Thursday, April 16, 2015

Beclowning oneself with advocacy journalism

An amusing example of clumsy advocacy journalism with Americans Love Paying Taxes by Vanessa Williamson.

The IRS has a lobbying campaign going on at this time to get Congress to raise their headcount and their budget. All sorts of IRS friendly articles are popping up in different venues. I don't think they are actually intended to persuade as they are so often so clumsily argued. Rather, I suspect that the intent is simply to energize the core of the electorate that are interested in things that require greater public expenditures.

Poor old Williamson seems to have risen to the bait with this transparently sad piece of advocacy journalism. Her argument is straight forward and like many rhetorical arguments has enough factual base to lend sufficient credibility to glide over the weak parts. Here is her argument.
That Americans hate taxes has become a truism, but it’s not true. Although they disagree sharply about how tax money should be spent, most Americans actually take pride in paying their taxes. Taxpayers in the United States are unusually honest and reliable compared to those in other countries. And, increasingly, Americans are voting for tax hikes.
We can break this down to get at the truth. However, as the article proceeds, Williamson subtly moves from the argument that Americans actually don't hate taxes, to the quite different argument that Americans like high taxes. but let's stick with her initial set of claims.

Americans hate taxes has become a truism, but it’s not true - Really? Define what constitutes taxes. Property taxes? Sales taxes? Income taxes? Licensing fees? Regulatory fees? Quotas? Tariffs? At different times and in different places, there is an ebb and flow of acceptance or resistance to each of these taxes. Which ones are you talking about? Every change in the tax regime entails winners and losers so there is always a Faustian bargain. Advocates for increased taxes are always trying to spread the cost over the largest group possible (thereby diluting resistance) and correspondingly often trying to concentrate the benefit so that there is a beneficiary willing to fight for it. Without defining which taxes under what conditions, Williamson merely asserts her argument rather than supports it with evidence.

Williamson is also deliberately ambiguous in her wording. She asserts without evidence that Americans do not hate taxes. That is an empirical question which can be answered with both surveys of opinions as well as revealed preference. The fact that states with low taxes have high inflows of residents from states with high taxes indicates that in fact Americans find high taxes sufficiently distasteful that they are willing to undergo the disruption, risk, and uncertainty of relocation in order to escape high taxes. As the article proceeds, and consonant with the IRS's argument that they need more resources, she switches to the quite different argument that in fact Americans like taxes with the implication that they like high taxes.

Her first statement is asserted but not supported in the article with empirical evidence.

Although they disagree sharply about how tax money should be spent, most Americans actually take pride in paying their taxes. - This statement is supported within the article with opinion surveys and is likely true to an extent. Compared to other countries, the American tax system is inordinately dependent on voluntary compliance which in turn is based on a very high level of intra-citizen trust. But again, there is the issue of definitions. Taking pride in the execution of a service is different from actually liking that service. There are many things we take pride in doing that are not in themselves fun or rewarding things to do.

Taxpayers in the United States are unusually honest and reliable compared to those in other countries. Supported by evidence in the article and I believe to be true from other evidence I have gleaned over the years.

And, increasingly, Americans are voting for tax hikes. - Again, Really? This might be so but it is not clear from the article that that is the case. In fact the article provides no evidence to us as readers at all. The potential truth of the article is hidden from sight because the author refuses to provide it. The relevant proffered support is in the middle of the article.
Americans are also increasingly willing to vote for higher taxes. I looked at every state-level ballot measure since 1976 that potentially increased or decreased tax revenue. In the early 1980s, one tax increase in five passed; since 2000, about one in two has passed. States have managed to increase sales, income, property, and cigarette taxes by putting the issue directly to the voters. Times have changed since the Reagan-era “tax revolt.”
This is laughably bad. Basically, this authorial advocate for taxes is essentially saying "I've looked at the numbers and they say people are increasingly willing to increase taxes. And no, you can't have the numbers to confirm that conclusion."

Beyond simply hiding the data, the author's argument sloppiness invites the question about methodology. You have to provide some details. How many tax increases were there? Which of these were by referendum and which by legislation? What percentage of these were special purpose bonds versus general fund tax increases? What is the elected legislator career impact of increasing taxes? I don't know whether voters are more or less willing to increase taxes and nor, based on the evidence presented, does Williamson. I can say that aggregate tax burden, taking into account all forms of taxation, has remained remarkably stable over the past forty years. Yes we keep tinkering with the code in order to change the beneficiaries and the payers and to change the relative burden between classes of taxpayer, but as far as I can see, there appears to be no willingness to increase taxes.

This is a lovely little narrative sleight of hand attempting to support the IRS campaign for more resources but poor old Williamson ought to be ashamed for clogging the intellectual system with such cognitive pollution and ought to be embarrassed either to have been co-opted by the IRS for their purposes, if this was done consciously, and ashamed if this is held to be a reasonable example of her intellectual abilities.

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