I know that this is all kind of moot in light of the events of the last few days, but someone passed word of this McArdle post to me yesterday, and it seemed to me to capture so much of what has gone wrong in the way the media engaged the debate over deficits and their discontents.
In this particular example of Village media retailing a false narrative, She Who Is Always Wrong™ took issue with a chart referenced by and a conclusion her actually, you know, accomplished colleague* James Fallows has been arguing for a while.
And yes, I know, a cage match between Fallows and McArdle is kind of like watching Ali (in his prime) against the Weehauken Regional Golden Gloves champion, at least as far as intellect and journalistic chops are concerned. McArdle would win, no doubt, were the judges scoring condescension and high-school in-group wit. But when it comes to actually reporting an issue, understanding what one has been told, and reporting both facts and (clearly demarcated) analysis/opinion, Fallows v. McArdle wouldn’t be licensed even in Nevada.
But that doesn’t stop the divine Ms. MM, unsurprisingly. Her role is not to be responsible, or accurate, or even coherent. It is to advance the approved Central Committee line — which, McArdle, loyal and very effective apparatchik that she is, seems to know before the word from on high need ever get spoken out loud.
Hence her attempt to deflect the hideously liberally biased facts of the history of the deficit.
For, you see, the Fallows post she seeks to undermine focused on this chart:
Fallows made the point, also raised by such raving loony left organizations as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the ever-liberal New York Times that such recourses to history and actual data suggest both a problem and solutions that are different from those we’ve just gone through the wringer trying to debate. (Both references supplied by the White House.)
The broad point is both obvious and obviously too painful for McArdle to contemplate: George Bush the Lesser inherited significant surpluses and a budget that promised to generate further surpluses through times of economic growth, and transformed that extraordinary fiscal idyll into a crater, a truly spectacular failure of financial prudence.
As the chart above accurately depicts, the largest driver of the deficit is the Bush tax cuts that coincided with the eight years of desperately unspectacular economic returns, culminating in the catastrophic failure of global financial capitalism.** The next largest creator of new debt was expanding domestic spending, followed closely by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both wars of choice. The prescription drug benefit (Medicare Part D) is a smaller item on this list — just 10% of the scale of the tax cuts — but it’s worth noting for the argument to come below.
All this, of course, shows what we already knew: Bush policies, supported overwhelmingly by a GOP party that controlled the House for six of the eight years of the Lesser’s adminstration, and the Senate for more than four of those years, are what produced something approaching half of the total still-outstanding debt accumulated to date by all administrations since the birth of the Republic. This, the Obama administration contrasts with its own record of a 1.4 trillion dollar addition to what we owe now, composed mostly of the stimulus, some particular policy choices, and a bit (and the significance of this will become obvious in a moment) of the extension of Bush tax policies.
So, given that none of these claims are controversial to anyone but McArdle, why is The Atlantic’s Business and Economics Editor so unhappy with her colleague?
Let’s give her the floor for a a moment:
I’m a little less enamored, considering that this graph attributes decisions made by Obama and an all-Democratic Congress–like doubling down in Afghanistan–to Bush, while taking responsibility for basically nothing except the stimulus. When Obama extends the Bush tax cuts for the rich under pressure from Congressional Republicans, that disappears from his side of the ledger, because after all, he didn’t want to do it. When Bush enacts Medicare Part D under pressure from Congressional Democrats, the full cost is charged against his presidency. The list of such silliness goes on. Our president seems set to coin another presidential motto: “The duck starts here.”
Ah, word salad.
I’ve been enjoying ignoring McArdle, as life is too short to waste time on the negligible. But that means I’ve forgotten the peculiar pleasure of watching someone lie so badly. It really is an art, to say something contradicted within fractions of a column inch without noticing — or more likely, without caring, for the purpose of this kind of communication is not to advance an argument but to establish a talking point.
So, to the fisking:
On attributing to Bush costs for the two wars: well, (a) the $1.4 trillion laid to the Bush account underestimates the long term budgetary consequences, reasonably accurately totals up the budgetary authority extended to conduct the war through FY2009, including homeland security and foreign aid costs of the choice made to go to war. More to the point, it correctly attributes the decision to the administration that made it. We are still paying for Medicare Part D, for example, and will continue to do so, because unless repealed, future administrations continue to administer decisions made by prior ones.
