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PANTS NOW ON FIRE! Jack Shafer’s upset when libs yell “liar.” Our question: Dude! Where have you been?


PAPAL PUNDITS: Yes, it’s good when people ask questions. Responding to e-mails about last Friday’s column, Paul Krugman has offered two helpful posts on the subject of California taxation. (Click here. And click here.) Is California a high-tax state? In part, it depends on how you measure, and the study which Krugman cited on Thursday does rely on that ol’ debbil, estimates. (The study “estimated tax burdens given 2002 tax rates, but using data on the 2000 distribution of income.”) But if the study’s conclusions are accurate, middle-income Californians pay slightly less state/local taxes as a percentage of income than their peers in other states, and upper-income Californians pay substantially more. (Note: State/local taxes are almost always regressive. Middle- and low-income Californians pay a higher percentage of income in state/local taxes than richy-rich residents do. This remarkable fact is almost never mentioned in our gong-show public discourse on taxes.)

So is California a high-tax state, as Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to suggest in his “tax tax tax tax tax” lament? That’s still a bit unclear. But oh, the power of True Belief! Here at THE HOWLER, it’s been road-to-Niger redux this week, as true believin’ readers insist that Krugman and the incomparable Joe Conason are congenitally incapable of earthly error, no matter how minor or inconsequential. In fact, our Wednesday post stated no criticism of Krugman; it merely noted that certain data seemed to conflict with a judgment he had made. But according to our fist-shaking readers, Paul and Joe are Papal Pundits. When they speak, all issues are settled. Their voices will roll across the land, and we will build monuments to their wisdom. Around these monuments we will sing and pray long into the night.

Sorry, kids. Everybody mis- or overstates at some point, and it’s useful when questions are asked. Regarding the invaluable Krugman, we’ve tub-thumped his crucial role for years, going back to those three iconic columns he wrote preceding the first Bush-Gore debate. But is California a high-tax state? Though we’re not expert on these matters, we’re inclined to think that the pundit went slightly beyond the current state of knowledge in last Friday’s column. It may turn out that his judgment was right as rain. But because he plays such a central role, we’d prefer that he be super-careful.

One final point on those Tax Foundation tables. Krugman says he’s “not inclined to treat [the TF] as a reliable source” because they’ve clowned with Tax Freedom Day and similar matters. But for the record, the TF doesn’t seem to have its thumb on the scale in the case of those state/local tax burden tables. Because TF is taxophobic, one might suspect that it might be inclined to overstate tax burden. But for the year 2000, the TF table places state/local tax burden as a percentage of income at 9.9 percent nationally (California, 10.5 percent). Krugman prefers to use the data of the Federation of Tax Administrators. But they place the state/local burden for the same year at 11.2 percent nationally (California, 12.0 percent)—substantially higher than TF does. TF may have clowned with Tax Freedom Day, but it doesn’t seem to be fixing the figures when it comes to the measure in question. To state the obvious, both sets of data may be based on methodologies that are perfectly valid.

Of course, tribal readers will leap to their keyboards, eager to take down our heresies. Prehistoric messages in their brain tell them their tribe is always completely right. Other tribes are always evil and wrong. As we speak, they chip away, building a mighty, two-ton monument on which the Federation of Tax Administrators’ infallible figures will be found.

SUDDENLY, SHAFER: We think we agree with some of the things Jack Shafer says in Wednesday’s column. For ourselves, we’d put it this way: It’s hard to tell when someone has lied, and there were very good reasons for the traditional stricture against use of the L-word in political debate. It’s true: The discourse can devolve quite quickly when combatants start yelling LIAR, LIAR. Repeat: We think the traditional stricture against the L-word was built on significant wisdom.

But it’s strange to see Shafer so concerned now. Shafer complains that lefty writers Al Franken, Joe Conason and David Corn are using the L-word in current books. But for twenty straight months during Campaign 2000, Al Gore was routinely called a liar. This unrelenting propaganda campaign almost surely put George Bush in the White House. We recall very few complaints about use of the L-word back then.

The one difference? The charges against Gore were routinely bogus, as even some mainstream scribes have begun to acknowledge. By contrast, Shafer says that F, C and C are generally right on the merits:

SHAFER: Franken, Conason, and Corn aren’t just ginning it up. They accurately document the right’s most egregious lies and acts of hypocrisy.
Odd, isn’t it? F, C and C are right on the merits. The campaign against Gore was stunningly bogus. But Shafer’s upset with the L-word now! It seems that scribes can yell LIAR as much as they like—unless what they’re saying is true!

Perhaps we’re being unfair to Shafer. Perhaps he spoke, loudly and bravely, as the “LIAR” campaign took down Gore. If so, we’ll happily post all appropriate links. But while we recall Conason’s complaints about the phony attacks, we don’t recall a whole lot of noise coming from most other quarters.

One final, surprising statement from Shafer. Talk about moral equivalence:

SHAFER: I suppose that when consuming liar-liar books in pairs, say Sean Hannity’s versus Joe Conason’s, the average reader might come within spitting distance of political reality.
What an amazing statement! Not being hugely tribal ourselves, we don’t believe that conservatives lie and liberals don’t. But can Shafer possibly think that Hannity and Conason are roughly equal when it comes to truthfulness—within “spitting distance” on this measure? Pundits ignored the obvious during Campaign 2000. But how much denial must one perform to put this comparison into print?

NEXT WEEK: We still plan to offer a sad-but-true post about those Clinton-haters.