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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Big Hype About Big Government at the Washington Post

Big Hype About Big Government at the Washington Post

Wednesday, 10 November 2010 04:37

If Ruth Marcus did not exist someone would have to invent her. She is the living embodiment of an ill-informed Washington pundit who desperately wants to meld the world to fit her preconceptions. (Okay, her colleagues at the Post, Fred Hiatt and David Broder give her stiff competition.) 

Anyhow, the theme today is that Obama failed to recognize that his shellacking was from too much big government. First, it is important to recognize that there is a large body of research that shows that President Obama's shellacking was overwhelmingly the result of 9.6 percent unemployment, coupled with the fact that the Democrats held many marginal districts as a result of their gains in the last two elections. Models that incorporate only these variables predict most of the Democratic losses last week.

In other words, if President Obama could not do more to bring the unemployment rate down, then he should have expected his shellacking. Those opposed to more stimulus (like the Post crew) in effect wanted to see the Dems trounced since it was an entirely predictable outcome of the policy.

But, let's get to the big government story. Ms. Marcus tells us that the public is upset about big government interventions in the economy, like President Obama's health care plan and cap and trade. 

Let's consider each of these in turn. Has the public seen President Obama's health care plan? That doesn't seem likely, since very few of the provisions have been implemented thus far. What the public knows of the health care plan is what the media has reported. This has included stories of "death panels," government takeover of the health care industry, and massive cuts in Medicare.

These charges have the common characteristic of not being true. (I will acknowledge that the cuts in Medicare are a real possibility, but please note that this would mean smaller government, not bigger government.) Polls bear out the fact the public is extremely ill-informed about the health care plan. We can blame media outlets like the Washington Post for this failure. (This is the principle, strongly endorsed by the Post, that if the students don't learn, then it is the teacher's fault.) 

So, how is over-reaching and excessive government intervention the problem if the public doesn't really have a clue about the health care reform? Basically, the Republicans made things up and they stuck in the minds of millions of voters. That is the story.

Describing cap and trade or related measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) as big government intervention is also peculiar. Are the zoning restrictions that prevent me from building a slaughterhouse across the street from Bill Gates' house "big government?" I suspect that most people would say no. The issue here is of protecting property rights and making people accountable for externalities.

The externalities from GHG are destroying property and causing millions of people to die from such things as floods in Bangladesh and Pakistan and droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can call rules designed to prevent this harm "big government," but that is just name-calling. In reality, this is just about limiting externalities in the same way as zoning ordinances do. But hey, that wouldn't fit the Post's story.


Comments (10)Add Comment
This Flight is In For a Shellacking
written by izzatzo, November 10, 2010 7:24
Look goddammit I'm the captain of this flight and I make the decisions, so cut off another engine so we can save more fuel under the Austerity Policy. If we don't save more fuel I'll get a shellacking for not reducing the fuel deficit.

But captain, there's only one engine running. We've cut off three already.

Co-pilot, I know you're a Keynesian and believe all four engines should be running, but I've had Econ 101 as well, and one thing I understand is how things work at the margin.

If cutting off one engine saves fuel, and cutting off another saves even more fuel, that means the ratio of marginal benefits to cost is increasing on a per engine basis.

I'm ordering you for the last time, cut off engine number four so we can realize the full benefits of fuels savings or I'll make you take off your Rand Paul buttons.
Dean Baker & T S Eliot
written by Wayne Burkhart, November 10, 2010 10:40
This post ( including your "blame the teachers" comment) reminds me why I appreciate your posts. You "squeeze the [economic policy] universe into a ball and roll it toward some overwhelming question."
written by diesel, November 10, 2010 12:08
From reading her piece, the only thing about her position that one can reasonably infer is that Obama should have done nothing at all.

She completely ignores the results of poll after poll that demonstrate that voters in fact do know little or nothing about the major issues. They are ignorant. This isn't condescension, it's reality. If Obama is guilty of a flaw in reasoning, then it's the common liberal politically-self-defeating trait of believing in the power of knowledge and reason vs. propaganda and emotion.

Fascism, or near-Fascism, is the default political/economic condition. The resting state. Liberal democracy is as rare as a pawn broker with a heart of gold. Being informed, objective and conscientious is hard work. Being allowed to let your emotions run wild is easy and fun.

It's a paradoxical trait of conservative people that they need permission to behave irresponsibly. The Republican party understands this need and fulfills it. Conservative people feel a smug moral superiority over their less favored brethren who spontaneously act irresponsibly--law-breaking people with poor impulse control. Hence their incessant racket about "moral values".

Believing in the Rights of Man, Liberals ask permission of no one to behave as they do. Generally well educated, they have internalized their culture's values, realize that present authorities are merely imperfect incarnations of larger principles and laws and so accord them respect as equals in so far as they earn it. Conservative voters, watching liberals behave freely without having asked for or having been granted permission then mistakenly lump liberals in with persons who have poor impulse control and regard them as degenerate.

