Sunday, February 12, 2006

Government by liars ... abetted by hacks & toadies

I think that by now few sensible people could deny that the Bush administration, among its other achievements, has distinguished itself as one of the most systematically and blatantly dishonest Presidential administrations in American history. In fact, in collusion with the Republican Congress, it has set a whole new standard for routine mendacity, prevarication, and outright falsehood in public-policy discussions. In an excellent 2002 article in the New Republic, "Idiot Time," Alan Wolfe hit this particular nail squarely on the head:
During the 2000 election, Bush's advisers discovered something that no one before had ever quite known: there are simply no limits to how much you can lie in American politics and get away with it. And it is the transposition of that approach to politics into policy that constitutes the disgrace of the Bush method. A tax cut radically biased toward the rich is not nearly so damaging as a tax cut passed while one side to a much-needed debate responds to criticism by simply making up numbers.
It would be hard to capture better the almost surreal quality of the present situation. (I recommend reading the whole piece, which has a lot more to say about the current pathologies of our political culture, affecting both government and opposition.)

Over the past 5 years this situation has become so routine, and our political discourse has become so deeply corrupted, that there is a danger we may come to take it for granted and stop noticing how bizarre it actually is. So it is useful to be reminded occasionally of the fact that we are currently being ruled by liars (not just fibbers or "spinners" or exaggeraters, but liars). Paul Krugman has been especially cogent and illuminating in documenting and explaining this stream of deceptions, and his recent column explaining once again how the fraud is managed, "The Vanishing Future" (below), offers a good example of why he's indispensable.

All this raises an obvious question: How do they keep getting away with it? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the failure of the Democrats to act as an effective opposition. In addition to their general fecklessness, they have been paralyzed by the fact that they don't control any branch of the national government. We shouldn't let ordinary citizens (voters and non-voters) off the hook, either, since they have been too willing to let themselves be conned.

But a lot of blame also has to be laid at the door of the US news media, which have failed quite astoundingly to do their job properly. The admirable Brad DeLong, for example, posts a very useful ongoing series of critiques on this subject under the general rubric "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?". Often these failures are due to a combination of straightforward laziness & incompetence and a set of journalistic conventions that tend to trivialize political reporting and make it difficult to distinguish political disagreements from outright falsehoods. In other cases, it's a matter of shameless toadying, hackery, and propaganda peddled by people who presumably know enough about the subjects they're discussing to be held responsible for the distortions involved. One good example of the latter was recently nailed by Prof. DeLong, who cogently explained why it's "Time for the Washington Post to Retire Robert Samuelson".

But this is a never-ending, Sysiphean struggle ....

--Jeff Weintraub
New York Times
February 10, 2006
The Vanishing Future
by Paul Krugman

At this point we've had six years to grow accustomed to Bush budget chicanery. (Yes, six years: George W. Bush's special mix of blatant dishonesty and gross irresponsibility was fully visible during the 2000 presidential campaign.) What still amazes me, however, is the sheer childishness of the administration's denials and deceptions.
Consider the case of the vanishing future.
The story begins in 2001, when President Bush was pushing his first tax cut through Congress. At the time, the administration insisted that its tax-cut plans wouldn't endanger the budget surplus bequeathed to Mr. Bush by Bill Clinton. But even some Republican senators were skeptical. So the Senate demanded a cap on the tax cut: it should not reduce revenue over the period from 2001 to 2011 by more than $1.35 trillion.
The administration met this requirement, but not by scaling back its tax-cutting ambitions. Instead, it created fictitious savings by "sunsetting" the tax cut, making the whole thing expire at the end of 2010.
This was obviously silly. For example, under the law as written there will be no federal tax on the estates of wealthy people who die in 2010. But the estate tax will return in 2011 with a maximum rate of 55 percent, creating some interesting incentives.
I suggested, back in 2001, that the legislation be renamed the Throw Momma From the Train Act.
It was also obvious that the administration had no intention of abiding by its concession to fiscal prudence, that it would try to eliminate the sunset clause and make the tax cuts permanent.
But it quickly became clear that the budget forecasts the administration used to justify the 2001 tax cut were wildly overoptimistic. The federal government faced a future of deficits, not surpluses, as far as the eye could see. Making the tax cut permanent would greatly worsen those future deficits. What were budget officials to do?
You almost have to admire their brazenness: they made the future disappear.
Clinton-era budgets offered 10-year projections of spending and revenues. But the Bush administration slashed the budget horizon to five years. This artificial shortsightedness greatly aided the campaign to make the 2001 tax cut permanent because it hid the costs: since budget analyses no longer covered the years after 2010, the revenue losses from extending the tax cut became invisible.
But now it's 2006, and even a five-year projection covers the period from 2007 to 2011, which means including a year in which making the Bush tax cuts permanent will cost a lot of revenue — $119.7 billion, but who's counting? Has the administration finally run out of ways to avoid budget reality?
Not quite. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, until this year budget documents contained a standard table titled "Impact of Budget Policy," which summarized the effects of the administration's tax and spending proposals on future outlays and revenues. But this year, that table is missing. So you have to do some detective work to figure out what's really going on.
Now, the administration has proposed spending cuts that are both cruel and implausible. For example, administration computer printouts obtained by the center show that the budget calls for a 13 percent cut in spending on veterans' health care, adjusted for inflation, over the next five years.
Yet even these cuts would fall far short of making up for the revenue losses from making the tax cuts permanent. The administration's own estimate, which can be deduced from its budget tables, is that extending the tax cuts would cost an average of $235 billion in each year from 2012 through 2016.
In other words, the administration has no idea how to make its tax cuts feasible in the long run. Yet it has never, as far as I can tell, allowed unfavorable facts to affect its determination to make the tax cuts permanent. Instead, it has devoted all its efforts to hiding those awkward facts from public view. (Any resemblance to, say, its Iraq strategy is no coincidence.)
At this point the administration's budget strategy seems to be simply to ignore reality. The 2007 budget makes it clear, once and for all, that the tax cuts can't be offset with spending cuts. But Bush officials have decided to ignore that unpleasant fact, and let some future administration deal with the mess they have created.