DISPENSED IN THE NEW YEARS FIRST LETTER! The New York Times pimped familiar old pap, right in the new years first letter: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 4, 2010
Dispensed in the new years first letter: Where do we Americans get our political informationor our political dis-information? Consider this letter to the editor, the very first letter the New York Times published in this, the brand new year.
On the morning of January 1, the letter sat at the top of the letters page in the papers hard-copy edition. It helps us see the way bogus claims come to rule our lives.
In the letter, a New York Times reader discussed a recent editorial about the estate tax. In the process, he advanced a familiar, and highly influential, claim:
According to the letter writer, the estate tax uses death as an excuse to tax the same money twice. (He calls the estate tax a tax on money and property that has already been taxed.) Apparently for that reason, everyday people like the writer recognize its unfairness.
This is a widespread belief about the estate tax, a belief that is endlessly pimped on pseudo-conservative radio. And yet, the claim is false, or at best grossly misleadinga long-standing piece of pseudo-conservative disinformation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities treats this claim as Myth #4 in its list of eight myths about the estate tax (click here). More colorfully, Michael Kinsley wrote on this subject in the Washington Post, many moons ago.
Kinsleys piece appeared in 2001, as the newly-installed Bush Admin was trying to ditch the estate tax. Is the estate tax unfair double taxation? Colorfully, Kinsley said no:
In their 2002 book about the estate tax (Wealth and Our Commonwealth), Bill Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins wrote this: When it comes to the estate tax, some people are concerned that they have already paid income or other taxes on the money that they have saved...But the bulk of assets that are taxed in peoples estates take the form of appreciated property that has not been taxed at all. Gates and Collins attempted to quantify the matter. According to the pair, one study suggests that unrealized capital gains make up...over 56 percent of estates worth more than $10 million. In the case of family-owned businesses, several studies suggest that between 66 and 80 percent of such enterprises are unrealized capital gains.
In the case of Johnsons ad campaign, Kinsley ventured a bit of a guess: If Bob Johnson has paid income tax on even one-tenth of the money that would be in his estate if he died tomorrow, it would be astonishing.
In short, large estates include truck-loads of money which havent already been taxed. But whenever the estate tax is being debated, pseudo-conservative talk show hosts begin to issue sweeping claims designed to obscure this reality. People like the letter-writer hear these familiar claimsand theyre inclined to believe them.
And then, along comes the New York Times, in the new years first published letter!
Where do we Americans get our political information? In the very first letter of the new year, readers of the New York Times encountered this misleading claim once again! No, that letter shouldnt have been printed, because its claims are so misleading. But this is the way our politics has worked for decades now.
Some editor decided to run that lettera letter which furthered a standard bit of pseudo-conservative messaging. Question: Did that editor understand the actual facts concerning the way the estate tax works? Your guess is as good as ours. But alas! The very first letter of the new year helped show how our politics works.
So typical! In the very first letter of the new year, a hoary old claim filled the air.
Dispensed in an early op-ed column: Then too, there was this early op-ed column in the Washington Post.
The column appeared on January 2, written by Kevin Huffman, who won the newspapers recent, kitschy contest to be Americas Next Great Pundit. Note: Inside D.C. journalistic circles, it can be a fairly small world. Huffman is the former husband of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C.s public schools. The Post has been an aggressive supporter of Rhees proposals for Washingtons schools.
We dont necessarily disagree with anything Huffman proposed in his piece, though his third proposal for public schools did strike us as odd. Finally, parents need to take the reins, Huffman wrote. There are about 50 million children in U.S. public schools, and their parents can and should win every political battle. But do parents agree about every such battle? In the cases where parents do agree, will they always be right?
Huffmans third proposal struck us as odd. But like that New York Times letter writer, Huffman advanced some set-in-stone conventional wisdom, this time about the best ways to improve public schools. No, his claims arent necessarily wrong; wed agree with some of his basic views. But was his opening gambit misleading?
We would assume that Beard and his associates are performing a great service at their school. But regarding that first graduating class: Should Huffman perhaps have included the fact that it contained only 25 students (click here)students who actively chose to pursue this charter schools challenging program?
For decades now, we have seen these magical stories presented in service to preferred reform strategies. Newspapers like the Washington Post have always loved such inspiring tales. (Remember when the Post ran that inspiring, top-of-page-one story about a school which turned out to have the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia?) We think these papers would better serve the public interest if they ramped down the novelizing a bit and crammed a few more facts into their inspiring stories. But alas! The novelized claims of various movements drive large chunks of our public discourse. The estate tax taxes your money twice! And: Public school success is a snap if you follow these three simple rules!
The public interest would be better served if newspapers challenged familiar old bromides. But that would be a different world from the world in which we all live.