YEAR IN REVIEW: We the people are on our own!


Part 4—Paul Krugman's search for the experts: New years often start like old years.

So it was in today’s New York Times, with an awful, horrible, no-good column by feckless Joe Nocera.

To all appearances, Nocera knows nothing about public schools. There’s no reason why he should, of course; no one can be expected to know about every major topic. But for at least the past forty years, reporters and columnists have churned a familiar brand of pap about the schools low-income kids attend. There’s no sign they’ll ever stop:
NOCERA (1/3/12): The Central Falls Success

Central Falls, R.I., is a speck of a city, one square mile of triple-decker houses and tired storefronts a few miles up the road from the state capital, Providence. It is the poorest city in Rhode Island, with 27 percent of its residents below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Earlier this year, it started bankruptcy proceedings. Its mayor, who is the subject of a state police investigation, has been pushed aside in favor of a receiver, who has taken control of the city’s finances.

Central Falls, though, also has one of the most promising reading experiments in the country. The Learning Community, a local charter school, and the Central Falls public elementary schools have joined forces in a collaboration that has resulted in dramatic improvements in the reading scores of the public schoolchildren from kindergarten to grade 2. Given the mistrust of charter schools by public schoolteachers, creating this collaboration was no small feat. And while the city’s bankruptcy now threatens it, the Central Falls experiment not only needs to be preserved, it should be replicated across the country. I haven’t seen anything that makes more sense.
Has Central Falls produced a “dramatic” “success?” In today’s 826 words, we find no sign that Nocera knows. Or that he actually cares.

When people care about a topic, do they churn familiar pap of this type? Given the state of our nation’s “expert” “elites,” the answer may be yes.

What’s wrong with Nocera’s column? He produces a very familiar tale, in which a few wonderful people produce a dramatic success in some low-income school or schools. Pundits have produced these feel-good, fly-by reports for lo, these many years. So have Hollywood studios.

Sadly, though, there is no sign that Nocera knows if Central Falls has produced a success at all, let alone a dramatic success. In this passage which follows, he describes the work of Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman, co-founders of that charter school, The Learning Community. Nothing we say is intended to denigrate their work:
NOCERA: In setting up The Learning Community, O’Leary and Friedman wanted to apply the best practices they had learned during the Providence project—and, eventually, to use their knowledge to help public school districts in Rhode Island.

They got their chance in 2007, when Frances Gallo became the Central Falls Schools superintendent. After she got the job, Gallo stopped in on several families just as they had learned that their children had won a spot (via lottery) in The Learning Community. “They were so excited,” recalls Gallo. She wanted to understand why.

So Gallo began spending time at The Learning Community—where she, too, became excited. The school drew from the same population as the public schools. It had the same relatively large class sizes. It did not screen out students with learning disabilities. Yet the percentage of students who read at or above their grade level was significantly higher than the public school students. When Gallo asked O’Leary and Friedman if they would apply their methods to the public schools, they jumped at it.
Nocera doesn’t seem to think much of black kids—or of black folk in general. In the highlighted passage, he expresses surprise that black kids with ambitious parents who seek better schools for their kids do somewhat better in school than black kids who lack that advantage. When you read a passage like that, the writer is actually saying this: Those black children are all alike! It’s always surprising when some of “those children” do somewhat better in school!

By the way—now that O’Leary and Friedman are working with schools in Central Falls, how well have kids in that city done? More specifically, how “dramatic” are the “improvements in the reading scores...from kindergarten to grade 2?” Nocera never bothers to tell you. Instead, he pimps you this:
NOCERA (continuing directly): Did everything go smoothly at first? Not even close. “At first it was, ‘Oh, here comes another initiative,’ ” recalls Friedman. There were plenty of “venting” sessions at the beginning, along with both resentment and resistance. But The Learning Community invited the teachers to visit its classrooms, where the public school teachers saw the same thing Gallo had seen. And very quickly they also began to see results. Most public schoolteachers yearn to see their students succeed—just like charter schoolteachers do. Most of the resistance melted away.
“Very quickly,” teachers in Central Falls “began to see results.” But what sorts of results did they quickly see? How big were those instant results? Nocera is too lazy to say, despite the fact that he typically writes about fields which are organized around numbers and measurement. Does he know how big the alleged results are? We have no idea.

