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INSIDE CLUB 47! Leonhardt responds, with lightning speed, to the latest talk-radio folk song: // link // print // previous // next //

Overheard briefly on Hardball: Chris Matthews is really becoming a prime “liberal” clown as the re-purposing project continues. (File under: What won’t people like Matthews do for five million annual bucks?)

But on Monday night, Matthews interviewed one of the most impressive issue experts around. Late in the show, after oodles of clowning, he spoke with Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. For years, Cirincione was director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment.

Cirincione is smart, well-informed, adult, sincere. He doesn’t go out and play the fool on the TV machine thing-y. That said, here’s what he said on Monday night. Scan down to the highlighted text:

MATTHEWS (4/12/10): Joe Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much, sir. I watched you this morning on MSNBC early today. You were excellent. That`s why I really wanted to get you back tonight.

I think most us grew up like I did in my age. We grew up hiding under school desks.

CIRINCIONE: Duck and cover.

MATTHEWS: It was very real. The nuns had us hide.


MATTHEWS: I appreciate the fact we were ready for that. Now we have to be ready, it seems—and you’re the expert—on not an attack from Moscow, but an attack from some group that gets hold of nuclear weapon. Now, tell me how real is that prospect over the next 20 years, for example.

CIRINCIONE: Most experts believe that if we just keep doing what we’re doing, this is going to happen. One of the capitals represented at the summit today is going to disappear in a mushroom cloud. It is just a question of time. Al Qaeda has declared it the sacred duty of its followers to get a nuclear weapon. They’ve had several attempts to do so. They haven’t yet succeed.

MATTHEWS: Where are they shopping?

CIRINCIONE: Well, one of the places they`re shopping is Pakistan. Right before 9/11, Osama bin Laden had a meeting with several Pakistani nuclear scientists to get a briefing on nuclear weapons technology. For my money, that`s the most dangerous country in the world. Osama bin Laden is about 60 kilometers away from nuclear weapons material. If something happens to that government, if it destabilizes, he`s going to make a run for those weapons.

Cirincione’s the expert; we are not. But if he’s right, and some such event does occur, liberal democracy will end overnight. That said, we’ll offer two comments:

In the past year, we have often wondered if some such concern is driving US policy in Afghanistan. And this:

It’s stunning to see the way the press avoids discussion of this general topic. Re-read what Cirincione said:

Do you ever see this topic discussed? Have you seen it discussed in the wake of this Hardball appearance? Or have you seen leading “liberals” clowning around about Sarah Palin, as they cram five million bucks into their own pants pockets?

Notes on how to bury the lede: Rachel brought Joe on last night—mainly, it seemed, so he could praise Obama’s summit. The pair discussed perfectly valid points. But this is the way the host reacted when the guest finally voiced his own rather striking point:

MADDOW (4/13/10): Joe, in terms of people watching this right now who don`t follow nuclear issues that closely, what’s the most important thing to understand about what’s different in the world after the summit than before the summit happened?

CIRINCIONE: One, that you forged international recognition that nuclear terror is the number one threat facing most countries. Two, that you have an action plan where these countries have committed to joint action. And three, that they`ve agreed to come back in two years to hold themselves accountable, to do what the president has wanted them to do, what they have now pledged to do to secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years.

You do that, you stop Osama Bin Laden. You do that, you prevent nuclear terrorism. You fail to do that, and one of the capitals represented at the summit today will go up in a mushroom cloud.

MADDOW: Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, it is always great and clarifying to talk to you. Thank you for your time tonight.

CIRINCIONE: My pleasure, Rachel.

As always, Joe had been clarifying! Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Special report: Song spun blue!

PART 1—INSIDE CLUB 47 (permalink): We badly need a journalistic culture which confronts the various noise machines. As he opens today’s “Economic Scene” column, David Leonhardt takes us one step closer. But it’s just one baby step.

In this, his opening passage, Leonhardt does what big journalists almost never do. He notes what they’re saying on Fox—and he’s remarkably current:

LEONHARDT (4/14/10): Forty-seven percent.

That’s the portion of American households that owe no income tax for 2009. The number is up from 38 percent in 2007, and it has become a popular talking-point on cable television and talk radio. With Tax Day coming on Thursday, 47 percent has become shorthand for the notion that the wealthy face a much higher tax burden than they once did while growing numbers of Americans are effectively on the dole.

Neither one of those ideas is true. They rely on a cleverly selective reading of the facts. So does the 47 percent number.

Leonhardt is right. That is what people are hearing on cable TV and talk radio. Unfortunately, they’re also hearing it on network TV—and from the Associated Press. On April 7, the storied “news service” filed a report on this topic by Stephen Ohlemacher. Unfortunately, it would be hard to get less competent than Ohlemacher and his “editors” seem to be.

Gaze on the intellect of the modern “mainstream press corps!” The work below is stunningly bad. We’ll take you through the headline and the first eight paragraphs, to show you how bad it is:

OHLEMACHER (4/7/10): Nearly half of US households escape fed income tax.

Tax Day is a dreaded deadline for millions, but for nearly half of U.S. households it's simply somebody else's problem.

About 47 percent will pay no federal income taxes at all for 2009. Either their incomes were too low, or they qualified for enough credits, deductions and exemptions to eliminate their liability. That's according to projections by the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research organization.

Most people still are required to file returns by the April 15 deadline. The penalty for skipping it is limited to the amount of taxes owed, but it's still almost always better to file: That's the only way to get a refund of all the income taxes withheld by employers.

In recent years, credits for low- and middle-income families have grown so much that a family of four making as much as $50,000 will owe no federal income tax for 2009, as long as there are two children younger than 17, according to a separate analysis by the consulting firm Deloitte Tax.

