KLEIN ON THE LAWN: In search of minimal competence!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 20, 2013

Part 3—Bungling a bevy of budgets: Is Ezra Klein a minimally competent journalist?

Frankly, we’ve started to wonder. His work last week was relentlessly awful. Much of his work was relentlessly awful in the weeks before that.

Forget the young fellow’s blizzard of bobbles concerning the budget offered last week by the Senate Democrats. Let’s consider his hard-copy work from last week, including his critiques of two other budget proposals.

Let’s start with Paul Ryan’s new budget outline. Can Klein quit this wonderful man?

Last week, many pundits were able to pen coherent critiques of Ryan’s latest ridiculous mess. Klein can’t be numbered among them.

In Saturday morning’s hard-copy Post, Klein presented his critique of the Ryan proposal. The piece appeared at the top of the Post’s page A2; Klein often appears at the top of A2 on Friday or Saturday mornings.

Last Saturday, Klein’s piece was hopelessly fuzzy and soft. Whatever this pitiful mish-mosh was, we’re sorry—it wasn’t good journalism.

Klein’s piece was also remarkably short—just 566 words. On Friday, March 1, his piece on A2 ran 882 words; on Saturday, March 9, his A2 piece contained 934 words.

But now, with the chance to critique Ryan’s plan, young Klein seemed to have little to say. The editors filled the space with a large photo of the handsome Republican.

What did Klein say in his strangely short piece? Early on, he wasted time praising Ryan’s skill as a speaker. He then offered this silly framework:
KLEIN (3/16/13): Ryan’s CPAC speech was strongly delivered and well received. The House Budget Chairman, always a fairly good speaker, got much better over the course of the presidential campaign. But content-wise, there was little new. Most of it was cribbed from the introduction to his new budget. If you’ve read that, you’ve heard this.
Question: How many Post readers have already read the introductions to various budget plans? Obviously, very few.

But so what? By now, Ezra had burned more than one-fifth of a very short column. For whatever reason, confronted with Ryan, our young star had little to say.

The rest of Ezra’s short piece wasn’t exactly flattering to Ryan. On the other hand, if you were going to criticize Ryan’s proposal, Ezra managed to find the least unflattering way to do it. He tossed in a couple of numbers, making it seem he was well-informed. He noted that millions of people would lose health coverage under terms of Ryan’s proposal.

But Klein never even mentioned Ryan’s weird “goal” for federal tax rates—his goal of lowering the top income tax rate to a very low 25 percent. This was the best the youngster could manage concerning Ryan and taxes:
KLEIN: His section on tax reform is similar. "By making the tax code more conducive to innovation, investment, and sustained job creation, we can safeguard the American Dream for generations to come," Ryan enthuses. His goals require $5.7 trillion in cuts to deductions, exclusions and other features of the tax code. That will cause a lot of pain. But you'd never know it.
Is it even imaginable that the Congress could find “$5.7 trillion in cuts to deductions, exclusions and other features of the tax code?” Ezra flies right past that obvious question, having failed to mention Ryan’s goal for tax rates at all. And that very same day, at his Wonkblog site, Ezra completed his puzzling performance, complaining about a string of liberal pundits who had mentioned the elementary fact that Ryan’s goal for reductions in tax rates would cost the treasury $5.7 trillion.

Earlier, Klein’s 22-year-old colleague at Wonkblog had stated this same obvious point. He was excused from Klein’s rather puzzling criticism. In all honesty, Klein’s post on this topic made little sense. Is this fellow minimally competent?

At age 28, Ezra Klein is lord of much that he surveys. But is he even minimally competent? Consider the mess which carried his name in Sunday’s hard-copy Post.

As usual, Klein sat atop page 1 of the Post’s Sunday Business section. His headline made it sound like he was praising the budget proposal from the House progressive caucus.

Klein had used a similar headline at Wonkblog: “Progressives offer best answer to Ryan budget.”

That hard-copy headline made it sound like Klein was praising the House progressives’ proposal. But soon, Klein was listing a string of apparent flaws with their plan.