It’s true that Obama and his administration have continued to fight the wars launched by his predecessors — but unless you want to advance the claim that all decisions by a President vanish from their legacy the moment they leave office, it still seems appropriate to lay the bulk of the cost of any given decision to the President who made it. It is fair to state that Obama has chosen to pursue war in Afghanistan while dialling down our commitment (and cost) in Iraq — which is indeed a commitment for which the US taxpayer must pay. That would suggest one could add a chunk to Obama’s ledger of deficit spending for war, while the chart above suggests other choices are responsible.
But again, if you think about what that chart is actually arguing — that you should look to new choices on spending, president by president, to understand our current budget predicament — then you grasp its logic. Bush sent us to wars that we must somehow finish. Obama demanded stimulus, which has not proved to be sufficient. Both of these are real decisions taken at particular points in time by distinct administrations. And both choices are accurately reflected above. To which McArdle responds by conflating our president with water fowl. (Sic — ed.)
Meanwhile, consider McArdle’s next claim:
When Obama extends the Bush tax cuts for the rich under pressure from Congressional Republicans, that disappears from his side of the ledger, because after all, he didn’t want to do it.
Oh snap! I wish I could proffer such incisive analysis with such — how to describe it? — insouciance.
Except (and this is where my jaw hit the floor, even considering the source), if you take one moment to look at the chart in question, you’ll find, nicely colored in blue, attributed to Obama, $250 billion accounted for as part of the December, 2010 deal that extended the Bush tax cuts for two years. It really doesn’t seem too much to ask that the Business and Economic Editor of an institution as venerable as The Atlantic might actually read the chart she’s analyzing. But sadly, that’s just a bridge too far for McArdle.
Update 8/2/31: reader Atlas Fugged caught an error here: Obama lays claim to $250 billion of the $800 billion cost of the December 2010 deal; that covers the unemployment extension and other aspects of that bargain; the tax cut extension does, as McArdle says, lie on Bush’s side of the ledger. I apologize for the error — but note that the argument made on the cost of war still applies: the decisions made by presidents do not die with the end of a given administration; legacies are, after all legacies. To be strictly fair, I’d say Obama should own the middle class portion of the tax cuts; the extension of the tax cuts on earners over the $250,000 was clearly a Republican ambition first and last.
And now for the capper:
When Bush enacts Medicare Part D under pressure from Congressional Democrats, the full cost is charged against his presidency.
This is called doing the best (worst) you can when the hand you’ve been dealt has no cards at all. Just to recall. Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit, was debated and passed in 2003, a year in which the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Republican leadership in the House of Representatives famously bent procedure to the point of breaking to ensure the measure’s passage there. It’s not clear what pressure that the Democrats could have brought to bear on any of the key players, and certainly not Bush himself: this was a period of unequivocal Republican control of the legislative process.
McArdle hopes no one remembers when and what happened here, I guess. She’s playing to the established meme that Medicare is a Democrat’s program, so any spending for it must be due to some nefarious Democratic strategem. But facts do have that well-known liberal bias, and this claim of hers is simply false. Whether it is a conscious lie or merely a reflexive one is unclear and unimportant. That McArdle publishes obviously wrong statements — this one, and the tax gaffe above, for two — is what actually matters.
Enough, mostly…except for a quick take on what this is all about. One thing among many has been driven home by the ongoing debt-limit debacle: however poorly you may rate Obama’s poker skills, the GOP has been revealed, again, as a party that cannot govern.
It can make use of power, of course — that’s the what they’re doing now, as they attempt to transfer yet more of the burden of living in American from the rich to the poor and middle class. (Just to anticipate the usual trolls, how else to characterize an approach to deficits that bans tax increases on the rich and the richest but explicitly raises all kinds of costs borne by the rest of us.)
But it can’t actually do stuff that makes the country go. The Bush the Lesser administration was an eight year demonstration of that incapacity to do even the basics — from the catastrophic mismanagement of the Coalition Political Authority to “heckava job Brownie” adventures in abandoning an American city, to the sustained and successful campaign of failure in economic and fiscal mismanagement. Remember: Bush policies left us with debt, a burst housing bubble, and the near-death experience of the US and world banking system.
It shouldn’t require reminding folks of this: the GOP had its hands essentially unchallenged on the levers of governance and they failed. Full stop. A crater. We’re currently flying with a partly crippled FAA because the GOP still can’t find their asses with two hands behind their backs. And above all, as the White House chart establishes, others have corroborated, and James Fallows correctly pointed out, any Republican who claims to care about deficits who voted for Bush-era spending measures is a fraud.
