Sunday, January 07, 2007

...And Now, the News
On the New York Times homepage a bit after midnight this evening, I saw a headline of some interest. As I don't generally read the Times in print, I'm not sure where this story will appear in Monday's paper. On the homepage, it could be found two clicks below the virtual fold (where you'd need to scroll down), in two sections, "Washington" and "U.S.": third story of three in one, second of three in the other. On the homepage, there are about a dozen stories above the scroll-down, maybe another 40 more below. The story I'm referring to was, visually and in terms of immediate draw to the reader's eye, about in the middle of the pack among those 40 or so.

So there's little to make it stand out. But in explaining what's happened and what's happening in our country in this decade, it would seem to have more to say than "Ducks Top Wings to Snap 4-Game Slide" or "When the Choreographer is Out of the Picture." (The direct link to the Eagles game story is no longer on the homepage as I write this, but the article I'm talking about probably outweighs that too.)

Its title is "Bush Tax Cuts Offer Most for Very Rich, Study Finds":

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 — Families earning more than $1 million a year saw their federal tax rates drop more sharply than any group in the country as a result of President Bush’s tax cuts, according to a new Congressional study.
Based on an exhaustive analysis of tax records and census data, the study reinforced the sense that while Mr. Bush’s tax cuts reduced rates for people at every income level, they offered the biggest benefits by far to people at the very top — especially the top 1 percent of income earners.

Though tax cuts for the rich were bigger than those for other groups, the wealthiest families paid a bigger share of total taxes. That is because their incomes have climbed far more rapidly, and the gap between rich and poor has widened in the last several years.
The study estimates that the effective federal income tax rate, which excludes payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, declined modestly for people in the middle- and lower-income categories.

Families in the middle fifth of annual earnings, who had average incomes of $56,200 in 2004, saw their average effective tax rate edge down to 2.9 percent in 2004 from 5 percent in 2000. That translated to an average tax cut of $1,180 per household, but the tax rate actually increased slightly from 2003.

Tax cuts were much deeper, and affected far more money, for families in the highest income categories. Households in the top 1 percent of earnings, which had an average income of $1.25 million, saw their effective individual tax rates drop to 19.6 percent in 2004 from 24.2 percent in 2000. The rate cut was twice as deep as for middle-income families, and it translated to an average tax cut of almost $58,000.
Mr. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress want to permanently extend that tax cut and almost all of the others that Congress passed in his first term. The cost of doing that would be more than $1 trillion over the next decade, a cost that would hit the Treasury at the same time that the spending on old-age benefits for retiring baby boomers begins to soar.

In one sense, the de-emphasis on this story is appropriate and justified: it isn't "news" in the sense that it provides any knowledge that the attentive citizen didn't previously possess. If you've been paying attention at all since 2001, you probably understand that Bush/Republican tax policy, on a real-dollar basis, has disproportionately rewarded the wealthiest folks in the land. The interpretation and value/meaning of this fact can be disputed ("that's the entrepreneurial class, re-investing their money in the economy; they earned it and they get to should keep it," etc) but not the fact itself. The outcome of the Ducks-Wings donnybrook, decided on an artifical pond frozen by man and bordered by advertisements seeking the semidiscretionary dollars of a live and television audience that either lacks an NFL team (Anaheim/LA) or just saw theirs finish 3-13 and blow the first pick in the draft (Detroit), really does have more news value.

But the Bush tax story--the mere publication of which, by the way, will be enough to trigger Pavlovian howls of "liberal media" from the dogs so disposed to howl that refrain; "hey, Comrade Sulzberger, where's the quote from the AEI or Heritage expert explaining why this policy is just and proper?"--does have significance in terms of setting the framework and creating a context not only for understanding the past (the original enactments of the cuts themselves), but for real news stories soon to come.

When Congress gets going in earnest over the next few weeks and months, proposals will be on the board to do any number of expensive things, from raising the minimum wage to increasing student loan aid to fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax and reauthorizing No Child Left Behind to provide more federal support to schools. Pushing back against these proposals will be Republicans in Congress, the White House, and the media, all talking about how much they'll cost, waving the bloody balance sheet of tax-and-spend, charging newly powerful Democrats like this guy with having dollar-sign eyes and no regard for the shy and retiring nature of the global capitalist. Doing all these things, they'll say, means raising taxes and killing the prosperity of the last few years.

The New York Times will write stories covering these political fights, as of course they should. But if the paper were to contextualize every quoted salutary reference to "the Republican tax cuts" (for that will be the frame; Frank Luntz insists) by adding a phrase like "which benefitted millionaire families a few dozen times more than middle class families," you'd have... well, you'd have a liberal Fox News, presenting just one spin on the facts to push the reader/viewer toward a specific conclusion.

The point--or one point, anyway--is that the Republican argument here (though certainly not just here) depends upon a limited public understanding of what's informing the dispute. In a sense, it would be bias to include more detail about the real value of the Bush tax cuts--as well as the arguably important fact that the areas of the federal budget that have been cut or seen the slowest growth during this decade tend to favor the non-rich, while those that have continued to grow favor the wealthy--in every story about tax and budget fights to come.

In another sense, though, it's bias not to provide this context. "Preserving tax cuts versus increasing spending" has a different feel to it than "preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest versus increasing spending for everyone else."

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