Posted tagged ‘Reading Comprehension’

The McArdle Chronicles redux: How to Argue in Bad Faith: An Example

April 21, 2011

Again, I’m the messenger.  My MIT colleague Jim Bales has taken up my slack in covering the gift that keeps on giving, Megan McArdle.

Enjoy — it’s a good one


Jim Bales here – my thanks to Tom for letting me borrow his soap box. The words that follow are mine, and not his.

So, Megan McArdle has a post in which she asserts that:

“[T]he federal income tax is now very progressive; it collects most of its revenue from people at the top.”

Commenter mmh53b noted:

“When I was a lad … progressivity was not based on the percentage of tax revenue collected from the top, but rather the marginal tax rate.”

The lesson on arguing in bad faith can be found in Ms McArdle’s reply:

‘In this context, the question is: how dependent are tax revenues on high incomes? Because the more dependent they are on high incomes, the more they swing from peak to trough. This has, contra your belief, always been a definition that characterizes a system as “progressive” rather than “regressive”.’

Wow – sucks to be commenter mmh53b, doesn’t it? After all, what mmh53b had always considered to be the definition of a progressive tax is now simply their belief, a belief contra-ed by Ms McArdle with a definition. In fact, Ms McArdle insists that her definition has always been a definition, and thus it is the only definition she will allow for the term “progressive” tax.

Does anyone support poor mmh53b? No one of any importance. Just:

Wikipedia: A progressive tax is a tax by which the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases

The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary: Progressive, increasing in rate as the base increases, with the example, “a progressive tax” (definition 4b)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica: [P]rogressive tax, tax that imposes a larger burden (relative to resources) on those who are richer

The Oxford English Dictionary: The only definition to use the word “tax” (2d), reads: Of a tax or taxation: increasing gradually according to ability to pay; increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases. (As to Ms McArdle’s “always”, the first usage cited was in 1792 by Tom Paine.)

Well, it appears that the “a definition” that Ms McArdle prefers is sufficiently rare so as to have been overlooked by the both Britannica and the OED. It certainly seems that “progressive tax” has always meant what commenter mmh53b has thought it meant. Perhaps Ms McArdle, in her capacity as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic is using in it a narrow, technical sense? Perhaps economists never use “progressive tax” in its common (and well-nigh eternal) meaning of higher tax rates on higher incomes?

Thanks to Google Books we can quickly check a few Economics textbooks.

The Shrill One (Dr. Robin Wells) and her spouse (some fellow named Krugman) write in their tome Macroeconomics (p. 192) An individual in a higher income bracket pays a higher income tax rate in a progressive tax system like ours. Then again, they are shrill. What do they know?

Now, Robert Samuelson, he was an economist! He’ll get this one right! In his Economics he wrote (page 390, caption to Figure 16-4) Taxes are progressive if they take a larger fraction of income as income rises. Well, maybe Samuelson wasn’t such a good economist, since he didn’t know the “a definition” that Ms McArdle insists was “always” in place.

I know — Professor (and chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors) Greg Mankiw will get it right! In his Principle of Economics Mankiw defines a Progressive Tax (p. 255) as a tax for which high-income taxpayers pay a larger fraction of their income than do low-income taxpayers. Oops.

And so we are left with three simple choices.

1)     All of these people, from Tom Paine through Robert Samuelson all the way to Greg Mankiw, are wrong and Ms McArdle is right.

2)     Ms McArdle, the Business and Economics Editor for The Atlantic, is utterly ignorant of the meaning of an economic concept as basic as a progressive tax.

3)     Ms McArdle will make shit up rather than acknowledge that one of her critics was right.

My money is on 3), hence the title of this post. Why? Because her evasiveness was utterly unnecessary. She need only have said, “Why yes, mmh35b, you are correct. A progressive tax system has higher tax rates on higher incomes. As a result, the tax revenues come disproportionately from the wealthy, whose income is more volatile than the less wealthy. Furthermore, that volatility causes tax revenues to go down when the economy tanks, which is when governments have increased need for that revenue.” Of course, had she done so she would have acknowledged that she was sloppy in her choice of words in her original post, and that her critic had caught her out. So, rather than admit the small error and turn it into a chance to advance her cause, she chose to try to shut down mmh35b instead. And that is arguing in bad faith.

PS – A Counter Example

In contrast to Ms McArdle, consider the actions of Mr. Louis Martinelli (ht Abi Southerland at Making Light). After working for many years with the National Organization for Marriage to deny same-sex couples the right to civil unions (much less full marriage), Mr. Martinelli has come out in support of full marriage equality and issued an retraction of his past words and deeds that he now considers to be wrong. In particular, notice in the latter link how Mr. Martinelli holds fast to those elements of his prior statements that he still considers true, yet acknowledges and retracts those elements that were false, irrelevant, or simply hurtful.

One need not agree with Mr. Martinelli completely to recognize that he is striving to argue in good faith. One need not disagree with Ms McArdle completely to recognize that arguing in good faith is not important to her.

Image: Jan Massys, At the Tax Collector, 1539