Does this sound like the best answer to Ryan? The problems go on and on:
KLEIN (3/17/13): It begins with a stimulus program that makes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act look tepid: $2.1 trillion in stimulus and investment from 2013 to 2015, including a $425 billion infrastructure program, a $340 billion middle-class tax cut, a $450 billion public-works initiative and $179 billion in state and local aid. That's . . . a lot of stimulus.

The liberal Economic Policy Institute estimates that would be sufficient to "boost gross domestic product (GDP) by 5.7 percent and employment by 6.9 million jobs at its peak level of effectiveness (within one year of implementation).

That estimate is based, in part, off multipliers from Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi. But over e-mail, he told me that he's not comfortable with these results.

The April 2011 multipliers used in this analysis will overstate the economic benefit of a stimulus proposal, particularly of this size," he wrote. "The size of the multipliers depend on the size of the output gap. The smaller the gap, the smaller the multipliers. The output gap has narrowed over the past 2 years."

Zandi also questioned whether so much stimulus is still needed: "I'm uncomfortable with such a massive stimulus plan at this time. The private economy is kicking into a higher gear, and it's time to let it do its thing."

Whether the system could absorb that much stimulus is also a difficult question. In the December 2008 memo Larry Summers sent President-elect Barack Obama on the stimulus, he wrote, "it is important to recognize that we can only generate about $225 billion of actual spending on priority investments over the next two years, and this is after making what some might argue are optimistic assumptions about the scale of investments in areas like Health IT that are feasible over this period."

Since then, many of the most obvious projects have been completed. So the House progressives are proposing a much greater amount of infrastructure investment at a moment when there are likely fewer plausible projects. Many jobs will be created. But it's also possible that many dollars will be wasted.

Investment on this scale will add trillions to the deficit. But the House progressives have an answer for that: Higher taxes—adding up to $4.2 trillion over the next decade, to be exact.
By our count, Klein has now listed four or five possible or apparent problems with this budget proposal. He soon adds another: “Adding this many taxes to the economy all at once is likely to slow economic growth.” Does it sound like he’s praising this proposal, the way that headline made it seem? As he continues to lumber along, Klein’s position becomes more clear:

This is “a fantasy budget,” “a wish list,” Klein writes. It’s a “fantasyland, no-compromise effort”—and in that sense, it’s just like Ryan’s budget! At this point, it’s no longer clear that Klein is actually praising this budget proposal. But then, if you read his opening paragraph, it didn’t exactly jibe with the sound of that upbeat headline:
KLEIN: Progressives offer best answer to Ryan budget

The correct counterpart to the unbridled ambition of the Ryan budget isn't the cautious plan released by the Senate Democrats. It's the "Back to Work" budget released by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
That headline will please progressives; because it uses the term “best answer,” it sounds like Klein is recommending the Progressive Caucus plan. But right there in his opening paragraph, Klein only says that this plan is the “correct counterpart” to Ryan’s “unbridled ambition.”

If you fight your way to the end of this long, jumbled piece, you start to find out what that means. The progressive plan is “fantasyland,” just like Ryan’s proposal.

Is that meant to be an endorsement? There’s absolutely no way to tell—and by normal journalistic standards, this is terrible work.

Klein’s work in recent weeks has been awful, unless we assume he’s mainly concerned with being All Things To All Factions. He still can’t seem to bring himself to tell the truth about glorious Ryan. Beyond that, almost everything he writes is muddled beyond all normal journalistic standards. Last Monday, his weekly piece for Bloomberg View was a confusing, jumbled mess. The piece he was paraphrasing, thus cadging a column, was perfectly clear by comparison.

How did this hapless, under-skilled child talk his way into so many positions? We don’t know, but there are others like him as the suits of the mainstream press corps assemble their new youth brigade—their new gang of Sam-and-Cokies.

This new gang isn’t just like the old gang, but can we really say it’s better? This brigade has often warmed liberal hearts, but it has continued a recent tradition—a tradition of horrible, inept, unskilled and cynical pseudo-journalism.

Tomorrow: More crap from those on the lawn

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