We’ve read columns like this one for decades. Such columns should be rejected as disgusting, preferably by editors as they refuse to publish them. Soon, Nocera is congratulating advisers from The Learning Community because they “haven’t just done a fly-by” in their work with the Central Falls schools. But that is precisely what Nocera has done! He has done a very familiar fly-by, of the type his class has produced since the late 1960s.

By the way, his column features a warm, happy ending. That’s what this familiar pap has always been about.

People like Nocera are very bad people—or maybe they’re just too dumb to know better. This brings us to a series of texts Paul Krugman produced in the last year—a series of texts he extended in Monday’s column, which rang in the new year.

Krugman didn’t write about schools. Sticking to topics he knows about, he discussed a different topic. But our analysts cheered and cheered as the gentleman took a key step—as he put a key word inside scare quotes:
KRUGMAN (1/2/12): [W]hen people in D.C. talk about deficits and debt, by and large they have no idea what they’re talking about—and the people who talk the most understand the least.

Perhaps most obviously, the economic “experts” on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly, utterly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits. People who get their economic analysis from the likes of the Heritage Foundation have been waiting ever since President Obama took office for budget deficits to send interest rates soaring. Any day now!

And while they’ve been waiting, those rates have dropped to historical lows. You might think that this would make politicians question their choice of experts—that is, you might think that if you didn’t know anything about our postmodern, fact-free politics.
Lustily, our analysts cheered as Krugman slipped the word “experts” inside quotes. But this is a story he puzzled out all through the past year, as he marveled, again and again, at the strange incompetence of the world’s economic “experts.”

In some columns and blog posts, Krugman has suggested that these “experts” are simply being dishonest, in service to plutocrat preferences. But in other offerings, he has suggested something much more confounding—he has suggested that these “experts” simply don’t understand the basics of their craft! We’ve been fascinated to see Krugman puzzle this out, because it’s a puzzle we came to long ago concerning our “educational experts.” Here at the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, we began putting those words inside quotes quite a few years ago.

Nocera isn’t an educational expert; he’s just a columnist typing up what the “experts” tell him. Such work is found throughout the press. But how to explain the bungled work of the various “experts” to whom these pundits turn?

For us, the past year was mainly about the rise of the tribal—and especially, about the taste for tribal play which took hold within our own tribe. The year was about the way our tribe established cable nitwits as our intellectual leaders, as the right did decades ago. For us, Rachel Maddow tends to be the most striking example, for a wide array of reasons. For you, results may differ.

For us, the past year was also about the way our tribe learned to love playing our various race cards. Do we know any other moves? Quite often, it seems we do not.

But in part, the past year was also about a conundrum Krugman has begun to explore. In various areas, how can our “experts” know so little? Because if our “experts” are really this clueless, we’re all out here on our own.

In the world of public schools, this syndrome is truly amazing. Everyone vouches for the NAEP—and no one reports what the NAEP data show! We live at the end of a long hall of mirrors. If you find your way out of that hall, you may find yourself all alone.

Final note: Has Central Falls achieved a dramatic success? Like you, we don't know.


  1. Paul R. Krugman's opinion that the current deficits don't pose a threat has been refuted by well-known economics expert Paul R. Krugman. In March, 2003 (when deficits were one third of today's level and the National Debt was much lower than today) Krugman wrote:

    And that's way too optimistic. The Congressional Budget Office operates under ground rules that force it to wear rose-colored lenses. If you take into account -- as the C.B.O. cannot -- the effects of likely changes in the alternative minimum tax, include realistic estimates of future spending and allow for the cost of war and reconstruction, it's clear that the 10-year deficit will be at least $3 trillion.

