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Sunday Talk Shows: Making America Dumber One Week at a Time

There is no valid journalistic reason for CBS, NBC and CNN to continue their Sunday Talk shows. (There is still hope for Ms. Amanpour’s efforts to bring some intelligence to ABC.)

What should they have talked about today? Aside from Middle East revolutions, recent domestic news has been dominated, as Frank Rich notes, by Tea-GOPer assaults on any/all government functions that can address income inequality or rein in corporate misconduct. The latter have all been disguised as “necessary” spending cuts to reduce “unsustainable” debts nationally, or as reductions in public worker’s wages, benefits and rights at the state level.

So it would make sense for the shows’ hosts to have at least a basic grasp of the most important budget and fiscal facts, even if they insist on interviewing only Tea-GOP governors and anti-labor zealots with only a lone labor representative invited onto NBC after viewer protests.

Here are a few facts the hosts might have understood (or at least known what was being argued by prominent critics) before CBS’ Bob Schieffer interviewed NJ Gov. Christie or NBC allowed GOP governors Barbour, Haley and Walker to spin in unison their poll-tested talking points:

1. The current budget crises in many states were not caused by runaway wages and benefits for public workers. While there are examples of excesses created by public corruption, which no one defends, the large state budget deficits are almost entirely due to the Great Recession, which was brought on by federal regulators — Greenspan’s Fed, SEC, OCC etc — who recklessly ignored predatory lending, fraudulent securitizations, a housing bubble and its inevitable collapse — and by the financial industry’s reckless self-immolation. Shouldn’t the governors have been asked if they even understand this most basis cause?  . . .

2. States are being strangled by the recesssion’s effects. They lost income and business taxes from high levels of unemployment, lost property taxes from the decline of property values and record foreclosures, and face much higher costs for safety net spending that always accompanies a major recession. Indeed, as Mike Konczal has noted, there is a strong correlation between the severity of the housing collapse in a state and severity of a state’s budget problems. It’s not whether they have unions. Shouldn’t this be discussed?

3. The only just fiscal and monetary solutions to a national economic recession lie in Washington. The federal government has the authority and means to fix it. But all of these governors and the Tea-GOPer led Congress have irresponsibly opposed all federal efforts at fixing the problem, and their proposed budget cuts will actually hurt the economy. Shouldn’t they be asked how they can defend that record?

4. Without essential federal assistance, states are forced either to raise taxes or to cut their budgets, neither of which should be occurring during a recession. But these governors and the Tea-GOP have ruled out overt tax increases, leaving only worse spending cuts or extracting money from state workers, since public employee wages and benefits can be a large portion of state budgets. If you limit the solutions to hammers, all victim become nails. Given the massive wealth inequality in the US, shouldn’t these governors be asked to justify this lopsided avoidance of “sharing the pain”?

5. Despite much irresponsible “reporting,” most state pension plans are not suffering from being too generous. Like state budgets generally, they are suffering from the effects of the Great Recession, including a massive loss in the value of assets after Wall Street bankers and irresponsible federal regulators crashed the financial system. Despite the admitted excesses in a few cases, blaming pensioners is unwarranted, and NYT Matt Bai allowing Gov. Christie to mock and defame state workers is unconscionable. Further, independent studies have confirmed that essential soundness of the Wisconsin retirement system, one of the best in the nation. And most hysteria about “unfunded liabilities” use the misleading multi-decade perspective that mathematically generates a huge number, when in fact, with normal economic growth over that period most state retirement/pension system are not in crisis. Shouldn’t these facts be part of these interviews?

6. On the whole, state workers are not overpaid. Nor does including their benefits result in an unfair advantage for public workers versus workers in the private sector. As a recent New York Times survey found, some work categories find public paid slightly more than private, other categories find private paid slight more than public, but when adjusted for the levels of education required, public workers tend on average to be paid slightly less than their private counterparts. Shouldn’t the hosts challenge the governors who repeatedly claim otherwise?

7. Public employees pay 100 percent of their own benefits. As [journalist] David Cay Johnston (echoed by Dean Baker and Paul Krugman) explains, the notion that public employees enjoy immunity from contributions to their health and retirement systems while private employees must contribute more, though maliciously spread by the GOP to pit voters against state workers, and then promoted by the New York Times, is categorically false. Through their employment agreements, workers receive total compensation via wages/salaries and benefits. Workers with collective bargaining agreements can negotiate to take varying proportions of their compensation as take-home wages or as retirement and/or health benefits. But no matter what mix they choose, the practical impact for public workers is not different than for private workers.

8. GOP Governors are imposing selective income tax increases on state workers. When a state chooses to reduce its budget spending by requiring state workers to contribute more to their benefits, without adjusting salaries, that functions as an effective income tax — a reduction of take home pay — for those specific workers. In essence, this is exactly the same as a state deciding that instead of increasing income taxes a little for everyone, it chooses to balance its budget by raising the personal income tax a lot only on specific types of workers, such as nurses, street cleaners, waitresses, Starbucks baristas, or shoe salesmen. Shouldn’t Gov. Christie, who claimed he opposes raising income taxes, be asked about this?

You can watch CBS’s nice Bob Schieffer politely interview NJ Governor Christie, or watch David Gregory continue to embarrass NBC with a panel with Governors Barbour and Haley, or watch the self-serving nonsense from Wisconsin Governor Walker. But on none of these shows will you find the host/moderator indicating he understands any of the points above nor challenge a governor or panelist with any of these essential facts and perspectives. That means the talk shows gave the Tea-GOP governors a free ride to spout absolute nonsense, even lie to viewers and smear state workers and unions with no push back from the hosts.

All the governors and their defenders are lying when they claim state workers avoid making contributions to their benefit plans. They contribute 100 percent.

All of them are ducking their Tea-GOP Party’s responsibility for the federal failure to address the national effects of the national recession.

All of them were given a free ride in not asking them why they supported Congress giving hundreds of billions in tax gifts to the rich or why, given their budget crisis, they all favored further tax cuts for those who don’t need them.

None of them was asked to explain why, given their adamant opposition to raising income taxes, they nevertheless are pursuing the equivalent of income tax increases for select workers who happen to be state employees.

But today’s cake goes to the nice Bob Schieffer, who had no response when Chris Christy declared that “the only purpose of teachers’ unions was to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired,” but nevertheless found time to ask these penetrating questions:

— What did he think of President Obama? (he likes O and Arne Duncan’s attacks on bad teachers)

— What did he think about criticisms of the First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaigns (he’s sympathetic)

— What did he think about other potential GOP Presidential candidates? (gosh he couldn’t say)

Nice work there, Bob. Shut it down.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley