IS IT A TAX: Way over their heads!


Part 2—Our scribes aren’t up to this challenge: Is the “penalty” in the health care law actually a tax?

American journalists are miles beyond their (limited) depth in trying to figure that out.

Alas! Especially at the highest levels, our journalists have a very hard time even getting the simplest facts straight. In just the past few weeks, we’ve seen a succession of highest-ranking “journalists” as they make a wide array of bogus factual statements:

The Texas schools have good test scores—but Gail Collins is tramping the countryside saying their test scores stink.

Last week, Gene Robinson declared that SB 1070 includes “the requirement that police check the immigration status of anyone who is detained”—a claim which is plainly inaccurate.

Another Pulitzer winner, Kathleen Parker, seemed to have no idea that there actually are quite a few new taxes in the health care law. In a new profile in Rolling Stone, Rachel Maddow is praised to the skies for making a statement about the male-female wage gap—a statement which was plainly inaccurate. (See our next post.)

As a group, these people just aren’t very sharp. Often, they aren’t overwhelmingly honest. In many cases, it has been years since they tried to clarify something important—to figure something out.

They spend their time in makeup and hair. Then, they pore over their Q-ratings. They waste valuable time doing daytime shows or in consultation with agents.

And then, omigod! A dispute arises—in this case, a semantic dispute! Do you really think that creatures like these can help you figure it out? You might as well ask them to hold the whole sea in their mouths, as that one brother did long ago.

Is that “penalty” really a tax? For ourselves, we would answer the question this way: In a sense, but not as such!

Let’s offer a bit more detail:

In one fairly straightforward way, the so-called “penalty” clearly is a penalty (or a fine). Citizens are told they must do X (in this case, they must obtain health insurance). If the citizen doesn’t do X, he must surrender some money.

In a straightforward way, that would routinely be called a penalty or a fine. How do we know that? As Senator Ervin so smartly said: Because we speak the English language. It’s our mother tongue!

In a fairly straightforward way, the provision in question really is a penalty. But then, in one fairly straightforward way, it pretty much seems like some form of a “tax.” Under terms of the health care law, the penalty must be paid through the IRS—through the offending citizen’s annual tax submission.

If the citizen fails to obtain insurance, his tax submission will be higher next April. In this sense, it certainly looks like a “tax” is somehow involved!

In our personal view, this submission is more a fine (or a fee) than a tax. But there is no law in nature which says it can’t be both, in some sense or other.

There is no Mount Semantica here on this earth. No prophet ever brought tablets down from any such mountain, telling us what we must call things.

There is no rule which declares that some provision must be a penalty or must be a tax. Nor did Justice Roberts, in his ruling, make such a declaration about the provision under review.

Roberts, you see, is a good deal smarter than most of our high-ranking “journalists.” Tomorrow, we’ll look at what he did say—and no, he actually didn’t say that the submission is question is just flat-out a tax. But then, you have seen very few news orgs which have bothered quoting and discussing what Roberts actually said.

People! That would qualify as hard work—and our “journalists” simply don’t it! In this case, they wouldn’t know how to perform such work if they decided to try.

Actually trying to figure things out is an offense to the guild.

The current dispute is especially noxious to the guild because it’s a “semantic” dispute. Such disputes can actually be very important—but in the preserves of businessmen, it’s more common to roll one’s eyes at such disputes, renouncing them as confections.

At one time, Josh Marshall was one of our smartest players. But then, he took a different route. Yesterday, he was offering this unwise and unhelpful proclamation:
MARSHALL (7/2/12): Stop the stupid

I’ve got a question: Just how stupid are all you reporters? No, that’s not a rhetorical question. Whether you want to call the ACA health care mandate a tax or not is mainly a semantic point. It’s a penalty or tax or perhaps a tax penalty on people who refuse to purchase health insurance, even after they received subsidies that make it possible. But Republicans are now saying it’s the “biggest tax increase in history”–either of America or the universe of whatever. But this is demonstrably false.
Marshall went on to make an important and accurate point—the claim that the overall health care law represents the biggest tax increase in history is just moronically stupid. But in the process, he acted like the “sematic” dispute isn’t really worth clarifying.

