Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A "how to lie with statistics" instant classic from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page

CJR's Ryan Chittum catches Stephen Moore doing his damnedest to mislead:

The question-as-headline is your second red flag that this just might be a deeply disingenuous op-ed (the first is that it’s on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page):

A 62% Top Tax Rate?

The top marginal tax rate is just 35 percent now, of course. So how does Moore come up with the idea that Obama and the Democrats are pitching a 62 percent tax rate for the rich? Disingenuously.

First, here’s a classic example of misleading readers with an apples and oranges comparison:

If the Democrats’ millionaire surtax were to happen—and were added to other tax increases already enacted last year and other leading tax hike ideas on the table this year—this could leave the U.S. with a combined federal and state top tax rate on earnings of 62%. That’s more than double the highest federal marginal rate of 28% when President Reagan left office in 1989. Welcome back to the 1970s.

For Moore’s headline purposes he includes state taxes to get to 62 percent, but when he compare it to rates under Reagan, he doesn’t include state taxes.

The comparison is much more misleading than that, really. Moore is also including things like payroll taxes to come up with his fake 62 percent number, while not including them in that 28 percent Reagan figure. You can’t do that, boss.

Moreover, to come up with that doozy of a number, Moore is adding in not only state and payroll taxes, but just about every possible tax hike being bandied about by Democrats. But Moore knows full well that even if they wanted to, which they don’t, the Dems wouldn’t be able to enact every one of these. But he acts like they’re all coming.

Those theoretical and far-from-likely tax hikes include a 3 percent surtax on incomes over a million bucks; Obama’s proposal to end the Bush tax cuts for the rich in 2013, which would return marginal rates to 39.5 percent at the top; 3.4 percent Medicare taxes (Moore includes the employer’s contribution here); and 10.1 percent in additional payroll taxes because “Several weeks ago, Mr. Obama raised the possibility of eliminating the income ceiling on the Social Security tax” (that includes the employers’ share, too, though Moore doesn’t say that).

There’s also this:

Today’s top federal income tax rate is 35%. Almost all Democrats in Washington want to repeal the Bush tax cuts on those who make more than $250,000 and phase out certain deductions, so the effective income tax rate would rise to about 41.5%.

It’s unclear how Moore gets to 41.5 percent here. Repealing the Bush tax cuts would return the top marginal rate to 39.5 percent. Deductions affect effective tax rates, which are far lower than marginal rates. Since he doesn’t explain it, and since the backdrop is the rest of this misleading piece, I’m going to assume that this 41.5 percent number is false (I believe Moore is talking about the PEP and Pease taxes, but those don’t apply to people making more than $525,000, so they can’t be included in a total tax rate that includes a millionaire’s surtax.)

To get to 62 percent, Moore also includes 4 percentage points for state taxes. It’s unclear why he didn’t include local taxes while he was at it. That would have got him another full point (it’s always worth noting that state and local taxes are extremely regressive, taking 11 percent of the income of the lowest quintile of earners, which is more than twice what the top 1 percent pays.)

All this allows Moore to plant the zombie lie that Democrats are “proposing rates like those under President Carter.” Even with all his hocus-pocus, that’s not true, either. The top marginal federal income tax rate under Carter was 70 percent, a full eight percentage points higher than Moore’s fake number. If you include all the state and payroll taxes he uses to get to Obama’s “62 percent” figure, which you have to to make the comparison, that Carter number would be closer to 80 percent.

And, as Andrew Sprung points out, that's still lower than the rate under Ike. It would be interesting to see how Moore reconciled the high taxes of the Postwar Era with its phenomenal growth.

Probably not informative, but interesting.

1 comment:

  1. I am still unclear that high marginal tax rates on the extremely rich are likely to do much social harm. Consider:


    “Hedge-fund manager John Paulson personally netted more than $5 billion in profits in 2010—likely the largest one-year haul in investing history, trumping the nearly $4 billion he made with his ‘short’ bets against subprime mortgages in 2007.”

    Nobody disputes that investment saavy is an important talent or that hedge fund managers should be compensated for their abilities. But they currently pay taxes as if they were making capital games. Do we honestly think that they would cease their work and retrain as janitors if we raised marginal tax rates by 5%?

    So not only is the 62% slander, but it is unclear precisely how one defends against small tax increases. After all, a functioning economy (with all of the relevant parts such as police and courts) is required to create markets that can yield these types of profits.