Womack confesses ignorance about the Ryan Medicare plan

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette today reported on Steve Womack’s ignorance about the Ryan budget plan. It’s worthwhile reading some excerpts:

Womack challenges Democrats for its Medicare plan

Rep. Steve Womack, criticized Sen. Mark Pryor on Tuesday for “lashing out” at a Republican plan to privatize Medicare. (…) The Republican said Democrats have no plan to save Medicare, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects to be insolvent as early as 2020. (…)

The Democratic Senator [Mark Pryor] was quoted in Tuesday’s Democrat-Gazette saying if the Ryan plan were passed into law, the elderly would pay for about 68 percent of their health care costs, up from the about 25 percent they currently pay. (…) “It greatly, greatly shifts the burden of paying for your health care to you and takes away the Medicare system,” Pryor said. “Shifting the cost to seniors is not the answer, it’s not the solution.”

“I don’t know where he’s getting those numbers”, Womack said after Tuesday’s Bella Vista town hall-style meeting. “Pryor said he can’t support our plan. Well, where’s his plan?”
Womack said he didn’t know if the numbers cited by Pryor are accurate.

Yep, Womack says we should support his “plan” but he doesn’t even know whether it’s true that it would shift 68% of health care costs on the elderly (in other words, it would ruin and/or deny health care to millions of retired persons, most of whom could never afford to pay for two thirds of their health expenses out of pocket). If he really doesn’t know, he must have lived under a rock for the past couple months because the 68% figure has been widely reported. If Womack really doesn’t know where Pryor got his numbers, he must be ignorant, incompetent, and not doing his job, and a cynical hypocrite on top of all that. The numbers are, of course, the result of an analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), as anybody who has paid any attention to this issue would know.

This of course raises the question whether the journalist (Bill Bowden) knows these facts. He certainly should, and if he doesn’t, he should have asked Pryor where he got his numbers. One would think that it was the journalist’s duty to provide the crucial information (where the numbers came from and how credible they are) to readers. But he doesn’t. Instead, the journalist leaves readers with the impression that this is all say-so and nobody really knows. It’s another sad case of “he said/she said” journalism: Democrat claims 2+2=4, Republican either denies it outright or counters that he has no idea where D got those numbers from, and newspaper titles “Views differ over the result of 2+2”. In this case, just look at the headline the ADG came up with: Instead of “Womack confesses ignorance”, it is “Womack challenges Democrats”.

The article further down attempts a summary of the Ryan budget plan. It states that

“it wouldn’t balance the government’s books until 2040, in part because it also would cut corporate and individual tax rates.”

Ok but can you be a bit more specific? By how much does Ryan propose to cut tax rates, and who would benefit? Ryan is specific about that and so should the newspaper: the top tax rates would be cut from 35% to 25%, massively benefiting the rich and the super-rich.

Does the ADG think its readers can’t handle the truth?

Paul Greenberg basks in his own smugness

What kind of columnist would find pleasure in writing a column about a few out of context snippets from an email exchange with an unnamed interlocutor? The Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Paul Greenberg is that kind of columnist.

His column published today is written in the form of a letter to an unnamed University of Arkansas professor who apparently objected to Greenberg’s editorial attacks on the University’s changed curriculum requirements (these attacks have become kind of an idee fixe of Greenberg’s). Of the unnamed professor’s emails, Greenberg quotes only about ten lines, incoherently and out of context, but insinuates that if he quoted more of them, they would be “embarrassing enough”, “revealing of a particular cast of mind among the American professoriate”. But readers never get the chance to decide for themselves whether this unnamed professor’s views are really that embarrassing because Greenberg writes mainly about himself, basking in his own smugness, reveling in the power his editorial perch gives him to insult others who don’t have nearly the same clout to fight back.

Or do they? The unnamed professor could have had his/her view published as an opinion piece but refused, says Greenberg:

“As for your informing me that “I do not approve my previous emails to be published in the Arkansas Demokrat-Gazette,” I have to tell you we don’t need your approval to publish them – not in a free country with a First Amendment.”

Greenberg is of course wrong here. The First Amendment gives us the right to speak or be quiet, but it doesn’t give Greenberg the right to publish another’s speech against that person’s wish. There is something called copyright, and it is illegal in this our free country to publish a substantial piece without the author’s (or copyright holder’s) permission. Incidentally, if I ever were inclined to copy articles from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette verbatim on this blog here without the paper’s express approval, I wouldn’t have to wait long for mail from their attorney. The unnamed professor was fully within his/her right to demand his/her emails not be published. There are exceptions to be sure – Greenberg might claim that the professor was a public figure and the emails were of sufficient public interest to override copyright. But that decision would have to be justified by the news editor, not the opinion editor.

Greenberg chides the unnamed professor for deciding “not to join this free-for-all, otherwise known as the vortex of public opinion, and (declining) to exercise your First Amendment rights on this occasion”. “Just for the record”, we need to point out that Greenberg is being dishonest here. Those who disagree with the ADG’s editorial line are frequently denied their First Amendment rights – by Greenberg and his colleagues. Which is precisely why this blog came into being.

