Opinion

WILFORD: Media Praises Itself For Misleading Americans on Tax Cuts

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Andrew Wilford National Taxpayers' Union Foundation
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While conservatives won the legislative war, polling shows that liberal groups are still winning the messaging battle around the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). A very effective campaign convinced the American public that the “#GOPTaxScam” would take from their paychecks and hand the wealthy a tax cut.

That this factually-bankrupt campaign was able to take place with so little resistance (and sometimes even with support) from major media outlets may strike many as unsurprising, but the messengers don’t usually so publicly pat themselves on the back for deceiving the American public in an open forum.

That’s what happened this month when Vox writer Matthew Yglesias praised progressives on Twitter for how completely they misled American voters on tax reform. “Nobody likes to give themselves credit for this kind of messaging success, but progressive groups did a really good job of convincing people that Trump raised their taxes when the facts say a clear majority got a tax cut,” Yglesias wrote in response to CNBC reporter John Harwood’s article about how just 17 percent of Americans think their taxes would go down.

There’s a reason people don’t like to give themselves credit for lying. Approximately 80 percent of Americans received a net tax cut in 2018, while only 5 percent saw their taxes increase. On top of this, the tax cut actually made the tax code more progressive, not less.

Of course, none of this stopped Democrats such as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) from claiming that the TCJA was a “middle-class tax hike.” Nor did it prevent three separate Democratic senators from claiming that the average family making up to $86,000 would see a tax hike of $794, despite the fact that the source for this claim clarified that this tax hike would apply to only 6.5 percent of households in this income bracket.

Progressives were aided in this endeavor by the simple fact that taxes are complicated. The average American doesn’t tally up their total withholding minus their tax refund at the end of each tax year and compare it to the last. Indeed, many Americans perceive the size of their tax burden by the size of their refund, not noticing withholding throughout the year.

Democrats gleefully seized upon this misunderstanding back in February, when tax season began. For a few weeks, due largely to limited data and the struggles the IRS was facing to catch up after the shutdown, the average refund was down. As Democrats claimed that the TCJA was coming after Americans’ tax refunds, media outlets dutifully tripped over themselves to blast out articles about refund sizes.

Predictably, average tax refunds reverted towards the mean as time went along, returning towards being around the same size as the previous year. Of course, there was no proportionate flurry of articles clarifying that the panic was overblown. Rather, the media’s attention simply shifted elsewhere, leaving many taxpayers still uncertain about what this meant for their refunds.

The American public was woefully misled about the most significant piece of legislation to come out of Congress in years. If that doesn’t leave members of the national media, self-described arbiters of truth and tireless warriors against inaccuracy, questioning their role in the political process, nothing will.

Andrew Wilford (@PolicyWilford) is a policy analyst with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fiscal policy analysis and education at all levels of government.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.