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8 September 2000

Our current howler: Kessler gets it right!

Synopsis: Who Da Man? Experts have differed. But new evidence now points to Glenn Kessler.

Cost of Gore and Bush Tax Cuts May Be Understated
Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, 9/8/00

Gore says poll rise due to focus on issues
By Sandra Sobieraj (AP), The Boston Globe, 8/21/00

Who Da Man? Experts have differed. But evidence now points to Glenn Kessler. This morning, our analysts roared as the Post's figure filbert opened an article with this:

KESSLER (9/8): As Vice President Gore and his Republican rival George W. Bush escalate their criticism of each other's plans for cutting taxes, a fog of confusion seems to surround the actual cost of the proposals.

The Washington Post, for instance, in recent months has tallied the 10-year cost of the Bush plan at various times as $1.3 trillion, $1.6 trillion and $1.9 trillion.

And the Diva of Data is right. In three successive columns for, we detailed the utter chaos infesting reporting at the Post and at the New York Times (8/23, 8/24, 8/28). For example, in one three-week sequence in August, various scribes at the Post set the size of Bush's tax cuts like this:

GLENN KESSLER (8/2): $1.3 trillion over nine years (2002-2010), $1.6
trillion over ten years (2002-2011)
ALAN FRAM (8/5): $1.3 trillion over ten years
ELLEN NAKASHIMA (8.6): $1.3 trillion (no time span cited)
CECI CONNOLLY (8/22): $1.6 trillion over nine years
CECI CONNOLLY (8/23): $1.3 trillion (no time span cited)
MIKE ALLEN (8/23): $1.6 trillion (no time span cited)
CECI CONNOLLY (8/24): $1.3 trillion over nine years

Things were no better at the Times. Here, for example, was the paper's Frank Bruni, writing on two successive days:

BRUNI (8/24): Although there was discussion in Mr. Bush's campaign...about whether the cost of it—$1.6 trillion over nine years—was too large, Mr. Bush has promoted his plan as a matter of unswerving principle and economic justice.

BRUNI (8/25): Mr. Bush was also signaling that he was not going to back away from his proposal to cut taxes by about $1.3 trillion over the next decade.

Say what? For days on end, the paper was filled with contradictory that seemed contradictory. Suppose you read the Times on August 25:

BRUNI (8/25): Mr. Bush was also signaling that he was not going to back away from his proposal to cut taxes by about $1.3 trillion over the next decade.

RICHARD STEVENSON (8/25): Major tax and spending plans are usually described in terms of their costs over 10 years, not nine. In the 10 years starting in 2002, Mr. Bush's tax plan would reduce revenue by about $1.6 trillion.

The next day, Stevenson wrote this:

STEVENSON (8/26): Mr. Bush's tax cut would reduce federal revenues by $1.3 trillion in the nine years starting in 2002, and it would use up $1.6 trillion of the surplus over that period. That figure includes the increased interest costs the government would have to pay if any of the surplus was spent or used for tax cuts.

Stevenson didn't explain his new nine-year time span. As of Labor Day, anyone who wasn't confused about the size of these tax cuts just hadn't been reading the papers.

But today, the Post's Grand Duke of Digits begins to sort out the mess. In truth, it's odd that confusion has reigned at the Post, because Kessler explained most of these facts in his August 2 article. You can read today's piece by Kessler for yourself (click here), but most of what he says today had already been explained in the August 2 Post. But as you can see in our listing above, three days after Kessler made that presentation, the Post served up another account which seemed to contradict it.

Here are the basic facts from Kessler's two articles. In the nine years from 2002-2010, Bush's tax cuts would reduce tax revenues by $1.3 trillion, according to the congressional Joint Tax Committee. (Both campaigns accept those numbers.) In the ten years from 2002-2011, revenues would be reduced by $1.6 trillion (based on an estimate for the year 2011 provided by Citizens for Tax Justice). Why do journalists keep using different numbers? It depends on where they start counting. When scribes say "$1.3 trillion over ten years," they are adding in fiscal year 2001—before Bush's tax cuts would take effect. Given the confusion about these numbers—and given the importance of this topic—we think newspapers ought to go the extra mile. They should simply state the years involved when they state the size of the cuts. Incredibly, all the formulations we have listed above can be defended on some basis. But there has been a complete lack of uniformity at the Post and the Times. We can't imagine why anyone would think that the two papers' readers could be expected to sort all this out.

But here's one formulation that can't be defended, pulled from the Boston Globe's web site. We happened upon it the other day. We were at the site researching their critique of last Friday's new RNC ad:

SOBIERAJ: Gore's $500-billion package over 10 years offers write-offs and tax credits for child care, long term care, college tuition savings and retirement investments.

Bush wants to reduce income tax rates to a tune of $1 trillion over 10 years. He also would double the $500 tax credit for each child and increase other deductions.

That's right, folks, it was Sandra Sobieraj, writing for the AP. Her account of Bush's tax cuts was just flat-out wrong. (Someone alert Seth Mnookin.) And we might as well point this out for the record: Sobieraj's error was a Bush campaign's dream. In the ongoing battle over these numbers, the Bush campaign generally prefers to minimize the size of the cuts; the Gore campaign prefers to use larger numbers. But there is no way to justify Soberiaj's account. Her numbers are just plain flat wrong.

Luckily, this morning, Da Man came along. Once again, he helped sort out the confusion. We hope the Post and the Times will act this time, to make their reporting less confusing. It would be a shame to do anything else when "Da Man"—the Post's Kessler—gets it right.


Visit our incomparable archives: Enjoy past episodes in our "x gets it right" series. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/8/99, with full links to previous editions.

Visit our incomparable archives again: It isn't hard to be accurate with numbers like these—numbers which have been fully analyzed. But in June, we noted Katharine Seelye and Michael Kelly rounding Bush's tax cuts down to $1 trillion. We'll admit it struck us as spin at the time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/20/00 and 6/23/00.