DEATH AND TAXES AND NOVELS: The New York Times’ D-minus work!


Part 4—Compared to whom and to what: Readers of the New York Times can count on two things—dogs and taxes.

They can count on a stream of crackpot reports about the adventures of Mitt Romney’s dog, direct from the summer of 83. This morning, America’s craziest columnist is up on the roof of the car again.

(It’s true. Dowd has been surpassed.)

Then too, there’s the paper’s attempts to report on the nation’s tax policy. The reports on Romney’s dog are sad; the reporting on taxes may be even worse.

Consider what happened two weeks ago when the Times devoted a sprawling half-page to the current tax proposals of the various GOP hopefuls, including one candidate who would quit the race that very day.

Make no mistake—these GOP candidates have advanced a set of ludicrous tax proposals. Even as the GOP weeps and moans about the nation’s very large deficits, the candidates are proposing that taxes be lowered—lowered by large amounts. They especially want to lower taxes on the very highest earners—on people whose effective tax rates have been cut almost in half over the past thirty years, even as their incomes have massively grown.

In the last four Republican debates, those in South Carolina and Florida, none of the multimillionaire moderators asked these candidates about these proposals. Tomorrow, we’ll review the hopeless performances of these white-shoe “broadcast journalists.”

For today, let’s review the way the New York Times reported the basic facts about those tax proposals.

January 19 was the big day. Michael Cooper and David Kocieniewski shared the honors; in the hard-copy New York Times, their sprawling report consumed the top half of page A15. This is the way they started:
COOPER/KOCIENIEWSKI (1/19/12): Higher Deficits Seen In Romney's Tax Plan, And His Rivals', Too

When Mitt Romney suggested this week that he pays a lower tax rate than most wealthy Americans do, he refocused attention on his tax proposals—which, like those of his major Republican rivals, would largely cut taxes for the rich while driving down tax collections and widening the nation's deficit.

Mr. Romney's tax plan—which calls for permanently extending the Bush administration's tax cuts, reducing the corporate income tax rate and eliminating the estate tax—would cut the taxes of people earning more than a million dollars a year by an average of $295,874, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group.

Since Mr. Romney would also allow some of President Obama's tax cuts to expire, his plan would effectively raise taxes on some people earning less than $40,000 a year. The Romney tax plan would add to the deficit by reducing federal revenues by $600 billion in 2015, a 16 percent cut, the center found.
As far as we know, nothing is “wrong” in that passage—although, in a fairly typical moment, a contradictory figure seems to appear in this accompanying graphic, where we’re told that people earning more than a million will save $286,880 on average.

Whatever! A reader does get imitations of knowledge in this opening passage, where he is told that Romney’s proposals would “drive down tax collections and widen the nation’s deficit.” And, as the writers continue, they report a remarkable fact: “Some of Mr. Romney's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination are proposing tax cuts that would widen the deficit even more.”

That’s an astonishing fact.

For better or worse, you have to look to that accompanying graphic to learn the size of those other proposals—to learn how much revenue those other proposals would cost. But good grief! Where Romney’s proposal would cost the treasury $600 billion in 2015, Newt Gingrich’s proposals would cost the treasury an astonishing $1.28 trillion that year! Rick Santorum’s proposals would cost $1.3 trillion, the graphic says.

Rick Perry’s proposals were also included, although he wasn't long for the race. His proposals would have cost the treasury $995 billion in 2015, we were told. The cost of Ron Paul’s proposals wasn’t available, the graphic said.

Those are remarkable facts—to the extent that they are facts and to the extent that they're understood. But what do those startling facts really mean? At this point, the reporting by the New York Times takes a turn for the dumpster:

Duh. The reporters tell us that Romney’s proposals would cost the treasury $600 billion in 2015. But in their report, they fail to answer a basic question: Romney’s proposals would cost $600 billion as compared to what? Romney’s proposals would cost the treasury that much swag when compared to what alternate plan?

Alas! The reporters don’t answer those questions in their report. The information is found in the tiniest print on the entire half-page, buried inside that large graphic:

“Analysis is for federal taxes in 2015 and uses current laws, including the expiration of the 2001-3 tax cuts as a baseline.”