So what we are left with is Greenberg’s one-sided account of an email exchange with an unnamed person who refused consent to publish his/her emails for reasons we don’t know. Why is that fodder for a column? Because it gives Greenberg a chance to talk about himself, which is probably his preferred topic anyway. And I wouldn’t mind if he stuck to his egocentric little world, instead of venturing into issues he doesn’t understand, if he could refrain from insulting others along the way. I do hope though that the unnamed professor changes his/her mind and takes Greenberg up on his challenge by sending him a pointed rebuttal, as insulting as it needs to be, with permission to publish. If Greenberg refused then, he’d be exposed. If not, we might finally get to read something worth reading on the Ark Dem-Gaz opinion page.

Is Dana Kelley unhappy about declining crime rates?

That’s the question I had to ask myself after reading Dana D. Kelley’s recent Arkansas Democrat Gazette column “The low crime myth” (May 27, 2011; free registration required). The FBI released its preliminary crime report for 2010 and reported a 5.5% decrease in violent crime, 4.4% decrease in murder, and 2.8% decrease in property crime. As shown in table 3, almost all categories of crime have been declining since 2006. These data refer to the number of crimes reported, not to crime rates (which are measured in number of crimes per 100,000 population).

These data are good news, and they are not a “myth” – they are the most reliable figures we have. Then why is Dana Kelley in such a gloomy mood?

The greater misfortune is that while crime is ostensibly down nearly 11 percent over the past two years, it is far from low – but you wouldn’t know it from the published reactions of criminology experts. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, termed the latest drop “remarkable”.

Is it not? Apparently not in Dana Kelley’s universe. Crime is still “far from low”, he says, but by what standard?

How about as low as, say, 1965? That was only a couple of generations ago, for heaven’s sake, but in terms of violent crime, it is worlds away from the so-called “low” rates these experts are dumb-founded over.

Why 1965? Why not 1925 or 1985? Kelley doesn’t explain. Of course,  the 1960s were economic boom times with full employment whereas we are now in a deep economic crisis with record unemployment and record inequality. We know that crime rates tend to be higher during bad economic times, which makes recent declines even more remarkable.

Looking at FBI crime statistics from 1990 to 2009 (2010 figures are not included because they are preliminary), one sees a quite dramatic reduction in crime rates in all categories: Murder, from 9.4 to 5.0; Forcible rape, from 41.1 to 28.7; robbery, from 256.3 to 133.0; property crime, from 5073.1 to 3036.1. If this isn’t “remarkable” in Kelley’s eyes, I don’t know what universe he lives in. Sure, you can always see the glass as half empty instead of half full. It is hard to argue with the sentiment that every crime is a crime too many. But when writing a column about crime statistics, surely you would at least want to mention the good news?

One wonders whether there could be a political explanation for Kelley’s gloominess? After all, the biggest drops in crime rates occurred during the Clinton years. The Bush years have seen crime rates stabilize but not improve. Murder rates slightly increased from 5.5 in 2000 to 5.8 in 2006, and have fallen to about 4.7 in 2010 (my calculation based on FBI and census data). Could it be, could it really be, that Kelley has trouble acknowledging good things happening under a democratic president?

So what about Kelley’s 1965 baseline? Is it true that we are “worlds away” from the good old early 1960s? Here is a table with crime statistics from 1960 to 2009 (scroll down to the rates per 100,000 Inhabitants). Comparing 1965 with 2009, vehicle theft and burglary are about the same; aggravated assault and robbery are about 100% higher; forcible rape is 130% higher; murder is slightly lower (it was 5.1 in 1965). Kelley correctly points out that violent crime in the aggregate, while at its lowest since 1974, is twice as high as it was in 1965. But he does not mention that the 2010 murder rate was actually lower than in 1965.

Murder rates, of course, are our most reliable crime figures because they are most likely to be reported. Rape or assault are to a large extent under-reported which makes comparisons across time tricky. To be sure, the US murder rate is still high in international comparison (two to four times the rate of Canada or Western Europe). My contention is absolutely not that we should be happy with current crime levels. But it puzzles me why columnist Kelley is so intent on cherry-picking his comparisons to make rather good news look bad.

Addendum: An older post at StreetJazz has this to say about Dana Kelley:

The whiter-than-white columnist who writes a regular column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (and other papers) is regularly suspected of harboring racist tendencies. Rarely does a month go by when he does not write sneeringly of minorities, especially when it comes to  crime and punishment.

Update June 21: no single root cause will ever explain crime but apart from economic factors, which do affect crime rates, an important factor is the war on drugs. A letter in today’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette makes that point well:

In a recent column, Dana Kelley wonders why the U.S. crime rate is two to four times (depending on the category of crime) what it was in 1965. I guess the obvious can be hard to see. It’s the same reason that the U.S. incarceration rate has grown to be the highest in the world. A reason that I suspect most of his readers saw instantly. The modern “war on drugs” began in the late 1960s during the Nixon administration. The Drug Enforcement Agency was founded in 1973. Obviously, the answer to Kelley’s query is drug prohibition, and the only way to get back to lower rates is to re-legalize drugs. As Portugal’s amazing success shows, drug dependency is better treated as a mental health issue, not a law enforcement issue.

BILL ORTON Fayetteville