tax cut proposal in detail. We all could use some expert help in sifting the various claims. But Bernasek wasted her time with invective and cant—and Outlook wasted its space with her column. It’s simply astounding that such inept work sits at the top of our precious public discourse.

Sad, isn’t it? Krugman has made some serious claims. Those claims are waiting to be discussed further. But Bernasek wrote as if from Mars. Say hello to our great public discourse.


The occasional update (3/30/01)

Krugman ignored: There’s absolutely nothing new about ignoring Paul Krugman. In the late summer/early fall of 2000, for example, he wrote a series of columns about Bush’s tax cut. Repeatedly, he claimed that Bush was misstating basic facts about his seminal plan. But in a campaign alleged to be all about character, Krugman’s claims about Bush were ignored. The result? Early in the first Bush-Gore debate, Bush gave the same, inaccurate account of his plan—an account dissected in three previous columns by Krugman. What happened? No one said a word about it! Bush’s howling presentation was completely ignored.

Big Picture? There’s no such thing as give-and-take within our dysfunctional press corps. Krugman just keeps making claims that the timorous press corps prefers to ignore. So what do they do? They ignore him. As with Bernasek, they don’t say he’s right; they don’t say he’s wrong. They just talk about something else.

It’s nothing new. When Bush misstated his plan at the key first debate, our pundits politely discussed something else. Remember? Instead of discussing what Bush had said, they discussed Debbil Gore’s naughty sighs.