Which gets back, at long last, to McArdle’s real aim in her post. She writes:
The focus on the past makes it a very bad guide to the relative magnitude of the future choices we need to make. Some of these items (tax cuts, entitlements) will grow, and some of them (military spending, some discretionary items) won’t….Settling whether “Bush policies” or “Obama policies” were the “cause” of the deficit wouldn’t tell us a damn thing about what we should do
This is an attempt to bely the obvious: knowing what policies, chosen by whom actually created the federal debt tells us a great deal about what we should do. E.g.: GOP tax cutting creates recurrent fiscal disasters, leading, inter alia to the need for Democratic choices to spend on stimulus to try to recover from the mess. Pace McArdle, looking at what was done, administration by administration, and then examining both the context and the consequences of those decisions is precisely what you need do in order to frame choices here-and-now about what we should do.
That McArdle knows this at some level, I have little doubt. But the consequences of becoming aware of such knowledge are insupportable: she’d have to come to grips with the realization that much of what she has written and supported in the past is turning to ashes in her mouth — not to mention the difficulties it would cause her with her patrons were consciousness to descend upon her. So, again, she is a pretty straight forward illustration of the truism that it is very hard to grasp that which would cost you to understand.
That’s it, but for this last bit of snark: McArdle near the bottom of her post contrasts the White House chart with one that she “just happen[s] to have handy.” I invite you to enjoy it, for it is a peculiar masterpiece. It is both one of the worst examples of the graphic display of information I’ve seen since the great Tufte began to show us the way — and it is, as one would expect, a deeply dishonest depiction.
I’ll leave it to you to pick out the various ways in which the chart conceals relevant information, while just noting that I find it … interesting … that McArdle does not provide a source for this handy chart. Would it’s provenance be that embarassing?
And with that, enough.
*I know that it must hurt Fallows, an actual journalist, to be thus labelled by McArdle. But, in fact, she’s right, with all the implications for both that follows from that harsh reality.
**I know that sounds like hyperbole — but as the Michael Lewis work at that link documents (as many others do), it ain’t.
Images: Joachim Beuckelaer, Vegetable Seller, 2nd half of 16th century.
Gerard ter Borch, The Reading Lesson, 2nd half of the 17th century.
J. Michael Neal
What leads you to believe that McArdle is actually superior to Fallows at “condescension and high-school in-group wit”?
As an aside, always be careful with Michael Lewis. He always engages in plenty of creative overstatement and more than a little bit of making his sources look good. In most instances, this is done in service to an actual truth. (The major exception to date was The Blind Side, in which one of the major figures was a childhood friend of Lewis.) It just requires caution when one wants to assert exactly what he has demonstrated. He’s a fabulous writer that I enjoy immensely, but not to be taken as the gospel on anything.
Well, she did vote for Obama, sooooo….
From the article:
Of course you aren’t. The guy who ordered the filet mignon and eight bottles of Cristal at a table of people who ordered salads and water isn’t at all interested in divvying up the tab at the restaurant either…
Forget it Tom, it’s McArdletown.
But here’s to one helluva exegesis on her [willful?] stupidity.
You needn’t be coy. The answer you have in mind is of course “all of the above”. But you left out “her impartiality” (i.e. lack thereof).
Here is the roll call vote for Medicare Part D. Yeah, that one really belongs on the Democratic side of the ledger!
Pink Himalayan salt lamp. Available right now at your nearby Tuesday Morning.
So McMegan’s analytical powers have further eroded from “unable to perform basic arithmetic” to “unable to read the very thing she’s trying to criticize.” I’m shocked and appalled.
Does this (which, BTW, is unproven and unprovable) really add anything to the discussion?
Isn’t it enough to point out that she’s wrong (again), period, full stop?
OT but…I saw Rick Perry on CSPAN today. I guess I had never heard him speak before. His voice/accent sounds a lot like GWB. I swear to FSM. It was a head jerk moment. I’m thinking “Who is that guy?” then “Holy shit he sounds just like chimpy. PLEASE STFU. Cannot bear the voice of chimpy.”
I was mad at CSPAN for a moment. Where was the trigger warning? ;=)
Another claim of McAddled in her article:
“Military spending won’t grow.”
A question she asks near the end:
“When we have decided that we can cut no further, what taxes will we raise to pay for what’s left?”
Seriously though, the word-salad bar at Applebees is AMAZING.
Inasmuch as you have any sort of point to make here (which you don’t), she rather famously didn’t.
Tom, I usually really enjoy your writing, particularly the McArdle takedowns. But this time, I think you take way too long to get to the meat, which is this part:
Still, you’ve softened the punch with the parenthetical aside and a lot of unnecessary stuff. McArdle is a liar–that same chart attributes $250 billion to Obama’s December decision to extend Bush’s tax cuts another two years.
