Today I am introducing the Patterico Fact-Checker™: a new feature in which I fact-check claims of public figures that have been dealt with poorly by Big Media Fact-Checkers. Today we analyze Ted Cruz’s claim that the IRS tax code has more words than the Bible.
“On tax reform, we, right now, have more words in the IRS code than there are in the Bible — not a one of them as good.”
–Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), speech at International Association of Fire Fighters legislative conference, March 10, 2015
The literally translated King James Version of the Bible contains just over 800,000 words. There are as many as 3.7 million individual words in the IRS tax code. The claim, therefore, is:
That’s how you do a fact-check, Big Media.
Instead, the Washington Post Fact-Checker just did a check of Ted Cruz’s claim, and after setting forth the two facts noted above, using the exact same words (which I copied above), refused to label it true. The “fact-checkers” instead engaged in a long disquisition about whether Ted Cruz’s admittedly “technically correct” fact had any meaning. Conclusion: it doesn’t, in their opinion because derp derp derp.
Frankly, the arguments of the piece doesn’t deserve any more scrutiny than that. If you want to stop reading the post here, therefore, I won’t blame you. It is enough to note that the “derp derp” part is not the realm of a fact-checker.
But I will address some of the piece’s silly arguments in the extended entry, because they are symptomatic of what is wrong with this country and with Big Media in general.
The author of the piece, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, makes her main Derpy Point in these words:
But does any of this matter? Here is another, possibly more relevant, comparison. It takes an average American taxpayer 13 hours to comply with the tax code, according to the IRS. Four hours of that estimate is devoted to actually completing the forms. The rest of the time is spent on record-keeping and other miscellaneous tasks. (The Fact Checker has explored this figure in the past.)
In comparison, it takes 90 hours for a marathon reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, without commentary. At least that’s how long it takes for the annual U.S. Capitol Bible Reading marathon. (If you want to figure out how long it would take you to read the Bible, try this nifty “How long does it take to read the Bible” calculator.)
. . . .
We also wondered: Why does it matter to the average taxpayer that the tax code is hard to comprehend? Do Americans actually read the tax code, especially now that software programs make it easy to file taxes with a few mouse clicks?
Here we have someone pretending to be a sophisticate but actually making arguments that miss the point so badly it almost makes one weep.
Let’s start at Ms. Lee’s level of superficiality for one paragraph, and then we’ll get serious. Ms. Lee’s claim that you don’t really need to read the whole tax code to be a taxpayer misses the point that you don’t really need to read the whole Bible to be a Christian. I’d wager that many Christians would agree that the Gospel alone is all you really need — and in any event, I’d wager that a relatively small percentage of Christians have read the entire Bible. (I’d also wager that the percentage of Christians who have read the whole Bible is much, much higher than the percentage of journalists who have read the tax code!) So Ms. Lee’s statement bears the exact characteristics of what she claims about Ted Cruz’s statement: it is “technically correct but ultimately meaningless.”
But all of this really misses the main point.
The problem with the tax code, Ms. Lee, is the same problem with government laws in general: it is filled to the brim with handouts and goodies for special interests. These folks engage in a legalized form of bribery in which they hand politicians donations, and then, in a totally unrelated conversation that has nothing to do with the donation, ask for a tax break that no regular American gets — and actually obtain said tax break, but certainly not because of the donation or anything.
This process has absolutely zero to do with whether it’s hard for a taxpayer to file his own return, and everything to do with the concept of concentrated benefits and distributed costs.
It’s worth it to the company to hire a lobbyist and make hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in donations to make sure their tax break is in the code. They receive a concentrated benefit from that tax break.
By contrast, the costs of that tax break to the individuals taxpayers is small. It costs them at most a few bucks each, meaning there is a distributed cost to the tax break. The existence of the tax break will likely never be known to voters, because it’s not worth it for the average American to scour the tax code for small and pointless (to the taxpayer) tax breaks that are handed out like candy to corporate welfare recipients. It’s not even worth it for Big Media types like Ms. Lee to do that hard work; easier to sit on her behind and write a lazy screed about Ted Cruz than to seek out political corruption.
A QUICK ASIDE: This, by the way, is why you have to buy Coke from Mexico to get tasty actual sugar in the drink. Here in the United States, sugar magnates have convinced the U.S. Government — through a careful program of persuasion, and certainly not through bribery, no sir! — to enact giant trade barriers that drive up the price of sugar. So you get that delicious and nutritious high-fructose corn syrup instead. Other countries like Mexico don’t have the same laws, and their sugar prices are more reasonable. (END QUICK ASIDE.)
Here’s another point, made by Mary Katherine Ham this morning: the cost of the tax preparation industry is huge, and a tremendous drain on society’s resources. Ham notes figures that show U.S. individuals and businesses spend 7.6 billion hours per year on tax preparation: “the equivalent of 3.8 million full-time workers.”
I say this as the son of a CPA: the complexity of the tax code is a net drain on American society, just as it is a drain on society when someone throws a rock through the window of a business. Sure, a complex tax code means jobs for accountants, and a rock through a window means a job for the window repair guy. But if you could reform the tax code and prevent window vandalism, then the people who must devote their lives to addressing those problems could divert their energies to something more productive that actually improves our standard of living. The business owners, instead of paying accountants and window repair guys, could expand their business capital to provide a wider range of goods or services at a lower cost.
Ms. Lee ends with this:
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.
Ha, ha! That probably seems funny to Ms. Lee, who is (I confidently predict) an atheist. I’ll leave it to others to rip apart this statement on religious grounds; it suffices here to note it, and note that it is silly, and dismissive of religion.
There is no defending the complexity of the tax code. Ms. Lee simply shrugs her shoulders and shows the apathy that allows that complexity to continue.
Also, what Ted Cruz said is true.