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July 29, 2004


The Rockridge Institute's George Lakoff has put together a simple tutorial on framing. You guys are probably already more aware of his work than I am, but I caught his interview on Bill Moyers' show and had lightbulbs flashing and bells ringing in my head all through the interview. It's not that he told me anything really new, he just synthesized it in a way that I never could.

i saw the film last saturday here in NY and was impressed with it. What stuck with me was Michael Powell and Kathleen Abernathy of the FCC in their own words. When the FCC ruling was being voted on 99.9% of the mail was against media consolidation and yet Powell said he didn't know why that was and Abernathy was more concerned with the first amendment rights of the corporations! These people are not serving the public interest. A Senator reads out the list of groups against it and it is the strangest bedfellows ever seen: the NRA, Catholic Bishops, National Organization for Women etc.
And then a provision is attatched to a spending bill to get around the Senate and it is still in the courts today, yet now NBC merges with Vivendi/Universal and just yesterday BMG is being cleared to merge even larger. We all lose here. If the Neoconservative-controlled Republican Party doesn't believe this can swing just as hard in their direction one day, they're living in a fools paradise.

Wow Gromit. What a great article! Thanks for the link.

Good points, Edward. It ought to be pointed out, though, that these are tactics engaged in by all involved, not just the Evil VRWC.

by the way Edward, it's not off by 20 years. Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine and he was President in ...1984!

Actually, I take back the part about not learning anything new. Lakoff's Moral 3 was a revelation. It does no good to say "there is no such thing as a Death Tax!" because in negating that frame you evoke and therefore reinforce it. Instead, you should reframe: "Silver spoon tax," perhaps.

Not that this is in any way a substitute for arguing the actual facts. It is simply a tool for disarming the rhetorical traps set by your opponents that keep folks from ever getting to those facts.

Bush considers himself to be among the 'not rich' - hadn't you heard? Bush has an estate of 19 million: if poor guys like him are going to be hit by the Estate Tax, obviously, he figures, everyone's going to be hit by it. (via Body and Soul)

That's assuming that he's stupid, not malevolent.

Hmmm...Edward, I visited the IRS website, and the floor for Estate Tax is currently $1.5 million, if they're current (and they're not always current). Last year it was $1 million, and before that, you have to go to things like this to discover the exemption was $600k. So, the $20k wasn't in danger, ever, unless the guy did his own taxes, screwed up, and the IRS missed it. True statement. But the $7 million? Untrue.

I think the $7 million (and that's per couple, $3.5M per individual) figure is the limit for a proposed version of Estate Tax Reform (as an alternative to total repeal).

Another feature of the "Death"/Estate tax is that the tax applied is only applied to the amounts OVER the bottom limits (3.5 million per above)... So if the estate has a value of 4 million the tax is applied only to the 500,000 over 3.5mil not to full 4 million...

At least that is how it was explained to me awhile back...


The estate tax debate is actually substantially more complicated than that, because one proviso of all proposals to eliminate it is also removing the "step up in basis" associated with assets passed down.

Example: if you bought a property for $100,000, and at your death it was appraised at $150,000, the estate tax would tax the $150,000 as an asset. However, if your heir then sold it at $200,000, he would only pay capital gains on $50,000.

For this reason, it is not totally clear whether eliminating the estate tax is will have an impact on tax receipts, or change the distribution of the tax burden. Eliminating the estate tax and step-up might be positive for farmers, who do not sell their land, and so do not incur a capital gains penalty. It would change things potentially in a different direction for those who hold, say, stocks, who now have a big hit on cap gains when they rebalance or alter their portfolio, without any "free gain" from the estate tax exception.

So I wouldn't frame this too much as a free ride for the rich.

Hey, I propose no floor and 98% tax rate. Can we use that in a movie?

That's what I figured.

And so I fail to steer the dicussion away from whether or not the estate tax was bad and onto how it was sold...sigh...

The $7 million was from MSBNC...should have known I can't trust the mainstream media for anything. Thank God we got blogs for accurate information ;)

Example: if you bought a property for $100,000, and at your death it was appraised at $150,000, the estate tax would tax the $150,000 as an asset.

