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28 March 2001

Our current howler (part I): The shape of our discourse

Synopsis: A groaning piece in the Post "Outlook" section helps show us the shape of our world.

Confused? No Wonder
Anna Bernasek, The Washington Post, 3/25/01

"Anna Bernasek covers the economy for Fortune magazine," her recent article’s tag line said. Readers might well wonder why. Bernasek’s article—the lead piece in Sunday’s Post "Outlook" section—was as jumbled and worthless a budget discussion as you’ll ever see in print. Its author slanders Dems and Reps, giving no examples—none—of the conduct she alleges. She repeats familiar facts about Bush’s tax cut as if no one on earth has yet heard them. She presents competing claims about the Bush cut, but is utterly helpless at sorting them out. Many weeks into this budget discussion, it’s hard to believe that any Post reader learned a thing from this puzzling discussion.

But there it was, the lead piece in Outlook, one of the most valuable hunks of real estate in all of American journalism. So worthless a piece found in so high a place makes one toss out a couple of questions. Why on earth does the Washington Post choose to publish such absolute cant? And why in the world is a writer like this "cover[ing] the economy for Fortune magazine?"

LET’S START WITH THE CASUAL SLANDERS. Bernasek starts out by comparing the two major parties to [snore] a pair of used car dealers. After describing what we are currently being offered at "Elephant Motors" and "Donkey Diesel," the calumnies start right away:

BERNASEK (paragraph 3): That’s about where we stand today with the tax cut debate: President Bush is promising more money back sooner, while the Democrats boast of greater provisions for the future with smaller tax cuts. Both sides are behaving like used car salesmen: fast talkers who avoid the specifics, tell you what you want to hear, manipulate the numbers and promise the world.

We were struck by Bernasek’s claim that the two parties have been "avoiding the specifics" and "manipulating the numbers." Put plainly, she accuses the parties of being grossly dishonest—but she offers exactly no examples. She names no names; she quotes no exchanges; she gives no idea what deceptions she means. None of which stops her from coming again to her pleasing attacks somewhat later:

BERNASEK (18): Good luck finding a politician who will answer specific questions about the tax plan, because neither side wants to argue details. That’s a big clue that those details might reveal too much about the interest groups each side is fighting for.

To all appearances, Bernasek has struggled hard to find one honest pol. But again, she cites no examples. Four paragraphs later, singling one party out, she’s merrily sliming again:

BERNASEK (22): Now look at the Democrats. They’re happy to jab at the interest groups served by the Republican plan, but talk details about their proposals and you’ll find them changing the subject as well. They’re currently proposing an expanded earned income credit and more reductions for lower earners—but no mention of tax cuts for high-income earners.

Our question: What Democrat is it who "changed the subject" when asked to "talk details about [his] proposals?" Bernasek doesn’t cite any. She says that Dems propose "more reductions for lower earners" but make "no mention of tax cuts for high-income earners." Even if that were true—and clearly, it isn’t—that isn’t an example of the crime she alleges. And need we point to the howling imprecision in Bernasek’s description of the Dem plans? Democrats make "no mention of tax cuts for high-income earners?" The reduction in the 15 percent tax bracket which the Dems now suggest would lower taxes for all such earners. Dems makes no proposal affecting high earners alone, but their current proposal affects high and low too. Perhaps Bernasek knew that, perhaps she did not. But her howling construction is at best imprecise, and will surely mislead a good number of readers. That’s right, folks—the best thing you can say about that passage’s author is that maybe she don’t write real good.

Three times! Three times, Bernasek says that both major parties are trying to "avoid the specifics" and "change the subject." But speaking of "avoiding specifics," she never gives a specific example, not once, in this long, lazy article. She just keeps pounding her point with no hint of proof. So here’s the first question which came to our minds: who’s the real "car salesman" here?

BERNASEK’S ARTICLE IS 1800 WORDS LONG. Incredibly, here’s its next-to-last paragraph:

BERNASEK (24): In the end, both sides seem to be hawking the same benefits—lower taxes, help for families, new spending, debt reduction, something for just about everyone. But there’s a distinction. The Republicans are offering greater tax cuts and less spending while the Democrats want smaller tax cuts and greater spending. It’s something like what our used car salesmen were offering—lower price versus more protection. Which is why there is no right way to go, per se—only this choice or that depending on our national priorities.

What is incredible about that passage? The work is incredibly vacuous. Who could possibly be reading this article without knowing what Bernasek relates in this passage—that Reps are offering a larger tax cut (with less future spending), while Dems have proposed the reverse? This has been discussed, again and again, all the way back through the Bush-Gore campaign. Yet the point serves as Bernasek’s key revelation, twenty-four paragraphs into her article. Indeed, throughout her piece, Bernaek writes like the Post’s correspondent from Mars. Here, for example, are the matchless pearls we gain at an earlier juncture:

BERNASEK (12): Apart from all the confusion over what’s being said, there’s the confusion over what’s not. Consider, for example, that for many people, income taxes make up only a small portion of the total taxes paid. Many low wage earners pay more in payroll tax and state sales tax than in federal income tax.

