Larry Summers's Tax Cut Plea Falls on Deaf Old Media Ears

December 20th, 2007 9:21 PM

When Larry Summers suggested in early 2005 that, as paraphrased by Slate's William Saletan, "innate differences between the sexes might help explain why relatively few women become professional scientists or engineers," the outcry was immediate, furious, and went to saturation level virtually overnight. The controversy ultimately led to his resignation a year later as Harvard President.

On Wednesday, Mr. Summers, a Democrat who was once Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, made a recommendation in his area of expertise -- that is, that a tax cut would be a good idea to protect against a possible recession. (Yours truly doesn't believe that a recession is anywhere near occurring. But hey, I've said since May, and several times since [here, here, and here, among others] that a tax cut is needed anyway to keep the economy chugging along at a good rate. So if panicked pols want to enact a tax cut for the wrong reason, I'll take it.)

Old Media reaction to Summers has been virtual silence.

A Dec. 19-20 Google News search on "summers tax cut" (not in quotes) done at 8:30 p.m. has all of seven listings. Two are off topic. Two are buried behind the Wall Street Journal's subscription wall. One, snidely entitled "Greenspan, Summers: Economy needs handouts, tax cuts," is at a Baltimore Sun blog.

Only one, a Washington Post story by Neil Irwin appearing today at Page D01, can be considered as coming from a primary news outlet (where in the world is the Associated Press?).

Irwin's headline and opening paragraph are bizarre, to say the least:

Summers Criticizes Handling of Crises
Bush, Fed 'Behind the Curve,' Ex-Treasury Secretary Says

President Bush and the Federal Reserve aren't taking aggressive enough action to prevent a recession, former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers said yesterday, as Democrats ramped up their attacks on the administration's handling of the housing downturn and credit crises.

Irwin spends the next five paragraphs quoting Summers and others about the current economic situation. It isn't until Paragraph 7 that he quotes Summers uttering the two words that make Old Media reporters and pundits cower in fear -- t-t-t-tax ..... c-c-c-cuts -- and even then, avoids typing the phrase until the last sentence:

Summers, a Harvard economics professor and former president of the university, said the president and Congress should use fiscal policy -- the government's taxing and spending abilities -- to help goose the economy in 2008. The best way to do that, he said, would be to temporarily lower taxes equally among taxpayers, extend unemployment insurance and increase food-stamp benefits. He stressed that such tax cuts and spending increases should be temporary, so as not to increase long-term budget deficits.

The only remaining item in the Google News search is an opinion piece ("A Democrat Leads"), which inadvertently but accurately describes why the coverage of Summers's recommendation has been so light:

An old White House hand supports new tax cuts and wants the Fed to cut rates to help consumers and block a possible recession. Just another dish of extreme right-wing dogma?

That's how the media would like to portray it. In their world, tax cuts are the shallow and reckless property of the radical right. No thoughtful person, meaning Democrats and self-described liberals and centrists, would ever consider tax cuts.

But in this case, the media can't make that accusation. The man calling for tax cuts was once Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary.

One can't help but think that Old Media editors are saying, "We can't have that. And if he's going to say it, we surely aren't going to report it."

If what Summers has to say got wide media play, it could blunt the effectiveness of the rhetoric of the major Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom are saying that the Bush tax cuts should expire (translation: there should be a major tax increase, not a decrease).

Again, can't have that.

Maybe, to get attention, Summers should have said something about the prevalence, or lack if it, of women in economics.

Cross-posted at