Sorry—that’s unintelligent too. Some “semantic” disputes are mere confections. But some such disputes are very real. They can be very important.

Unfortunately, asking the “press corps” to clarify such a dispute is like asking them to swallow the ocean. Remember the last time this happened?

In 1995 and 1996, we were hit with a major semantic dispute. At issue was President Clinton’s claim that the GOP was proposing unacceptably large Medicare cuts.

The GOP responded by insisting that their proposals included no “cuts” at all! For the better part of two years, the mainstream press corps floundered and flailed in the face of this dispute.

Our “journalists” were several miles over their heads in this groaning nightly discussion. No professors stepped forward to help them—and none will step forward now. The truth is, we have no professors of semantics or logic. For the most part, our “professors” are fictitious too.

Is that provision really a tax? Justice Roberts didn’t exactly say that it was. But our “journalists” are too lazy to quote him, and if they did, they would have no idea how to proceed from there. This leaves us with semi-floundering exchanges like this one:
TODD (7/2/12): The governor [Romney] does not believe the mandate is a tax? That's what you're saying?

FEHRNSTROM: The governor believes that what we put in place in Massachusetts was a penalty and he disagrees with the court's ruling that the mandate was a tax. But again—

TODD: So he agrees with the president? But he agrees with the president that it is not— And he believes that you shouldn't call the, the tax penalty a tax? You should call it a penalty or a fee or a fine?

FEHRNSTROM: That's correct.
You shouldn’t call the tax penalty a tax! You should call the tax penalty a penalty!

In truth, our old pal Chuck did better than most in constructing that somewhat confusing account. But tremendous confusion is going to reign as a fictitious press corps holds fictitious discussions in which they pretend to be figuring out this confusing dispute.

Might we offer a few words of wisdom? You can call him Johnson or you can call him Jackson! She was Faye Dunaway's sister and her daughter! Certs is a candy mint—and it’s a breath mint!

(“You’re both right,” the announcer famously declared. “New Certs is two mints in one!”)

In our view, the penalty imposed by the individual mandate isn’t much of a “tax.” Essentially, it’s a fine (or a fee) which must be paid (for the sake of convenience) through a citizen’s tax submission. Would anybody call it a “tax” if the offending citizen had to pay the fee by sending a separate check to the Treasury?

In that case, very few people would call it a tax. But the essential transaction’s the same.

In our view, this isn’t much of a “tax.” On the other hand, as Justice Roberts kept saying in his opinion, fines and fees and penalties and taxes are just different types of “exactions.” In every case, citizens are required to submit a chunk of money to the government.

Is a fee really different from a tax? Just how different is it?

In normal parlance, we wouldn’t call this submission a tax; we’d be much more inclined to call it a fine. But then, that’s pretty much what Roberts said in his rarely-quoted opinion.

Your “journalists” won’t worry their pretty heads reading through Roberts’ actual words. That would qualify as work. Instead, they’ll do what they always do:

They’ll quote what different people have said. Then, they’ll shout their slogans.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Roberts’ words. Happy Fourth, everybody!

Tomorrow: Quoting the raven

Watching our journalists talk: David Gregory is very famous. He is paid—what—eight million dollars per year?

(We couldn’t find an estimate; the mainstream "press corps" protects its own from such unseemly disclosures. At the time he took over Meet the Press, Gregory’s wife was being paid $3 million per year as executive vice president of Fannie Mae, according to Human Events and FAIR.)

Gregory is very high ranking; he seems like a decent guy. But here’s part of the way he reasoned and talked on Sunday’s Meet the Press.

He spoke with Nancy Pelosi:
GREGORY (7/1/12): To the extent that you believe and others believe the Supreme Court has conferred an extra level of legitimacy on this health care act, the reality is that the Court also said that the act is in effect a tax, that the individual mandate requiring that folks who can buy insurance is a tax.


GREGORY: But it's a new tax.

PELOSI: No, no, but—

GREGORY: It is a new tax on the American people.

PELOSI: No, no, no. It's not a tax on the American people. It's a tax—it's a penalty for free riders.
At least he said “in effect” at one point. But tell us this:

Projections say that this penalty will be paid by one percent of the public. Even if you want to call it a “tax,” would you call it a tax “on the American people” if it’s only paid by one percent of such folk?

