Devil in the Details



It wasn't all that long ago that the nation was chuckling over Jerry Brown, his 800 number, and his 19 percent flat tax. But this time around, the Republican presidential candidates proposing similar plans seemed to win respectful attention. Supposedly, the idea commanded broad popular support. As proof, the right touted an article published in Reader's Digest (Rachel Wildavsky, "How Fair Are Our Taxes?" February 1996) citing an extensive October 1995 poll. Based on the poll, Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and company contended that all income groups backed a flat tax.

The Reader's Digest's summary of the poll conveniently left out a few things. It reported that the people surveyed thought that 20 percent was a fair tax rate for everyone, regardless of income. But a look at the full text of the poll, conducted by Everett C. Ladd of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, revealed that when questioned more extensively, people had a more complex view. In fact, when asked to name a fair tax on incomes of $200,000, the median response was 25 percent. When questioned about fair taxes on incomes of $25,000, $50,000, and $100,000, the median answers were 10 percent, 17 percent, and 20 percent, respectively. That sure sounds like a progressive tax.

Furthermore, three highly respected pollsters (all of whom conducted their polls in mid-January 1996) discovered that Americans had significantly different attitudes toward "tax fairness" than those reported in Reader's Digest. Seventy-four percent of the respondents to the Time/CNN poll opposed a flat tax of 23 percent, and less than half favored any flat tax. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll also found flat tax proponents to be the minority, while only 27 percent of those surveyed by the CBS/New York Times pollsters liked the idea.

Polls are sometimes used to find out what people really think. At other times, they are artfully contrived to justify a candidate's own position. But reality has a way of catching up with people who misuse polling data. The two Republican presidential hopefuls most closely identified with the flat tax, Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes, soon discovered that their campaigns were, well, flattened.




The National Governors Association's bipartisan plan to end the budget stalemate seemingly offered a splendid hybrid--just enough of an entitlement for the Democrats, but with the flexibility of a Republican block grant. President Clinton said of the proposal's welfare component, "I applaud the work [the governors] have done, in a bipartisan fashion, on welfare reform." Apparently, the president neglected to analyze the details of the plan, which includes a provision that would turn AFDC funds into an all-too-ordinary block grant quite like the one in H.R. 4, the congressional welfare bill that the president vetoed in January--in large part because of his strong opposition to ending the AFDC entitlement.

The governors glossed over the distinction between entitlements and block grants, but no one else should. Turning AFDC into a block grant means that eligible low-income families are no longer guaranteed assistance. In fact, under the block grant system, states have no duty even to accept applications for assistance. States can choose to exclude certain categories of people from receiving aid (unwed or teenage mothers, for example) and refuse to provide hearings to people they deny aid to. Even worse, block grant status would erase almost 30 years of case law surrounding AFDC, leaving no precedent for any questions of due process that arise under the block grant system.

While it provides more federal money, the so-called compromise is in some ways harsher than the vetoed bill--including an additional $4 billion cut in food stamp aid. You wonder why Governor, er, President Clinton would support such a thing.


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Maybe George needed a scantily clad Cindy Crawford on the cover of its premier issue to boost sales, but one would think that the esteemed New York Times would require no such ploys. Yet the February 4th cover of the New York Times Magazine featured a large, full- color, kittenish photo of 16-year-old model James King (a girl). Inside, there were several more photographs, 14 to be exact, accompanying an article bemoaning James's lost childhood and a society that exploits young girls. ("Teenage models simulate an adulthood they've yet to experience for women who crave a youthful beauty they'll never achieve. Sweet 16 it's not," reads the table of contents blurb.) "All she's lost is her youth," bemoans the cover line.

The article neglects to suggest a solution to the beauty obsession behind the multibillion-dollar modeling industry. Perhaps they were too busy choosing the perfect cover shot?

We hereby suggest a new word to New York Times language maven William Safire: pruritanism--a hypocritical blend of puritanical clucking and prurient appeal. One might define it as exploiting a trend in the course of condemning it. (Time and Newsweek are among other malefactors.) Readers are invited to supply other examples (this page not included!).




When Oregon voters chose a liberal Democrat, Ron Wyden, to fill Bob Packwood's old Senate seat, the Boston Globe's conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby took great offense at the (successful) effort to increase voter turnout via mail-in ballots. "By now we have so degraded the franchise that the vote of an illiterate, unemployed, unstable high-school drop-out is deemed no less valuable than that of the president of Columbia," Jacoby wrote. Working himself into a real rage of indignation, he added, "Turning Election Day into a dumbed-down mass mailing operated by the Post Office would only accelerate the rusting of American democracy."

American what? Is too much democracy the problem here? We always suspected that the right, at heart, was deeply uncomfortable with the concept of one person, one vote. But we've never seen the sentiment confirmed quite so baldly. One can imagine Jacoby typing in "president of Harvard," and then deciding not to give those Cambridge liberals the satisfaction.

--Robyn Gearey

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