Tax cuts enacted in the past decade have been generous to wealthy taxpayers, too, making them a target for President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. Less noticed were tax cuts for low- and middle-income families, which were expanded when Obama signed the massive economic recovery package last year.

The result is a tax system that exempts almost half the country from paying for programs that benefit everyone, including national defense, public safety, infrastructure and education. It is a system in which the top 10 percent of earners households making an average of $366,400 in 2006 paid about 73 percent of the income taxes collected by the federal government.

The bottom 40 percent, on average, make a profit from the federal income tax, meaning they get more money in tax credits than they would otherwise owe in taxes. For those people, the government sends them a payment.

“We have 50 percent of people who are getting something for nothing," said Curtis Dubay, senior tax policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

That work is stunningly awful. It isn’t until you hit paragraph 9 that Ohlemacher deigns to note the following: “The vast majority of people who escape federal income taxes still pay other taxes, including federal payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare.” Why then did he say, right in paragraph 1, that Tax Day is “somebody else’s problem?” That formulation strongly suggests that these families pay no federal taxes at all. And it comes in paragraph 1—where everybody is still reading, looking for the latest thing to get all riled about.

Beyond that, Ohlemacher presents a typical, F-minus account of “tax burden.” He says the top ten percent of households pay 73 percent of federal income taxes—without saying what percentage of total income this top ten percent receives. This is the dumbest possible way to explain the issues involved in this matter; it’s impossible to assess the fairness of this tax policy without that missing number. If a college freshman did work like this, presumably it would be sent back for (a lot) more work.

But this report didn’t come from a college freshman—it came from our most storied “news service.” Question: What kind of “editor” read this F-minus work and waved it on into print?

Alas! Ohlemacher’s groaning report, and the study on which it was based, have inspired a great deal of gong-show “journalism” in the past week. And it isn’t just the folk at Fox who have taken this gong-show and run with it. On April 8, Christine Romans offered the following report on CNN’s American Morning. Romans earned her spurs at CNN as one of Lou Dobbs’ compliant accomplices. Below, you see the hapless report she churned to Kiran Chetry. In paragraph 2, she renders a statement that’s even dumber than anything Ohlemacher said:

ROMANS (4/8/10): Talking taxes. Look, a surprising number that a lot of you, as you are preparing for your taxes, might not know. A fascinating analysis in USA Today by the Associated Press that shows that 47 percent of earners pay no federal income tax at all.

Think of that—half of people who are working in this country will pay no federal income taxes. Most of them still have to file, of course, because there are all kinds of tax credits that they're trying to get—low income tax credits, deductions. You've got things like the middle class tax cut. You've got earned income credit. You've got credits for kids, you've got lots of deductions.

So what that means, for example, a family of two adults and two children with an income of $50,000 a year could very easily pay no federal income tax. Of course, the income tax is what the government uses as the main source of revenue. This is how we pay for our country, through the income tax we pay for things like defense, transportation, the roads run, education.

Conservatives say, of course, look, these numbers—for the past three or four years, conservatives have been saying some people are not pulling their fair share. But the tax code is a way that the government tries to enforce their priorities. And that's what we're seeing a lot of different things happening here, including rebates for energy efficient windows, for cars, for homes. So a lot of different things in the tax code.

Who pays the federal income tax then? If 47 percent of people are not going to pay federal income tax, who pays? Ten percent of earners pay 73 percent of all the federal income tax revenue. These are 10 percent earners that's mostly families making about $366,000 a year or more. The bottom 40 percent of earners actually get a refund. They file their tax form, put in all the tax credits and deductions that they have. And in the end, the money from that 10 percent that pays 73 percent of the overall tax burden is then sent a check from the government to the 40 percent of people who are getting something back.

So an interesting, fascinating little look at how the whole tax system works. But you still have to file a tax return. This doesn't mean you don't file a tax return. These aren't tax cheats. These are people who are legally not obligated to file federal income taxes. But they pay probably Social Security taxes, they pay local taxes, retail taxes, excise taxes. They are paying for taxes throughout their life and they are contributing to—to government and paying for government in that way. But this is federal income tax we're talking about.

CHETRY: There you go.

ROMANS: Interesting, right?

CHETRY: Yes, very interesting. Christine, thanks.

“Very interesting,” Chetry said. But it’s also exceptionally dumb. As she started, Romans managed to top even Ohlemacher, saying that lower-income households still have to file so they can get all their tax credits. It isn’t until very late in the game that she mentions those other taxes they must pay. And she simply repeats that misleading account of the burden on the top ten percent. She tells us what percentage of income taxes these households pay—without telling us what percentage of income they earn.

This is classic, F-minus work.

That said, this cri de coeur has been all over Fox this week. Presumably, it has been all over talk radio. Leonhardt is quick on his feet today, addressing this “popular talking-point” in real time. He’s also right to call use that term—to identify this as a “talking-point,” rather than as an attempt at reporting. Indeed, Leonhardt’s piece raised many valuable questions about the way our “news machines” and “noise machines” work, although we can’t say that he answers these questions in unassailable ways.

Back in the 60s, Harvard Square’s famous Club 47 presented the very best in folk tunes—stories the masses had always sung in unison. A different type of Club 47 took shape this past week in response to Ohlemacher’s report—though this club was also crammed with people who were all singing one song. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll spend the rest of the week looking at Leonhardt’s response to the popular talking-points he has swiftly identified. And we’ll discuss the need to develop a journalistic culture which responds to our low-IQ noise machines—the noise machine which functions on Fox and the growing machine which spins liberals blue on Our Own “News” Network.

KO and Gene clowned hard last night. They need to be taken down too.

Tomorrow—part 2: Ifill averts her gaze