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Response to Jonathan Chait (Update)

John on February 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

Kind of Jonathan to notice and not, like some others I could name, read the post and then studiously pretend he hadn’t seen it. He takes me to task for a couple things, one entirely correct and another not so much. First my error:

The argument seems to be that I “threw a hissy fit” about Sarah Palin’s death panels claim — Verum Serum actually links to a colleague’s item, not mine, but never mind — but didn’t correct the American public’s ignorance about the tax burden.

He’s right that the example I linked to was not his statement about death panels but that of Issac Chotiner. Mea culpa.

What I should have linked is this example of Chait railing at length about “death panels” as a sign that the fringe had gone mainstream (Headline: Crazy Train – The GOP welcomes the fringe on board):

The “death panel” fantasy has come more recently and entails an even greater number of lunatic premises. It begins with the lie that voluntary end-of-life counseling–a procedure once supported by even conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin–would in fact be compulsory. From there, it adds the twist that senior citizens would be denied their actual wishes, and that the denial of care would then be extended to other weak members of society.

That last leap of logic owes much to the crank belief that contemporary liberalism shares important characteristics with Nazism. And the whole thing requires one to believe that this sinister plan would have made its way into the House bills with no objection from either Democrats or Republicans and without attracting any attention from the press. This has not stopped such respectable figures as Senator Charles Grassley from stoking fears (“You have every right to fear,” he un-reassured one constituent).

I cited the wrong piece but as you can see Chait did in fact throw a hissy fit over death panels, labeling it a species of crazy and specifically fingering Senator Grassley for “stoking fears” by referencing the idea. Continuing:

Let’s grant that the poll I posted, showing that Americans think the rich should be paying a higher share of the tax burden, is an example of public ignorance. It seems to me that disapproving of politicians who spread untruths does not obligate one to correct public ignorance every time it appears…I should be permitted to present facts about public opinion as they are without forfeiting my right to object to politicians who mislead the public.

First of all, I never said Chait (or anyone else) had to correct public ignorance or forfeit his right to criticize politicians who spread it. I implied that failing to do so was hypocritical. To wit, if Chait can imply Senator Grassley is acting irresponsibly by repeating the “death panel” claim, it can only be because he expects public figures to correct errors rather than stoke them or simply pass them along. And if Chait can hold Grassley to that standard I see no reason why it shouldn’t be applied to his own writing as well.

But in the very next paragraph Chait reverses course and offers a different defense:

And, of course, the poll I cited was not at all an example of public ignorance.

On this point, I’ll just note that Chait himself later admits Americans are ill informed on the issue, so by his own admission it’s arguable that’s exactly what the poll shows:

It was an example of the public disagreeing with right-wing preferences. The question asked whether the rich are paying “their fair share” of the federal tax burden. “Fair” is a subjective judgment, not a question of objective truth.

Yes, “fair” is subjective and that’s exactly the problem with this whole formulation. We’re asking people how they feel about taxes not what they know. For most of the last 50 years a majority of Americans have felt they themselves pay too much in taxes. Given that feeling, it is logically necessary that someone must not be paying enough. Who is that someone? Why it must be the rich, those selfish bastards at the top. It feels like they’re not paying enough, forcing me to pay too much.

And let’s not pretend that public sentiment on this issue resides in a vacuum. Members of Chait’s party long ago trademarked the phrase “tax cuts for the wealthy” to describe the Bush tax cuts (or any tax cuts for that matter). This clever bit of rhetorical manipulation had the benefit of being strictly true but entirely misleading since it is really only the top 20% of earners who pay nearly all federal taxes. It is now almost impossible to give a tax cut that benefits anyone who is not in the top 50% of earners, since these are effectively the only people who pay. This becomes a battle of semantics. I’ll just say that, given the facts, the current system stretches the definition of “fair” considerably, i.e. in an evenhanded manner.

