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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 Big Answer.

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 decades—a 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 article—ironically 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-flam—the 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 alike?"

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 images—images 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 bunk.

Get ready, people! Here we go! The ongoing success of the flat tax argument helps illustrate an under-appreciated fact—we 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 fact—we 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 humans—all of us; it's our birthright—reason extremely poorly. The press corps seems blissfully unaware of this fact. Result? They blunder into howlers—call them daily howlers—every 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 not honest.

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 this:

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.