Ah fuck. Don’t mind me. I’m in a terrible mood after today’s news.
Medicare Part D was also completely unfunded, an outrage obviously perpetrated by Tom DeLay and other Democrats. And does anyone but me recall how the Bush Administration blocked the Medicare actuary from giving Congress the actual cost estimates for the Medicare drug plan before Congress voted on it? Oh those pushy Democrats.
And she is exactly the type of person this country loves to employ – one that is dumb as dirt and easily led by the nose. But hey, I wouldn’t walk away from her annual income either.
Holy shit, that is some of the most appalling chart junk I’ve ever seen. That would get you an ‘F’ in any basic quantitative methods class, yet University of Chicago MBA graduate and Business and Economics editor of the The Atlantic seems to think that it’s an effective display of…. something, I guess.
McArdle is the type of bullshitter that is allowed to flourish in the Internet age. She’s tireless and never admits error, so she’ll just type endless word salad in the hopes that people get confused, bored, or irritated and concede by default. If she were required to defend herself in a real-life, off-the-cuff live debate, she’d be exposed for the pathetic BS artist she is.
Fixed that for you. Except you’d feel sorry for the kid sister …
OK, I’ll bite on that last pie char, presented in extreme perspective (which is a no no for charts where the significant of a category is portrayed as a function of it proportion of total area).
The distorted pie chart is irrelevant to her argument, as she notes herself earlier in her post. It is the growth rates of program expenditures, not their current size that will most affect variations in the deficit.
But I think a pie chart with the biggest chunks going to social insurance emphasizes the programs she wants cut.
So, the post was sophomoric semantics games, with ‘get a load of this’ charts, with not solid analysis.
The bit that the GW Bush tax cuts are now an Obama policy because Obama (rightly or wrongly) agreed to a deal that extended them is rich.
No, actually, she didn’t vote for anyone in 2008, because she forgot to register to vote.
Who the hell orders Cristal to go with filet mignon?
Also, too. A note for stats history nerds. Florence Nightengale used pie charts extensive, and I have read she invented them, but not sure that is true.
Nightengale worked out the rules for how to contruct and display several area charts. I don’t know whether pie her charts are in the original Tufte book, but they are masterpieces.
Software programs that provide potted stat graphics allowed the creation of bad graphs to become standard operating procedure, most notably * x c * l, produced by company I will not name for fear of using bad language at this family blog.
Sheesh, typical Obama voter…prolly too high to register. “Dave’s not here, man!” I love the idea of her showing up in her Prius with “O” stickers on it, and getting turned away for being a dumbass.
I didn’t read your post beyond the title. The answer is she’s stupid.
I thought the point was fairly evident to people who can read:
MM is always wrong. She voted — well, she shilled — for Obama. Ergo…
That chart is amazing. Two great big blocks — in the front — for medicare and social security, but defense is spread out into 4 or more different categories.
Liars can and _will_ figure.
Grumpy Code Monkey
When I’m tired and/or angry and/or slightly drunk, so do I. It’s called “being Texan”.
McCardle is just terrible. I have no idea what she’s doing as “Business & Economics Editor” or some such of anything other than her own blog. A reminder of just what a mixed bag the Atlantic happens to be. Has a couple of my favorite writers – Fallows and Coates – and a couple who are distinquished by “not as bad as Commentary mag or Frank Gaffney” (Goldberg) and “not as bad as the lady in a funny hat at a Tea Party rally” (McCardle.)
Social Security is also supposed to be OFF BUDGET.
I’ve been wanting to read THIS post since I read THAT post.
There is really nothing worse for society than individuals who are willing to twist reality in order to preserve their own alternate dimension. There is no reasoning with someone who is never wrong.
The problem the Democrats had with Medicare Part B was that it wasn’t big and expensive enough.
The real price tag was more like $550B, but that didn’t hold a candle to the Democrats’ proposed drug bill:
So Bush the Compassionate *cough* “saved” the deficit about $300B. *cough* Perchance that grade-school graph is a bit simplistic? Ya think?
We shouldn’t have to click through to get this basic fact on who backed Medicare part D: 217 House Republicans and 9 (yes, you read that right, 9) House Democrats.
“When Bush enacts Medicare Part D under pressure from Congressional Democrats . . . .”
Those must be some awesomely talented 9 Democrats . . .
