NPR’s Don Gonyea gets basic fact wrong

This morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition veteran correspondant Don Gonyea managed to screw up a basic, key piece of information in his campaign report from Nevada.

About a minute and seven seconds in he referred to “the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal taxes,” a group that does not exist. How in the world can he get that wrong? It’s not like this is some esoteric detail; it’s come up repeatedly for several months and especially in the past few days in the wake of the release of a video of Mitt Romney dismissing 47% of Americans as self-appointed victims who can’t be persuaded to take responsibility for themselves.

The 47 percent figure refers to the fraction of U.S. households that did not owe federal income tax in 2009 — the year the Great Recession hit bottom — as a consequence of the bad economy and temporary tax breaks. But to suggest that not owing income tax means that the Americans in that group “don’t pay federal taxes” is completely ridiculous.

Almost all working people in the U.S. pay the substantial (and regressive) federal payroll taxes that underwrite a big chunk of Social Security and Medicare, major programs which together account for over a third of total federal outlays. And then there are various other federal taxes that most people pay, such as 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline. Furthermore, the 47 percent figure was an anomaly. It’s already slightly lower and in normal economic times significantly smaller.

Gonyea can certainly be forgiven not going into detail on this, since that was not the subject of the report. But he could as least avoid saying something flatly wrong. Why not say “the 46 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax.” It’s not like that would take longer to say. It’s the same number of syllables.

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