The three faces of the New York Times!


What hath Ryan’s plan wrought: If you read today’s New York Times, you may not know what to think.

What’s in Paul Ryan’s new budget plan? More specifically, what happens to the marginal tax rate?

That’s a very basic question. If you read the news pages first, this is what you were told:
PETERS AND WEISMAN (3/13/13): Republicans said their plan would balance the budget in 10 years, a contention the White House said was impossible given that it would cut the top marginal income tax rate, which the wealthiest Americans pay, to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, depriving the government of considerable tax revenue.
Reading that passage, you might get the impression that Ryan’s budget would “cut the top marginal income tax 25 percent.”

(We know, we know! It doesn’t quite say that. But you might well get that impression.)

If you read the news pages first, you might get that impression. But uh-oh! If you turned to the editorial page, this is what you read next:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (3/13/13): The 2014 [Ryan] budget is even worse than that of the previous two years because it attempts to balance the budget in 10 years instead of the previous 20 or more. That would take nondefense discretionary spending down to nearly 2 percent of the economy, the lowest in modern history. And in its laziest section, it sets a goal of slashing the top tax rate for the rich to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, though naturally Mr. Ryan doesn’t explain how this could happen without raising taxes on middle- and lower-income people. (Sound familiar?)
It “sets a goal” of lowering the top tax rate? Do you have any idea what that means? By now, do you have any idea what Ryan has proposed?

The reader is confronting the wisdom in the old joke known as Goldberg’s Law. (“The man with one clock always knows the time. The man with two clocks is never quite sure.”) In desperation, that reader may turn to Annie Lowrey’s News Analysis piece, hoping for clarification.

In 1185 words, Lowrey doesn’t break the tie. She never mentions the marginal tax rate, although it seems to us that she creates some confusion of her own, even as she keeps assuring us that she’s quoting a long string of “experts.”

As far as we know, everything Lowrey says is technically accurate, but it seems to us that she creates a somewhat confusing stew. How many readers will understand the logic of this passage?
LOWREY (3/13/13): As sensible as a balanced budget might sound—much like a balanced checkbook for a family—countries are generally able to run modest deficits for years on end while still keeping debt stable as a share of economic output. One year's deficit is effectively paid off by later economic growth, especially if a government is investing in public goods like roads and schools.

But several right-leaning fiscal experts described a balanced budget as a tool to force a fractious Congress to tackle the nation's long-term budget problems.

''It is important to reduce the debt, and balancing gets you there faster,'' said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a prominent Republican economist. ''That's paramount.''

He said a balanced budget is a goal everyone could understand. ''It gives Congress a way to say no,'' he said. ''Transparency and political buy-in are important, and people understand balanced budgets. It has a lot of virtues.''
Does anybody understand that highlighted statement by Holtz-Eakin? In the most simple-minded sense, the only way to “reduce the debt” is to run an annual surplus. Is that what Holtz-Eakin means? Does he mean that we need to get to balance first, after which we need to proceed to an annual surplus?

We don’t know, and Lowrey doesn’t say. As we continued reading, we wondered how many people understood this passage:
LOWREY (continuing directly): The Senate Democratic proposal does not balance the budget, but it does reduce deficits to below 3 percent of economic output—a level that would stabilize the debt, economists said. During the 10-year budget window, the debt would start to shrink as a proportion of the economy.

Mr. Ryan's budget balances by 2023. It keeps the current levels of projected tax revenue, and makes ambitious if lightly detailed cuts in a wide variety of domestic government programs, including turning the Medicaid program into a block grant to states.
Under the Democratic proposal, the debt would only “start to shrink as a proportion of the economy.” We wondered: How many readers understand that the same is true under Ryan’s proposal? How many people understood that, even under Ryan’s proposal, the debt would only “start to shrink as a proportion of the economy?”

In all honesty, these topics aren’t super hard to explain. We don’t think Lowrey accomplished that task, though readers may not have noticed. As with the Higgs boson, to too with this type of work:

As long as the sentences seem to flow, readers may not realize that they don't understand anything much that's been said.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

Peruse Lowrey’s work for the Harvard Crimson, extending through June 2007. There's certainly nothing wrong with that work. But do you understand why this person, who is now 28, is writing major News Analysis pieces—about the federal budget, no less—for our most influential newspaper?

As far as we know, there’s nothing “wrong” in Lowrey’s News Analysis piece, though some of her statements may be misleading. But no, we really can’t answer that question:

Why is this rather young, rather unremarkable person in this very high-profile job? Are we involved, for the three millionth time, in an imitation of life?

Not quite breaking the tie: In the last passage we quoted, Lowrey says that Ryan’s budget “keeps the current levels of projected tax revenue.” What does that tell you about the role of the marginal tax rate in this plan?

