18 January 2000
Our current howler (part I): How could it be?
Synopsis: How can the things we assert be true? We begin to sketch our incomparable Big Picture.
The Simple Solution
Andrew Sullivan, The New York Times Magazine, 1/9/00
GOP Rivals Escalate TV Ad War
Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, 1/15/00
Texas Tax Fight Yields Clues on How Bush Would Lead
Jackie Calmes, The Wall Street Journal, 12/14/99
How can the things we assert be true? Readers may sensibly
wonder. It seems odd to think that our public discourse could
be such a total mess. After all, the press corps is made up of
brighter-than-average people, not a pack of drooling idiots. How
could they be so wrong all the time? Today, we begin our
Warning: the Big Answer takes us in meta-directions against
which the reader may rail. Sorry. For Part One of our answer,
we turn to Andrew Sullivan in last Sunday's New York Times
Magazine. Sullivan writes a spunky article in praise of the
flat tax concept. And he serves up a "fearless New Year's
prediction;" Sullivan says "the flat tax will be the
central political reform of the next decade."
We'll be amazed if Sully's prediction comes true, but we're
interested here in the presentation he makes about the "flat
tax." We regard the flat tax argument as one of the great
examples of political sleight-of-hand in recent decadesa showcase
bit of political sophistry, which ought to go straight into textbooks.
(Except there are no textbooks on public logic. Our philosophy
departments are worthless.) We don't mean by that to take a stand
on whether a single-rate tax should be enacted. We mean only to
say that arguments made in support of the "flat tax"
are exceptionally slippery and worthless. The arguments seem designed
to mislead. The truth is, they've done so for years.
In his articleironically titled "The Simple Solution"Sullivan
swallows these sophistries whole. That a writer like Sullivan
could be so misled begins to flesh out our incomparable Big Picture.
What is wrong with Sullivan's argument? He falls prey to the
standard flat tax flim-flamthe conflation of deductions and tax
rates. Flat taxers stress the tax code's complexity. Sullivan
repeats this complaint:
SULLIVAN: In this general cultural drive toward simplicity,
one thing stands out like a sore thumb: the tax code...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.
"The current tax code is so byzantine," Sullivan
writes, "that the wealthy are often the only ones who can
afford the tax lawyers who can really foil it." Few will
disagree with that claim. And few will disagree with Sullivan's
claim that the code is absurdly complex.
But what accounts for the tax code's complexity? It is the
thousands of deductions the code includes, not its handful
of rates. Surely, no one would say that the tax code resembles
a phone book because of its meager five rates. If we got rid of
deductions and kept the five rates, the code would not
be a Yellow Pages. This fact will be obvious to any observer who
spends a few moments thinking about it. But it doesn't seem to
have occurred to Sullivan, who describes a complexity caused by
deductions, then advises us to dump all the rates.
Sullivan repeats standard flat tax bromides that makes no sense
whatsoever. He says that a single-rate tax "treat[s] every
taxpayer alike"but so, of course, does the current five-rate
tax, and so would a multiple-rate tax code from which all deductions
had been dropped. Meanwhile, it isn't even clear what Sullivan
means by describing his "flat tax" as "flat."
Sullivan says he favors use of large personal deductions and the
Earned Income Tax Credit. Therefore, under Sullivan's plan, some
earners would pay up to (perhaps) 20% of their income in taxes;
some would pay no tax at all; and some would receive income supplements
from the government. What is "flat" about that plan?
And in what sense are Sullivan's taxpayers all being "treated
Sullivan proposes a single-rate tax without deductions, as
is his perfect right. But it isn't at all clear what he means
by describing his tax plan as "flat." This winning phrase
conjures up pleasing imagesimages which don't square with the
way Sullivan's plan really works. As Dick Armey repeatedly says
in his incoherent book on this subject, a Sullivan-style "flat
tax" is "progressive." That's exactly the
problem. The plan may be perfectly fine in practice. But as an
effort at lucid argument, it's absolute and complete total
Get ready, people! Here we go! The ongoing success of the flat
tax argument helps illustrate an under-appreciated factwe human
beings, as a group, reason extremely poorly. This
awkward fact was well-known to the ancients, but is now obscured
by the rapid progress being made in technological areas. At a
time of great technological change, it is easy to overlook
a dissonant factwe have made no particular logical progress
since Socrates graced the Athens public square. Sophistry routinely
succeeds today, just as it did in the time of the ancients.
Why is our public discourse so bad? Reason One: We humansall
of us; it's our birthrightreason extremely poorly. The
press corps seems blissfully unaware of this fact. Result? They
blunder into howlerscall them daily howlersevery single
day of the week.
Tomorrow: Part II of our wholly incomparable Big Picture.
We human beings aren't all that smart. But guess what? We're also
Visit our incomparable archives: For the course
of two solid years (1995-96), the press corps couldn't straighten
the Medicare muddle. And no philosophy prof ever offered to help.
See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/99. For longer articles on this incomparable
subject, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/20/99.
Howard's end: We frequently note that it's virtually
impossible to get basic information from the press corps. For
example, the corps refuses to explain current surplus projections;
in the area of health care, the corps seems to have decided that
if it waits long enough, either Gore or Bradley will be knocked
from the race, ending the need to explain both their plans.
In recent weeks, Steve Forbes has aired complaints about Gov.
Bush's tax record in Texas. Howard Kurtz 'splained it like this:
KURTZ: Bush is responding to a Forbes ad charging that he broke
his vow not to raise taxes. The governor made an unsuccessful
proposal to boost some state sales taxes that was more than offset
by other tax reductions.
This is a woeful attempt to describe the facts of this dispute.
Forbes accuses Bush of breaking a pledge not to raise certain
specific taxes. Does it matter if Bush broke such a pledge,
if his proposal cut taxes overall? Yes, of course, it certainly
does matter, depending on one's point of view. The sales tax,
for example, is a regressive tax; some will object to a rise in
that tax, even if it's "offset" by other cuts. In a
December 14 article on the 1997 Bush proposal, Jackie Calmes wrote
CALMES: In the [Texas] House, where tax bills must start, the
Bush blueprint was nearly dead on arrival...Rep. Paul Sadler was
a frequent Democratic ally of Mr. Bush, but he felt the Bush
plan was too easy on "the big boys" in the oil industry
and not bold enough to ensure long-term funding for schools.
Bush's plan would have "cut taxes for capital-intensive
industries, such as oil and gas," Calmes wrote, "but
would broaden a state business tax for the first time to a variety
of services and professional industries."
If you were one of those services or industries, and you had
been told in the campaign that your taxes would not be
raised, you might be concerned by the Bush plan too, even if it
did reduce overall taxes. Calmes' description also suggests that
Bush was willing to raise other kinds of taxes to provide cuts
for big oil and gas interests. Calmes' article was written before
the Forbes ad began airing. But in the last two weeks, the press
corps has done virtually no analysis of the Forbes ad's specific
complaints. Kurtz' description misses the point completely, and
simply restates Bush campaign boilerplate. Meanwhile, as we have
pointed out before, moderator Tim Russert gave Forbes short shrift
in the January 10 Republican forum, scolding Forbes like the Manners
Police for daring to criticize other hopefuls (see THE DAILY HOWLER,
1/12/00). In a rational world, the Forbes complaint would have
served as a basis for examining the Bush tax record in Texas (good
or bad). In a rational world, a political press corps would want
to explore such a salient issue. But this press corps hates
examining issues; they're intrigued by clothing, manners and style.
As the Times' Gail Collins never stops explaining, issues are
frequently boring and hard. This press corps prefers to think
about sex, as Collins reminds us every week now.