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 rate...to 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.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?
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.''
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.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?”
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.
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.