Saturday, January 26, 2013

Today's Exercise in Critical Reading of the Press: Reverse Robin Hood Edition

For today's exercise in critically reading the press (something that everyone should do as an intelligent citizen on a regular basis), I would like to turn to an article from The New York Times from Thursday that addressed the increasing push by Republican governors to shift the tax burden from the rich and onto the backs of the poor.  Governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sam Brownback of Kansas have both called for increases in their state's sales taxes in order to phase out the income tax.

What most caught my attention about this article was the subtle way in which the article's choice of language, whether intentionally or not, painted these Republican governors in a positive light.  We can see this first even by the title:  "Governors Push Bigger Reliance on Sales Taxes."  Although there is nothing false or even misleading about this, it fails to address why they are doing this, and by ignoring motivation, it presents this as a somewhat wonkish budget fix.

But let's get to the text of the article itself.

It begins with the following sentence:

 "Republican governors are moving aggressively to cut personal and corporate income taxes, including proposals that would increase reliance on state sales taxes, setting up ambitious experiments in tax reform that could shape what is possible on a national level." 

The author is calling these proposals "ambitious" and offering them as a template for the debates about federal tax policy that will come in the ensuing months.  These governors, one would glean from this opening line, are bold innovators, starting new experiments with the tax code that the nation as a whole could (and maybe even should) adopt.

Let's continue:

"Even as Washington continues to discuss, if not act, on ideas for making the federal tax system simpler and more efficient, governors, some with an eye on the next presidential race, are taking advantage of the improving economy and a gradual rebound in revenues to act."

First, we have an indictment on Congress for its failure to make the tax code "simpler" and "more efficient"; the use of "Washington" is an easy way of avoiding any clear blame for any individuals or parties who might obstruct the process.  However, this line also implies that these new tax proposals emanating from Republican governors will, in fact, make the tax code simpler and more efficient.  Since most people see simplicity and efficiency as normative goods--I would assume the author does, this line is an implied endorsement, whether partial or in full, of the proposals under discussion.  Moreover, this sentence continues the effort to frame these governors as bold thinkers and actors, making policy innovations while Washington idles.

The next paragraph just highlights the governors and states being discussed.  Let's go to the next substantive paragraph:

"Along the way these governors are taking small first steps into a debate over what kind of tax system most encourages growth in a 21st-century economy. In particular they are focusing attention on the idea, long championed by conservatives but accepted up to a point by economists of all stripes, that the economy would be better served by focusing taxation on consumption rather than on income."

This sentence now continues the "bold innovation" frame with discussion of a "21st century economy."  What does that exactly mean?  How does the economy of today differ from that of 1999? Are we talking about a more technologically-driven economy?  Are we talking about an increasingly diverse population?  The author simply assumes that we, the audience, all have a shared understanding of what this means--and, thus, how these policies fit into such a framework.  More importantly--and jarringly, the author then claims that these policy proposals are noncontroversial--that "economists of all stripes" endorse them, at least in part.  We are only told that this process of tax shifting is good because it "lift[s] economic growth and would "encourage more savings and investment."  The author cites nothing to substantiate these claims; the reader is expected to take them at face value.  One would think, if cuts in income taxes were so stimulative, the Bush tax cuts would have proven a boon to the economy.  But I digress...

The first voice we hear other than the author's--our first "expert"--is from a conservative think tank, and he provides us with this assessment:

"Everyone agrees we’ll get more growth with consumption taxes. It’s just that some people prioritize fairness." 

Notice how, again, we are told that this is common knowledge; everyone thinks this.  Likewise, the article has consistently advanced the perspective that economic growth is inherently good, a normative claim that one could challenge.  Indeed, some scholars have. What "growth" means is also unclear?  Does it mean more jobs?  Are we being told that tax shifting will reduce unemployment?   Who benefits from this growth?

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