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16 January 2002

Our current howler (part IV): Times out!

Synopsis: Andrew Sullivan—swooning and bollixed—displayed some illiberal bias.

Bernard Goldberg, Regnery Publishing, 2002

Commentary by Dan Rather, Eric Engberg
CBS Evening News, CBS, 2/8/96

The Simple Solution
Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times, 1/7/00

Did Eric Engberg show "liberal bias" when he trashed the Forbes flat tax? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/14/02) That question is a bit hard to answer. Just so you’ll know what we’re talking about, here is Engberg’s 500-word "Reality Check," presented on 2/8/96. His guests were all on tape:

DAN RATHER: House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in today on the version of the flat tax that Steve Forbes is pushing as the key to what Forbes calls tax reform and economic growth. Gingrich said parts of the Forbes proposal are, and I quote, "nonsense" and only getting attention because of, again quote, "the sheer weight of advertising." Now besides the politics, what are the economics of this Forbes flat-tax proposal? Tonight, a look beyond the promises to the substance of it in a "Reality Check" by correspondent Eric Engberg.
ENGBERG: Steve Forbes pitches his flat-tax scheme as an economic elixir good for everything that ails us.
FORBES: We would see a Renaissance the likes of which has never been seen before.
ENGBERG: It’s the kind of optimistic message people want to believe, but experts have trouble with many of Forbes’ specific promises, like how the flat tax would boost economic growth.
FORBES: By removing obstacles, starting with the tax code, we are capable of growing at twice that rate.
ENGBERG: Time out! Economists say nothing like that has ever actually happened.
WILLIAM GALE (Brookings Institution): It doesn’t seem plausible to think that we’re going to have a whole new economy or some economic Renaissance Age due to tax reform.
ENGBERG: Forbes claims taxes can be lowered without adding to the deficit.
FORBES: A flat tax would enable this economy to grow. That would be—mean more revenues for Washington.
ENGBERG: That was called supply-side economics under President Reagan: less taxes equal more revenue. It didn’t work out that way.
(To GALE) Is it fair to say the last time we tried something like this, we ended up with these hideous deficits?
GALE: It’s perfectly fair to say that. Yes.
ENGBERG: And that if we try it again, your fear is—
GALE: That we end up with the same problem again.
ENGBERG: Forbes claims the flat tax would throw lobbyists, tax lawyers and accountants out of business. Oh, yeah? Ask one.
DONALD ALEXANDER (former IRS Commissioner): If Mr. Forbes’ proposal were enacted, it’d be hog heaven for tax lawyers, absolutely hog heaven. We would have a wonderful time gaming the system.
ENGBERG: Example: The wealthy could hire tax wizards to turn their regular income into investment income, exempt from the tax.
JANICE JOHNSON (Tax Partner, Coopers & Lybrand; on tape): I’m sure we'll dream up new loopholes under the flat tax. We always do.
ENGBERG: OK. How about Forbes’ number-one wackiest flat-tax promise?
FORBES: Parents would have more time to spend with their children and with each other.
ALEXANDER: That’s right, and the sky would be blue all the time.
ENGBERG: The fact is the flat tax is one giant, untested theory. One economist suggested that before we risk putting it in, we ought to try it out someplace, like maybe Albania. Eric Engberg, CBS News, Washington.

In his WSJ piece, Goldberg correctly noted some problems with this "Check." First, Engberg claims to report what "experts" think, but his "N" is painfully limited. As Goldberg noted, the Eng-man could surely have found economists who would have said the Forbes plan was great. Beyond that, he uses mocking language at various points. This lingo would fit on today’s op-ed pages, but Time out! It doesn’t seem to be right for this format.

But when Engberg scalds the "wackiest" part of the Forbes tax "scheme," is he showing a "liberal bias?" At THE HOWLER, we don’t really know. After all, it wasn’t just Engberg who was trashing the plan; so was Newt Gingrich, at the start of the broadcast. Indeed, as Engberg’s "Reality Check" went to air, GOP regulars were trashing Forbes, trying to keep him from thumping Dole in the primaries. In New Hampshire, Dole himself was baldly lying about the Forbes plan, in a stunningly inaccurate TV ad campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/10/00). At the same time, of course, the press corps was writing fawning pieces about the senator’s exceptional character. Dole was being contrasted with Big Liar Clinton—even as he baldly dissembled about his opponent’s key proposal.

Engberg was rude, and he hid behind "experts." But several other things should be said about his Reality Check. In many ways, Engberg’s big mistake lay in being correct; the Forbes tax plan was a little bit "wacky," and Forbes was making remarkable claims. Could the Forbes plan double the nation’s growth rate? Could taxes be lowered without harming the deficit? Could two-income families get along on just one? At best, these predictions were wildly speculative—so much so that, had Forbes become the GOP nominee, his plan would have been torn to shreds in the general election. Forbes had identified obvious problems with the existing tax code, but his proposal was completely untested. The plan was "nonsense," Gingrich was saying. Did Newt have "liberal bias" here, too?

