The folks at Verum Serum decided to call out TNR's Jon Chait for supposed hypocrisy, after he flagged poll results indicating that the American people think the rich don't pay enough in taxes. You see, Jon Chait also was outraged (or Isaac Chotiner -- but probably Chait too) "threw a hissy fit" regarding Sarah Palin's "death panel" nonsense. But here, they argue, Chait is relying on those same ignorant viewpoints he previously condemned. Doesn't he know that the rich actually pay the far and away largest share of American income taxes?
Oh, boy, this is going to be good. Anytime Chait gets the chance to throw down with smug idiots who think they got game, I break out the popcorn. And he doesn't disappoint.
Chait kind of eviscerates the post on every angle, but I want to focus on one thing in particular. The VS authors seem not to understand the difference between facts and values. The death panel claim was factually incorrect. The claim "the rich don't pay enough in taxes" cannot be factually correct or incorrect -- it is a subjective value judgment. This isn't to say facts can't play a role in forming normative judgments, only that they never inherently support one side over the other. It is entirely plausible to notice that the rich (defined as they are in the studies in question) pay 70% of total federal income taxes, and still say they should pay more. It's particularly plausible when one notes that the rich make over 50% of America's total income. Let's keep repeating this for the slow folks in the class: in any society with income stratification and percentage-based income taxation (including a flat tax) the rich will pay a higher percentage of the total income tax receipts than anyone else. That's not a shortcoming in the system design, that's a product of elementary mathematics.
VS offers a remarkably weak-sauce response that, to the extent it proffers an argument, claims that Chait is advancing falsehoods because if people knew the facts about tax rates, they wouldn't hold the subjective opinions that they do. Chait says there's virtually no reason to think this is true, and I agree -- as I noted above, there is a perfectly compelling story where -- taking into account the share of wealth owned by the wealthiest 20%, a preference for a progressive tax structure, and a desire to counteract regressive state tax structures -- the wealthiest 20% paying a 70% share of taxes is perfectly sensible or, indeed, too small of a share. I'm not saying that's the only plausible inference from the facts, but the VS folks are effectively saying the opposite, and that's simply not feasible. It's almost definitely true that most Americans don't know the specifics of federal tax rates or distributions. But it is hardly the case that knowledge of these specifics would compel a change in belief, even from a ideal deliberative standpoint.
That the VS folks believe the facts to so obviously compel one normative outcome, even as other folks believe (with equal fervor) that the same facts point to a completely opposite normative stance, is explainable based on a popular misconception of how facts aid political deliberation. Generally, we believe that as people learn more facts about a given subject, their policy beliefs on the subject will begin to converge. The idea makes sense: learning more means dispelling inaccurate stereotypes and prejudices; as information is attained, people begin discarding stances that don't fit the facts and instead adopt those which do.
Unfortunately, as research by Dan Kahan and others indicates, the opposite is usually true (Professor Kahan actually delivered a lecture at Chicago today on this very topic). Providing additional facts and information doesn't cause policy convergence, it causes policy polarization. The reason is that most fact patterns contain narratives, inferences, and interpretations which plausibly can be deployed to support diverse policy positions. People accordingly interpret the information they receive in manners which support their prior dispositions, only now they feel more comfortable in these beliefs because they have "facts" to back them up. Given this latent ambiguity, there is no incentive to agree, and lots of psychological incentives to latch on to friendly fact stories in order to preserve ones preexisting beliefs.
Fundamentally, one cannot bridge the fact/value division here. It is true that I do, in fact, support higher taxes on the wealthy, and part of my reasons have to do with the above factual account I gave (wealthy earn a higher share of the income, state tax systems are often regressive), mixed with some value positions (progressive tax schemes are good). But I would never claim that the above factual account mandates the policy positions I hold, because that would be nonsense -- if you have different values than I do, the same facts will carry entirely different meaning.* Facts matter, but at bottom what really matters are subjective value preferences.
So to be clear, the reason Chait is right and the VS folks are wrong isn't because the facts prove his policy prescriptions correct. The facts don't prove anything by themselves; they are vessels for attaining our value preferences. Chait is correct because he recognizes that tax policy is a value judgment and thus opinions about it exist on a fundamentally different plane than purely factual claims like Sarah Palin's imaginary death panels.
* Professor Kahan related an amusing story on this. Regarding a study he published on differing interpretations of facts surrounding the HPV vaccine debate, he cited a blogger who reported the study and then said it showed why some conservatives opposed the vaccine: "they're biased -- they just interpret the facts to support a preexisting worldview!" Of course, Professor Kahan noted, the point of the study is that this is how everyone evaluates facts -- the people who support vaccination are as "guilty" of it as the opponents -- and the errant blogger was a perfect illustration of that very theory: s/he interpreted the text presented in such a way as to verify prior intuitions, even though it actually contained no such normative force.
UPDATE: At TMV, I adopted this post to focus more specifically on the inability of increased information to give us the fabled convergence towards "moderate" policies.