Audit Notes: Derailed; Tax Know-Nothings, Press Bubble, Etc.

John Collins Rudolf writes at The New York Times’s Green blog about the effect Tuesday’s GOP landslide will have on the country’s pitiful high-speed rail efforts.

Wisconsin Governor-elect Scott Walker promises, as he did in the campaign, that he’ll turn down free federal money for a high-speed rail project in his state, a dumb move the LaCrosse Tribune points out “could end up costing the state millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.” Eight hundred million to be exact.

Why would he do that? Because the line will cost the state $750,000 a year to operate—and that’s assuming it gets zero riders and zero fares not to mention the money it will save by taking drivers off the road from Milwaukee to Madison (and help connect them to Chicago). Walker wants to use the money to pave roads, but it’s against the law to do that with those funds.

Hand meet forehead.

But, as Rudolf points out, another GOPer, Representative John Mica of Florida, wants to use the money to boost the Acela corridor:

Mr. Mica said he would like to redirect the rail money to the Northeast corridor, which he described as possibly the only place in the country with enough population density to financially support high-speed train service.

That would be a huge loss for Wisconsin—and a big win for the Northeast. And that’s not the only state turning down stimulus rail funds. Fox Newser John Kasich, now Governer-elect of Ohio, promises to do the same with $400 million.

— Speaking of the GOP, Brad DeLong recalls former Reagan official Bruce Bartlett’s report on how out of it the Tea Party is on taxes (not mentioning, naturally, that the original Boston Tea Party was undertaken to overthrow a tyrannical government of taxation without representation. This Tea Party formed a month after a 53 percent of Americans voted to put Obama in office—nearly two years later, he hasn’t even raised taxes—he’s cut them!)

The first question that was asked concerned the size of government. Tea partiers were asked how much the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. According to Congressional Budget Office data, acceptable answers would be 6.4%, which is the percentage for federal income taxes; 12.7%, which would be for both income taxes and Social Security payroll taxes; or 14.8%, which would represent all federal taxes as a share of GDP in 2009.

Wow. Did you know that? I sure didn’t. I would have guessed 2009 overall federal taxes were about 17 percent or 18 percent of GDP. The press has failed to give proper context on taxation issues—these numbers ought to be talked about way more than they are.

They aren’t, and so you get this (and I understand that Tea Partiers have been propagandized by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, et al, so it’s not like I can blame the mainstream press for most or even much of this):

Tuesday’s tea party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times higher than they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median was 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.

It was a relatively small sample, so take it with something of a grain of salt. But it’s still illuminating.

— Newsosaur Alan Mutter lights into the press for failing to cover the economy and for playing softball with the Obama early in his administration. I don’t agree with everything here: In particular, I’m not as critical of the overall press coverage of the economy in the last couple of years as Mutter has been. I think there has been lots of great work done, though it has surely fallen short given the magnitude of the crisis.

But I mostly agree with this on the national press, with the caveat that papers like The New York Times do go out of their way to see what’s happening on the ground with regular folks across the country:

The members of the national press, who largely are domiciled in Washington and New York, failed to grasp the fear and loathing on Main Street because they were so comfortable in their six- and seven-figure sinecures that the economic catastrophe was nothing more to them than a series of abstract government statistics and occasional, disembodied sound bites. They were so far removed from reality that they couldn’t feel - much less adequately express - the nation’s mounting pain.

And this is definitely a problem: the trap we fall into we talk to the same old experts.

Living in nearly as much of a bubble as the president, the national media confined their reporting to a narrowly constrained group of current or wannabe government officials. Even on a broadcast as high in caliber as the PBS Nightly News, 82% of the news sources are white, 67% are men and 44% are current or former government officials, according to a recent survey by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a non-partisan and non-profit media watchdog. When fat and happy people interview other fat and happy people, they get the idea that everyone is fat and happy.

It’s not just limited to government officials, of course. Mark Zandi of Moody’s, anyone?

— Make sure you check out Nicholas Spengler Spangler’s story on Demand Media in the new issue of CJR: The Magazine.

But also check out Jessanne Collins’s piece over at The Awl on her “Summer on the Content Farm.”

Here’s your Quote of the Day:

“We aren’t here to break news, lay out editorial opinion, or investigate the latest controversy,” Demand’s corporate manifesto declares. “Our audience tells us they want incredibly specific information and we deliver exactly that - in a style that the average consumer appreciates and understands.”


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,