Monday, February 13, 2006

Shape of the World: Opinions Differ, Part CXLVIII

Today's Chronicle has a front-page article that exemplifies all the worst attributes of journalistic 'balance', squeezing the facts into a Procrustean bed of moral equivalence.

First, here's the part of the story that's worth reading--the part that should be the lead:

The Bush tax cuts will total about $2 trillion over the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office....And by failing to restrain spending, Bush has made his tax cuts unsustainable without draconian spending cuts that neither the White House nor Republicans in Congress support.

In a sense, Bush's tax cuts, which are set to expire within five years, are a phantom, analysts said, paid for with borrowed money that portends much steeper taxes after he leaves office....

[T]he biggest parts of the Bush tax cuts directly benefit wealthy taxpayers. These include reduced rates on the upper-income brackets, the capital gains and dividends tax cut and phasing out the estate tax....

The problem for Republicans is that while cutting taxes, they have allowed spending to surge. Brian Riedl, a Heritage Foundation budget analyst, calculated that federal spending under Bush has risen twice as fast as under former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
Now let's look at the story as it actually ran.

Start with the headline:
Dems, GOP give tax cuts political twist
Both sides spin issue in effort to gain edge in election year
Both sides spin, and both sides twist. It's a terrible headline from a factual standpoint, but I give them credit for capturing the tone of the story.

And here's how the article begins:
A clash over the domestic crown jewel of the Bush presidency -- the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, with looming expiration dates -- has emerged as a central theme of the Democrats' campaign to retake control of Congress this November.

Children, widows, the elderly, farmers, veterans, students, working mothers -- every vulnerable group short of puppies -- is to be sacrificed at the altar of the Bush tax cuts that benefit America's richest citizens, Democrats claim. "Democrats will fight the president's anti-widow and anti-children agenda," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, announced last week.

Added Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: "After creating record deficits and debt with his budget-busting tax breaks, the president is asking our seniors, our students and our families to clean up his fiscal mess."
Okay, then. Let's stipulate that 'anti-widow and anti-children' is a little hyperbolic. With that qualification, is it wrong? Are widows and children, students and seniors, not disproportionately affected by Bush's proposed budget? Ms. Lochhead doesn't tell us, instead moving on to the Competing Claim:
President Bush, who is struggling to extend the capital gains and dividends tax cuts while paring the budget, countered that his tax cuts are essential to the economy and keeping Democrats' hands off taxpayers' money. He waved off budget concerns.

"If Congress doesn't act, your taxes are going to go up, and you're not going to like it," Bush told a New Hampshire business group last week. "You will hear the argument during the budget debates -- you know, all the noise coming out of Washington -- that you need to raise taxes in order to balance the budget. I've been there long enough to tell you that's not the way Washington works. They're going to raise your taxes, and they're going to find new ways to spend your money."
Interestingly enough, that isn't how it happened the last time we raised taxes to deal with the deficit. (Of course, we had a Democrat in office it's really an unfair comparison.) Once again, though, there's no independent assessment of the claim. True? False? Truthy? Falselike? Who the hell knows, based on this story? All we really know is that Democrats claim one thing, and Republicans claim another.

Most of the rest of the story continues in this vein:
Underneath the flamboyant talk, budget experts say, both parties are teeing up their constituents for a nasty surprise....

Democrats actually like many specific Bush tax cuts, even as they trash them in the aggregate. Democrats also are fighting to roll back taxes on the same upper-income voters whom they claim should be paying more -- those earning between $200,000 and $500,000 a year. But these rich live in the blue states Democrats dominate like California and New York.

Reversing the Bush tax cuts alone cannot restore fiscal balance, analysts agree. This will require the very spending restraint that Democrats daily condemn....

"The Democrats tend to say, 'Well, if we just repeal these tax cuts, our problems are solved,' " said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "False. Republicans tend to say, 'Geez, if we have these dividends and capital gains, we'll grow our way out of it.' Also false....No one plays that game straight in my view," Holtz-Eakin said....

The top 50 percent of income earners pay almost all the individual income tax, and the top 5 percent pay more than half of it -- 53.8 percent -- according to the Treasury. That means any income tax cut will chiefly benefit top earners.....To offset this effect, the Bush tax cuts included an expensive array of tax breaks for the poor and middle class, including a new 10 percent bracket, a child tax credit, a refundable earned income tax credit, a savers' credit, marriage penalty relief and other tax breaks Democrats strongly endorse.

Democrats also favor fat business tax breaks such as the research and development credit....

The underlying problem for both parties is that the government is deep in red ink on the eve of the Baby Boomers' retirement. When these 76 million people stop paying taxes and begin collecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, starting in two years, they will swamp the government's resources and could provoke a financial crisis, analysts predict. [emphases added]
Get the picture? The Democrats are part of the problem. It's everybody's fault. Both sides are being less thna honest. When you come right down to it, they're really all the same.

This sort of lazy, facile pseudo-analysis avoids asking any questions that would undermine the assumption of Democratic-Republican equivalence. Questions like: what is the size of Bush's 'tax breaks for the poor and middle class' relative to the total? What Democrats 'daily condemn' spending restraint? Who's actually responsible for the current situation? If it isn't the party controlling congress and the Executive branch, why not? Didn't Clinton's policies generate surpluses that were designed to avoid exactly the crisis this article warns about?

The byline on the story is Carolyn Lochhead; longtime Chronicle readers may remember her (as I do) for writing aggressively skeptical stories about Clinton pretty much from the first day of his presidency. Ironically, if you do a Google blog search you'll find that it's mostly wingnuts complaining about her nowadays. To be honest, I don't really know if she has some ideological agenda she's pursuing (but if she does I'm pretty sure it isn't a liberal agenda). I don't think that's the problem with this story. The problem is the unstated assumption that 'balance' means assuming moral equivalence even when one party is being relatively reasonable and the other has gone completely off the deep end.

[That's all, folks]