Was Engberg showing a "liberal bias"—a disrespect for "conservative" concepts? We don’t know; it may be that he was. But for the record, if a broadcast journalist had been on the take, getting paid by the RNC, this is precisely the type of piece the RNC would have told him to broadcast. (Note: Engberg’s previous "Check" trashed Forbes for his big spending on ads. As you can see in Rather’s remarks, Gingrich was pushing this spin-point then, too.)

Meanwhile, was CBS showing "liberal bias" when it put Engberg’s piece on the air? That question, again, is hard to judge. But for those who love to cry "liberal bias"—lamenting the way the Big Press breaks their bones—how about what the New York Times did with the flat tax four years later?

ON JANUARY 7, 2000, THE TIMES SUNDAY MAGAZINE did a weird thing; it published an article by Andrew Sullivan about the flat tax concept. Sullivan, of course, is almost always hornswaggled—he’s the easiest man in D.C. to kerflubble—and on this day he was blathering hard, swooning for Dick Armey’s great concept. There’s no way to get bull-roared about the flat tax Sullivan didn’t sign up for this day. Just how ludicrous was the preaching? For starters, get a load of this jive:

SULLIVAN: My fearless New Year’s prediction is that the flat tax will be the central political reform of the next decade. And the reason we’re headed for 180 degrees [sic] is at least partly cultural. There is almost no virtue more celebrated in America right now than simplicity. We are increasingly a one-click, one-rate, one-card, one-model culture. Once upon a time, companies might have broadcast their complexity to demonstrate their clout. Not so long ago, synergy was the buzzword. Now companies do all they can to project a simple image…

Where else can you read stuff like that? "There is almost no virtue more celebrated in America right now than simplicity?" Dude! Have you ever stepped inside a Foot Locker? Counted the varieties of jeans at The Gap? Have you stood in line at a bagel store while some poor schmoe tried to order a dozen? Have you tried to read your phone bill lately? Anyway, Sullivan somehow got it into his head that we now live in a Simple Time and—typing away for all he was worth at 17 seconds past 4:36 in the morning—he took that to mean that the nation is moving inexorably toward the flat tax.

Nor did Sullivan fail to be snookered by the basic flat tax flim-flam:

SULLIVAN: In this general cultural drive toward simplicity, one thing stands out like a very sore thumb: the tax code. If taxpayers could pick a tax system for the new millennium, and if entrepreneurs could compete to provide one, the chances of the winning product looking like our current mess would be close to zero. Think of its current, salient features: multiple rates, thousands of possible deductions, a tax code of countless exceptions to endless rules fatter than the average Yellow Pages. There’s a reason candidates get applause by vowing to abolish the I.R.S. and shrink our tax returns so they can fit on a postcard. It’s not just that voters think they might pay less tax. (Keep dreaming.) It’s that most people understand that paying taxes should surely be a little simpler in 2000 than the plot of a 19th-century Russian novel.

Of course, the tax code is absurdly complex. But Sullivan—an easy mark for all approved cons—gives three reasons for that state of affairs, one of them "multiple rates." Sad, isn’t it? After all, is the tax code "fatter than the average phone book" because we have five different tax rates? In fact, the table of rates takes up the top third of one page of that very fat tax code. The code’s complexity is caused by deductions; but flat taxers, playing a masterful game, propose to "solve" this nasty problem by offering to have just one rate! This sleight of hand is even more deft than the three-card games on the streets of New York. The problem they offer to solve is quite real. Their "solution" has nothing to do with it.

Was CBS showing its "liberal bias?" Time out! Except for blubbering folk of the talk-show right, that question is quite hard to answer. But what kind of bias was the New York Times showing when it decided to praise the flat tax? Simple—a kind of bias you won’t hear mentioned the next time Bernie Goldberg feeds the cattle.

Visit our incomparable archives: Dole’s ads were almost surely the most inaccurate ads ever aired in a campaign. Even after the campaign admitted that the ads were just wrong, they kept on running for another week, with the campaign saying they didn’t know how to stop them. Despite this, the well-scripted press corps kept praising Dole’s character (and trashing Clinton’s), displaying their usual "liberal bias." If you want to revisit this laughable mess, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/10/00.

Notes from the great unwashed: We aren’t the only ones who have noticed all the big wet tears on the talk-show right. Here’s a letter to the New York Times. The telling missive was published on Monday:

Writers on the Right

To the Editor:

The success of the politically conservative authors who publish with Regnery Publishing is very impressive ("Best-Seller Lists Get a New Job," Making Books column, Jan. 10).

What I found most interesting is the company’s claim that its authors can get 200 to 300 radio talk show interviews—during which, I am sure, they complain about how the "liberal-dominated media" exclude conservative opinions.

I guess irony isn’t dead after all.

New York, Jan. 10, 2002