After reading all three of these New York Times pieces, we still don’t know how to answer that question, which is quite basic. As Goldberg himself could tell you:

This is often what it’s like when you read every word in the Times.


  1. The New York Times demonizes Ryan's plan by making things up. They write:

    it sets a goal of slashing the top tax rate for the rich to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, though naturally Mr. Ryan doesn’t explain how this could happen without raising taxes on middle- and lower-income people.

    Notice how the Times pulled out of the air the tax increase on middle and lower income people. With equal (lack of) justification, they might have written:

    it sets a goal of slashing the top tax rate for the rich to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, though naturally Mr. Ryan doesn’t explain how this could happen without cutting lots of wasteful government spending


    it sets a goal of slashing the top tax rate for the rich to 25 percent from 39.6 percent, though naturally Mr. Ryan doesn’t explain how this could happen without creating a roaring economy

    Or, they could have left out the fictional hypotheticals and simply reported the details of Ryan's plan.

    1. Yeah, that was some roaring economy G.W. created when he did the same thing.

      Santayana was a prophet.

    2. If one is skeptical that the "plan" -- if you can even call it that -- will accomplish what it claims, that is a perfectly natural observation: how in the hell will dropping the top rate for the wealthiest result in collecting enough revenue to meet almost certain spending obligations except by raising middle class taxes to compensate for those reductions? It's an inevitable deduction, not "making things up."

    3. urban legend, if Ryan's plan doesn't accomplish what it intends, there are infinitely many possibilities. The most likely is that the deficit would simply be larger than he says it will be. Alternatively, I suppose it's conceivable that any tax could be raised or any spending could be cut, even though such steps are not in Ryan's plan. It is indeed making things up for the Times to latch onto one particular step that's not in Ryan's plan.

      One could do a similar analysis of Mr. Obama's plan. When he campaigned in 2008, he promised a much smaller deficit than we have now. His plan turned out not to add up. But, of course, that doesn't mean that he raised middle class taxes.

    4. Nobody campaigning in the fall of 2008 had any idea how much of an economic disaster Bush was going to leave behind. It's dishonest to hold anyone to their campaign proposals in that time frame.

      Critics are entitled to judge the Ryan plan on the basis of what possible way it could accomplish what it claims.

    5. I agree that critics are entitled to judge the Ryan plan on the basis of what possible way it could accomplish what it claims. If they think Ryan's plan won't result in a balanced budget, they're entitled to say so.

    6. David, Ryans's plan (at least if it is like the last two, I admittedly have not read this particular heaping pile of excrement (Which I feel allowed to say, having perused the first two that seemed to come from an excrement-producing organization)(end disclaimers))

      Anyway, his plan specifies tax revenues at a certain level. Say 19% of GDP. However, in the last plan it also spelled out tax breaks for the rich as part of the plan. Never did it bother to explain how it is possible to get revenues to 19% of GDP combined with those tax cuts for the rich. Thus, it is perfectly fair and reasonable to point out that his plan only works if he gets revenue from some other source. (and no that source can NOT be a "roaring econonmy" because a roaring economy can make 15% of GDP-2 greater than 19% of GDP-1, but it can NOT get you back to 19% of GDP after tax cuts for the rich knock you down to 14% of GDP).

      It is perfectly fair to look at a plan which takes Current Revenues and subtracts huge Tax Cuts for the Rich and then claims Higher Revenues (as a higher percent of GDP) that there must be an X so that CR-TCR+X=HR where X is greater than zero.

      History, unfortunately, provides numerous examples of Republicans cutting taxes for the rich and raising taxes on the poor. I have several examples in my own web journal.

  2. At least she's trying to start moving dialogue in the right direction -- away from the absurd family budget simile towards understanding that (1) a government that assumes debt in its own currency can choose never to default under any circumstances, and (2) what matters is not how many scary "trillions" the debt is but how big it is compared to GDP. That ratio can decline even if the annual budget is in deficit. I'm not sure I've ever seen an article anywhere try to do that, and it could be looked at as remarkable it took a 28-year-old to do it. When even the great liberal President we elected so enthusiastically feels the need to invoke the infantile family kitchen table imagery when he "pivoted" from jobs to the deficit, we have a long way to go. I see this as a hopeful sign.

    1. Might I also ask how many middle class families are able to operate their budget without ever going into debt?

    2. The only time you should compare the government's budgeting to household budgeting is when you are out to cut the government's budget. All other comparisons are invalid. This is so obvious, so vastly common sensical, that the reasoning for it doesn't even need to be presented.

    3. Not sure of the point of your question.