David Brooks watch: How can we get information!

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2011

How do you fact-check a problem like David: David Brooks got whupped all over town for yesterday’s very strange column.

That said, let’s focus again on a few of Brooks’ factual claims. Question: How can the average citizen fact-check claims like the claims found in this passage?
BROOKS (9/20/11): [Obama] claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the I.R.S. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)
Citizens encounter such claims all the time. But where can a citizen go to fact-check such claims?

Yesterday, Timothy Noah pushed back against Brooks on his new blog at TNR. Last fall, Noah authored this voluminous series at Slate concerning income inequality. Yesterday, he offered this reaction to the first of Brooks’ highlighted factual claims:
NOAH (9/20/11): David Brooks has indigestion because President Barack Obama, whom Brooks rather likes, wants to raise taxes on the rich. "He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries." Why is that a half-truth? Because "the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the I.R.S."

Oh, please. The top 10 percent pays nearly 70 percent of all income taxes because the top 10 percent makes half the income—49.74 percent, including capital gains, before the recession and only slightly less now.
Yeah, but where did Noah get that? He explained: “My source is the World Top Incomes Database, a fantastic Web resource put together by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Facundo Alvaredo and Tony Atkinson,” he wrote. To access that site, just click here.

Would the average reader know to go to that site? Once he got there, would he know how to proceed? As he continued, Noah reacted to Brooks’ second claim, citing a CBO source:
NOAH: The relevant statistic isn't what proportion of the nation's taxes comes from the rich. It's what proportion of the rich's income gets paid in taxes. Brooks cites a Congressional Budget Office report that says people in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income in taxes to the federal government. Boo hoo. What he doesn't say is that back in 1979, on the eve of the Reagan revolution, the richest 1 percent paid 37 percent of their income in taxes to the federal government, even though its share of the nation's income was much lower than it is now (34 percent, including capital gains).
In fairness to Brooks, “Boo hoo” isn’t an argument. Nor is anyone required to care when they’re told that the tax rate in question was once six points higher. But to see that CBO report, just click here. Though even when you go to that report, you may still have a problem.

Go ahead—check over to that report. Its pair of headlines say this:

Effective Federal Tax Rates for All Households, by Comprehensive Household Income Quintile, 1979-2006
Total Effective Federal Tax Rate


Question: Does that include all federal taxes? Payroll taxes and income taxes? And what does “effective tax rate” mean? If the average reader scanned that report, do you think he or she would know?

Noah knows much more than the average bird about where to go for this kind of info. His series at Slate was superb. But it’s remarkably hard for average people to locate such information. Factual claims get thrown all around. They’re very hard to fact-check.

This is a long-term failure of the liberal world. More on this point to come.

22 comments:

  1. The question I have in looking at this data is why do the rich pay so much more in effective tax rate than they do in income tax rates. To get an answer to Bob's question, what does "effective tax rate" mean, take a look at this document:

    http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/57xx/doc5746/08-13-EffectiveFedTaxRates.pdf

    The answer I get from this is that basically, the taxes corporations pay are imputed to those who own them, i.e. the rich, and that's the result of the discrepancy. But that's just me trying to figure what this dense prose means. What do others think?

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  2. I think that expecting "liberals" to teach an uninterested if not actively hostile population the ins and outs of incredibly complex legalities is preposterous.

    At best, people will consider a few digestible sound-bites. From there, they will pick whichever one accords with their sensibilities based on a myriad of factors, almost all of which are completely irrelevant -- e.g. "I'm not buying any explanations from an afro-centric Nazi who wants to steal my paycheck to buy flat screen TVs and hand them out to illegals as they sneak into my country to get free abortions at the ER").

    This line of reasoning is similar to the conservative trope about "shopping around in a free market" for medical care, as if everyone should have the medical knowledge to make such medical decisions that are "right for them". (Or maybe they could if liberals hadn't been asleep in the woods?)

    This notion that every issue should be popular referendum, aggregating whatever actual knowledge or gut reaction each voter can muster, is part of the problem. Complicated issues should be handled by specifically skilled representatives, and they should be held accountable to professional standards and laws, not popularity contests.

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  3. Krugman has a nice handy table to help figure this all out.

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/21/millionaires-the-middle-class-and-taxes-actual-numbers/

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  4. The effective tax rate is found by dividing the tax obligation - estimated tax paid plus tax owed - by adjusted gross income. For the 15-hundred and some earners of more than $10-million in 2009 the effective rate was a trifle over 31%. That's still below the marginal rate, which is the one some rich people and their lackeys whine about.

