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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Since leaving the Clinton administration Gene Sperling's new full-time job seems to be whacking the Bush White House with Op-Eds in major national dailies. But, hey, more power to him!

This one today in the New York Times is right on point in thrashing the president's irresponsible evasion on Social Security. The insight of this very original argument is to point out that no matter where you are on the Social Security reform question (progressive, traditionalist, privatizer, etc.) you still can't support the Bush budget plan.

Why?

Simple. Every honest approach to the Social Security reform issue will require substantial infusions of general revenue funds (i.e., money beside that which we get from payroll taxes) to make reform work.

Since the Bush tax cut bill more or less wipes out the surpluses with tax cuts (as Bush himself proudly proclaims) there's simply nothing left for reform.

Okay, I've had a number of questions about this. So let me address it once and for all here on the site.

A week ago Monday I resigned my post as Washington Editor of the American Prospect. So now (or at least as of March 30th) I am officially a freelance writer.

What, you may ask, is a freelance writer?

Well it's something between being an independent, top-of-your-game, call-your-own-shots writer who answers to no one and being unemployed. All depends on how many assignments you manage to get. I'm planning on the former option but we'll see how it goes. For me it was a big step, but I think the right one.

And why did you quit your job exactly? Well, long story. But we can get to that later.

P.S. So are you psyched or bummed? Very psyched.

P.P.S. Enough personal revelation. Now back to the Talking Points persona!

Ahhhh ... There's nothing quite as refreshing as a nice, bracing glass of arsenic in the morning, no?

Don't worry. Talking Points isn't thinking of ending it all. Just trying to put the best spin possible on the Bush administration's just-announced decision to scrap Clinton administration rules limiting the permissible amount of arsenic in drinking water.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

The president wants to gun up support for a mammoth tax cut which apparently has, at best, broad but tepid support. But he can't make the case for it on practical or ideological grounds. So he starts talking up a dire economic slowdown to justify the tax cut.

If we don't get the tax cut ... Ohhhh is it gonna be bad!

Then he wants to overturn CO2 emissions guidelines, drill for oil in Alaska, and basically have government of, by and for fossil fuel producers. But his proposals aren't very popular. So he and his minions start bellowing about the "energy crisis now sweeping the nation" -- the worst since the 1970s according Energy Secretary Spence Abraham.

You noticing a pattern here?

There clearly is an energy crisis in California -- though one of a quite specific nature. And high fuel prices are a threat to the economy and consumer pocketbooks nationwide.

But are we really in a national energy crisis? The worst since the early 1970s? Are you old enough to remember those gas lines? (Talking Points was just a little guy back then. But he remembers.) Isn't this a vast -- almost comical -- overstatement?

You noticing a pattern here?

Is there any alarm bell this administration won't sound in order to get its unpopular policies enacted?

Think about it.

CNN has been going off at the mouth about it's 'exclusive' photos of the now-semi -destroyed Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (seen below).

But the Talking Points investigative staff has unearthed its own exclusive photos of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas. And in ours the statue looks pretty much intact.

And pretty good picture quality too, eh?

Bob Torricelli, the senior Senator from New Jersey, is now frequently getting named in press stories as the Democrat most likely to go along with Bush's tax cut proposal. (Of course, Zell Miller has already signed on entirely. But he's now in another category altogether.) The question is, why?

Yes, Torch is up for reelection in two years. But he's from New Jersey, i.e., deep in Gore country. What's more, he really has no obvious competition for the job.

So for him, there's no obvious skin-saving calculus at work, like there is for Mary Landrieu or Max Baucus.

So, again, why?

I'd say there're are a few factors at work here. Torricelli is a centrist and a tax-cutting type. He was on this game in the final session of the last congress. (You'll remember he's also come up with what must be the most bogus and foolhardy trigger proposal there is out there.) He's very much a money Democrat -- a big fund-raiser, in the more grievous sense of the phrase. And he wants to hold on to that 'centrist' credential -- even though most of the Dems with unimpeachable centrist credentials have no difficulty saying they think the Bush plan is a disaster.