That information appears in tiny italicized letters—and yes, it hugely matters. This analysis makes a large assumption; it assumes that all the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of this year, although no major player supports such a plan, including Barack Obama.

This doesn’t mean that this analysis is “wrong;” it just means that it imagines a world in which federal revenues hugely increase with the return of the Clinton tax rates. Compared to that imagined world, the Republican plans would in fact cause those giant revenue losses. But the writers don’t explain this point of comparison in their report—and there’s little reason to believe that this imaginary world will ever exist.

The reporters show us some very large numbers. But to tell the truth, they don’t explain where those numbers came from or what those numbers mean.

This is awful reporting. The writers have chosen to use a baseline which swells the apparent size of the GOP revenue losses; they don’t explain that they have done so, and they don’t give you other baselines from which you might want to proceed. There’s no good reason to report this matter this way, as the Washington Post made clear in their featured editorial this Monday.

In their editorial, the editors savaged the GOP candidates for the reckless way they throw away future revenues—but they described the size of the revenue losses much more clearly. By extending all the Bush tax cuts, all the GOP candidates throw away $3.7 trillion in revenue over ten years, the editors instantly explained. They then explained how much revenue the candidates would throw away in addition to that:
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (1/31/12): The case for continuing the George W. Bush tax cuts, at a cost of $3.7 trillion over 10 years (including interest), is shaky enough. The cuts for the wealthy alone, which President Obama would end, would cost with interest about $1 trillion over the next decade. But the GOP candidates want to continue all those cuts—and add many more, the vast bulk of which would again go to the wealthiest taxpayers.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney proposes additional cuts that would drain $180 billion from the treasury in 2015 alone, according to calculations by the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center. The nonpartisan center has not calculated the 10-year cost of the plan. But merely multiplying by 10 illustrates that Romney is talking trillions.

And Mr. Romney’s is the most modest of the GOP proposals. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan would cost an astonishing $850 billion in 2015 on top of the Bush tax cuts. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s would cost $900 billion in 2015 alone.
That presentation is much more informative—much more competent—than the presentation found in the Times. In this recitation, Romney throws away $3.7 trillion over ten years just by extending the Bush tax cuts. Through the rest of his proposals, he proceeds to throw away $180 billion more, in the year 2015 alone! Gingrich throws away “an astonishing $850 billion in 2015 on top of the Bush tax cuts.”

On top of the Bush tax cuts! In just that one year alone!

Does it matter if your country has a coherent public discourse? If it does, the Post presents, in a few simple paragraphs, a much clearer account of this matter than the hapless, lumbering New York Times achieved in a sprawling half-page. Readers can still get these facts jumbled up—but the Post’s account in much clearer.

If you don’t care about matters like this, you’re looking for a novel, not for real information. But if we’re looking for usable knowledge, something is missing from both these accounts:

Where the heck is Barack Obama? What about his proposals?

Good grief! As the Post notes in passing, Obama himself has proposed extending most of the Bush tax cuts. Judging from the numbers the Post presents, it seems that this proposal will cost the treasury $2.7 trillion over ten years if we “use current laws, including the expiration of the 2001-3 tax cuts as a baseline.” But how much would Obama’s full set of proposals cost? Does a full set of proposals exist? Neither the Post nor the Times makes any attempt to say.

In the case of the hapless report by the Times, we’re told how much Perry’s proposals would cost. But we aren’t supposed to wonder or care about Obama’s proposals!

No one but the hapless Times would offer such groaning incompetence. We’re asked to care about Perry’s proposals—but not about Obama’s! And we have to seek out some very fine print to find the baseline being used—although few readers who notice that text are likely to understand the meaning of what it conveys.

In the process, the Times gives you imitations of knowledge—some very rough depictions of the actual world. This is a terrible piece of reporting—the kind of D-minus tax reporting which has long defined our world.

In our view, those are terrible tax proposals—but what about Obama’s proposals? At the Times, you aren’t supposed to care.

Look over there! Rick Perry!

Tomorrow: In four successive TV shows, the multimillionaires didn’t ask

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