decried the descent of the GOP into lunacy, blames the press for not holding politicians accountable for their budgetary flimflam in the service of the rich. The result: A miserably misinformed public." />
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How the media enable the Republican tax agenda

COMMENTARY | January 18, 2012

Mike Lofgren, the former Republican congressional staffer who recently decried the descent of the GOP into lunacy, blames the press for not holding politicians accountable for their budgetary flimflam in the service of the rich. The result: A miserably misinformed public.

By Mike Lofgren

The media doesn't seem to understand the basics about budgets -- and the inescapable relationship between aggregate revenues, aggregate spending, and total deficits. Either that, or reporters just choose to play dumb. The end result is the same, however: Journalists don't probe deeply -- or they probe when it is too late to matter -- into budget proposals and their real-world consequences (as opposed to regurgitating the talking points politicians issue to “explain” them). They are also generally unaware of easily obtainable historical data and historical trends, and how these predict the likely outcome of current fiscal policy choices.

The point is this: we will always have big deficits as long as tax policy is radically different from the post-World War II average until about 1981. And Republicans now want to cut taxes, mainly on the wealthy, even further. So the GOP’s moaning about the deficit has no credibility whatever to anyone who knows budgets. But most people, and most reporters, don’t know that during the Eisenhower administration the top marginal rate was 91 percent, and that it was 70 percent for the following two decades or so, and that capital gains (which accrue overwhelmingly to the rich) were usually taxed as ordinary income. That lack of perspective distorts a whole range of popular assumptions about social equity now versus, say, the 1950s.

Rarely is it ever stated in the media that taxes under Obama are lower even than under Bush (e.g., tax cuts in the Stimulus, the payroll rate reduction, and some other minor tax policies). Early in the Obama administration, revenues fell below 15 percent of GDP -- the lowest in close to 60 years. But you never hear that; instead, the public dialogue has been preempted by ideologues who claim Obama is a tax increaser, a Kenyan socialist, etc. As a result, lots of low-information voters think Obama raised their taxes when he reduced them. Because of stereotypes about the parties that filled the vacuum that a lack of accurate information had created, many average voters have no clue about which party advocates which policy.

Some other examples: the proposed House Republican budget in 2011 did not balance the budget even by 2021 -- there was still a deficit of almost $400 billion in 2021, which would be large by historical standards. The proposal could have balanced the budget, but Rep. Ryan chose not to -- he cut taxes on the wealthy so much that the revenue loss nullified the deficit reduction he obtained from draconian cuts to domestic discretionary spending and some cuts to entitlements. Needless to say, he left DOD spending, now at historic highs, pretty much alone.

Do not misunderstand: anyone with any credibility recognizes that responsible fiscal management will require spending cuts, many of them painful. But they also recognize that we will have to have a tax policy that doesn’t just maintain tax rates where they are, but increases them. The House Republican budget cuts taxes even further, leaves half of the discretionary budget alone, and focuses on cutting a spending category which is only about one-sixth of the total budget (i.e., domestic discretionary spending). That is not a serious and credible proposal, no matter how much the media lazily label Rep. Ryan as a serious and sincere deficit hawk.

Likewise the Herman Cain “9-9-9” tax plan. It was a masterpiece of marketing, with its simple “9-9-9” label being reminiscent of a two-for-one pizza special. It would lower all federal income tax rates to a single 9-percent rate, set the corporate rate at 9 percent, and levy a national sales tax of 9 percent while eliminating most deductions. It had the sort of meretricious simplicity that appealed both to the simple-minded and the mainstream media. True to its “horserace” philosophy of covering politics, early on most of the press declared Cain’s plan a brilliant campaign move without making any effort to evaluate its substantive merits.

What the plan actually did was decrease revenue as it drastically cut the taxes of the wealthy and -- here’s the kicker -- raised taxes on the least well-off. And it did not in fact tax all income at 9 percent (so much for its appealing tripartite simplicity): it lowers the capital gains and dividend rates to zero. Generally, the richer the individual is, the more likely his income is to be derived from capital gains and dividends, which are already taxed at less than half the top marginal income tax rate. This current inequity in the tax code accounts for the fact that the 400 richest Americans have been paying an average effective Federal income tax rate of 17-18 percent since passage of the Bush tax cuts: little more than half the effective rate they had paid since the early 1990s -- even as their combined income quadrupled. Cain’s plan would have sharply increased this disparity.

