THURSDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2020
A news report for the ages?: Fats Domino hated Blue Monday. Nor was he ever shy about stating this point.
This week, one such Monday brought the nation more than ten thousand words. We refer to the bombshell report which ate the front page of the Times.
As soon as it appeared on line, it became The Report Which Was. In print editions, Blue Monday's report appeared beneath a triple headline set:
PRESIDENT'S TAXES CHART CHRONIC LOSSES, AUDIT BATTLE AND INCOME TAX AVOIDANCE
YEARS OF TRUMP RECORDS
Long-Concealed Returns Point to Looming Financial Threats and Direct Conflicts of Interest
That's what the headlines said. The word count starts from there.
The lengthy report began at the top of page A1, then jumped inside the paper. In print editions, it consumed all of pages A14 and A15, all of A16 as well.
There were no ads on those internal pages. The more than 10,000-word report was accompanied by eleven photographs.
How many words is more than ten thousand? It's a whole lot of words! Back in 2015, the Times sandbagged Candidate Hillary Clinton with a bizarre report on Uranium One—a report the puzzling newspaper had taken, live and direct, from the very strange world of Steve Bannon.
That was an unusually long report—and it ran only 4400 words. We'll revisit that groaner tomorrow, but Blue Monday's was longer by far.
Did anyone in America actually read Blue Monday's report? It was roughly ten times the length of a standard front-page news report. Did anyone sit down, of a Monday morning, and ingest its profusion of words?
A cynic would say that a report of that length exists to generate talking-points. In the first two paragraphs of the report, one such point emerged:
BUETTNER, CRAIG AND MCINTIRE (9/28/20): Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.
He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years—largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.
Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and then again in 2017.
Calendrically, "the previous 15 years" would have been the years 2001 through 2015. According to the second paragraph of the report, the commander had paid no federal income taxes in ten of those fifteen years.
Indeed, the truth was even worse. The commander had paid no (federal) income taxes at all during those ten years!
Instantly, this became the key talking-point of the upper-end mainstream world. It remained the key talking-point until it was supplanted by the commander's crazy behavior at Tuesday evening's debate, at which point it disappeared.
So it goes in the Short Attention Span Theater of this, The Era Which Was. During this era, journalism is routinely supplanted by burlesque due to the jealous demands of 24-hour "news" culture.
At any rate, President Trump, the commander in chief, had paid no income taxes! An obvious point was left unexplained:
If, as Blue Monday's report explained, the commander was constantly losing money, why would he be paying income taxes during these wastral years? Why would he have to pay income taxes in a year when he had no income?
As best we can tell, in the blizzard of words, this point went unexplained.
Whatevs! The talking-point emerged Sunday night with a half-life of very few hours. The admittedly lunatic commander had paid "no income taxes at all" in ten of those fifteen years!
We heard this point bruited everywhere. Then, before we'd even perused the report, we heard one pundit mention the AMT— and sure enough!
Starting in paragraph 52 of a 167-paragraph report, we found ourselves cast in the role of sacred Keats first gazing on Chapman's Homer:
BUETTNER, CRAIG AND MCINTIRE: Mr. Trump was periodically required to pay a parallel income tax called the alternative minimum tax, created as a tripwire to prevent wealthy people from using huge deductions, including business losses, to entirely wipe out their tax liabilities.
Mr. Trump paid alternative minimum tax in seven years between 2000 and 2017—a total of $24.3 million, excluding refunds he received after filing. For 2015, he paid $641,931, his first payment of any federal income tax since 2010.
For reasons which go unexplained, we now seem to be talking about eighteen years (2000 through 2017) rather than the earlier seventeen. Whatever!
More significantly, we seem to be told that the commander actually did pay federal income taxes during quite a few of those previously referenced fifteen years. We're told that he paid—and here, we employ the reporters' own language—"a parallel income tax called the alternative minimum tax."
More specifically, we're told that the commander paid that "parallel income tax" in seven different years.
We're told that these payments totaled $24.3 million during those seven years. Arithmetically, this works out to an average payment of $3.471 million in each of those seven years.
At this point, a problem seems to arise, unless we're reading something wrong:
The reporters reported, in paragraph 2, that the commander "paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years," apparently meaning from 2001 through 2015.
Now, some 51 paragraph later, we hear the rest of the story. We're told that he paid an average of $3.5 million in taxes in seven different years, quite possibly in seven of those same ten years!
We're told that he made those payments due to the alternative minimum tax—which, in the reporters' own words, is "a parallel income tax!"
When is an income tax not an income tax? Follow along with us now:
In paragraph 51, we're told that the AMT is a "parallel income tax." In paragraph 52, we're told that the commander made large submissions in seven different years due to this parallel "income tax."
But how odd! In paragraph 2, we were told that the commander "paid no income taxes at all" during ten out of fifteen years. Inevitably, this seems to define the following logic:
The AMT, a "parallel income tax," is "no income tax at all!"
Did Buettner, Craig and McIntire really invent this peculiar logic in the course of formulating their bombshell report?
Their confusing accounts of the years to which they refer add imprecision into the mix. But unless we're reading something wrong, it's hard to avoid that conclusion.
The AMT is "a parallel income tax," they say, but it's "no income tax at all!" So it often has gone, down through the years, as the New York Times has created the journalism of this, The Era Which Was.
Tomorrow, we'll recall other era-defining gong-shows from this puzzling newspaper. For today, we'll add this key point:
There's nothing mysterious about the AMT. There's no mystery here at all.
The AMT is, and always has been, a well-known part of the federal tax code. Its thoroughly sensible origins have been explained a million times. There is no mystery here.
The AMT has long been well known. Making matters that much worse, the leading authority on the AMT defines it as shown:
The alternative minimum tax (AMT) is a tax imposed by the United States federal government in addition to the regular income tax for certain individuals, estates, and trusts. As of tax year 2018, the AMT raises about $5.2 billion, or 0.4% of all federal income tax revenue, affecting 0.1% of taxpayers, mostly in the upper income ranges.
According to the leading authority, the AMT is indeed a tax. It's a tax which is imposed in addition to the regular income tax.
That would almost seem to imply that the AMT is itself part of the federal income tax. Indeed, the leading authority goes on to report the percentage "of all federal income tax revenue" produced by the AMT.
Having said that, whatever! On the Sunday night before Blue Monday, a key talking point emerged. It came straight outta paragraph 2 of an endless, sprawling report.
The commander had paid no income taxes at all in ten recent years! Starting on cable that very night, this point was excitedly bruited through the land.
Unless we're reading something wrong, we'd regard this as vastly deceptive. With that, a basic questions arises:
Was this the latest scam from the New York Times in this, The Era Which Was?
Tomorrow: The long, winding road from Gerth to Becker helps define this, The Era Which Was
Truly beautiful videotape: A truly beautiful bit of tape, from before the era began