Grim Reality Media Misses The Point Of The Buffett Rule Fight

Isaiah J. Poole

This will make you long for the mythical days of “liberal media bias.”

A news story in The Washington Post this morning bashes the current debate around the Buffett rule in a classic case of conservative media bias.

The story, in its too-cute lead-in, declares that “the great moral debate of the 2012 campaign is turning out to be as inspiring as drunks arguing over a bar tab.” Then it quickly summarizes the push by the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to require millionaires and billionaires to pay taxes at at least the same rate as most working Americans, contrasting that to the effort by Republicans to protect the wealthy from tax increases while cutting benefits and services relied upon by low- and middle-income people.

Then the story authors get downright dismissive.

Either way, somebody pays more, but these passionate debates are unlikely to produce any detailed plan for fixing the deficit. Instead, both parties seem to be saying the first step is figuring out who has a moral duty to chip in more.

That’s the grim reality behind a campaign that will touch on taxes and spending, the role of government, and the country’s long-term fiscal health. It’s not as stirring as “Change We Can Believe In,” or “Morning in America.” But this isn’t that kind of year.

Well, we’re sorry that The Washington Post is so uninspired by this debate that it doesn’t get how consequential it is.

It very much matters who is being asked to make sacrifices to correct the economic mess created by decades of conservative misrule—and who is being exempted. At least the paper’s reporters had the good sense to turn to William Gale of the Tax Policy Center, who crisply summed up the debate.

“The moral argument is: Who should bear the burden of the cost of government?” Gale said. “Ryan is moving the burden down the income spectrum. The Buffett plan is moving the burden up the income spectrum.”

But what the Post article doesn’t make clear is that Gale has a point of view on this that doesn’t fit the pox-on-both-their-houses story the reporters appear determined to write. As a contributor to TaxVox, the Tax Policy Center blog, he wrote a post sharply critical of the House Republican budget plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

At a time when our country faces a daunting fiscal challenge, Ryan asks nothing of the wealthiest Americans. His budget proposal would simultaneously cut tax rates for the rich and corporations while slashing programs for the poor and elderly… Although I agree that spending cuts are necessary to meet our fiscal challenges, so too are additional revenues, for many reasons. They are the only way to get shared sacrifice from the wealthiest Americans. … [T]he Republican’s budget is clearly a win for the rich and a loss for everyone else.

The Post story is emblematic of a meme that has permeated a lot of the chatter around the Buffett Rule this week (and is being fanned into flame by conservative lawmakers and pundits): that it shouldn’t be treated as a serious proposal because, as the Post dutifully notes, “the rule would not likely make a serious dent in the country’s deficit. It might add up to $162 billion over 10 years.”

But no one is saying that the Buffett Rule is the silver bullet for our deficit problems. It is, however, symbolic of the principle that should guide which solutions our elected representatives should choose.

Conservatives believe that we should try to lower the deficit by taking away the economic supports that have helped people climb the economic ladder into middle-class stability and have cushioned them when they fall, while asking nothing of the one class of Americans that has survived the economic crisis of the last few years relatively unscathed. In fact, under the Ryan Republican budget, the top 1 percent of Americans, who received 93 percent of the income gains in 2010, would be asked to contribute even less in taxes than they do today.

The Obama administration at least rejects that premise. It recognizes that wealthy Americans should be asked to contribute more toward an economy in which it is possible for all to prosper because adequately funded schools are producing educated workers, spending on infrastructure is enabling people and goods to move efficiently, our health dollars are allowing people to stay well without going bankrupt, research dollars are sowing the seeds of the new green economy.

The boldest move in this direction is the Progressive Caucus’ Budget for All, which is the adult in the room when it comes to deficit reduction. By setting tax rates as high as 49 percent for people earning more than $1 billion, and by eliminating many of the loopholes that the wealthy and corporations use to dodge taxation, the Budget for All closes the budget gap faster than the Ryan budget. And it does so more responsibly; the spending cuts in the Ryan budget would actually slow the economy and make it harder for the federal government to balance its books.

If there is a “grim reality,” it’s that some news media outlets are wasting space and readers’ time on stories that strive for false “balance” and end up offering misdirection and imbalance instead. Then there is the race by news reporters and editors to “write with attitude” in order to keep up with opinionated bloggers and cable news outlets. But the Post would serve its readers and the broader political debate well by sticking to the old-school values of presenting the facts in context. And if you are going to call this critical debate about who gets to pay for the mess conservatives made of the economy a fight among drunks, then you’d better know the difference between someone who’s actually drunk and someone who is fed up with having the drinking binges of the wealthy placed on their tab.

By the way, if you’re one of the fed up, click here to tell your senator: Pass the Buffett Rule.

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