Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Question-cyberbegging at the Post

The topic comes up every now and then here and elsewhere: Why do opinion columnists get to make stuff up? Did they miss the second clause in "opinion is free, but facts are sacred"? Or, for our purposes around this little editing campfire: If George Will doesn't have a conscience, can't he at least hire an editor to check his facts?

Today's example is a bit different. It uses a familiar trick, building your assertion on another assertion that you can't or won't be bothered to support, but it nudges the reader in a novel way:

When liberals advocate a value-added tax (VAT), conservatives should respond: Taxing consumption has merits, so we will consider it -- after the 16th Amendment is repealed.

And we know who's behind this cunning plan, don't we?

A VAT will be rationalized as necessary to restore fiscal equilibrium. But without ending the income tax, a VAT would be just a gargantuan instrument for further subjugating Americans to government.

Believing that a crisis is a useful thing to create, the Obama administration -- which understands that, for liberalism, worse is better -- has deliberately aggravated the fiscal shambles that the Great Recession accelerated.

Now that you have an idea of what the structure of the argument is going to look like, back up to the lede for a second. The links (as found on the op-ed part of washingtonpost.com) look the same on the surface, but they have different pragmatic functions. The second one is just informative: writer says "the 16th amendment," link takes you to text of same. The first one is different. It's a whole verb phrase. That suggests more than just another explanation of what a VAT is or how it works; this is going to be about advocating, and whether "liberals" is part of the link or not, it's pretty clear who's doing it. Let's have a look at the (ahem, year-old) article and see if that's an appropriate thing to imply.

With budget deficits soaring and President Obama pushing a trillion-dollar-plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money-making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax.

"Some policymakers" -- well, that's a start. Who are the next actors introduced? The second graf has "advocates." The third graf has "a roomful of tax experts," "a recent flurry of books and papers," and an actual Democrat -- Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- who "declared that a VAT should be part of the debate."

The fifth graf has some "VAT advocates" suggesting that "negatives could be offset by using the proceeds to pay for health care for every American -- a tangible benefit that would be highly valuable to low-income families." But in the sixth graf, "liberals dispute that notion," and in the seventh, a White House budget spokesman says it's "unlikely to be in the mix."

It's fairly easy to see why Will is turning up the heat; VAT-fear has been one of the up-and-coming flavors of the month over at Fox, and Charles Krauthammer's crystal ball declared a VAT "inevitable" last month. And on the general principle of free and open debate, it certainly seems that we ought to be encouraging more talk rather than less. But the curious reader might have some questions about why this particular political sector is so eager to paint the thing as a trick of the Maoist Left -- and why the Post seems so eager to aid and abet.

I doubt George Will put the link there himself (I can see him sharpening his own goose quills and dipping them in the blood of peasants and minor-league pitching coaches, but not making his own hyperlinks), which makes the matter even more interesting. Is the op-ed section happy with this sort of next-gen sleight-of-hand?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an Australian who lived through the nineties, something about this story sounds familar. Leaving aside nitpicky details, like the fact that the roles of left vs right were the other way around.

11:46 PM, April 28, 2010  

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