On Fairer Revenue, the Willamette Week Fuels Hyperbole and Cynicism

Evan Manvel

Oregon’s most influential journalist Nigel Jaquiss seems to have a one-sided bed, getting out on the wrong side of it every day and then going downstairs to have some cynicism on his cornflakes. He’s a delight to read when you agree with him, but hard to stomach when you don’t.

This week Jaquiss wrote a hyperbolic article about various proposals to improve Oregon’s revenue stability and fairness, published in the Willamette Week.

Oregon has a more volatile revenue system than most states, and has a tax code chock-full of loopholes that disproportionately benefit the rich and powerful.

But Jaquiss (and whoever writes the headlines) sets up his article about reforming this mess as “Opening the tax floodgates” and “Hold onto your wallets, Oregon Democrats... want to raise your taxes.” Seriously? Why not just run the Republicans’ press release (mentioning a "tax tsunami") and go grab a beer?

Jaquiss’ story starts off by removing, as so many journalists do these days, the actual actors. He writes, “Oregon gave its Democrats more muscle.” Not “Oregon’s voters” or “Oregonians,” just the state. C'mon, writers. Actions need actors (no more "people were killed" - tell us who killed them).

He then makes a demonstrably false statement – “[Democrats] can push through pretty much whatever they want.” That’s a disservice to readers, who should know revenue increases require three-fifths majorities under Oregon’s Constitution. Democrats don’t have that in the House (they’re a seat short) and only nominally have it in the Senate (one Democrat often bucks the caucus). Since the article is about revenue increases, it’s kind of a key point. We also have powerful interests who can spend unlimited amounts on campaigns to kick legislators out of office if they get angry, or refer issues to the voters and buy those campaigns as well. There are real limits to getting things passed.

The article's troubling framing and odd assertions continue. In talking about limiting the amount of mortgage interest owners of expensive houses can deduct from their taxes, the subhead talks about the taxing the American Dream. While the realtors and homebuilders have done a great job of branding homeownership as some sort of ultimate patriotic duty we should all aspire to, it’s an advertisement rather than an description.

Jaquiss then asserts a $10,000 cap on home mortgage interest deductions is “dead on arrival because 62 percent of Oregonians own homes.” That’s a non-sequitur. To pay more than $10,000 on home mortgage interest at today’s 3.5% rate, you’d have to be in the near the start of a $285,000 loan (and if you paid 20% down, that means a $353,000 home). The median Oregon home sales price is $240,000. So this won’t impact most home buyers at all, nor buyers of more expensive homes after they’re paying more principal and less interest. Even those above the limit pay just on the interest above $10,000. Do we really need to be giving major tax breaks to people with mansions, and declaring any efforts to improve that system dead on arrival because people own homes?

Jaquiss frames efforts to cut the amount of pollution from fuels, as the clean fuels standard would do, as an effort to save the polar bears. As the billions we spend on dirty fuels get shipped out of state, one could also frame it as an effort to build local Oregon jobs while helping save human lives. Global warming may devastate polar bears, but the World Health Organization estimates it will also kill 250,000 people a year and various projections show global warming will deeply harm various Oregon industries, from fishing to tourism. Maybe that’s worth cutting pollution a bit.

On a third issue, Jaquiss concludes an effort to end the kicker would hit Oregonians, “nearly all of whom benefit from sporadic windfalls.” Sure, people like to get checks in the mail simply because economic forecasting is imperfect. (As Markus Ronner said, prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.) But at what cost? The question is net benefit – might we benefit more if those funds go to education and public safety? We may like getting checks, but do Oregonians actually benefit?

Sadly, articles like this are often just journalists trying to do their job in the pay-per-click world of hyperbole, overstatement, and conflict creation. The chosen headline is probably more shareable, clickable, and has more SEO oomph than a more accurate headline would. Of course, one could write a more shareable pro-tax reform headline, something like "Mansion owners and polluters may lose some sweetheart deals."

The Willamette Week's framing undercuts our ability to accomplish important things, like improving equity, protecting our planet for our kids and the world’s poor, creating stability, and sending accurate economic signals. Or, say, getting Nigel a better bed.

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