The problem isn’t that Americans know the facts and disagree with Republicans, it’s that they don’t know the facts and are relying on feelings instead. If that’s how the game is played then Chait should have no issue with death panels. After all, if people feel as if “death panels” could be in their future as a result of Obamacare, well…there’s no arguing with feelings. But as we’ve seen, Chait believed feelings were entirely beside the point in that case. What mattered was what was in the bill. Anything else was irresponsible fear-stoking.

Finally, Chait goes on to wrangle about the chart I used to make my case:

[T]he chart that Verum Serum presents as “reality” about the tax burden is actually incorrect. It shows that the highest-earning 10% of taxpayers pay nearly 70% of income taxes. However, income taxes do not represent the whole of the federal tax base. The question I cited asked whether upper-income people pay their fair share of federal taxes. Federal taxes also include payroll taxes, which are considerably more regressive than income taxes.

He offers this chart instead:

So once you include payroll taxes the top 20% pay 70% of federal taxes (rather than the top 10% paying 70%). Fine. The question remains, how many Americans in the Gallup poll he cited–the ones who think the rich aren’t paying their share–actually know this to be true? Probably not many according to Chait:

I’m not saying that Americans believe what they do about taxes because they’re deeply informed. On most policy issues, most Americans are pretty uninformed.

Then he offers this final, telling caveat:

But there’s little reason to think that providing them with more information would change their beliefs.

Here I think we’ve entered another discussion for another day, i.e. that of moral hazard. Why wouldn’t the bottom 50% demand higher taxes on the rich, especially if most of that additional money is going to be redistributed to them in one form or another?

Eating the rich will likely always have a larger constituency than actual tax fairness. That doesn’t make it right (or fair). It also doesn’t excuse Chait for uncritically passing along public opinion based on politically-stoked misconceptions even as he rebukes others for doing the exact same thing.

Addendum: Morgen helpfully locates this survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the Tax Foundation. Note this chart relating to one of the questions in the survey:

Anyone still think Americans have a firm grasp on how much the rich pay in taxes? Anyone want to argue that this level of misinformation has no effect on the public opinion poll Jonathan Chait cited?

Update: This guy says my response is “weak sauce” because I’m comparing facts (death panels) to opinion (the rich don’t pay enough taxes). Actually, that’s not true. Let’s see how much he cares about facts.

When Palin used the term “death panels” in a Facebook post, she was not claiming it was an item in the bill. How do we know this, because the next day she clarified what exactly what she meant saying:

My original comments concerned statements made by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy advisor to President Obama and the brother of the President’s chief of staff.

Palin clarified this again in a speech she gave in Hong Kong:

I seem to have acquired notoriety in national debate. And all because of two words: death panels. And it is a serious term. It was intended to sound a warning about the rationing that is sure to follow if big government tries to simultaneously increase health care coverage while also claiming to decrease costs. Government has just got to be honest with the people about this

Simply put, Palin never intended to claim that “death panels” was a provision in the bill (which is false as a matter of fact). Her statement was always intended as forward looking opinion about potential outcomes (and therefore not subject to fact checking). That means that death panels is an opinion just like “the rich don’t pay enough taxes” is an opinion. That’s apples to apples, which means this guy’s whole post is weak sauce.

Also, if I’m guilty of assuming that a better informed public (on tax rates) would come to a different conclusion about whether the rich pay their fair share (I maintain they would) then Chait is equally guilty of assuming that a better informed public (on health reform) would come to different conclusions about the bill’s desirability.  Maybe people would hate it anyway. Maybe, if they were really well informed they would know that the plan’s author and many Dems on Capitol Hill always saw it as a Trojan horse for single payer. I suspect a truly informed public would like the bill even less.

Getting back to the point, Chait is outrageously outraged by the success of “death panels” to crystallize public opposition to the bill, but has nothing to say about the success of similarly loose talk about tax cuts for the wealthy by the left. In fact he’s happy to use public opinion that results from that sort of misinformation without noting (as he admitted in his response to me) that Americans are probably misinformed. He’s happy to assume in that case that information would lead to no significant change in opinion. Okay, then maybe the same is true vis a vis death panels and Obamacare. Bottom line: He’s trying to have it both ways. For Chait it seems misinformation is only a source of outrage when it helps the other party.

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