In this passage, Bernasek refers to "confusion over what’s not being said"—and her example has been said so many times that anyone following this issue at all can recite it upside down while asleep. But then, it’s hard to imagine that any Post reader could have learned one thing from this article. Even when citing stale information for the ten millionth time, Bernasek can’t quite get it right:

BERNASEK (11): Taxpayers aren’t the only ones who are confounded by all this, what with so much of the debate based on the unknown. Take the question of who will spend the tax cut. Here, as with much of the debate, there are no guarantees. We know that Bush’s plan would give more tax relief to high income earners. One think tank, Citizens for Tax Justice, calculates that 40 percent of the cuts would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. Whether that’s just or not (since the top 1 percent of income earners pay 35 percent of all income taxes) is quite another matter. But given that the wealthiest 1 percent of the population have benefited most from our longest ever economic expansion, it’s more likely that someone earning $25,000 will need to spend any money they get back than, say, someone who makes $125,000.

One hardly knows where to begin. First, Citizens for Tax Justice currently estimates that 45 percent of the Bush tax cut would go to the top one percent, not the 40 percent that Bernasek states. (This is a revised, 2/27 CTJ estimate. CTJ’s previous estimate was 43 percent.) Having slightly misstated what CTJ claims, Bernasek then compares the amount received by the top one percent to the amount they pay in income taxes. Perhaps Bernasek has some reason for making this comparison, but if so, she doesn’t state it. At any rate, the top one percent pays far less than 35 percent of total federal taxes; Bernasek (and others) should explain the basis for their comparisons in examining this point. Meanwhile, Bernasek’s final sentence makes no sense at all. It is certainly true that low income earners will more likely spend a tax cut. But what does that have to do with the question of who has gained from our current expansion? High earners would have less need to spend whether they were winners or losers in the last decade. If the top one percent had lost some ground, they would still have less need to spend a tax cut. In truth, there is virtually nothing at any point in this article that makes any clear sense at all.

THE DISCUSSION OF PRESIDENT BUSH’S TAX PLAN has gone on for several months. One would think that Outlook, in choosing lead articles, would want to enlighten its readers. Bernasek never comes close. She accuses both parties of being dishonest without giving examples of what she alleges. She offers a jumble of tired old facts, often in confused, bungled fashion. But her greatest offense comes early on, when she describes the two parties’ claims about the tax cut. Having accused Dems and Reps of dishonesty in paragraph 3, Bernasek next offers this:

BERNASEK (4): If you’re confused, it’s no wonder. Everyone’s talking in different terms. When Bush says an average family will get back $1,600 a year under his tax plan and the Democrats argue that it’s more like $900, they’re not lying, they’re just defining things their own way. Bush means a family earning the average income—$50,000—with two kids. The Democrats mean a family making the median—$40,000—with one kid. What’s an average family today, anyway? According to the Census Bureau, it has 3.18 people, which could mean either one child and two parents, or one parent and two children.

Those last two sentences, of course, are totally pointless, another of Bernasek’s specialties.

In this paragraph, Bernasek seems stunned to learn that there’s more than one way to describe a complex tax plan. In paragraph 3, she says that both parties are behaving like used car salesmen—and this, it turns out, is what she means. According to Bernsaek, Dems say that a family of three making $40,000 will get a $900 tax cut. Meanwhile, Bush says that a family of four making $50,000 will get back $1600. Amazingly, Bernasek thinks that this is confusing. And on the basis of these two simple statements, she declares that both parties are "used car salesmen"—trying somehow to "manipulate numbers" and "avoid the specifics" of the tax cut plan.

Ironically, readers, this article’s headline was the glorious "Confused? No Wonder." But why are people "confused" by the tax plan? Largely, it’s because of writers like Bernasek. It’s her job to put these competing claims into context—not to go around calling vile, naughty names. This article makes absolutely no effort to sort through the claims about the cut. Amazed that there’s more than one way to describe the cut, Bernasek throws up her hands and breaks out the invective.

Here at THE HOWLER, we like to play nice. But we also seek to create a clear-eyed record of our inept public discourse. It is simply astounding that the Washington Post would put this work at the top of Outlook. Those who want to understand our world have to draw the key learnings from this strange piece of writing. It led last Sunday’s Outlook section. As such, it sat on prime real estate. And yes, it also was totally worthless. But this is the state of our public discourse—as our dysfunctional and self-impressed celebrity press corps continues to fail at its tasks.

Friday: What might have been.