MOUNT SEMANTICA WATCH: Provisionally dethroning Kessler!


Semantically-challenged Post fact-checker may have ceased being The Man: In September 2000, we made it official.

People were asking, “Who Da Man?” We announced that it might be Glenn Kessler.

How did you think Kessler got his job as the Washington Post’s fact-checker? We suspect it was us all along.

(See THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/00.)

Kessler had done some nice work at the Post. Today, though, we may be inclined to strip him of his clown, due to needless semantic scuffling in this recent report.

Good grief! The question at issue is this:

If Obama gets his way with the Bush and/or Clinton tax rates, will high earners be facing a “tax increase” next year? Or will they be getting a “tax cut?”

It’s easy to explain the facts. If Obama’s position prevails, high earners will have to pay more in taxes next year than they’re paying this year.

On the other hand:

If Obama's position prevails, high earners will have to pay less in taxes nex tyear than they'll have to pay if all the Bush tax rates expire. Under current law, that’s what is slated to happen at the end of the year. (Obama would retain the Bush rates on income below $250,000.)

There you have the basic facts. Now the semantic question intrudes:

If Obama’s position prevails, are those high earners getting a tax cut? Or are they getting slapped with an increase?

You can call it whatever you like, as long as you explain what you mean. Sensible people avoid such discussions. That said, your lizard brain may tell you to fight to the end.

And that's close to what Kessler did in his uncharacteristically confusing presentation. As he ends his piece, he says he “tends to avoid philosophical [semantic] disputes.” Then he wades right in:
KESSLER (7/10/12): The law is clear: The Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of the year, and a new law is needed to enact new tax cuts. By the numbers, it is difficult to make the case that this is a “massive tax increase.” The president’s proposal would reduce revenue by some $150 billion, and virtually all taxpayers would get some benefit from the proposal.

Now, under “current policy,” wealthier taxpayers would see an increase in taxes. We tend to avoid philosophical disputes, but certainly as a matter of philosophy one could argue that Obama is proposing to boost taxes on the wealthy.

But Republicans in 2001 wanted to have their cake and eat it too, which is why the tax cuts were designed to sunset in the first place. If they had agreed to a smaller tax cut, as some Democrats had demanded, the rate changes would have become permanent—and then the president’s proposal could legitimately be called a tax increase.

The insertion of the words “current policy” would make the Romney statement more accurate, but as it stands it is misleading, especially given the decision by Republican lawmakers to structure the tax cut in this manner.
Alas, clear Kessler! He implies that Obama’s proposal can’t “legitimately” be called a tax increase. But it can be called a tax increase, as long as people know what you mean.

In this case, here’s what you would mean:

Under Obama’s proposal, high earners would have to pay more next year than they’re paying this year. In that sense, their taxes would be higher than they currently are. You can rather sensibly call that a “tax increase.”

(By the way, that’s pretty much what Obama call it. He routinely says that high earners should pay a little bit more.)

We’re going to let Kessler keep his crown. But going forward, you may see a ton of pointless confusion surrounding this point.

We always thought we could turn to Kessler for help. Has “Da Man” let us down?

What your lizard brain may tell you: Your lizard brain may tell you to argue about what such a policy change “really” is.

Unless you simply like to fight, your lizard brain will be wrong.


  1. Only one opinion counts. All else is blather.

    On letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

    “Not continuing a tax cut is not technically a tax increase,” Mr. Norquist told us. So it doesn’t violate the pledge? “We wouldn’t hold it that way,” he said.

    Norquist was quick to add the following:

    “There are certain things you can do technically and not violate the pledge and that the general public would clearly understand is a tax increase,” he said. “Let me be clear, Americans for Tax Reform would oppose any effort to weaken, reduce or not continue the 2001, 2003 Bush tax cuts and in fact any changes in tax should be kept separate from the budget deal.”

    Read more:

  2. I don't like to fight, but I do like to argue. Especially to make facts clearer.

    The thing is, under current law, if Congress and Obama do nothing, taxes will increase by $413 billion a year (using 2010 numbers).

    However, that is not happening because of Obama, it is happening because of the original legislation passed, and signed, in 2001 and 2003.

    Instead of the $413 billion tax increase, Obama is proposing more years of tax cuts, amounting to about $301 billion a year.

    The richest 5% get 26.5% of those cuts or about $80 billion in tax cuts per year - from Obama's proposal. The poorest 40% get 13.9% of those tax cuts - from Obama's proposal. (estimates from Bob at CTJ )

    So I would say that Obama is proposing to cut taxes for the top 1% at least as much as he is proposing tax increases for the top 1%.

    Obama's proposal is very bad. If it came from Romney or Republicans, Democrats would howl about how much it favors the rich - and rightly so. I would, at this point, rather see them all expire than to pass Obama's plan.

    My own plan would be to extend them for the bottom 80% of the population - those making less than $88,000 a year. But in the national discourse, my idea is off the table. Nobody is pushing for such a plan - not even Dean Baker or Robert Reich, to say nothing of Kruggers.

    Neither major party, and scarcely any pundits, are concerned about representing the bottom 80%. Nope, it is all about the top 20%, with Democrats representing the top 19%, which they call the "middle class" and Republicans representing the top .1% which they call the "job creators".

    1. Makes sense to me. However, rather than dick around with the Republicans why doesn't President Obama let the Bush tax cuts expire and than push for his own tax cut ; focusing on the bottom 80% sounds about right.

  3. Obama proposes to cut the tax increase.

    That absolutely accurate statement has both contradictory lizard brain-stimulating words in it. The lizard part of your brain can go tie itself in knots now.

  4. The Bush tax increase is coming, as scheduled.

    Bush's law will sunset as scheduled, raising taxes when it does.

    Unless Obama & Co. do something about it.

    What they do can reasonably be measured against what will happen if they do nothing.

    Relative to the increase coming under the Bush-law baseline,

    They can cut taxes;
    They can raise taxes;


    They can play Bush's game and cut them now agreeing to raise them later.

    But the current state of play is Bush's game.

    Bush's law will give us "the greatest tax increase in history."

    The Democrats might do well to remember to stress that!

  5. And when Obama was lobbying for an extension of his payroll tax cut, he repeatedly said, "We cannot impose a tax increase on hard working men and women in these economic hard times."

  6. Quaker in a BasementJuly 12, 2012 at 1:55 PM

    Kessler had done some nice work at the Post. Today, though, we may be inclined to strip him of his clown,

    Clever wordplay or Freudian slip? Either way, it's full of goodness.

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