Villago Delenda Est
The way to solve the deficit problem is to take it out of the hide of parasite vermin like the Bush Crime Family and their many associates, such as the Dark Lord Cheney and his crew of thugs and thieves at Haliburton and Xe.
Not to mention dogshit like the troll shitstain Bender.
Bender – I guess you forgot the part where Bush turns the whole thing into a subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry rather than any provision to control the costs of prescription drugs. The thing was a give-away to corporations. Typical GOP fiscal profligacy. Republicans don’t give a shit about deficits. That’s been true since Reagan.
Why would someone use spending as a percentage of GDP, if their intentions were honest? GDP took a major nosedive. It’s true that this makes spending as a percentage of GDP higher… but it’s hardly a sign of irresponsibility.
Per Krugman, the only category of federal spending that showed a huge rise was safety net programs… things that will naturally occur during a recession.
And what the *hell* is she talking about how impending retirement of baby boomers has anything to do with our current deficit? That shows that we’ve got a big problem facing us… it has little to nothing to do with the deficit.
“Let’s not *talk* about what bright ideas got us into this mess; why would that matter? No, let’s just think about the current moment, and what we should cut!”
Yes, let’s not think about who got us into this mess, let’s instead do what the people who caused this mess want, because, hey, how could that go wrong?
Oh my gawd…
$12.7 Trillion added to the national savings over the past decade. Surely that will kill us all.
Actually this numbers don’t seem right. If I recall the National Debt was around $6 Trillion when Bush took the baton from Clinton. That means we have only added about $8.5 Trillion to the national savings over the last decade.
That is not nearly enough – no wonder we have unemployment.
LongHairedWeirdo said…'”…it has little to nothing to do with the deficit.”…
Actually it has nothing to do with the deficit – see the post above.
The National Debt™ is nothing but the accumulated savings of the private sector economy plus the dollar holdings of foreign businesses.
It means we have been doing business and a lot of it.
What could be wrong with that.
The single worst thing that Mr Bush did fiscally was take the deficit off the table for 10 years. Maybe the real need to add a Medicare part D to Medicare would have spurred other changes to the program, maybe not. As it was, if Mr Bush had paid for it, he would have violated a no tax oath, and lost his reelection. If he had skipped it, he would have left an opening for Democrats in 2004. As it was, he put it on the tab and added Medicare advantage to the tab for a few more votes(“paying” for some of the affordable care act).
When I read an article like this, I’m convinced the debt deal won’t actually hold till 2023. President Bachman will declare a Medicare for highways entitlement to boost the economy in 2013 and move the spending off of the books and the current deficit lobby will cheer, because well, she’s not a Democrat.
Hell’s bells, that rulz. May McMegan long glow in its pretty pink light (which doubtless is very flattering to the complexion).
@windshouter #38: Are you sure it wasn’t keeping the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq off the budget so we could pretend our wars didn’t cost any money?
the links leads to a unlabelled pie chart. WTF?
(but the colors are purrdy.)
She feeds the ill minds of those who believe the news can only be accurate if it fits their ideology.
Mcardle is, after all, of the party of Lincoln and Reagan, but who will always insist they are always on the right(and righteous) side of history and facts, yet when facts of history show their policies, beliefs and ideas to be proven failures(to put it mildly: suddenly, the past should be left in the past, the context was different, etc etc.
Their argument really has become that whenever a problem is presented, the solution can only be found by pretending that we can only achieve success by trial and error guided by their extremely rigid, extremist ideology.
They have truly shown themselves to believe that lessons cannot be learned from the past.
To me, this is virtual book burning.
They have no motivation to be honest.
Mcardle has shown herself to be no different to Fox propagandists.
It’s sad, too – though unsurprising – that Andrew Sullivan thinks so much of her policy beliefs.
On Bush and republican fiscal irresponsibility: their economic practices are no different from those of Enron and Arthur Anderson.
That really is all that needs to be said.
Most current GOP governors will show that such practice is still in full swing – in fact they’re likely doing things more egregious than under Bush, given their swagger. It’s even been in the news – and the right wing voters simply don’t care.
As long as they’re killing poor people and continue to righteously fight the culture wars, the tea party/gop base will continue to let them get away with fraud on a grand scale, and call it ‘freedom’.
“Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.”
Her peculiar mix of stupidity and mendacity never ends, does it?
The woman’s less entertaining than a kitten, but dumber than a sack of hammers.
Pro tip: with the Balloon Juice community expanding in California, continuing to repost McMegan’s mental self-love may force John into posting a Proposition 65 notice warning California residents of the presence of substances known in the State of California to cause cancer.