But I suspect the biggest factor is that Torricelli wants to be a player. Simple as that.

Here's the question, though. If I were Torricelli, and I had federal prosecutors breathing down my neck for all sorts of fund-raising shenanigans, I'm not sure I'd be going out of my way to stick my finger in my party's eye. Doesn't he need all the friends he can get?

Obviously, warm feelings from Tom Daschle and Ted Kennedy aren't going to keep the Feds from indicting Torricelli. But when you're in the soup you need all the friends you can get -- especially if you want to weather an indictment, get acquitted, and come back politically.

It's common knowledge that Torricelli doesn't have many friends in the Senate. Actually, let's restate that. It's common knowledge that Torricelli doesn't really have any friends in the Senate. His fund-raising prowess made him immune from almost any sort of criticism from his colleagues. But no friends really. And this is especially so, considering he's no longer head of the DSCC -- the Senate Dems campaign and fund-raising arm.

Could Torch be cozying up to Bush because he now controls the Justice department? Maybe. But I've never bought into this kind of reasoning. Didn't believe it during the last administration, and don't believe it now. And if that's his angle, that's just foolish.

If I were him I'd be sticking with my friends.

Think about it, Bob.

And now for something totally different. We haven't gotten much into the subject of guns at TPM - a subject that I'm very into.

My interest isn't so much along the standard gun control politics lines. I'm more interested in way the debate is structured in contemporary American politics. Particularly, the way conservatives push a return to traditional values as the antidote to gun violence while these conservatives themselves come from the parts of the country with the highest murder rates. Where? Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina. Places like that.

Anyway, last year a history professor named Michael Bellesiles wrote a book about America's gun culture in which he made the argument that the American obsession with guns really only goes back to the mid-19th century. The myth of a Colonial and Revolutionary America chock full of guns is just that - a myth. Anyway, that was his argument.

The book received generally good reviews within academia and often savage reviews outside academia.

Now today I picked up the February issue of Brill's Content in which Michael Korda did what amounts to a review of the reviews of the Bellesiles book. Korda's argument is basically this:

Elite editors and book reviews and media types have confirmed anti-firearm views. And thus they gave the Bellesiles book warmly positive reviews even though the book could be shown, and was shown, to be misleading and based on poor scholarship. The article is a morality tale about East Coast elitists who are biased against the gun culture of the country's heartland. And so they got suckered in by Bellesiles book.

Now Brill's is a magazine about media criticism - and thus about fact-checking, and making sure your authors know what they're talking about, in addition to much more weighty issues of bias, credibility, professional integrity and so forth.

Anyway, Korda was allowed to write this article even though he obviously had no idea what he was talking about. I'm not just saying I disagree with him. He says things that show he simply has no idea what he's talking about.

Let me give you an example.

Much of Bellesiles research is based upon a review of probate inventories from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These are the catalogs of what a person owned at death, taken for probate purposes. Bellesiles found that very few people actually had guns in their inventories.

Follow me so far?

For Korda, this is a key example of Bellesiles bogus research methods. "But this seems to me a dubious method," writes Korda, "since in the 18th century it seems unlikely that Massachusetts or any other state would have tried to inventory the ownership of privately owned weapons, as opposed to those owned by or on loan to members of the militia…"

Really? It's seem like a dubious method to Korda? Really? It so happens that I've read literally hundreds of probate inventories from 17th and 18th century New England. And, yes, they do routinely list weapons and other pieces of property far more menial and of far less value.

This method may have seemed like a dubious method to Korda. But that's because he's clearly never looked at the documents in question.

Now I know this is all getting a bit technical. But why did Brill's let Korda write something that's transparently ridiculous on its face to anyone who has the vaguest understanding of the topic? And why do authors with pro-gun views get such leeway to talk about things they obviously know so little about?

The new twist in the campaign finance reform battle is Senator Chuck Hagel's decision to introduce a watered-down "compromise" bill, which the president has signaled his willingness to sign.

What's interesting here is that Chuck Hagel is a good friend of John McCain's. He's at least been a supporter of campaign finance reform. He supported McCain's presidential bid last year. And he's one of only two or possibly three others in the Senate who might be considered a McCain bloc. So why is he -- or why does he at least seem to be -- cutting McCain off at the knees?

