Devil in the Details

FLAT FOOTED



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.




COMPROMISING POSITIONS



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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NEW YORK CHEESECAKE



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!).




BLURT OF THE MONTH:



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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