As 2011 comes to a close, FrumForum plans to re-run some of our best featured pieces from the year. The following reprint is of a piece by David Frum discussing the shortcomings of the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page.
I used to write editorials for the Wall Street Journal myself, 20 years ago now.
So I’m well aware of the challenge faced by those assigned to compose these documents. The strict demands of the paper’s ideology do not always lie smoothly over the rocky outcroppings of reality. It can take considerable skill to match the two together.
In that regard, this morning’s lead editorial about the debt-ceiling crisis is a true masterpiece.
If you were to write a story about government debt, you’d probably be inclined to write about the two sets of government decisions that produce deficits or surpluses: decisions about expenditure and decisions about revenue. You’d want to do that not only as a matter of fairness, but also as a matter of math.
And that’s why, my friend, you would wash out as a WSJ editorialist. They wrote this editorial without any reference to revenues whatsoever. Boom! Gone! Don’t deny reality. Defy reality.
(I should say: the Journal does allow itself one passing reference to revenues at the very end of the piece, when having disregarded the big tax cuts of 2001, 2003, 2008, 2009 and 2010, it warns of future increases in tax rates possibly all the way up to 80% unless the Democrats mend their ways.)
One of the many traps and impediments facing a Journal editorialist writing about debt is that up until 2009, the US debt burden rose most under the two presidents the Journal most ardently supported: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The debt burden declined most under the presidents the Journal most despises – Dwight Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
How to deal with this troubling problem? It must have taken some searching, but the Journal managed to find a chart vaguely relating to debt that went up under Clinton and stayed flat under Bush. They chose chart 11.1 from the historical tables of the Offices of Management and Budget. (That’s more information by the way than the Journal included – I guess they wanted to enhance the treasure-hunting fun of those curious to check their work.)
You can see the original of the chart here: “Summary Comparison of Outlays for Payments to Individuals, 1940-2016, as percentage of Total Outlays.”
What’s so great about this chart is that it excludes two of the biggest federal spending programs: Medicare Part B and Medicaid, both of whose costs rose faster in the Bush 2000s than in the Clinton 1990s. Isn’t that ingenious? Would you ever have thought of doing that? Again – that’s why you would wash out. This is not a job for just anyone.
But maybe my favorite bit of the editorial is the solemn warning at the end that unless the US corrects its course, it may follow in the wake of Greece. The Greek crisis, as almost every economist published on the Journal oped page would acknowledge, is the product of the collision of heavy Greek borrowing against the hard constraint of the Euro currency. And guess which US newspaper was the most passionate advocate of the Euro currency? Guess which paper wants the US to be tied to some basket of commodities all the better to inflict Greek-like crises on Americans?
No, no, I wont answer. Like the Journal’s editorialist, I’ll follow the motto: the less said, the better.