IS IT A TAX: Foremost authority speaks!

MONDAY, JULY 9, 2012

SEQUEL—Kathleen Hall Jamieson flounders: We became fans of Kathleen Hall Jamieson in 1996.

“Fans” may not be the right word.

During the 1996 campaign, Jamieson appeared each Monday on Inside Politics, CNN’s politics-only news hour.

In essence, Jamieson was presented as The World’s Foremost Authority—and as a “media analyst.” (Judy Woodruff, on September 23 of that year: “Joining us once again this Monday to decipher the language of the trail is Kathleen Hall Jamieson. She's dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.”)

Jamieson stated her somewhat jargonized views with the maximum possible confidence. We were struck by the frequency with which she would miss the point.

(In fairness, she sometimes took a different approach, advancing claims which were blindingly obvious. On September 16, CNN headlined her appearance this way: “Dean Calls Clinton Ads Both Positive and Negative.”)

We became “fans” that autumn. Yesterday, the Washington Post called on The Dean to headline its Outlook section.

As the week proceeds, we’ll look at some of the basic points in Jamieson’s piece. For today, let’s review what this expert said about last week’s burning questions:

Is the so-called “penalty” in the health care law really a tax? Did Roberts say it's a tax?

Is the penalty payment a tax? Did Justice Roberts so declare? Midway through a longer essay, Jamieson said this about that.

We’re sorry, but this is quite murky:
JAMIESON (7/9/12): When they can lure candidates into interviews, the Sunday talk-show anchors reliably tie rhetoric to reality and promise to performance. Obama has been interviewed by each of the Sunday anchors, albeit not recently. But in September 2009, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos persisted while Obama denied that the individual insurance mandate in his health-care legislation was a tax, even though, as Stephanopoulos noted, it forces “people to spend money, fining you if you don’t.”

“How is that not a tax?” Stephanopoulos asked. At issue was whether Obama had violated his 2008 campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class. Recently the Supreme Court agreed with Stephanopoulos.
Memories lit the corners of our mind! In 1996, we became fans of this foremost authority thanks to efforts like this.

Plainly, Jamieson says or implies the following things in this short, bungled passage:
Jamieson’s claims:
Stephanopoulos said “the individual mandate” is a tax.
Obama denied this claim.
The Supreme Court has now agreed with Stephanopoulos. It too has said that “the individual mandate” is a tax.
Plainly, Jameson makes those claims. But one those claims is just plain wrong. The others are dangerously unclear.

Let’s start with the claim which is just flat wrong. Justice Roberts wasn’t discussing “the individual mandate” when he discussed this question. With perfect clarity, he discussed the “shared responsibility payment”—the so-called “penalty” which is used to enforce the individual mandate.

With perfect clarity, Roberts discussed the so-called penalty payment, not “the individual mandate” itself. And yes, that distinction actually matters. Keep reading.

Roberts wasn’t discussing the mandate itself; quite explicitly, he discussed the “penalty” payment. And when he did, he didn’t say the payment is a tax. He said it can be viewed that way “for constitutional purposes.” He said it can be “considered a tax” for constitutional purposes even though that may not be the most natural way to view it. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/7/12.)

Jamieson did her usual clumsy job in this passage. She failed to clarify these basic points.

Here’s why that confusion matters:

Uh-oh! If you follow Stephanopoulos’ logic (as translated by Jamieson), citizens may be paying a “tax” when they purchase health insurance in line with the individual mandate.

In his long exchange with Obama, it was never clear if that was what Stephanopoulos meant. It was never clear what Obama was disputing. (For fuller transcript, see below.)

Was Stephanopoulos saying the mandate is a “tax” just because it forces you to spend your money to purchase insurance? If so, it isn’t simply the penalty payment which can be scored as a tax. The purchase of insurance itself has now become a tax.

We know—that doesn’t quite seem to make sense. But Stephanopoulos never clarified what he meant. Three years later, neither did Jamieson.

Here’s why that matters:

Good God! According to Jamieson, citizens may be paying a “tax” just when they purchase insurance! If we accept that logic, then humungous numbers of new “tax” dollars will be generated by “the individual mandate.”