There are no tablets from Mount Semantica which can settle such disputes. We’re left with our own abilities and skills—and the skills of the press corps are few.

At one time, loose lips sank ships. Today, loose lips tilt our major discussions.

Same basic idea.


  1. Good GAWD Almighty, Somerby! If this is your contribution to the discussion of the Supreme Court decision, please give it up before you make yourself even more irrelevant than you already are.

    It makes no difference if it is called a "tax" "fee" "fine" "penalty" or "PINK panties from Victoria's Secret." The fact remains that the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Congress can assess and collect it under the taxing power granted to it in the Constitution.

    Period. And should be the end of discussion -- UNLESS you are now pimping Republican talking points.

    1. Any political discussion that goes beyond who won and who lost confuses and scares me.

    2. If this is your contribution to the discussion of the Supreme Court decision

      He's not focused on contributing to the discussion of the decision. He's criticizing how the media is handling it. (They are doing it poorly, as usual.)

      That's what this site is about.

      It makes no difference if it is called a "tax" "fee" "fine" "penalty" or "PINK panties from Victoria's Secret."

      I believe Bob said as much, and more than once:

      "Might we offer a few words of wisdom? You can call him Johnson or you can call him Jackson! She was Faye Dunaway's sister and her daughter! Certs is a candy mint—and it’s a breath mint!"

      Kudos to Bob for slipping in the Chinatown ref.

    3. Funny, isn't it, that it's invariably the Bobettes who reduce every dispute to the personal: those who take issue with Bobism are confused and scared; are too stupid to comprehend the arguments; are infatuated with Rachel Maddow, etc.

      Meanwhile, the notion that Somerby's press criticism is responsive to American realities is, on its face, seemingly ludicrous, whether one is confused and scared or not, given the life and death issues at hand.

      And that Somerby's critiques of MSNBC and NYT are invariably mounted from the right -- with the rare exception of Bain Capital -- when there's a wealth of things that could be said of the corporate toadyism that goes on at MSNBC and NYT, is even stranger.

      Then again, the attacks from the right are easy, because they're done for Bob, in the form of Republican talking-points -- he doesn't have to look very far. To attack MSNBC from the left, however, requires a little more effort and an actual knowledge of the issues -- which can't be expected of the Howler, who's apparently too enlightened to study anything but The Rachel Maddow Show.

    4. First, what is a GAWD Almighty?
      Also, you seem to be blind or oblivious to the right wing propaganda machine that will jump all over (and have already) any "tax increase." For at least 40 years I have heard all about the "tax and spend democrats/liberals." Where have you been? With your head in a hole in the ground?
      The supposition that Bob Somerby is a Republican by a certain few here is mind boggling. Did schools stop teaching reading comprehension and critical thinking?

      Horace Feathers

    5. Somerby's critiques of MSNBC and NYT are invariably mounted from the right..

      Well, Somerby's critiques are fact-based, if that's what you mean. :)

    6. @Horace Feathers

      Thanks, first of all, for providing yet another illustration of the Bobette tendency: anyone who objects to Bobism is deficient in reading comprehension. There couldn't possibly be a defensible difference of opinion, could there?

      Funny also, how it's okay here to routinely refer to the low IQs of liberals with whom Bob disagrees, but the same simply must not be said of Tea Party types. Another distinguishing of Bobism, apparently.

      In any case, I don't think the issue is whether anyone believes Bob is a Republican. Bob is Bob -- meaning he's professionally lazy, self-infatuated and eternally crankish, and will look for *any* and *every* opportunity to press his case, no matter how silly, nitpicking and irrelevant that makes his press criticism.

    7. I disagree with your statements, and detect more than a note of mean-spiritedness in your remarks. I find Somerby to be a "self"-critical Progressive - one who brooks no foolishness on his own team, so as to build a stronger and truer movement. I wonder why someone who feels like you do would bother reading this site or commenting on its direction? If you are a Liberal or Progressive, can't you take what's good from Somerby's POV, rather than throwing out the baby with the baby. It's just not accurate to disparage his commentary in its entirety as silly, nitpicking, and irrelevant. He says quite a bit of tremendous value for Liberals to listen to and think carefully about. He seems to care deeply about the state of things in our country and the world, and its disheartening to witness people seeming to dig their heels in churlishly.