Meaux, did you even bother reading Edward's post, let alone the follow up comments? If you bought a property for $1M and at your death it was appraised at $2M, then the estate tax would tax the $500K over the $1.5M upper limit as an asset. Your example is flatly counterfactual. Try again.

And because we got railroaded (hey, did I do that?), I'm going to reiterate my agreement with Edward on the main point, which is that inaccurate claims are frequently made to the end of stirring the pot. I was just taking a little excess glee in pointing out that Edward's case in point was, itself, counterfactual.


And so I fail to steer the dicussion away from whether or not the estate tax was bad and onto how it was sold...sigh...

Sorry, Edward.

I do believe that Bush's most easily exploded lies have been over the tax cuts. Bush's tax cuts have been primarily aimed at the rich: and by the rich, I mean those with an income in excess of 6 figures annually. The media have largely given Bush a free ride on this: and Bush has used it as platform to attack Kerry from, unsurprisingly.

It's a feelgood effect, I suppose: I'm told that far more people like to think of themselves as in the top 5% than actually are.

It's the way the media are scared of stories that require charts and figures and arithmetic.

It may be because the media is controlled very largely by people who do benefit from the Bush tax cuts, and they don't want to hear anything against them. (But I think this is a secondary effect, rather than a primary cause.)

You're right that calling the Estate Tax the "Death Tax" was a masterstroke: everyone dies, most people want to leave something behind them, and the idea of a tax on dying - which is conveyed by "death tax" - is, I think, part of the visceral feeling that people have that a "Death Tax" must be a bad idea... along with the fact that no one wants to clearly spell out that it's rich families who will be affected by it, not your average guy who's saved $20K - or even your rather-above-average guy who's leaving their kids a home worth a million.

Then again, the reason why I'm clear about this is precisely because two elderly relatives died in the last three years, both leaving me a share in their estate, and I looked up the figures and discovered - since no one in my family is rich - that I wouldn't be paying any estate tax.

Further note: counterfactual in a way that wasn't all that material to the case, evidently. Still, fun.

Oh, and Jesurgislac? If you can come up with any evidence whatever that Bush attempted to sell the "death tax" on false pretenses, please throw me a link. Because what I'm seeing is pretty much in line with this, which is a quite different approach. Not sure if it's factual, but it's unrelated to what Edward sketched out above.

It's a feelgood effect, I suppose: I'm told that far more people like to think of themselves as in the top 5% than actually are.

I wonder about that. That's be my sense of it for years to explain why some folks support tax plans that do nothing to help them personally. My only conclusions are 1) they think they're richer than they, 2) they think rich people earned their money without government support, 3) they're just dumb.

I'm leaning toward the second one now. Poorer people want to be fair. When a politician appeals to that in defending a tax cut, it seems like a good rationale to them.

What they don't hear enough of is something that link Gromit pointed out illustrated:

The truth is that the wealthy have received more from America than most Americans — not just wealth but the infrastructure that has allowed them to amass their wealth: banks, the Federal Reserve, the stock market, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the legal system, federally-sponsored research, patents, tax supports, the military protection of foreign investments, and much much more. American taxpayers support the infrastructure of wealth accumulation. It is only fair that those who benefit most should pay their fair share.

Poorer people want to be fair.

Do tell.

It's Cheney, but:
"But one of the key things we did that I think is important long-term is to deal with the death tax. Now, the death tax that's been out there for a long time affects not just the wealthy, it affects ranchers and farmers who have got businesses, in effect, small businesses like this -- want to be able to pass on to the next generation what they've built over a lifetime of work. And the fact of the matter is, the way the old estate laws work, we, in effect, tax those properties twice. People earn the money and build those businesses -- they pay tax on it. And then when you die, Uncle Sam comes back and taxes it once again. It makes it almost impossible to pass on that business to the next generation. You have to sell it off to pay the taxes. Well, we put an end to that by doing away with the death tax, phasing it out over time -- basic fundamental fairness -- (Applause.) "

Let the redefinition of "truth" to "plausible deniability" commence.

Slartibartfast: If you can come up with any evidence whatever that Bush attempted to sell the "death tax" on false pretenses, please throw me a link. Because what I'm seeing is pretty much in line with this, which is a quite different approach.