According to this logic, everyone who complies with the mandate is being hit with a new federal “tax!” And omigod! If we accept this idea, that RNC claim may be true:

The health care law may actually be “the biggest tax increase in history!”

That logic doesn’t exactly make sense. And no, that isn’t even remotely what Justice Roberts said.

But that’s the possible logic of Jamieson’s characteristically murky prose. And by long-standing consensus, Jamieson is a high-ranking “expert.” She is regarded as same all over the mainstream press!

Your mainstream “press corps” is highly unskilled. When people like this get positioned as watchdogs, all roads lead to the same old place:

President Obama has passed the biggest tax increase in American history! Just like President Clinton did!

“Point taken,” multimillionaire anchors will say. As they do, the voters are getting misled.

This is how voters get misled. This pattern has obtained for decades. In a rational world, experts would clarify matters like this.

Jamieson lacks those skills.

The world’s foremost authority: The comedian known as Professor Irwin Corey was decades ahead of the curve with respect to this syndrome. In the 1950s, he was already burlesquing this process.

Lenny Bruce described the gent as "one of the most brilliant comedians of all time.”

For more information, click here. Corey saw Jamieson coming.

The transcript of the fuller exchange: What was Stephanopoulos really saying that day? What was Obama denying?

Their exchange took place three years ago. To this day, we don’t know:
STEPHANOPOULOS (9/20/09): You were against the individual mandate during the campaign.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don’t. How is that not a tax?

OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, George. Here—here’s what’s happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average—our families—in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I’ve said is that if you can’t afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn’t be punished for that. That’s just piling on. If, on the other hand, we’re giving tax credits, we’ve set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we’ve driven down the costs, we’ve done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you’ve just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that’s—

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it’s still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That’s not true, George. The—for us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it’s saying is, is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that— Right now, everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, “That is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I’m not covering all the costs.”

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy—

OBAMA: No, but—but, George, you—you can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase. Any—


OBAMA: What, what, if I— If I say that right now your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10 percent next year and you say, “Well, that’s not a tax increase. But, on the other hand, if I say that I don’t want to have to pay for you not carrying coverage even after I give you tax credits that make it affordable, then—

STEPHANOPOULOS: I—I don’t think I’m making it up. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: Tax: “a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.”

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam’s Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you’re stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition. I mean what you’re saying is—

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, no, but I wanted to check for myself. But your critics say it is a tax increase.

OBAMA: My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy. You know that. Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we’re going to have an individual mandate or not, but...

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you reject that it’s a tax increase?

OBAMA: I absolutely reject that notion.
Stephanopoulos keep calling something a tax increase. In reply, Obama kept repeating his talking points.

But what was Stephanopoulos calling a tax increase? Was he calling the penalty payment a tax increase? Or was he calling the forced purchase of insurance a tax increase?

From start to finish, it wasn’t clear. That said, when Obama introduced the auto insurance point, he seemed to think that Stephanopoulos was saying that the very purchase of insurance was in itself a new tax.

At any rate, it was never clear what these two fellows meant. And uh-oh! When such points of confusion come into being, the RNC kicks in the door.

Three years later, Jamieson still left this point unclear in Outlook; she even said that Roberts had called the mandate itself a tax. Just a guess: RNC hustlers are using this point to drive their “biggest tax increase” claim. We will never find out, of course, because people like Jamieson and Cooper aren’t up to the task of challenging their familiar old claims, of finding out what they are claiming.

Voters get badly misled this way. The whole world pays the price.


  1. I find it very clear that apart from the distinction Justice Roberts made in saying that viewing the penalty as a tax (while not utterly straight forward) is accurate and so applicable in the Court's duty to move on the side of legislation, Jamieson and Stephanopoulos were iterating the argument that the mandate itself is a tax.

    That the mandate is that, is arguable. What is not arguable is the claim that Roberts made that case. He did not.

  2. Not all mandatory payments to the government are taxes, or are called taxes. Governments institute fees for all kinds of things, and they are not called taxes, and when they rise they are not called tax increases. In fact, Republican governments have been huge fans of this approach, because that way they can raise _revenue_ without raising _taxes_. And it's mindboggling to see people choose to play this dumb on something so basic as a matter of definition.

    1. Yeah, you know what they say about the mandates of death and paying fees...