    8. 2;12's criticism of Somerby was mean-spirited? Do you read what Somerby says of Maddow? You have to, because he says the same thing, day after day after day.

      And that, I believe, is 2:12's chief criticism, as well as mine. This once unique and thoughtful blog has become lazy. Very lazy.

      He's down to repeating himself over and over again, and since he long ago spoke his last original thought, he's now down to borrowing GOP talking points with which to beat the same handful of MSNBC and NYT folks with.

  2. @David in Cal:

    "Well, Somerby's critiques are fact-based, if that's what you mean. :)"

    Which is precisely what at least some "liberals" here object to: the fact that Somerby flatters right-wingers like yourself, by effectively foreclosing other points of views, than the right-wing one.

    As you yourself would appear to be somewhat factually challenged, it's all the more hilarious to hear that you come to this site to have your prejudices confirmed.

    Bob and the Bobettes ought to take great comfort in that knowledge.

    1. "effectively foreclosing other points of view"? What the hell are you talking about? This is Somerby's blog; he says what he wants to. Comments seem unmoderated. What's your beef, other than Somerby doesn't tell you how smart and virtuous you are every day, like Rachel does?

    2. Anonymous 2:29

      Thanks! Yet another illustration that the Bobettes simply MUST reduce every dispute to the personal. Besides, who cares if what Somerby says is ridiculous? That's not the point!

      BTW. I've never watched Rachel Maddow, so you're probably assuming a little too much, not that you're likely to be dissuaded.

  3. The idea, the very idea:

    "it's invariably the Bobettes who reduce every dispute to the personal: those who take issue with Bobism are confused and scared; are too stupid to comprehend the arguments; are infatuated with Rachel Maddow, etc."

    That is the biggest load of horse crap ever to have been posted in comments here. (Which is a real mountain of it!) And we can date all of this with the Google thingy.

    "The personal" was raised in comments here first and most consistently by the anti-Somerby posters.

    Those who have been here since the not-so-long-ago-beginning of comments are well aware, but a search of the comments will confirm:

    -Anti-Somerby posters first (and routinely) called into question the thinking powers of anyone who agreed with Somerby.

    -Anti-Somerby posters reflexively referred to agreement with Somerby as being the realm of "sheep" or "cows" needing "sweet hay."

    -Anti-Somerby posters claimed to be the only real free thinkers, a degree better than the rest of us who need Bob to "do our thinking for us."

    Now that those modes of comment have been turned back on them, the Anti-Somerby camp whine and mewl -- and attempt to rewrite history.

    Of course, the the phrase "ant-Somerby posters" above should be taken with a grain of salt. It's really just one or two outright douchebag liars.

    1. No, you see this is where a bad case of psychological projection takes place. Pretty much everything Bob says about his favorite targets applies to just about every Bob post these days.

      Unprepared, trivial, intellectually lazy.

      You know, at least Maddow has a variety of issues she talks about.

    2. Of course, the the phrase "ant-Somerby posters" above should be taken with a grain of salt. It's really just one or two outright douchebag liars.

      Who are also Anonymous cowards...

      Yes, I know.

    3. The Maddow personality cult just might be the worst thing that's happened to liberals in a long time. Somerby has been a remarkably consistent critic his entire career, always harping on the same general things. Only the names have changed as the self-proclaimed left-wing media joined the party and proceeded to commit the same sins as its Fox/CNN counterparts.

      Bob's point, as it has been all along, is that the primary corrupting influence of our media has been corporate, not ideological.

      The rise of MSNBC has proven his hypothesis after all these years.

      Anyone who claims to see a change in Bob or questions the integrity/consistency of his approach just has not been paying attention. I don't call you stupid. I'm saying - go back and read the archives. Bob hasn't changed.

    4. Maddow personality cult? Really?

  4. Somerby. Get some anti-virus software.

    1. The comments reflect the blog.