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DESPERATELY SEEKING DATA (PART 4)! We badly need a source of tax facts. But who in the world will provide it?


AND LIARS FIGURE: David Horowitz was playing the numbers. On Wednesday morning, the crackpot “conservative” debated David Corn on C-SPAN’S Washington Journal. Discussing President Bush’s proposed tax cuts, he let his imagination take wing:

HOROWITZ: I will say that everything David just said is socialist claptrap…The reality is, you live in a market economy where you don’t get jobs, you don’t get economic growth, unless you give incentives to people to invest. When you take—95 percent of your taxes are taken from the five percent of people who drive your economy, and then you accuse them of just talking money.
Horowitz was embellishing freely. According to Horowitz, the top five percent of earners were paying 95 percent of our taxes.

As we’ve mentioned, spin like this now drives our discourse—and “conservatives” like Horowitz, shedding wet tears, feel free to just make their facts up. But where does a citizen go for real facts? What percentage of federal taxes do the top five percent really pay? And what percentage of income do they actually earn? We don’t know where to go for those facts, and almost surely, you don’t know either.

That’s right, folks. In our current benighted discourse, we buy our spin by the ton—and our facts by the ounce. Emboldened by this insouciance, “conservatives” like Horowitz simply make up their “facts”—and across America, citizens don’t know that they’re routinely deceived.

Where do we go to get actual facts? Occasionally, such facts do swim across the screen. Consider the Hannity claim we looked at on Monday, in which “the top one percent pays 37 percent of the taxes” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/27/03). Was that a real fact, or was that just made up? Hannity made that claim on January 8. On January 20, Robert Samuelson—a reputable columnist, not a crackpot—discussed the tax burden on the top one percent in his column in the Washington Post. “Here are the facts of today’s system,” he wrote:

SAMUELSON: Federal taxes come increasingly from the rich and the upper middle class. In 2001, the richest 1 percent of taxpayers (incomes starting at $373,000 a year) paid 25 percent of all taxes, including income and payroll taxes, according to the Center for Tax Justice, a liberal group. The share paid by the richest 20 percent (incomes starting at $72,000) was 68 percent. In 1979, these figures were 16 percent and 57 percent.

The concentration of taxes mainly reflects a concentration of income. In 2001, the richest 1 percent received 18 percent of income, up from 9 percent in 1979; the share of the richest fifth went from 46 percent to 58 percent.

According to Samuelson’s figures, the top one percent earn 18 percent of all income, and pay 25 percent of all federal taxes. This suggests that federal taxation is mildly progressive. Of course, it doesn’t say how things would look if we added in state and local taxes—taxes which tend to be less progressive.

Samuelson attributed his data to a familiar source—Citizens for Tax Justice, a group to which journalists often turn for tax facts. In the January 14 New York Times, for example, Edmund Andrews cited CTJ too:

ANDREWS: According to estimates by Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal research group in Washington, a complete accounting shows that the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers earned about 18 percent of all income in 2001 and paid about 25 percent of all federal taxes. “It’s a little progressive, but we’re not talking about communism here,” said Robert S. McIntyre, director of the group.
Andrews also cited IRS data showing that the top one percent paid 37 percent of all federal income taxes in 2001. (According to the IRS, the top one percent “increased their share of total income…to nearly 21 percent in 2000,” Andrews said. This is higher than the 18 percent figure he attributed to McIntyre.)

McIntyre is a go-to guy for reporters who want basic facts. But the Tax Maven is cited only infrequently, and CTJ’s web site is a source of frustration for citizens who want some real data. The site provides occasional statements about tax matters—statements which do include valuable info. But the site doesn’t provide systematic information about who earns how much, and who pays. For example, what percentage of total taxes—federal, state, local—are paid by that top one percent? There’s no way to find out on the CTJ site. Indeed, where can a citizen get such information? We don’t know—and you don’t know either.

Our discourse runs on spin, not on facts. Last week, a New York Times chart seemed to say that “tax rates are already flat” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/28/03). But data in the accompanying article seemed to say something quite different. We know of no way to get the real facts—and in the absence of actual info, fakers like Horowitz simply make their facts up. And guess what? Despite their open, bald-faced dissembling, they’re given honored spots on Washington Journal, where they lie with no fear of consequence.

By the way, do “the top one percent pay 37 percent of the taxes?” Hannity was spinning his viewers there too (in fact, his statement was also false). But then, our system runs on spin; most of the time, spin is our product—our only product. We need a source of real tax facts. But who in the world will provide it?

LAUGH RIOT: Washington’s Funniest Celebrity? Daschle finished second, Cal Thomas third. More on Iraq reporting in the days to follow.

The Daily update

A SECRET PLAN TO END THE MEDICARE WAR: “Doubts Are Emerging as Bush Pushes His Medicare Plan,” the headline said. It appeared at the top of this morning’s New York Times. Here was the article’s opening paragraph, penned by Robert Pear:

PEAR: With President Bush on the road promoting his $400 billion plan to revamp Medicare, members of Congress from both parties expressed doubts about its feasibility today, forcing administration officials to reconsider important elements of the package.
According to Pear, Bush was promoting his Medicare “plan.” In paragraph 2, Pear continued to discuss Bush’s effort:
PEAR: A day after his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush traveled to Michigan, a battleground state that he lost in the 2000 election, to highlight his proposal. The plan would establish prescription drug benefits under Medicare and encourage the elderly to join private health plans.
In paragraph 3 and 4, Pear kept referring to Bush’s “proposal.”

Bush was promoting his Medicare “plan.” But there’s one slight problem with this report—no such Medicare “plan” exists. In this morning’s Washington Post, Amy Goldstein was a bit more frank. “Medicare Plan Short On Details,” the headline said. But even that formulation was kind. Here was Goldstein’s opening paragraph:

GOLDSTEIN: A day after his State of the Union address, President Bush took his agenda for the year on the road, starting with ambitious and expensive changes to Medicare. But the White House remained conspicuously silent about exactly how it wants to redesign the insurance program for the elderly even as the president traveled to the Midwest to begin selling the idea.
In fact, it’s clear from Goldstein’s piece that, at present, there is no “plan.” As reporters pretend that a plan exists, the administration’s all-too-familiar fakery and buffoonery continue:
GOLDSTEIN: Here in western Michigan, a state that he narrowly lost in the 2000 election and hopes to win next year, Bush stood on an auditorium stage in front of a large backdrop that said, “Strengthening Medicare.” He devoted three minutes of a 42-minute speech to the topic.
Will seniors have to enroll in HMOs to get prescription drugs? The administration doesn’t know. But some facts are out on the table:
GOLDSTEIN: Saying that Medicare “has been used as a political football,” Bush reiterated his appeal from Tuesday night for Congress to “put aside politics and to make sure the Medicare system fulfills its promise to our seniors,” including coverage of prescription drugs. Bush said he would spend $400 billion to improve the program and restated his longtime pledge that people in the Medicare system will not be forced to change.
Bush doesn’t know what his plan really is. He does know how much it will cost. (Bill Keller, of course, is pretty sure that the plan will involve no sacrifice.)

It’s understandable that news orgs may have some trouble reporting on such transparent fakery. But why did the New York Times headline a “plan” when no such “plan” really exists?