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NAME THAT TUNE! Voters deserve to hear the full truth about that catchy new song: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2010

Coulter, eight years later: In 2002, when Slander appeared, we spent about a month detailing its lunacies and its dissembling. At one point, we rolled our eyes at Ann Coulter’s description of the typical New York Times letters page (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/02).

In those days, Coulter’s account of the Times letters page struck us as facially ludicrous. That said, we’ll make an admission: In recent months, the Times letters page has occasionally made us think of Coulter’s book.

Today was one of those days. We refer to the five letters the Times chose to run about its poll of Tea Party supporters.

The letters quickly turn to familiar insults about racial motivation and hypocrisy. The weakness of the reasoning made us think of Coulter’s description from so long ago. That said, the letter from Shaker Heights was the most cerebral—it presents the current Standard Liberal Complaint about Tea Party folk, absent the racial assertions. In our view, if this is the best we liberals can do, progressive interests will likely remain in their current world of hurt:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/16/10): I’d be curious to know why Tea Party activists showed no anger when President George W. Bush started two wars, passed tax cuts that went primarily to the wealthiest and then closed out his term by bailing out financial giants like American International Group and leading investment banks.

For eight long years, Republican policies converted a federal surplus into a record deficit and sent America’s economy into a tailspin. Democratic policies to transform health care and stimulate the economy, while adding to the deficit in the short term, are at least showing signs of improving the economy.

Why show anger now?

Why did activists show no anger when Bush started two wars? Could it be because the first of these wars—the one Obama has expanded—was hugely supported by public opinion at the time it began?

This is the most cerebral of the letters, yet we think it’s enormously weak on the merits. Whatever one thinks of Bush’s budget policies (we opposed them all), the nation’s economy entered a whole new realm at the time of the financial collapse in the fall of 2008. Obama is presiding over an historic disaster—a disaster not of his making. But it’s silly to be surprised when major disasters of this type produce upheavals of the Tea Party kind. Tinny accounts may make us liberals feel good, but they’re likely to convince few others.

Two other letters go straight to race. It’s the one thing we liberals know to say. Conservative elements hated Bill Clinton too. Since he was white, we had nothing to say about their war on him and his murderin’ wife, or about their later war against Gore. Instead, we rolled over and died.

That approach worked out quite poorly. The tinny approach laid out in these letters isn’t likely to help much either.

Simple story: Current deficits dwarf those of the pre-meltdown Bush era. That isn’t Obama’s fault, and we generally support his various efforts to address the meltdown. But it’s silly to pretend that the world didn’t change in the fall of 2008. It’s silly to be surprised when people go into a tizzy—or to insist that it’s pure hypocrisy.

It’s silly, and unlikely to help, and it has another noxious effect. It makes Coulter look like a bit of a prophet. And that can’t possibly help.

For the record: Why didn’t Tea Party types complain about Bush’s tax cuts? Could it be because long-run surpluses were still predicted after his first, and largest, tax cut? Candidate Bush campaigned on that cut, and almost got himself elected. Candidate Gore ran on policies which would have used most of the projected surplus too.

The situation which obtained after that first tax cut did not, in any imaginable way, resemble the mess we’re in now. The bomb went off in 08.

We liberals are competing with experts. Major players like Norquist and Luntz are highly capable, and vastly funded. They know how to develop winning politics; they have an army of talk-show hosts who will spread the message around. Meanwhile, people like Gwen Ifill are too afraid to speak, even when directly confronted by the effects of their claims (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/15/10).

Liberal interests can’t be served by the lazy efforts which tend to emerge from our ranks. These tinny claims send thrills up our legs. Do they work well on anyone else? Winning politics is about what the other folk think. Do we liberals know how to go there?

Special report: Song spun blue!

PART 3—NAME THAT TUNE (permalink): Conservatives have pursued tax issues, with great political success, for several decades now. Some talking-points have been deeply absurd, and yet they have been widely believed, forming the basis for endless complaints about Democratic policies. (If we lower the tax rates, we receive higher revenue!) Some points are based on accurate claims which may perhaps lend themselves to spin and distortion.

In the past week, a hot new talking-point has emerged: 47 percent of households pay no federal income tax! In Wednesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt did a good job at the start of his discussion:

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 did a very good job as he opened his column. He identified “47 percent” as a “talking point”—as something that’s being used for political purposes, not as part of a real attempt to educate American voters. He pointed to some of the misconceptions which can arise from this point.