    So what? Two years ago the administration promised to run large surpluses. A year ago it said the deficit was only temporary. Now it says deficits don't matter. But we're looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high.
    But what's really scary -- what makes a fixed-rate mortgage seem like such a good idea -- is the looming threat to the federal government's solvency.
    But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt.

    And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won't happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.

  2. DavidinCA joins the "gotcha" club --

    It's too bad though that he can't tell the difference between 2011 and 2003...

    And that he doesn't know about (or care, or understand) Krugman's acknowledgement of this issue (over a year ago!)...

    Keep plugging away, DavidinCA... You're a stopped clock -- no scratch that you're a stopped calendar -- surely you'll be right some year!

  3. Just to be clear, the kids in Central Falls are more likely Hispanic than black. The district enrollment is about 72% Hispanic and 24% non-hispanic white.

    There are demographic and testing data here:

  4. Krugman's column is an important one, and he has admitted his analysis of politics was a bit naive in the past.
    A politician might promise an economic recovery in three years, as did Obama, and as does Rick Santorum.
    Krugman doesn't say where we will be, and when, but he predicts the likely consequences of following a particular path.
    If policies change after a prediction, can you hold people to their predictions?
    The hyperinflation predictors of yesteryear turned out to be dead wrong, and they were still predicting in 2009, not 2003, long after Krugman dropped the subject.
    I pity the poor suckers that panicked and bought gold in August and September of last year.
    By the way, if you follow the doomsday economic predictors, many of them turn out to be in the gold peddling business.
    Have you heard from Glenn Beck lately?

  5. It took Krugman over seven years to admit that his 2003 analysis was wrong. IMHO he had to acknowledge the earlier error in order to defend Obama's financial record. That is, I think both his criticism of Bush's policies and his support for Obama's were based more on partisanship than on economics.

    Our financial situation today is much more precarious today than it was then:

    1. In 2003 the National Debt was $6 trillion; today it's $15 trillion.

    2. In 2003 the annual deficit was $300 billion; today it's $1,200 billion.

    3. In 2003, it was plausible that the deficit would be brought under control within some reasonable period of time. Today, trillion dollar deficits look unending.

    Krugman's main support for his current view is that interest rates didn't go up in 2011. I think that's a weak argument. The US got a temporary benefit from Europe's problems. The dollar looks stronger than most other currencies, so dollar-denominated bonds can be sold at low interest rates.

    However, the arguments Krugman made in 2003 apply even more strongly today. I think interest rates and inflation rates will go up in 2012 and into years following. Inflation has already begun to rise; it was a couple of percentage points higher in 2011 than in 2010.

  6. Yes, Anonymous, the current price of gold is little lower than it was in August and September, 2011. However, the price of gold has been generally rising for a considerable period of time as you can see from this iShares Gold Trust chart (iShares gold Trust mirrors the price of gold.) Anyone who bought gold between January 2005 and June 2011 and held it has a gain.

    I don't buy Krugman's excuse of being "a bit naive" in 2003. Krugman is a brilliant economist, a long-time, tenured Professor at Princeton and a Nobel Prize winner. How could such an expert be naive about something so basic? I think in 2003 he was mostly looking to fault Bush's policies, just as he's now looking to defend Obama's.

  7. David in Cal, I take you as sincere, but you are effectively a troll, often derailing the subtleties and interesting questions that comments here could pursue. Your comments are almost always first: do you have a job? a life? Or is your job to ensure that bob somerby's comment section be derailed?

  8. David in Cal,

    If we're going to rate economists on the accuracy of their predictions, and their readiness to acknowledge error, can you site a single economist associated with the Republican party who's doctrine and predictions have been been accurate in the last 20 years or so, and who has publicly admitted his doctrine is/was wrong when reality didn't conform to the prediction?