The Tax Policy Center did a distributional analysis of Cain’s plan. The Center’s conclusion: “A middle income household making between about $64,000 and $110,000 would get hit with an average tax increase of about $4,300, lowering its after-tax income by more than 6 percent and increasing its average federal tax rate (including income, payroll, estate and its share of the corporate income tax) from 18.8 percent to 23.7 percent. By contrast, a taxpayer in the top 0.1% (who makes more than $2.7 million) would enjoy an average tax cut of nearly$1.4 million, increasing his after-tax income by nearly 27 percent . . . a typical household making more than $2.7 million would pay a smaller share of its income in federal taxes than one making less than $18,000.” [emphasis mine]

That would appear to be big news: drastically lower taxes on the wealthy, and tax increases for lower-income earners. But it took the media a long time to come to that conclusion, and by the time they had, the focus of press attention moved on to other matters -- like Cain’s personal life.

Several of the other Republican contenders have tax plans similar to Cain’s. The plan being pushed by Mitt Romney, the putative front-runner, is as follows: those making more than $1 million annually would receive an average federal income tax cut of $145,000 by 2015, while those making less than $40,000 would see their federal income taxes increase.

Will any member of the press ever say that these candidates are responding to the political pressure exerted by their contributors as well as manifesting their ideological identification with, and personal admiration of, the wealthy? Would that reporter conclude that these tax plans make concrete the philosophy of Ayn Rand that the rich are to be worshipped and the poor ignored if not despised?

I'm not holding my breath.


Posted by Michael Valentine
01/18/2012, 12:05 PM

Well gee who owns the media and who gives them their marching orders other then the 1%? Corporate owned media is the house organ for the corporations that own them.

Tax agendas are just the start. Even the "liberal" MSNBC never met a 21st century war they didn't cheerlead. (Owned at the time by General Electric one of the world's leading war profiteering corporations.)

Even PBS receives so much of it's funding from corporations that their acknowledgments for funding from corporations has turned into commercials themselves. Can the objectiveness of PBS be trusted anymore?

Even the media stars who report the news are the 1%, they make millions and benefited from these tax cuts. That makes their reporting questionable at the very least.

Nope the main stream media is owned and operated by the corporate for the benefit of the corporate establishment.

Posted by Katikam
01/18/2012, 05:31 PM

Mike Lofgren, thank you for your very clear article. I hope it will help people to wake up but I am not holding my breath either....

Posted by taikan
01/19/2012, 07:38 PM

The accusations made in the first paragraph of this article should be disturbing to anyone who claims to be a serious journalist and who has any responsibility for reporting about issues related to the budget and/or the economy.

Leaving aside television for the moment, it makes no sense to assume that that today's newspaper and magazine reporters are significantly less intelligent or significantly less industrious than reporters in the 60s and 70s. Therefore, I have to assume that if today's reporters are not probing deeply or asking the correct questions, whether about the budget or any other topic, it must be because the reporters know that their editors and/or publishers don't want them to do so and/or won't publish the resulting story.

Shouldn't someone involved in the Nieman Foundation be conducting a study to determine why the print media isn't adequately reporting about the budget (among other subjects)?

Posted by Gail Williams
01/23/2012, 12:21 AM

Thanks for the "insider information".

Posted by Gary Roth
01/23/2012, 12:00 PM

The problem with the mainstream media is that it has decided that it is entertainment, not serious journalism. News departments have cut back on staff, making serious investigation, which takes time and personnel, a thing of the past. While news organizations have always sought profits, the emphasis now on maximizing profits, at the expense of doing quality work, has led to the WalMartization of the industry - low quality product, everything pretty much the same, few sources, and maximization of profits. I don't see that changing any time soon.

Posted by Peter von Bergen
01/23/2012, 05:20 PM

Judging from those top marginal tax rates in the '50s and '60s, people who got really rich then really had to work hard to get there and develop business models that were productive - not just diddle around with unproductive funny money deals that include ridiculous tax breaks - the way they do now.

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