Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ip is caught framing

In today's Wall Street Journal, Greg Ip describes recent changes in tax rates:
The data show that the average tax rate for all taxpayers was 12.1% [in 2004], up slightly from 11.9% in 2003 but down from 15.3% in 2000, due in part to the Bush tax cuts. Rates fell most for those at the top. The tax rate of the richest 1% fell to 23.5% from 24.3% in 2003 and 27.5% in 2000. For the bottom 50%, the 2004 tax rate was 3%, unchanged from 2003 and down from 4.6% in 2000.
The sentence that I have bolded puts a particular spin on the numbers. Here is an alternative way to describe the changes:
From 2000 to 2004, the average tax rate for all taxpayers fell from 15.3% to 12.1%, representing 21% tax cut. The tax rate of the richest 1% fell from 27.5% to 23.5%, a 15% tax cut. For the bottom 50%, the tax rate fell from 4.6% to 3%, a 35% tax cut. As a result of these changes, the top 1% paid a larger share of the tax burden in 2004 than it did four years earlier, and the bottom 50 percent paid a smaller share.
Isn't it amazing how the same set of numbers can be framed in different ways?

The reporters at the Journal, including Greg Ip, are among the best in the business and are usually good about keeping their own political views out of their news stories. This is an exception. By choosing the particular framing that he did, Ip let his politics seep into his reporting.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that the second description is neutral and better. I offer it to illustrate how the same numbers can be seen in a different light. If Ip had cut the sentence that I put in bold and just presented the facts, his paragraph would have conveyed the same information without any spin.