You might want to read that page more carefully: "Family farms and businesses are sold to pay the death tax." Has anyone actually found one of these mythical farms yet?

Wait a sec, I actually clicked on Slarti's link, and Bush's quote is if anything worse than Cheney's:

"President Bush believes that the bias of the death tax against the family farm and family business is the antithesis of the American Dream. Accordingly, his tax relief plan will eliminate the death tax. Eliminating the death tax will allow family farms and businesses to be passed from one generation to the next without having to break up or sell the assets to pay a punitive tax to the federal government. As a result, wealth would be taxed only when it is earned, not again when entrepreneurs and senior citizens pass the fruits of their labors to the next generation."

Though this is certainly true, and an accurate summary of their whole philosophy:

"wealth would be taxed only when it is earned."

Gromit, Katherine, I read the whole thing. I have no idea if there's a grain of truth to it or not, hence: Not sure if it's factual. There's not enough evidence to tell.

Gromit, I also had read the article you linked to. They've done a rather neat job of making it appear as if the businesses in question don't exist, without actually showing that to be true. So, yes, it's up to Bush to put up the evidence. I just don't see that link as a proper refutation. It's more "we couldn't find it, therefore it doesn't exist".

And I guess I need to reiterate that the rationale Bush uses to justify axing the "death tax" isn't even distantly related to the rationale Edward says the movie used. It may still be an incorrect rationale, but, hey, if you're going to make a movie exposing Orwellian untruths used for political ends, it's probably smart to avoid engaging in them yourself.

"Eliminating the death tax will allow family farms and businesses to be passed from one generation to the next without having to break up or sell the assets to pay a punitive tax to the federal government."

I call this a false pretense. Our difference may be semantic.

Anyway, I should un-threadjack and say: Lakoff's work is great, and essential, and I am very, very glad he explicitly denounces misleading as opposed to reframing. But reframing can too easily turn into cheap gimmickry and stupid names for bills. I don't want the Democratic equivalent of "Death Tax" (which shades into misleading), and "Earned Care" is fine but it doesn't do much for me. There are other ways of doing it, more substantive and worthwile ways, that we've seen on display on the convention in the best moments of the last few days.

Peace. No sense further belaboring the side issues.

Bush claimed: "These are the basic ideas that guide my tax policy: lower income taxes for all, with the greatest help for those most in need."

...which given that the greatest help went to those in the top 5%, tells you something about Bush's definition of "those most in need".

Everyone who pays income taxes benefits — while the highest percentage tax cuts go to the lowest income Americans."

I'd say, with Katherine, that this is a piece of deliberate misdirection. :-) I concede that Republicans are accustomed to regarding any statement Bush makes, however misleading, as truthful providing it can be carefully parsed into a statement that isn't actually a lie - despite whatever obvious and untrue meaning was clearly intended.

Did you have trouble understanding it, Jesurgislac, or are you speaking for a bunch of friends who did?

[People] are accustomed to regarding any statement [Politicain X] makes, however misleading, as truthful providing it can be carefully parsed into a statement that isn't actually a lie - despite whatever obvious and untrue meaning was clearly intended.

This would be OK actually, were the media doing its job. Taking the Estate Tax again, if the media was hammering away that you won't ever pay the estate tax unless you have $X or more, then Bush could have phrased his salepitch anyway he wants to and we'd still have a fair system.

The movie makes the point, however, that the media has stopped doing its part of this. They've stopped fisking in an effective way what the politicians are saying. Oh, they play at it in cute little sound bite "analyses" of political ads or whatever, but as for asking the hard questions and exposing the truth behind the rhetoric, they've totally dropped the ball.

Agreed, Edward. I mean, how hard would it to have been to just ask how many families would be un-inconvenienced by the proposed measure, and why we ought to care?

I also agree the media's dropped the ball, and it's not just in dealing with the Prez.

I take Edward's point that this was not about the death/estate/silver spoon tax, and rather about the framing.

But the pond dude misses my point about basis vs. estate tax examption, which I chalk up to my own failings in describing it.

The fact that the $150k piece of property would be part of the asset pool taxed at the event of the death is true.

That the first 1.5 million of said asset would be exempted from the tax is also true (and everything passed to the spouse is exempted, regardless of size). But while that was the point under discussion, my point was that this size was a distraction.

