Sunday, December 17, 2017


Here's a headline that appeared on the front page of the New York Times website earlier this morning:

Similar wording is used in the print Times:

Right -- Republicans didn't consciously and knowingly decide to keep the tax code complicated. They just found simplicity "elusive." They tried to simplify, darn it!

The front-page headline has been changed to echo the headline of the online story itself: "File Your Taxes on a Postcard? A G.O.P. Promise Marked Undeliverable." But even that headline fails to convey the notion that Republicans deliberately chose to do what they did to the tax code. It's as if the promise somehow got lost in the mail, for unknowable reasons.

The story, by Jim Tankersley, really conveys the sense that Republicans can't be held accountable for their own bill:
This was not the grand simplification of the code that Republicans promised when they set out to eliminate tax breaks and cut the number of tax brackets as they lowered rates.

As their bill tore through Congress, their ambitions fell to the powerful forces of lobbying and the status quo.
No, it's not correct to say that Republicans' "ambitions fell" to powerful forces. Republicans chose to do what those forces wanted, and they made this choice so eagerly that only a babe in the woods would believe that this wasn't the plan all along. But Tankersley gives Republicans credit for sincerity and a good-faith intention to simplify, while he portrays the bill's complexity as something that just happened:
Killed tax breaks returned to life. New ones sprung up beside them. A plan for three individual tax brackets became five, and finally eight.
These things just sprouted up, as if they were weeds growing up out of the ground. No Republican hand is responsible for their appearance.

Tankersley literally describes this as an emergence:
What emerged on Friday, in the final product agreed to by Republican members of a House-Senate conference committee, was a bill that layers new tax complexities upon businesses large and small, and which delivers a larger share of benefits to corporations and the rich than to the middle class.
Tankersley accepts the notion that the GOP was sincere about tax simplification even though he tells us that simplification was a selling point concocted by GOP marketers and focus-grouped by affiliates of the Koch brothers:
Republican leaders spent most of the year promising something quite different. A tax plan “framework” released in September declared that Mr. Trump’s first principle for a tax bill was to “make the tax code simple, fair and easy to understand.” A collection of “policy highlights” for the House bill, when it was first released, proclaimed that the plan “eliminates special-interest deductions that increase rates and complicate Americans’ taxes.”

Those arguments echoed a message that conservative groups had found scored highly with voters — the idea that a tax bill could “un-rig” the system. In August, In Pursuit Of, a communications and marketing firm that supports the influential Koch network, conducted a focus group test of Mr. Trump delivering a short message along those lines, and it rated highly. The results were shared widely among Republicans, and echoed in party leaders’ speeches when they launched the tax push in earnest.
Only in the seventeenth paragraph of the story does Tankersley hold Republicans responsible for an element of complexity in the bill, and even then it's a provision that was later dropped:
Shortly before the legislation passed the Senate, Republicans tried to insert a provision that initially appeared designed to benefit a single conservative college in Michigan, before Democrats and a handful of Republicans banded together to strike it in a floor amendment.
And Tankersley gives the last word to a Republican leader who's shamelessly dishonest:
Republican leaders insisted that they had fulfilled their promise to simplify the tax filing process.

“So, with the standard deduction nearly doubled and a number of those provisions, the postcard still remains,” Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters on Friday. “Are there a few more items on it? Sure. But that was the process we wanted.”

Mr. Brady went on to imply that the special breaks were retained at the behest of voters. “We said from the very beginning: ‘This isn’t our tax code. It belongs to the American people,’” he said. “And it does. So, in the House we really took it down to the foundation and began to rebuild it the way the American people want it in the 21st century, not 30 or 50 years ago.”
They didn't "take it down to the foundations." They didn't "rebuild it the way the American people want it in the 21st century." I'll grant that acknowledging the latter would turn Tankersley's story into an opinion piece, but "we really took it down to the foundations" is just objectively untrue. Tankersley could acknowledge that, but he says nothing. The quote is allowed to stand, unqualified.


I criticize The New York Times a lot, and it's maddening to have to do it, because the paper's reporting is serious and many of its writers really are reckoning with the awfulness of the moment. The lead editorial today reminds us that the tax bill will widen inequality and also was made possible by inequality:
As a smaller and smaller group of people cornered an ever-larger share of the nation’s wealth, so too did they gain an ever-larger share of political power. They became, in effect, kingmakers; the tax bill is a natural consequence of their long effort to bend American politics to serve their interests.

As things stand now, the top 1 percent of the population by wealth — the group that would primarily benefit from the tax bill — controls nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth. The bottom 90 percent has just 27 percent.... To find a time when such a tiny minority was so dominant, you have to go back to the Great Depression.
There's a worthwhile story about the widespread use of the president's name as a racist taunt. And so on. But there's always a portion of the Times that's willfully obtuse and blind to bad faith. Why?

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