Thursday, March 17, 2016

Clinton Fact Check: Taxes and Trump

The inflammatory headline of the day comes from the Washington Post:

"On taxes, Bernie Sanders makes Hillary Clinton look more like Donald Trump"

I know they wrote this bullshit headline in an attempt to get clicks, including angry clicks, including my angry clicks. So forgive me for playing into WaPo's hands. But the equivalency in this headline pisses me off enough, and gave enough people the wrong impression, that I felt like it could use a quick fact-check.

First, have yourself a look at the key graph from that very same article:

Chart labeled "Change in after-tax income, by candidate," displaying Tax Policy Center analyses for Clinton, Sanders, Trump, Cruz, and Rubio.

Things that immediately stand out about this graph:
  • Sanders' plan is indeed one hell of an outlier
  • All of the plans change very little about the bottom bracket, but each higher bracket involves a larger change, with the top 1% showing the largest changes in every single plan.
  • All of the red bars representing Republicans' plans are positive (i.e., tax cuts)
  • All of the blue bars representing Democrats' plans are negative (i.e., tax hikes)

Clinton's plan isn't even on the same side of the damn line as the Republican plans. So uh, that's a fairly major meaningful difference right there.

The top tax bracket displayed by itself. The difference between Clinton and Sanders is labeled "A" while the difference between Clinton and Trump is labeled "B".Another qualitative difference in Clinton's plan which is unique from both Sanders and the Republicans is that her bars aren't even visible until the top tax bracket. This means her plan involves little to no change for the vast majority of US households (if I'm reading the IRS website correctly, households making up to ~$230,000). In contrast, Trump's tax plan offers the largest tax cut across all four of these brackets.

However, since this is a fact-check, I must point out that the headline is technically correct in one sense (and in a way that the text returns to, over and over again). There is a larger difference in absolute value between Clinton's and Sanders' plans than there is between Clinton's and Trump's. In the example of the excerpted image on the right: A is greater than B.

This is actually true across all brackets. If you want to check for yourself, and don't happen to have a ruler handy, here's another version of the chart from above, with overlaid numbers this time:

Same chart as above, with numbers labeling the height of each bar. The difference in absolute value between Sanders and Clinton in each category is greater than the difference between Clinton and Trump.

Despite these differences holding up across the board, the headline is still misleading. Clinton's plan looks nothing like Trump's plan - or any other Republican's plan - even with Sanders' outlier as a comparison. A more accurate headline would read something like: "Sanders' tax hikes are steeper than Trump's cuts are deep." Because this difference has everything to do with Sanders' proposal to dramatically raise taxes, and nothing to do with Clinton. At all.

The top tax bracket displayed by itself. The difference between Clinton and Sanders is labeled "A". An identical length, also labeled "A", is placed such that it begins at the tip of Clinton's bar and stretches towards the tip of Cruz's bar, but it clearly falls short of this distance.I would also like to point out that there is one good reason the headline said "Trump" and not "the Republicans". In the tax bracket for the top 1%, there is one Republican who cuts taxes more severely than anyone else, and that's Ted Cruz.

His incredibly deep cut of 26%, combined with Clinton's 5% tax increase on that tippy-top bracket, give an absolute difference of 31%. This is larger than the absolute difference between Clinton and Sanders, as illustrated by the excerpted image on the right.

There's also lots of good reasons that the headline shouldn't have said "Trump" and not "the Republicans" (or like, a completely different rephrase). For one, the "greater absolute difference" thing applied just as well to Rubio! Uh, well, maybe that's a bad example. Farewell, Rubio. We knew you well and liked you not at all.

The headline also gives the appearance of supporting the false equivalency of "both parties are just as bad". In addition, people who only read the headline (so, like, most people - which the Washington Post KNOWS, because they published an article about this two friggin' years ago!) are likely to get the impression that Clinton's plan resembles Trump's. Or that Sanders is the only candidate whose plan is meaningfully different.

None of that is true. Clinton's plan is meaningfully different - both from the GOP plans which offer massive tax cuts to the rich, and from Sanders' plan which raises taxes on literally every bracket.


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