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FECKLESS ON FACTS! How does the Bush tax proposal work? Real facts can be quite hard to come by:


THE WISDOM OF OUR BOLD LEADER: Now even Bush is saying it! Here he was in the Oval Office, yesterday afternoon, discussing North Korea:

BUSH: I want to remind the American people that [last fall] I had instructed our Secretary of State to approach North Korea about a bold initiative, an initiative which would talk about energy and food because we care deeply about the suffering of the North Korean people. And then, the North Koreans made a decision. And the decision they made was to ignore international norms, ignore treaties…We expect this issue to be resolved peacefully, and we expect them to disarm. We expect them not to develop nuclear weapons. And if they so choose to do so—their choice—then I will reconsider whether or not we’ll start the bold initiative that I’ve talked to Secretary Powell about.
Clearly, the White House thinks your Mental Age is 3. They are now attaching the treasured word “bold” to everything Bush says and does. And make no mistake—this is a plan. Here’s how David Broder began his Sunday column:
BRODER: When Secretary of Commerce Don Evans phoned me to praise the tax plan announced by President Bush last week—he must have drawn the short straw to have my name on his call list—he assured me that the “bold package” would boost “the general well-being of the people.”
Bush’s tax plan was a “bold package.” On North Korea, Bush is making a “bold initiative.” And within the Admin, everyone knows what to say about that initiative. In Tuesday morning’s Washington Post—before Bush made his later statement—Glenn Kessler discussed the proposal. He quoted an unnamed administration official who said that last fall’s plan had been—what else?—a “bold approach.”

As we told you last Friday, the Bush campaign was pushing “bold leader” all the way back to May 2000 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/03). Now the Admin is simply saying bold-bold-bold-bold, pushing a single word at you. This gives you an excellent way to pick out the toadies in the press corps. They’re the ones—Bill Bennett comes to mind—who keep saying bold-bold-bold-bold too.

FECKLESS ON FACTS: Here at THE HOWLER, we’d like to understand the full range of facts behind the Bush tax proposal. That’s why we were frustrated by Peter Kilborn’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times. As we noted on Monday, Kilborn explored the way Bush’s plan would affect four different families. But one of the families—the Taylors of Atlanta—wouldn’t tell Kilborn how much they earn. No problem—without a word of explanation, Kilborn reported how much they would save under Bush’s plan (“about $2300”). How had Kilborn figured that out? Writing in America’s best-known newspaper, the scribe didn’t bother to say.

But Kilborn was feckless on the facts all through his high-profile report. Consider the Ducharmes of Alfred, Maine. They earn around $50,000 per year, Kilborn says, and they have three kids—ages 14, 4 and 2. Here was Kilborn’s spin-soaked synopsis of how the plan would affect them:

KILBORN: The $1,000 that Deloitte & Touche says the Ducharmes might save under the Bush tax program is not meaningful enough to be important in their family’s calculations, they say. “The only thing I look at is my job building houses. Whatever I’m doing, it’s working up here.”
That quote is apparently from Stephen Ducharme, a carpenter, although Kilborn’s feckless text didn’t say. And Ducharme’s quote is thoroughly hard to decipher—in fact, it makes no sense at all. But Kilborn seems to like spin more than facts. In the passage quoted above, he made it a point to let you know that the Ducharmes’ savings were really just peanuts. But why would this family save only $1000? Kilborn had already explained that the child tax credit would jump from $600 per child to $1000 under Bush’s plan; wouldn’t that mean that the Ducharmes would save at least $1200? At the paper of record, you can’t find out. Kilborn is too busy shoehorning spin—the Bush tax cuts don’t mean much to these families—to bother spelling out basic facts. But so it goes in the slapdash world of our insider mainstream press corps.

We wish that Kilborn had been more disciplined, because we were intrigued by one of his families—the Villas of Helena, Montana. According to Kilborn, Carrie Villa is a divorced mother of three (children’s ages: 23, 15, 13); she earns around $20,000 a year. Villa’s payoff from the Bush plan? According to Kilborn, Villa “might gain $100 from the president’s plan.” But why would Villa get that money? Kilborn says her income is “low enough to exempt her from federal income taxes.” If so, why does she get any money at all? Once again, Kilborn doesn’t say.

Kilborn’s piece helps show an important fact; it’s hard to get even basic info about the way this plan works. Kilborn’s piece a well-promoted report at our most famous newspaper. But alas! While it came with photos of the four families, it didn’t provide a whole lot of facts. How would Bush’s plan affect various people? Our press corps has offered some slapdash accounts. Beyond that, it’s quite hard to say.

For our taste, one other key fact was missing in Kilborn’s report—another fact about Carrie Villa. Kilborn doesn’t explain why Villa—a mother of two minor children—doesn’t get any help for her kids from the Bush tax proposals. We think we know why she gets no dough. But Kilborn, a feckless fellow, doesn’t bother to say.

Why doesn’t Villa get dough for her kids? We assume that Villa gets no dough because the child tax credit isn’t “refundable”—because it only goes to people who are paying income taxes. Kilborn didn’t bother explaining that fact, but we were struck, as we read his piece, by the odd logic of this plan—in which parents making fifty grand get help for each of their children, but parents making twenty grand get no help at all. The irony of that was striking to us, but to Kilborn, it wasn’t worth dwelling on. Indeed, it is hard to tell, from his overall article, just how the child-tax credit works.