    When Reagan cut taxes, they told us we'd enjoy a great boom and the cuts would pay for themselves: what we got instead was modest GDP growth (compared to other non-rececssionary periods) and greatly increased deficits (before you say that the deficits were the Democrats' fault, note the Reagan never submitted anything resembling a balanced budget.)

    When Clinton increased to the top marginal rate, not one Republican voted for it, because the increases were going to destroy economic growth. Instead, we got several years of high growth and job creation -- far better than anything delivered by Reagan/Bush.

    When Bush proposed to cut taxes, it was because "it's your money" and (again) tax cuts pay for themselves, thanks to great increased economic activity. Instead, he we got anemic job growth and the middle-class and poor actually got poorer -- one of the few periods in modern history when this happened.

    So yeah: Krugman was wrong in 2003 about the fiscal consequences of Bush's policies. Interest rates didn't rise much. And he has admitted as much. But this is hardly a doctrinal error.

    Consider, by contrast, *your* economists. When was the last time a Repub admitted that supply side economics is a sham? That tax cuts don't increase revenues and rarely promote economic growth over the long haul-- at least, not in the way Republicans claim?

    And when are we going to get Repub economists to admit that their austerity doctrines are all nonsense -- with no proof behind them? Or are we really supposed to believe that Ireland and Latvia are the success stories of austerity -- the same way Ireland and Iceland where Republican flagships for free enterprise, before the crash.

    But, in any case, David in Cal is a bot!

  9. Anonymous, I agree with you that it's not the case that tax rate cuts invariably produce increases in dollars of tax collected. A number of conservative pols have made this claim, although AFAIK no economists have done so.

    However, it is a fact that tax cuts of JFK, Reagan, and Bush were followed by high rates of economic growth. This chart shows that GDP per capita grew rapidly from 1962 to 1971, from 1983 to 1992, and from 2003 to 2007. In fact, the rates of economic growth were fast enough that income tax collected grew despite the lower tax rates.

    This chart shows that federal income tax collected rose despite Bush's lower rates. E.g., Federal income tax collected was $1,116 billion in 2007, a big increase from $797 billion in 2002, before the rates were reduced. And the growth from 1982 to 1988 went from $276 billino to $413 billion.

    Whether these examples of economic growth were caused by the tax cuts, I can't say. A sample of 3 isn't big enough to prove a causal principle. Still, the historical evidence points in the direction that tax cuts encourage economic growth.

  10. Oh lordy, David in Cal: what an exemplar of sophistry you are.

    I'm glad to hear that "you can't say" whether the economic growth you reference is in fact thanks to tax cuts, because in every year which isn't a recession or depression, GDP rises, as do tax collections (the economy simply gets bigger, if thanks only to population growth), unless tax cuts are so steep that normal economic growth can't replace the losses (which happened under Reagan's term, and is the reason he **raised** taxes, mitigating his own cuts, several times). But there is no demonstrable causality here between tax cuts and unexceptional economic growth, any more than one can absolutely prove that Clinton's increase of the marginal rate drove economic growth (and the Clinton years were far superior, by the way to growth under Reagan/Bush, and obviously far beyond the GWB years).

    The one tax cut which does increase revenue in the short term is a capital gains tax cut, but that gain is an illusion: in the first year or two, investors rush in to take advantage of the lower rates. But after that, the treasury loses money.

    I'm also mystified to hear you say you don't any economists who espouse the claims of supply-side economics, and suggest you watch "Inside Job", to get a good luck at quite a few of them.

    In view of all this, it's very hard to see how you can conclude that "still, the historical evidence points in the direction that tax cuts encourage economic growth", any more than I can conclusively assert that tax **increases** drive economic growth, by reducing speculative activity and bubble creation, and diverting national resources to productive uses.

  11. Too many posts from David.

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