Now that's rich. As you know, the closest thing Talking Points has to a recurring feature is when he takes some particularly boneheadian post on Andrewsullivan.com and makes fun of it on TPM.

(Does that mean TPM is a weblog parasite? Sort of, I guess. On the other hand, I gave Sullivan one of the ideas that appeared in this article. So, hey, I do my part! -- Lunch with Talking Points for the first person who can identify which part of the piece it is -- Got the email to prove it? You bet.)

Anyway, today on his site Sullivan picks up on a piece in the Post about how the top 400 taxpayers pay as much income tax as the bottom 40 million taxpayers.

"Interesting piece today in the Washington Post, pointing out that the richest 400 tax payers pay as much to the feds as the poorest 40 million in taxes," he says.

The first point here is that Sullivan either misstates or misunderstands the actual case. What the Post is talking about is income tax, not all taxes. And as every good Talking Point reader knows, the poorest Americans often pay no income tax but a relatively high rate of payroll taxes. Only the top quarter of tax payers pay more income taxes than payroll taxes.

So apparently Sullivan is with George W. Bush in not considering payroll taxes to be "real" taxes. Just thinking over the statistics I wouldn't be surprised if the bottom 40 million pay much more in payroll taxes than the top 400 do in income taxes - since every one of those 40 million pays 15 percent of earnings in payroll taxes. But that may be wrong since a few of the very top payers pay insanely high amounts. Anyway, I'll leave that to someone who knows how to add.

But here's the real kicker. For Sullivan, the tragedy of this statistic is how rough it is for the insanely wealthy in today's "lopsided" economy. For most Americans the increasing level of wealth inequality (as opposed to income inequality) is a fairness issue for working Americans who hold a declining relative share of the nation's wealth. For Sullivan, it's a fairness issue for plutocrats.

The more the "dependent" classes can squeeze the lords and high gentry for social services, the more irresponsible they'll become!

"If we have one-person-one-vote and you can always vote for higher taxes and spending, knowing you won't ever have to pay for it," says Sullivan, "why not do so?"

And you wonder why they call them Tories.

Here's another instance of Dick Armey's egregious lying -- straight from the Talking Points oppo research department.

As described on this web page (and more exhaustively in a February 21st, 1995 article in the Washington Post) Armey used to pepper his speeches with a cloying tale a mildly retarded university janitor who lost his job and got tossed onto food stamps because those heartless congressional Democrats went and raised the minimum wage.

Turns out there never was a Charlie. Armey made the whole thing up. As James Carville said a couple years later, "if a man is willing to lie about a retarded janitor, what would he tell the truth about?"

P.S. Special thanks to the member of the TPM oppo research department that clued me in to this gem.

-- Josh Marshall


(March 15th, 2001 -- 12:09 AM // link)

Shouldn't President Bush be held to account for spreading uncertainty and even panic about the economy?

I'm not saying he's responsible for what's happening. There have been numerous concrete factors leading to this downturn -- energy prices, trillions pulled out of the economy by the burst stock market bubble, ill-considered interest rate hikes last year.

But there's almost no way to figure that the president's promiscuous pessimism hasn't further depressed the quickly dropping rate of consumer confidence. (This column by Paul Krugman gives a good run-down of the delicate competition of forces now operating in the economy -- and, implicitly, how susceptible the economy may be to small influences, even to the president's jaw-boning.) Bush's influence may be a major cause of the problem or a minor one -- we can't really know. What's significant, though, is that he's making the situation worse in order to fulfill the short-term political goal of generating support for his tax cut.

Presidents' soothing words in times of economic difficulty may not have much effect. But when a president throws gas on the fire he takes on a certain responsibility for everything that happens afterward because he was part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. And we can't really know how far his malign influence has spread.

The fact that we can't know how much damage his recklessness has caused doesn't obsolve him, it implicates him.

Doesn't this self-serving recklessness suggest a character flaw, a lack of seriousness, some failure of judgement?

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