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."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.
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.
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.