The idiot media’s guide to economic stupidity

Published 1:08 pm Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Watching the national news media struggle to cover the economic crisis lately, one could be forgiven the fear that the United States had grown too ignorant and lazy to govern itself. Between mis- and disinformation, cheap political posturing and crowd-pleasing histrionics masquerading as commentary, the public has been inundated by a flood of dangerous nonsense. Cable news networks must think their audiences have the attention span of fruit flies.

Many in the New York/Washington media establishment appear to identify with the financial and political geniuses who got us into this mess, and to share their values. Jamison Foser at noticed that coverage of President Obama’s budget in the Washington Post and The New York Times centered mainly upon increased taxes affecting “the oil and gas industry, hedge-fund managers, multinational corporations and nearly 3 million of the nation’s top earners.”

Poor babies.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That the other 98 percent would see tax cuts was barely mentioned. ABC News produced a heartbreaking tale of woe about harried professionals scheming to reduce their incomes to avoid higher tax brackets. A dentist told the reporter she was contemplating cutting “her income from her current $320,000 to under $250,000 by having her dental hygienist work fewer days and by treating fewer patients.”

Neither she nor the reporter appeared to have any idea how marginal tax rates work. To wit, she’d pay the higher 36 percent rate only on income above $250,000. The current rate is 33 percent. Hence, Dr. Happy-Tooth’s brilliant plan would save her exactly $2,100 in taxes at a cost of $67,900 in foregone income.

No wonder people like her vote Republican.

ABC subsequently filed an amended version of the story making themselves look a bit less foolish.

Even less attention was paid to the fact that the White House needs to do absolutely nothing to make this happen, merely stand aside as the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, a concession originally made to hide their long-term cost. Top tax rates that have CNBC personalities calling Obama a “bolshevik” would then be identical to those during the Clinton administration, a time of prosperity and balanced budgets.

On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart responded with a devastating 8-1/2 minute video segment depicting the selfsame CNBC gurus urging investors to buy-buy-buy stock in companies that have since vanished from the Earth.

For some, former Speaker Newt Gingrich comes to mind, a tax overhaul provides yet another opportunity to get everything dead wrong. Back in 1982, Gingrich joined the Wall Street Journal editorial page in declaring that President Reagan’s tax increases would doom the economy. He and every Republican in Washington chanted the same mantra when Clinton raised taxes in 1993, then proclaimed that President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts would lead to universal prosperity. Instead, they produced the worst jobs growth since World War II. Now they again foretell disaster. If they’d been peddling NFL betting tips over the phone, gamblers would shun them.

But hey, this is politics, a faith-based enterprise for many. Show them arithmetic, and they respond with theology.

Others are easily distracted by shiny objects and rubber chew bones with bells inside. Hence the media’s fascination with $7.7 billion in “earmarks” attached to the administration’s budget bill, considerably less than 1 percent of government allocations this year.

What the press loves about earmarks, says Bob Somerby at, is that they’re easy. Memorize five basic terms and the stories write themselves: “Earmark, pet project, pork, pork-barrel, wasteful spending.”

Constantly seeking simple, melodramatic storylines, cable networks pounced like Labrador retrievers. Bill O’Reilly Report, Lou Dobbs and Campbell Brown in particular made a big to-do about Obama’s alleged failure to cut waste.

But how wasteful were most earmarks? Sure, $1.7 million for “beaver control” in North Carolina and Mississippi gave Sen. John McCain a chance to play Beavis to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s Butthead (Heh-heh-heh. You said “beaver.”) But where I live, beaver dams flood cropland, kill hardwood forests, and undermine levees, railroad and highway bridges. Somebody’s got to trap the animals, move them and destroy their dams.

Would it stimulate the economy to fire those workers?

Much the same can be said of “Mormon cricket” control in Utah, another item that tickled the McCain/Dowd funny bone. Swarms of the voracious insects can devastate a rancher’s alfalfa crop overnight.

So Topeka, Kan., gets $250,000 to establish a database linking “law enforcement to emergency management personnel.” Tornado season’s coming, you know. Doubtless there’s a certain amount of needless brother-in-law spending somewhere in the bill, but it’s not clear the press found any. Besides, in the fix we’re in, obsessing over earmarks is like worrying about crabgrass while your house is on fire.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s deepest thinkers, Reps. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, are calling for a government hiring-and-spending freeze.

Fewer jobs, more layoffs. Yeah, that’s the answer.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at