Among fact-checkers, Glenn Kessler [see update – written by Michelle Ye Hee Lee] usually performs at the top of the industry, but not everything that that the Washington Post analyst turns out as a gem — and today’s effort is one of his clunkers. Lee takes on a claim from Senator Ted Cruz, who wants an overhaul of the tax system to simplify compliance for taxpayers. Yesterday, Cruz offered an analogy to explain the complexity of the tax code in terms familiar to most Americans:
Here’s the point that Lee flagged for a fact check: “On tax reform, we, right now, have more words in the IRS code than there are in the Bible,” Cruz told the legislative conference of a firefighters association, “not a one of them as good.” This sounds like a pretty apt analogy, especially for an audience that presumably has much more familiarity with the Bible than it does with the tax code, and perhaps even for those who don’t. For the latter, the length and complexity of the Bible may be what keeps them from gaining familiarity with it, which would make Cruz’ point even more acute.
Frankly, this seems like a strange claim to pull from this clip. Cruz makes much more interesting points here to check — especially his points about tax and regulatory reform and the economic booms that followed in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1980s, which are much more fundamental to Cruz’ argument and to the policy recommendations he’s making in this clip. Wouldn’t that make for more consequential fact-checking, and a more informed readership?
Nevertheless, Lee focuses on the analogy … and finds that Cruz is correct. Lee then goes on to gripe that it’s a “nonsense fact” that wastes time:
This is a nonsense fact, something that is technically correct but ultimately meaningless. Thus it is not worthy of a Geppetto Checkmark but neither does it qualify for a Pinocchio.
Cruz makes the point that tax policies need to be drastically simplified, and many Americans likely would support that sentiment. But such a crude comparison, which provides no nuance or context, doesn’t capture why the tax code has become so complex and how it affects taxpayers.
In a way, comparing the raw word count in the tax code to the text of the Bible diminishes the real frustration that taxpayers feel, and the real impact that can occur from improper tax filings. The consequences of not filing your taxes is of far bigger concern than not reading the Bible — legally speaking, anyway. We can’t speak to possible eternal damnation.
Okay … except Ted Cruz wasn’t speaking to eternal damnation either. He was making a point via analogy, a time-honored if sometimes tedious construct in debate, and it wasn’t even a focus of Cruz’ argument. Talk about missing the forest for the trees! Cruz explained the benefits of both tax and regulatory reform in a pretty concise manner, but Lee wasn’t interested in the meat of the argument. (Oddly, Lee doesn’t catch what would actually be a fact to check: Filing income taxes by postcard, even under a fully flat tax would still require the IRS to check the math and process the payments. It would take eliminating the income tax altogether to get rid of the IRS.) Lee then proceeds to compare apples to oranges, arguing that it takes 90 hours to read the Bible but noting that the average time for tax prep is 13 hours. Clearly, no one reads the entire tax code to do their taxes each year, mainly because it’s almost impossible — just the same way it’s almost impossible to read the entire Bible as a preparation for weekly Mass or church attendance.
And then, having wasted the time running down the accurate analogy and ignoring the actual thrust of Cruz’ argument, Lee then deems it “technically correct but ultimately meaningless.” Of course it is — it’s an analogy intended to express some scope of the problem, not the solution. Having found Cruz’ analogy to be accurate, Lee offers this ungracious conclusion, apparently miffed at having to do a fact check on something no one was questioning in the first place.
Cruz makes a pretty good argument for tax and regulatory reform. Lee makes a pretty good argument for vacations and perspective. The next time Lee is tempted to spend a day on something he considers a “nonsense fact,” she should either look at the substance of an argument instead, or take the day off.
Update: Ah, irony. I missed the fact that Glenn Kessler didn’t write this particular column; it was written by Michelle Ye Hee Lee. I award myself one horse’s patoot for not double-checking authorship on the fact check, and have it corrected above. My apologies to Glenn, and my congrats to him for taking a day off. Maybe it’s my turn next.