Monday, April 30, 2012

False Equivalents

    Recently I received two comments on my columns which help to explain the unresolvable political arguments which are tearing our nation apart.

    In response to my column about doing my taxes, someone wrote that the US has the most progressive tax system in the world, and cited an article he had read to prove it. Another reader responded to my column about scientists disagreeing about global warming by suggesting I read an article debunking climate change.

    I read those pieces, and they are junk. Here’s why.

    Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at George Mason University. In an article in the Washington Examiner, and then in a variety of postings, she wrote: “the United States has the most progressive income tax system among industrialized nations.” Her only evidence is that the percentage of total tax receipts paid by the highest earners is greater in the US than in other countries.

    The most progressive income tax systems among industrialized countries, as of 2009, were in Denmark (the rate for top earners is 62%), followed by Sweden (57%), the Netherlands (52%), with Austria, Belgium and Japan at around 50%. The top tax rate in the US is 35%. Very few major industrialized nations have a lower top tax rate.

    So why does the US have the largest percentage of total taxes paid by the highest earners? Because we have more and richer top earners, all of whom pay less than they would in other countries, but who add up to a larger proportion of the whole. The great inequalities of wealth in the US mean that even though we have a much flatter tax system, the rich are so rich that they pay a large proportion of our tax receipts.

    This is not complex economics, but simple spinning of data for political purposes by de Rugy. Her misleading claims, posted immediately on conservative sites like National Review Online, are not designed to promote understanding, but to advance a political agenda.

    The article against global warming was written by Mona Charen, who makes her living as a syndicated conservative columnist. In her first sentence, she accuses those who are concerned about global warming of demagoguery, sentimentality, cynical manipulation, and hysteria. She repeats the hysteria idea in the second paragraph.

    Then she makes three points. Although there have been many warnings that polar bears are endangered by global warming, it turns out that they have not yet suffered any species damage. Her second point is that new science allows us to take better photographs, which show that there are many more Emperor penguins than scientists thought. Her third point is that a prediction made 5 years ago by scientists about the speed of the melting of Himalayan glaciers turns out to be much too high.

    Charen ends by questioning whether the climate is actually warming at all, and then saying that those (all of us?) who are on the other side have hurt science itself, besides being all those things she began with.

    Mona Charen picks and chooses scientific tidbits which she thinks can make her readers believe that science itself is suspect. As soon as you look at the larger picture, you see how manipulative she is.

    The scientists were wrong about polar bears, but that doesn’t mean anything about their ideas on global warming itself. The bit about penguins shows that better technology reveals that the number of penguins has been underestimated by scientists, which also has nothing to do with warming.

    The third point is worse. One of the authors of the study about the melting of glaciers, John Wahr, wrote that the Himalayan glaciers are a small contributor to overall ice melt and that estimates for the largest contributors, Antarctica and Greenland, have been correct. “It's Greenland and Antarctica that pose by far the greatest threat to rising sea levels in the future. That's, basically, where all the ice is.”

    You won’t find out that fact from Mona Charen, just as Veronique de Rugy doesn’t tell you what you really need to know about progressive income tax systems. They both know that the average reader, especially those who want to believe conservative ideas, won’t or can’t follow the trail backwards from their misleading writings to the real facts. They don’t seek truth, they obscure it.

    My two readers, who put these writings forward in opposition to mine, asserted a false equivalence. They equated these bits of right-wing propaganda with my columns, which I suppose they believe are simply left-wing propaganda. They’re wrong.

    I don’t cite misleading factoids, which hide the real facts. I don’t quote people out of context. I don’t try to hoodwink my readers.

    I’m sure I won’t convince my critics by saying that. Every writer claims total honesty. But I’ll say it anyway, because it would pain me if anyone discovered that I was as dishonest as de Rugy or Charen. Nobody will, because I’m not.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 1, 2012

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