My point was that the _benefit_ of the estate tax event to all concerned was the step-up in basis, which decreases the tax liability for the capital gains event down the road.

Perhaps a better way to put the bottom line is this: increasing the exemption from estate tax, while retaining the step-up, is a sop to those who have those greater assets that they plan to sell, because they are exempted from the estate tax, and get a lowered future tax liability.

Eliminating the estate tax, which simultaneously eliminating the step-up (this is true) means that while there is no estate tax event, there is a much larger capital gains event in the future, which can be the equalizer here.

So from a redistributive justice point of view, it might be better to say "low exemption, or eliminate the tax altogether", as they have significant tax implications for the rich (though I tend to think the latter is more equitable), and identify merely raising the exemption as being the sop to the rich.

And with that, I will stop my threadjacking. (Never heard that term before, like it a lot, will endeavor not to engage in it)

No worry, meaux. Nice contribution. A bit over my head, but still appreciated.

Got a simpler version?

I just spoke to a cabbie on the way to work this morning. The conversation went like this:

Cabbie: "So, Bush is a great leader for standing up to the death tax."
Me: "Huh?"
Cabbie: "The death tax. My small business and/or agricultural asset will be saved from the Democrat graverobbers"
Me: "Do I know you?"
Cabbie: "You may be wondering why a man with over 2 million dollars in inheritable assets is driving a cab. It's a crazy world. That'll be 14 bucks"

Once again the Democrats are out of touch with the common man.

Campaign Desk has a good post on this today.

Even the reporters who are trying not to be lazy fall all over themselves and tie themselves in awkward knots and passive voice to stay objective:
"The [ad's] script largely echoes assertions the Bush campaign has made in its own anti-Kerry ads, including some that have been criticized by independent fact checkers as questionable."

I used to work for this two bit little community newspaper in Boston, and I did a voter's guide on all the referendum questions one year. There was one ballot initiative instructing the state legislature to ensure universal health care. It wasn't actually a very good initiative; I voted against it in the end. But this "institute" of insurance companies commissioned a study of what it would cost the state that was complete bullsh*t: basically, they polled their members, asked them how much money it would cost them and how many workers they would lay off. Then they averaged the answers. They didn't ask for any justification or accounting of HOW this law would lead to those consequences. Completely worthless, but the Globe, the Herald, and everyone else kept reporting on it like it was this credible study by academics.

You don't have to editorialize to show this to be false. You can choose not to quote in-credible sources as if they're credible, or you can describe who paid for them and what their methodology was, or you can find some university professor to quote about how misleading it is (I did the latter two in this case). You could even characterize it as "misleading" in your article, and the sky would not crumble--though you'd want to be careful about such things, of course.

If you DON'T do one of those things you are doing your readers an active disservice.

Edward, I wish I did have that clearer explanation, because the debate deserves more consideration than it gets, and the threadjacking dialogue reflects that misunderstanding. I am sure that many have put it much better than I did, but they have not gotten much airtime in political discourse that I have seen thus far

I guess this circles around to your point on framing, and "death tax" vs "silver spoon" tax is an easier war of 15-second sound bites and 2-sentence talking points than the nuances of "estate event" vs "future capital gains." Here's hoping that better writers than I try to undo the Orwell bit by bringing the complexities of debate home - with more clarity.

This lack of the media to actually reflect the truth of policy proposals, or even the truth in general, is incredibly frustrating. I don't understand how Daily Howler deals with this, as he shows up the media idiots, day in and day out.

So, are there any policy prescriptions for this? That aren't incredibly naive, or incredibly wrong-headed?

Edward, if I understand Meaux correctly, his point is that you can't get away from the taxman if you want to liquefy an inherited asset.

Assume an estate event* tax with no exemptions and I am left a farm worth $500,000 now that was purchased for $100,000 20 years ago. I can't turn that farm into a beach house and a Ferrari unless I sell it. Say I do, for $1,000,000. I will have paid an estate tax on the revalued** farm ($500K) and I'll pay capital gains tax on the $400,000 profit. Likewise for any other asset I sell in order to finance my new lifestyle.

