Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Perhaps the Wall Street Journal's news operation isn't defunct after all

I'm naturally suspicious of the Rupert Murdoch-era Wall Street Journal. Under the prior ownership, the editorial pages were shockingly slanted and dishonest during the GW Bush years. And they had gotten worse. At one time, while the WSJ editorials were predictably on the political right, they were less flagrantly propagandistic, and the op-eds had more of a range of views (e.g., Albert Hunt). Throughout the pre-Murdoch era, however, the news operation seemed pretty straight-up, including when compared with, say, the NY Times or Washington Post.

Under Murdoch, while the editorial pages don't seem to have gotten worse (and perhaps even are a hair better), one would expect the news operation gradually to lose its independence and some of its integrity, just from what one hears has happened in Murdoch vehicles elsewhere. Hence I noted with interest the recent WSJ news stories calling the federal estate tax the "death tax."

Whatever one thinks of the estate tax, calling it the "death tax" is pure Orwellian propaganda. The estate tax is its official name, and this is not a bogus label like the names Congress always gives major tax legislation (e.g., the Create Jobs, Fiscal Responsibility, Freedom for Americans, and Give Everyone a Free Toaster Tax Act of 20__). It predates the political wars, and is accurately descriptive. People are not taxed just for dying - their estates are taxed if they die with sufficiently large estates. So there's an honest and accurate name with a historical pedigree, and a dishonest, inaccurate, tendentious name created, presumably after Republican strategists had done some research with focus groups, in the 1990s.

BTW, I happen to support retention of the estate tax. But this would be a close call if it could be traded in on a revenue-neutral and distributionally neutral basis. The key consideration for me is empirical evidence that people don't plan for it by reducing work and saving quite as much as they "should" in a rational actor model with altruistic bequests. Even if I opposed it, however, as I might in a different political setting and if our understanding of the empirics changed sufficiently, I'd still take the same view of the labeling game.

Anyway, against this background I was glad to hear that the WSJ, in response to reader complaints, apparently is dropping the use of the term "death tax" in its news stories.

I still think the Murdoch operation has made the news pages less quirky and interesting, though I understand this as mainly a marketing decision to make them more like the news pages in a conventional daily newspaper. But that is a lesser complaint.


Unknown said...

Where do I sign up for that free toaster?

Anonymous said...

There are two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) ways to look at phrases like "death tax" or "marriage penalty", and so on.

1. As an exercise in salesmanship - generating different reactions to the same things by evoking positive or negative associations through the use of rhetoric.

2. As an exercise in soft-deception - purposefully using particular phrases that one strongly suspects will cause false perceptions and conclusions to arise in the listener's mind as to the very nature of the thing being named.

I think "death tax" is more an example of the former, not the latter. What's more likely is that actual motivation or the effect on understanding is irrelevant since the politicians simply looked at the results from the focus groups and discovered that something "works" to generate support.

I could be wrong though - maybe it successfully makes people believe untrue things, but I think most people have a general understanding of the basics of what an estate tax does - as analogous to the way they understand other taxes.

Maybe "death tax" is the political equivalent of "$1.99!" - the attempt to describe the same thing with a different name, defensible as technically insubstantial, but with the actual expectation that it tends to provoke a significantly different response.

That's my impression of the whole "illegal alien" vs "undocumented immigrant" vs "individual of unverified status" terminology war, and the rest of the politically correct style for that matter.

Daniel Shaviro said...

I think it's within bounds for someone arguing against the estate tax to call it the "death tax," but it shouldn't be the term used in a news article.