American humorist Josh Billings (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw) once wrote, “I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.” He often used variations on this, and it has been widely quoted and paraphrased,
for example by Mark Twain. (Whoops! The Twain quote I had in mind turns out to be a misattribution, so in a post complaining about misinformation I unintentionally managed to add some of my own.)
Alas, a lot of us know what ain’t so, especially in the realm of politics. I admit this is hardly a novel observation, but it’s a danged annoyance.
There’s plenty of blame for this to go around, but it’s particularly irritating when the source is so often the news media. Just a few recent examples:
Fox News’s Steve Doocy recently put words in President Obama’s mouth, suggesting Obama had taken a swipe at Mitt Romney by saying that “unlike other people” he had not been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. This morning Doocy offered a non-retraction retraction, saying only that he “did some paraphrasing.” No, he did some fabricating. What Obama actually said last Wednesday, in a speech about the need to help students with the rapidly rising cost of college, was this: “Somebody gave me an education. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Michelle wasn’t. But somebody gave us a chance — just like these folks up here are looking for a chance.”
NPR (among others) recently reported that the proposed “Buffett Rule” bill in the Senate would require people with income over a million dollars a year to pay a minimum 30% in federal income tax. In fact, that rate would apply to income over two million. The tax would be phased in between one and two million. Unfortunately, this widely-supported proposal with majority support in the Senate was killed by yet another Republican filibuster, which prevented it from being voted on. (Incidentally, the “Buffet Rule” might be better called the “Reagan Rule.” He was the one who asked, “Do you think the millionaire should pay more in taxes than the bus driver or less?”)
Similarly, I’ve numerous times seen it said that candidate and now President Obama called for restoring the previous 39.6% marginal tax rate on people with income over $250,000 per year. In fact, he did call for restoring the 1990s rates on income over $250,000, but the 39.6% marginal rate would apply only to the portion of taxable income over about $330,000 per year. Note, incidentally, that this is a marginal tax rate we’re talking about. That is, it applies not to all income but only to incomes in a certain range. (The “Buffett Rule” rate mentioned above is different in that it is a minimum overall rate.) Note, by the way, that the top marginal rates in the 1990s were still substantially lower than those in effect during most of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Finally (for now anyway), we’ve yet again seen news stories on the Social Security’s financial problems that are misleading because of what they leave out. Yes, the Social Security Trustees now estimate that the Trust Fund will run out of money in the mid-2030s, three years sooner than in last year’s report. But as I’ve noted here before, Social Security has always paid current benefits out of its current receipts. That’s how it was designed to work, as a “pay-as-you-go” system. The Trust Fund exists as a sort of overflow reservoir to collect excess receipts and make up shortfalls. If the Trust Fund runs out it will still be possible to pay almost all of promised benefits, and the problem can be solved entirely by a bit more economic growth, raising the current limit on Social Security tax, or slightly reducing future benefit increases. (For more on misapprehensions about Social Security, see this).
(Updated to correct a typo and note the the Buffett Rule bill was denied a vote in the Senate by a Republican filibuster.)