As Leonhardt continued, he presented some basic information about federal tax policy. For example, the facts in this passage are very basic. Trust us—most people don’t know them:

LEONHARDT: Over the last 30 years, rates have fallen more for the wealthy, and especially the very wealthy, than for any other group. At the same time, their incomes have soared, and the incomes of most workers have grown only moderately faster than inflation.

So a much greater share of income is now concentrated at the top of distribution, while each dollar there is taxed less than it once was.

Leonhardt’s piece includes a lot of information. He also engages in a philosophical debate about so-called “payroll taxes:” Should they be regarded as fundamentally different from other federal taxes? (“Because they pay for benefits—Social Security and Medicare—that people receive on the back end.”) Or are they more correctly regarded as one more part of the overall federal tax system? For anyone who wants to argue about federal tax policy, this is a very basic point; we’re inclined to agree with Leonhardt’s assessment. But how many liberals would know how to argue this basic matter? More horribly: How many liberal “intellectual leaders” would know how to argue this point?

This leads us to a more serious question: How many liberal intellectual leaders know how to argue these matters at all? Over the past several decades, Republicans and conservatives have achieved large political gains by pushing questions of tax policy, often through the use of talking-points which are absurd or misleading. But where do you go to find the liberal world’s rebuttals to these decades of cant? We were a bit disappointed by one part of Leonhardt’s piece—by his failure to offer a larger account of the overall tax burden (federal, state and local) on people of various incomes. If we’re not mistaken, lower- and upper-income income people pay remarkably similar rates in taxes, if all levels of taxation are considered. (As Leonhardt notes: “State and local taxes...may actually be regressive.”) You can’t fault Leonhardt for omitting such data; no one can include everything in a single column. But where does a liberal go to access such vital types of information? After all these years, we simply can’t tell you. The liberal world has never created a disciplined, complete rebuttal to the decades of cant with which progressive interests have been damaged again and again.

Simple story: Their side plays the game harder—and much more capably. Powerful interests have a great deal to gain from federal tax policy—and through the use of conservative cant, they have gone after it hard. On our side, we tend to gambol and play, shouting various tinny claims when we’re forced to engage at all. Our “intellectual leadership” is weak—and sometimes seems corrupted, aspiring to upper-end regions themselves and pandering hard to multimillionaire gate-keepers. (“Oh Chris darling, I’m just like you!”) Our side simply doesn’t play the game well. The other side, which is quite well-funded, plays the game capably, hard.

That said, we will complain about the way Leonhardt closed his piece. At the end, he asked a very good question—why are all these new songs being sung this week about that 47 percent? The question he asked was very good. We thought his answer was weak:

LEONHARDT: There is no question that the wealthy pay a higher overall tax rate than any other group. That is an American tradition. But there is also no question that their tax rates have fallen more than any other group's over the last three decades. The only reason they are paying more taxes than in the past is that their pretax incomes have risen so rapidly—which hardly seems a great rationale for a further tax cut.

So why are those radio and television talk show hosts spending so much time arguing that today's wealthy are unfairly burdened? Well, it's hard not to notice that the talk show hosts themselves tend to be among the very wealthy.

No doubt, like the rest of us, they don't particularly enjoy paying taxes. They are happy with the tax cuts they have received lately. They would prefer if other people had to pick up the bill for Medicare, Social Security and the military—people like, say, firefighters, preschool teachers, computer support specialists, farmers, members of the clergy, mail carriers, secretaries and truck drivers.

Why are talk show hosts arguing that the wealthy are unfairly burdened? Their own wealth may be part of the problem, especially at the top of the mainstream press. (At an annual salary of $10 million, Brian Williams may have gained a half million dollars per year just from Bush’s first tax cut.) But in the realms of talk radio and Fox News, Leonhardt understates in this passage. In these realms, talkers routinely drive the points which serve the pseudo-conservative agenda, whether these particular points affect their income or not. They routinely dissemble, about all topics; they routinely serve as propagandists rather than as journalists. Voters deserve to be told this fact, in a simple, unvarnished manner.

(Conservative talkers routinely dissemble? What a shame, that some “liberal” broadcast stars are starting to ape this conduct.)

Many talkers have been singing a song this week—a hot new song from Club 47. Voters deserve to hear the full truth about the catchy tune’s origin.