Americans who want to understand Bush’s plan will have to work hard to do so. Explanations have been brief and slapdash; at the Times, they have sometimes included blatant spin while leaving out basic facts. Most notably, your insider press, with its Millionaire Pundit Values, rarely wastes time explaining the lives of lower-income people like Villa. The American people are rarely burdened with information about such lesser types.

But if today’s press can be feckless on facts, it really can be generous with attitude. We were struck by the profile of Carrie Villa because of two commentaries we had heard. Just read on:

INACCURATE NOTES ON THE LESSER BREED: We were disappointed by what Tony Snow said, because we know and like him. This past Sunday, Tony finished his commentary on Fox News Sunday with the following statement:

SNOW: Our tax code right now is insanely imbalanced. Half the public pays nearly 100 percent of the income taxes, which mocks the idea that citizenship demands that each person pull his or her weight. Two generations ago, as Paul [Gigot] pointed out moments ago, Americans celebrated success and urged kids to do well and accumulate wealth. We’re now on the verge of a society that cleaves into two classes: those who pay taxes and those who get tax money from Uncle Sam.
Some of Tony’s facts were accurate. Under Bush’s plan—as Tony mentioned at the start of his piece—families earning more than $100,000 would pay roughly 73 percent of all income taxes. Families earning less than $50,000 would pay only 3 percent. Carrie Villa pays no income tax—indeed, she gets an Earned Income Tax Credit. But does that mean—in Tony’s formulation—that she “doesn’t pull her weight?” As Kilborn explained, Villa works hard for her $20,000; she works a full job at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and 16 more hours per week at Wal-mart. Is it true that Villa doesn’t pull her own weight? Because people like Villa work for low wages, other people—people like Tony—get to pay some very low prices every time they show up at The Mart.

We thought Tony’s rhetoric was very tough, coming from a nice man. But in the current climate, that’s sadly unsurprising. On Saturday, we had listened to talk host Bruce Elliott on WBAL as we drove from Baltimore to Richmond, and Bruce’s rhetoric was even tougher (we happen to know and like Bruce, too). Indeed, we pulled to the shoulder and wrote some things down; according to Bruce, “the bottom fifty percent”—who pay 3.9% of income taxes, he said—are “the non-productive, non-working in our society.” During this same segment of his show, Elliott, without any question or comment, fielded absurd anecdotal accounts of alleged bizarre tax outrages. On talk radio, you get to say any fool thing you want—a long as you support Lower Taxes.

Are the bottom fifty percent of earners “non-productive and non-working?” That would be a tough case to make. We stayed in a Richmond hotel that night; its chambermaids pay no income tax, but they seemed to be working quite diligently. Non-productive? The fact that they work for such low wages helps make the rooms affordable for the higher-income types who use them. (Dare we say that their low-paid labor is a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich?) But decent people are saying rough things as a hard-right mentality sweeps through our culture. Bruce and Tony made some tough-talking claims. But those are hard to square with the facts about people’s real lives.

But then, our press corps rarely explores the real lives of people like Carrie Villa. Meanwhile, our pundit corps increasingly wants to present them as some sort of Lower Order. But then, our modern press corps’ opinion leaders are all millionaires; this press corps now runs on Millionaire Pundit Values. Perhaps as a result, very little is being said about the way the tax code affects low earners—and tough invective is filling the air from people who should know much better. By the way—that “half the public” which pays few income taxes does pay hefty payroll taxes. But detailed facts on these matters are hard to find. In the course of the next few weeks, we’ll try to explore those facts further.

BEREFT OF THE FACTS ON IRAQ: In Monday’s Knight-Ridder papers, Martin Merzer reported an information survey which showed how little the public knows about the proposed war in Iraq. “Two-thirds of the respondents said they believed that they had a good grasp of the issues surrounding the Iraqi crisis,” Merzer wrote, “but closer questioning revealed large gaps in that knowledge.” Examples? “[E]xactly half of those surveyed said that one or more of the terrorist hijackers were Iraqi citizens,” Merzer wrote. “In fact, none was.” Then there was this:

MERZER: Nearly one in four respondents believe the Bush administration has publicly released evidence tying Iraq to the planning and funding of the Sept. 11 attacks, and more than one in three respondents did not know or declined to answer. No such evidence has been released.
Merzer noted that citizens with lower factual knowledge were more likely to support Bush proposals.

The funny thing is this: Newspapers could write this story every day, about almost every issue. As we have told you in the past, information surveys make it crystal clear: The American public almost never knows even basic facts about any topic (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/12/02). But newspapers hate reporting that fact, so it almost never gets mentioned. Instead, we read endless reports from opinion polls. These polls obscure a basic fact—in most cases, the citizens giving their opinion don’t know squat about the topic at hand.

But then, facts can be quite hard to come by. Given the work of our feckless press corps, it’s hard to get even simple facts about the way our current tax system works. In coming weeks, we’ll continue trying to lay out facts about the Bush tax proposal.