Ruth Marcus may well be right in saying that the voters "perceive" such and such, but that does not guarantee that they understand it.

written by Ron Alley, November 10, 2010 12:42
Healthcare reform is on hold until 2014. That is about 4 years from now. Until healthcare reform becomes reality and voters actually experience the effects of healthcare reform, politicians can make any outrageous claim about what effect healthcare reform will have on ordinary voters at will. The politicians can do so because the ordinary voter cannot confirm or refute the politician's statement based upon the actual experience of the ordinary Americans.

Look the problem here is not the voter, it's the Democratic Party leadership. The extraordinary delay guarantees chaos. The Republicans (with the able assistance of their Blue Dog buddies) carried the day on the effective date of the legislation and they are making the most of it.

Let's give credit where credit is due. Healthcare reform was not important enough to the Democratic Party leaders to insist that it be done right. Stimulus wasn't important enough to get it right. Finance reform was not important enough to be done right.

After you have shot yourself in the foot several times you can't claim surprise when you find that you can no longer run and even have trouble walking.
written by JTM, November 10, 2010 1:50
In addition to showing what the public doesn't know, the polls also show what the public is concerned about. And it's jobs, foreclosure, falling home values -- in short the economy. After all everyone who owns a home in this country, and much of the world, is substantially poorer than they were (or thought they were) a couple of years ago.
And people without jobs and/or homes and/or afraid of losing them are not going to feel a whole better about it because Obama feels their pain or promises to govern "more modestly" as Marcus urges.
Given the economy and public concerns about the economy, the result of the election was predictable and widely predicted. What happened is what will always happen in the prevailing circumstances.
But that's dog bites man. It's not a story. So press has to make up a story.
Marcus is right on
written by R K, November 10, 2010 5:28
I reject Obama and progressives on the basis that they are first and foremost believers in gubmint solutions and big gubmint. Gubmint is not and never will be the solution to much of anything. The majority of Americans still tend to think this way
written by diesel, November 10, 2010 7:06
No one is questioning whether the pain the public feels is authentic or not. The point is that they don't understand the options for resolving the problems that cause them their pain. Republicans take advantage of their ignorance and naivety, liberal Democrats try to educate them. It's that simple.
where would the WaPo itself be without big government?
written by Rp, November 10, 2010 7:06
According to the NYT [link below] the WaPo is actually a for-profit higher ed company that happens to own a newspaper. The WaPo bought Kaplan Test Prep in 1984. Now, "Kaplan higher education revenues eclipse not only the test-prep operations, but all the rest of the Washington Post Company’s operations."

And where does this higher-ed provider get most of it's revenue?

"Kaplan Higher Education, for example, gets 91.5 percent of its revenue from the federal government, through Pell grants, Stafford loans, military and veterans benefits and other aid."

Moreover, the WaPo has used it's editorial clout, alongside serious lobbying money, to preserve this government largesse:

"Reports of students who leave such schools with heavy debt, only to work in low-paying jobs, have prompted the Department of Education to propose regulations that would cut off federal financing to programs whose graduates have high debt-to-income ratios and low repayment rates.

Though Kaplan is not the largest in the industry, the Post Company chairman, Donald Graham, has emerged as the highest-profile defender of for-profit education.

Together, Kaplan and the Post Company spent $350,000 on lobbying in the third quarter of this year, more than any other higher-education company. And Mr. Graham has gone to Capitol Hill to argue against the regulations in private visits with lawmakers, the first time he has lobbied directly on a federal issue in a dozen years.

His newspaper, too, has editorialized against the regulations. Though it disclosed its conflict of interest, the newspaper said the regulations would limit students’ choices. “The aim of the regulations was to punish bad actors, but the effect is to punish institutions that serve poor students,” Mr. Graham said in an interview."


..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by mickster99, November 11, 2010 10:51
Did your insurance company provide a reason for jacking up your rates?

I ask because very little of the Affordable Care Act has yet implemented.

If you read the entire 2700 pages and have decided its a total debacle, I would be most interested in your take on the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit portion of the bill. Seems like it was designed for someone in your position. Perhaps there are some tax advantages in the law that would offset the premium increases.

Check out this site to find out more:


or consult with your tax accountant.

Also many states provide regulations regarding unfair practices of insurance companies. Your insurer may be gouging you unfairly.

Regarding being able to buy plans across state lines the following provide some interesting points on why this might not be a good idea:


Of course I think you have the option of a) not providing health care to your employers at all or b) passing on some of the increases to your employers or c) filing a complaint with the Insurance Commisioner in our state. Believe it of not sometimes insurance advantage may be raising rates for no other reason that to inflate their bottom line.

Your assertion that "government knows best" is I believe sarcastic.
As a retiree with very liberal views. I have lived through Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush W, and now Obama I have never thought that "government knows best".

Especially after 8 years of George W. Bush. Tom,Delay and his pasl.

But I do think Social Security has been a rousing success as has been Medicare.
I do wonder why we as Americans spend twice as much on health care as any other advanced industrial nations and have the lowest life expectancy and infant mortality among numerous health-care related issues.

Just curious, and not having round the entire 2700 pages of the law like you have does it contain provisions that make force you to buy health insurance for your employees?

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.