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DISPENSED IN THE NEW YEAR’S FIRST LETTER! The New York Times pimped familiar old pap, right in the new year’s first letter: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JANUARY 4, 2010

Dispensed in the new year’s first letter: Where do we Americans get our political information—or our political dis-information? Consider this letter to the editor, the very first letter the New York Times published in this, the brand new year.

On the morning of January 1, the letter sat at the top of the letters page in the paper’s hard-copy edition. It helps us see the way bogus claims come to rule our lives.

In the letter, a New York Times reader discussed a recent editorial about the estate tax. In the process, he advanced a familiar, and highly influential, claim:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (1/1/10): You are right: the estate tax is a mess. But you do not address the idea of using death as a tripwire for the tax—a tax on money and property that has already been taxed before death.

The opposition to the estate tax is as vigorous in those tax brackets that do not pay it as it is among the wealthy because everyday people like me recognize its unfairness.

You seem to believe that since the federal leviathan needs money, we should apply Willie Sutton’s law: go where the money is. I suspect that even the old bank robber himself would shy away from punishing financial success by using death as an excuse to tax the same money twice.

According to the letter writer, the estate tax “uses death as an excuse to tax the same money twice.” (He calls the estate tax “a tax on money and property that has already been taxed.”) Apparently for that reason, “everyday people” like the writer “recognize its unfairness.”

This is a widespread belief about the estate tax, a belief that is endlessly pimped on pseudo-conservative radio. And yet, the claim is false, or at best grossly misleading—a long-standing piece of pseudo-conservative disinformation. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities treats this claim as Myth #4 in its list of eight myths about the estate tax (click here). More colorfully, Michael Kinsley wrote on this subject in the Washington Post, many moons ago.

Kinsley’s piece appeared in 2001, as the newly-installed Bush Admin was trying to ditch the estate tax. Is the estate tax “unfair double taxation?” Colorfully, Kinsley said no:

KINSLEY (4/6/01): Wednesday's Washington Post and New York Times had carried an ad from a group of black businessmen supporting repeal of the estate tax. The group was organized by Robert L. Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television. The ad declared: "The estate tax is unfair double taxation since taxpayers are taxed twice—once when the money is earned and again when you die."

A Times article yesterday about the ad noted correctly that this "repeats one of President Bush's familiar themes." Indeed it is probably the most tediously repeated sound bite of the estate tax debate. It is also false. Not "controversial" or "disputed" or "misleading" but out-and-out false. Most of the accumulated wealth that is subject to the estate tax was never subject to the income tax.

This is so obviously, overwhelmingly true that anyone with the slightest business or financial experience surely knows it.

In their 2002 book about the estate tax (Wealth and Our Commonwealth), Bill Gates Sr. and Chuck Collins wrote this: “When it comes to the estate tax, some people are concerned that they have already paid income or other taxes on the money that they have saved...But the bulk of assets that are taxed in people’s estates take the form of appreciated property that has not been taxed at all.” Gates and Collins attempted to quantify the matter. According to the pair, one study “suggests that unrealized capital gains make up...over 56 percent of estates worth more than $10 million.” In the case of family-owned businesses, “several studies suggest that between 66 and 80 percent of such enterprises are unrealized capital gains.”

In the case of Johnson’s ad campaign, Kinsley ventured a bit of a guess: “If Bob Johnson has paid income tax on even one-tenth of the money that would be in his estate if he died tomorrow, it would be astonishing.”

In short, large estates include truck-loads of money which haven’t already been taxed. But whenever the estate tax is being debated, pseudo-conservative talk show hosts begin to issue sweeping claims designed to obscure this reality. People like the letter-writer hear these familiar claims—and they’re inclined to believe them.

And then, along comes the New York Times, in the new year’s first published letter!

Where do we Americans get our political “information?” In the very first letter of the new year, readers of the New York Times encountered this misleading claim once again! No, that letter shouldn’t have been printed, because its claims are so misleading. But this is the way our politics has worked for decades now.

Some editor decided to run that letter—a letter which furthered a standard bit of pseudo-conservative messaging. Question: Did that editor understand the actual facts concerning the way the estate tax works? Your guess is as good as ours. But alas! The very first letter of the new year helped show how our politics works.

So typical! In the very first letter of the new year, a hoary old claim filled the air.

Dispensed in an early op-ed column: Then too, there was this early op-ed column in the Washington Post.

The column appeared on January 2, written by Kevin Huffman, who won the newspaper’s recent, kitschy contest to be “America’s Next Great Pundit.” Note: Inside D.C. journalistic circles, it can be a fairly small world. Huffman is the former husband of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C.’s public schools. The Post has been an aggressive supporter of Rhee’s proposals for Washington’s schools.

We don’t necessarily disagree with anything Huffman proposed in his piece, though his third proposal for public schools did strike us as odd. “Finally, parents need to take the reins,” Huffman wrote. “There are about 50 million children in U.S. public schools, and their parents can and should win every political battle.” But do “parents” agree about every such battle? In the cases where parents do agree, will they always be right?

Huffman’s third proposal struck us as odd. But like that New York Times letter writer, Huffman advanced some set-in-stone conventional wisdom, this time about the best ways to improve public schools. No, his claims aren’t necessarily “wrong;” we’d agree with some of his basic views. But was his opening gambit misleading?

HUFFMAN (1/2/10): Ten years ago, deep in the Rio Grande Valley, two 23-year-old Teach for America teachers opened an after-school tutoring program. Through sheer force of will, the program became a public charter school, housed on the second floor of a local church. Eventually, that school became a cluster of 12 schools, serving kids from Colonias—communities so impoverished that some lack potable water.

IDEA College Prep graduated its first high school class in 2007 with 100 percent of the seniors headed to college. Last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked it number 13 among America's public high schools.

"It's not magical resources," IDEA Principal Jeremy Beard told me. "It's the thinking around the problem. I have no control over what goes in on in the kids' Colonia. But we can create a culture. Kids here feel part of a family, part of a team, part of something special.”

We would assume that Beard and his associates are performing a great service at their school. But regarding that first graduating class: Should Huffman perhaps have included the fact that it contained only 25 students (click here)—students who actively chose to pursue this charter school’s challenging program?

For decades now, we have seen these magical stories presented in service to preferred reform strategies. Newspapers like the Washington Post have always loved such inspiring tales. (Remember when the Post ran that inspiring, top-of-page-one story about a school which turned out to have the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia?) We think these papers would better serve the public interest if they ramped down the novelizing a bit and crammed a few more facts into their inspiring stories. But alas! The novelized claims of various movements drive large chunks of our public discourse. The estate tax taxes your money twice! And: Public school success is a snap if you follow these three simple rules!

The public interest would be better served if newspapers challenged familiar old bromides. But that would be a different world from the world in which we all live.