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  5. I think it must be terrible to be so preoccupied with the issue of other people's money. How much is X being dunned? Well, Y is paying 2.65% less, unless, of course, you factor in the discrepancy tax. And the Z's! They took advantage of a loophole, OMG!

    But that's what you get when you deal in terms of Krugmans and Dowds, Brookses and Obamas. It's no longer about the rightness or wrongness of standing on peoples' necks with government boots, it's about how to pick out the mostly perfectly tailored boots for the job via the most palatable policy that bureaucrats can produce (egged on by the endlessly gibbering aforementioned), validated with the most reliable statistics universally accessible and presented in a concise and simple format that even government educated simpletons can understand.

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  6. The falsity in Brooks' statement that was missed was, "[Obama] claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich." In fact, what he said was that he would accept cuts to Medicare if the legislation also included tax increases on the rich. That is a vastly different statement.

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  7. I think it must be terrible to be so preoccupied with the issue of other people's money.

    I think what we are preoccupied is with what we as a society must provide to all of us. I am not so much preoccupied with my neighbor's money as I am with keeping him safe, making sure his kids education is adequately funded, trying to ensure that he isn't a burden to the rest of us to an unacceptable degree when he grows older. I am not concerned with creating a tax policy for him, I am concerned with creating a tax policy for all of us.

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  8. And now you get at a very sophisticated and salient point, a point I have been trying to articulate for years. Namely, that the complexity of our knowledge systems has reached a level where the Enlightenment principle of not resting on received wisdom and, instead, proceeding on observable data and reason is nullified. That complexity I call "epistemological distance." (Not without a bit of irony, because who among the average working folk will have familiarity with the term "epistemological"?) And yet, here we are in a society where the epistemological distance between crucial knowledge and the average person is too great, and we are collapsing into modern-day medievalism. Krugman's analogy the other day to the leeching of patients is not without its greater resonance. Propaganda, cult of personality, and totemic worship of political party gods is on the rise. The metaphorical "tribalism" DH often speaks of precedes a civilizational collapse into an actual atavistic tribalism.

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. The laughable idea is that you could find an explanation for a directly observed fact that was too complicated to be understood . It leaves out the the three jobs to make ends meet , the responsibilities of young people overwhelmed with their immediate issues . It only becomes too complicated , laughable , to explain an observable fact when you intend to make it so .
    I think the adage , unless you can explain it to a child you don't really understand it , may break things into a useless for propaganda purposes . Unhelpful to the career minded obscurantist . For this reason , in my opinion , the grandiose blanketing of distractions , the poetry in a con mans pitch once was enough of a "tell" to keep people from engaging .
    Now we need priests to explain to our childlike understanding what is hot hot hot , and what is not , let alone discriminate between propaganda and poetry .

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  11. "Factual claims get thrown all around. They’re very hard to fact-check.
    This is a long-term failure of the liberal world."

    The conservatives are beneath contempt, apparently. There's no need to discuss the rightwing, they don't even attempt to deal in fact. The real problem, as always, is the failure of the "liberal world" to achieve perfection. Or is it just that you don't feel the conservatives are worth the effort of educating?

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  12. --*I am not so much preoccupied with my neighbor's money as I am with keeping him safe, making sure his kids education is adequately funded, trying to ensure that he isn't a burden to the rest of us to an unacceptable degree when he grows older.*--

    Sounds kind of creepy to me. Plus: How's that working out for you? Everyone happily employed? Neighbor's kids in the 8th grade reading at an 8th grade level? Health care costs moderating? Social Security lock box still bursting full?

    Besides, who gets to creep through your life to make sure you aren't going to wind up an undo burden on the rest of us (presuming, of course, that the rest of us deign to assume the burden of you)? Some of us already have concerns, if you know what I mean. This tendency to busybodying (coupled, as it has become, to the force of government) appears to be hurting the country in a more than general way, and people with this "preoccupation" might require a minder or two, if that's okay with you. Just until the urges subside, of course. For your own good. And ours.

    One question: Have you actually approached a neighbor with your concerns, or is it sufficient that a smiley-faced proxy sent forth from an un-elected bureaucracy accost your neighbor for you?

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  13. How's that working out for you?

    We haven't been doing that, which is why our country is failing.

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  14. --*We haven't been doing that, which is why our country is failing.*--

    Uh huh. I guess you haven't noticed that the more the government meddles in housing, for instance, the more problems there are with housing. Education? Health care? Social Security? Same deal. The more the government meddles in the economy, the more unpleasantness we have to endure there, too. Whole Foods has to grovel before the FTC for permission to buy a rival chain, but "[w]e haven't been doing that"?

    No, "we've" been doing too much. And "we" shouldn't be doing any of it.

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