Now assume the same thing without an estate tax. I receive an asset valued at $100K and I sell it for $1M. I'll pay capital gains on $900K. And Ma and Pa can't get around it by selling it first and leaving me cash, because then they'll have to pay capital gains tax. The only thing I can do tax free is continue to use the asset to earn income and pay tax on that income as is currently happening.

All that is lost by the government is the double tax*** on the original $100K paid for the farm.

That's very interesting Meaux. I hadn't thought of comparing overall tax receipts in that way. I'd guess the difficulty would be in explaining to "initial" asset holders that they should pay the same rate as those who bore no initial purchase risk. In effect you inherit your forebearers appetite for (and success at gauging) risk.

Now, if the supporters of this tax wanted me on board with it, they could reframe this argument as a transfer tax. This would be a tax levied whenever a change of ownership occured. I mean, that would equate to a sales tax, gift tax, cap gains or even income tax (as me and my employer exchange ownership of my production and their cash). Then we could just argue over the rates of various transfer taxes devoid of specific names.

*That's good Meaux, I'll have to tell my pa-in-law the mortician that one.

**I assume for estate tax puropses assets are revalued to reflect current conditions.

***I can say that without sounding partisan right? I mean technically (within a family) its true.

Sorry, make that profit in para 2, $500K.

"So, are there any policy prescriptions for this?"

Stop rewarding laziness. It's a lot more work and a lot more risky to forcefully assert the truth than it is to settle into habits and agreed-upon storylines. Typified by Blair, for whom the stories literally wrote themselves. Extra-typified by all the opinionated cabbies suddenly infesting Boston.

These people are simply lazy. They draw a paycheck and will continue to draw a paycheck if they play it safe. To change that you need an organization that explicitly prioritizes and rewards fidelity to the truth and hard work. Since all of the major news organizations are owned by a handful of corporations who prioritize revenue minus costs to the exclusion of all else, you won't get it from there.

One thing I've learned in the last few years is that volunteers are not lazy.

Well put, crionna. I'm glad you saw through the haze of my attempted explanation to get at the core of this part of the issue.

Take my euphemisms - please.

Slarti: Did you have trouble understanding it, Jesurgislac, or are you speaking for a bunch of friends who did?

I am a cynical person who read How to Lie with Statistics at an early age. I recommend it to you: it's very funny, very accurate, very educational, and absolutely brilliant as a handbook for spotting when people are making deliberately misleading remarks about percentages. (Also, it's 50 years old this year, and deserves to be a best-seller on its half-century almost more than any other book I can think of.)

I think the spin-off into details of the estate tax is relevant to the original thread of this discussion, in an odd way. Most people won't read a detailed discussion of something like the estate tax, even if it's no longer than this series of comments. So, if they're going to make a decision on what to support, it's probably going to be based on one-liners and what makes them feel good, or based on which party they default to supporting, or based on some higher-level ideology that gives them some starting guidance on these complicated issues.

IMO, that's why the debate on repealing the estate tax, or drilling for oil in a nature preserve in Alaska, is debated in the mass media by soundbytes, name calling, and arguments that let supporters or opponents of some measure identify themselves as the good guys/rational men/oppressed minority/whatever. This is the way in which a debate on this issue works among basically uninformed people.

The broadcast news, especially, understands this. They know that if they try to give you a ten minute piece that goes into some depth on estate tax issues, half their viewers will turn over to Fox. So they don't do that.

Of course, there are news sources that will discuss these issues in a lot of depth. But they're not so mainstream, and most people don't even read a newspaper, let alone a twenty page magazine article describing how the estate tax works, and analyzing the likely effects of various proposed changes.


I recommend it to you

I actually have a smidgen of training in statistics. It might be informative, but I'm not getting my hopes up. And given the context, I'm thinking it'll be less than useless; more like a diversion. Because, as you (ought to) know, no statistics were used in this particular argument. Not that that's a good thing.

Still, it'd be nice if you point out the lie, rather than hinting at it. I'm completely in agreement that the argument Bush advanced is completely lacking in supporting data, but the assertion that it's a lie is, at as far as I've seen, baseless.

Oh hell, I've got to say it:

Tax the dead!! They don't mind a bit!!

I guess Gary Farber and I have more in common than I'd thought.

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