Last week, fellow TDP blogger Dave Blaska had a bit of fun with Assembly Rep Mark Pocan (D-Madison) for having too much fun with the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
Amid all the frivolity were the building blocks of a good debate about taxes, public services and the media's long love affair with the alliance's research reports.
Blaska deemed it all-too-predictable of Pocan to assume that the Taxpayers Alliance was a GOP front group just because it invariably says that Wisconsin's state and local taxes are too high and its public services too expensive. But this is not mere suspicion on Pocan's part.
In a 2003 FightingBob.com article, Ed Garvey documented that almost every member of the Taxpayers Alliance board of directors had a long, rich history of donating to GOP political candidates. (The board may have diversified since then, but I kind of doubt it.)
That the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is a partisan outfit with a fixed point of view is beyond dispute. But the real focus of Pocan's attack was the state's news reporters, not the alliance.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in particular, is notorious for posting the Taxpayers Alliance's news releases as slightly dressed-up news stories, complete with an inaccurate identification of the highly partisan organization as non-partisan.
But just about everybody else does it, too, including Wisconsin Public Radio.
The Taxpayers Alliance is one of the main forces behind the oft-reported assertion that Wisconsin is a "tax hell" in which taxing and spending levels are sky-high compared to the rest of the nation. This claim is disputed by, among others, the Institute for Wisconsin's Future, a group whose research is more vigorous than the Taxpayers Alliance's but whose media profile is much lower.
Why is it so much easier to get the media to take you seriously when you say taxes are too high than when you say, no, actually, they are somewhere in the middle? Why are people less inclined to believe that, given the high quality of Wisconsin's public services, Wisconsin might be best described as one of the nation's great tax bargains?
Meanwhile, the national press and punditry are atwitter with the question of whether or not President Barack Obama is a Marxist or merely a socialist for proposing policies that include gasp! raising the top income tax rate to 39%.
A 39% top income tax rate means people making more than $250,000 per year will be taxed three cents more for every dollar they make over $250,000. Three cents.
So if someone makes $250,001, the higher rate only applies to the last dollar. Someone who makes a million dollars a year still pays lower rates on the first quarter million.
Former President George W. Bush's own tax plan called for the top rate to go to 39% next year, because that was where it was before he cut the top rate early in his first term.
Nonetheless, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity call Obama a "radical" and insist that he wants to turn the United States into a socialist republic. Wall Street Journal columnists and CNBC squawkers blame Obama's anti-capitalist policies for causing stock market decline, conveniently overlooking that it has been in a free fall for six months. And Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson and others have dragged out that old straw man, "class warfare."
During the campaign, McCain's supporters were coached to say Obama's goal was to "redistribute wealth." In other words, he didn't want to raise government revenues for the sake of government programs or deficit reduction, he simply wanted to take money away from wealthy people for its own sake.
All of this is nonsense, but it is the kind of nonsense that reporters not only repeat but actually sometimes generate on their own. The truth is that Obama's budget and stimulus plans embody the most bland, moderate, middle-of-the-road neoliberalism there is.
That is not to say he's wrong, but almost all of Obama's economic initiatives go to business first, with the hope that this will also then help workers and consumers.
The top income tax rate was 91% during World War II. It was 70% during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. No one is saying it should go that high again, or that it is unreasonable to consider the economic impact of taxes on the highest income earners. But it would be nice if the media and others just told the truth.
Dustin Beilke is a union organizer and a freelance writer who lives in Madison.