Part 4—The New York Times doesn’t do taxes: What the heck did Paul Ryan propose concerning federal taxes?
If you read the New York Times, you have little idea. Yesterday, the Times spilled over with news reporting about a random Etch a Sketch comment. But for the second consecutive day, our greatest newspaper had little to say about Ryan’s tax proposals. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/22/12.
Years ago, Leona Helmsley told the world that taxes were for “the little people.” Who knows? Perhaps that view prevails even today at the New York Times! But then, it may have been for the best when the Times took a pass on Paul Ryan’s proposals.
Consider what happens when the New York Times does try to discuss federal taxes.
Since one day after the dawn of time, federal taxes have played a central role in our national politics. On March 14, Eduardo Porter devoted his weekly Economic Scene column to one part of federal tax practice.
Porter discussed the way “tax expenditures” (tax loopholes, tax breaks) tend to favor higher earners. A great deal of our public discussion concerns those parts of federal policy which favor lower earners, with conservatives making invidious claims about all the freeloading that is involved. For that reason, Porter had chosen a highly worthwhile, if somewhat challenging, topic.
That said, does the Times know how to talk taxes, even after all these years? Porter had a worthy subject. But quickly, this text appeared:
PORTER (3/14/12): At first glance the budget does seem heavily tilted to take from the rich and redistribute to the rest. Taxpayers in the top fifth of the population shoulder three-quarters of the federal tax burden and receive only about 10 percent of entitlement spending, according to calculations by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.Yikes! Were the highlighted claims correct? Is it true that “taxpayers in the top fifth of the population shoulder three-quarters of the federal tax burden?” More strikingly: Is it true that “families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution pay less than 1 percent of taxes?”
Families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution pay less than 1 percent of taxes and receive about 60 percent of entitlements.
Frankly, we weren’t sure. Beyond that, we weren’t even sure we knew what Porter meant!
When Porter referred to “the federal tax burden,” which federal taxes did he mean? Presumably, he meant all federal taxes, including so-called “payroll taxes.” But he didn’t specify what he meant, and trust us—Times readers had no idea.
We were even more puzzled as Porter continued. When he said that the bottom 40 percent “pay less than 1 percent of taxes,” we assumed he meant “less than 1 percent of federal taxes.” But once again, he didn’t specify that—and if he meant “less than 1 percent of federal taxes,” did that include federal payroll taxes?
To our ear, “less than one percent of all federal taxes” sounded rather low. But then again, we didn’t know—and things got a bit more confusing as Porter continued.
Later in his report, Porter explained what percent of their income “the bottom 20 percent” would pay “in all federal taxes.” This represented a third construction concerning what taxes were being discussed.
To this confusion, let us add two glaring typos in our hard-copy Times, only one of which has been corrected on-line.
Outcome: We were left with a presentation which we found rather confusing.
Can we talk? This seems like a very careless way to discuss such major issues. As everybody understands, claims that lower earners don’t pay their fair share represent a major part of right-wing propaganda. Just for the sake of clarity, journalists should be very careful how they approach such topics.
Concerning that bottom 40 percent: Before you tell us what percentage of “taxes” they pay, it’s always a good idea to let us know what percentage of national income they receive. In many instances, amazing statistics get less amazing real fast when this fact is included.
In this case, we still weren’t sure what kinds of “taxes” Porter actually meant. Once again, is it really true? Do families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution really pay less than 1 percent of all federal taxes? Is that what Porter meant?
To this day, we simply don’t know. Therein lies a major problem, one which eclipses the Times.
Are we self-impressed human beings really “the rational animals?” If that were the case, you’d think we’d have an accessible way to answer these questions by now. Questions like these have driven our politics for the past many years. If we lived in a slightly rational world, accessible data bases would exist where such basic information was available.
Question: Do you know where you can go to answer such basic questions? Frankly, we do not. In the case of Porter’s column, we spent more than an hour googling around trying to answer our basic question: What percentage of all federal taxes are paid by the lower 40 percent of earners?
Based on our googling, we’re fairly sure it’s more than one percent. We’ll guess that Porter’s statistic referred to that group’s share of federal income taxes. But we still can’t say for sure. Eventually, we stopped looking.
(What percentage of income is earned by the bottom forty percent? Do you know where to go to find the answer?)
Question: What kind of society functions this way, decade after decade? The Hannitys pimp their invidious claims, convincing listeners that “those people” are failing to pay their fair share. But our biggest newspapers take a slacker approach to such questions—and no one gets around to creating a digest of basic information.
The information is available somewhere, of course. We’ll guess that Kevin Drum knows where to find it. But where do we the average folk turn? And in what kind of world is such basic information so maddeningly hard to find?
Let’s be clear. We aren’t suggesting that Porter was trying to reinforce Hannity’s claims. As a general matter, the thrust of his column went in the other direction. But we were struck by the slacker approach he took to such basic questions, with editors’ consent.
In what kind of society do we all live? Was it constructed by rational animals?
Why do progressives put up with this shit? And does the soul of Leona Helmsley live on at the New York Times?
Next week: Professors and corporate-picked liberals