IRS and the Targeting of the Tea Party and Other Groups

To help clarify  whether IRS incorrectly, unfairly, or illegally targeted the Tea Party and other conservative groups, here are the  answers to a few basic questions.

1. Is it improper for IRS to target specific groups? 

Almost every contact the IRS makes with select taxpayers derives from targeting. Because  its  resources are constrained, the IRS conducts only limited audits, examinations, or requests for information. For instance, if you give more than the average amount to charity, you’re more likely to be audited since there is more money at stake. If you run a small business, you have a greater ability to cheat than someone whose income is reported to IRS on a W-2 form. The only way  the IRS can  enforce compliance at a reasonable administrative cost is by targeting.

This is especially true for the tax-exempt arena. Because audits yield little or no revenue, the IRS tax-exempt division examines very few organizations. Therefore, the IRS  must use some criteria to “target” which tax-exempt organizations to approach.

 2. Does the IRS discriminate?

Picking out which organizations or taxpayers to examine meets the definition of statistical discrimination. Firms do this when they consider only college graduates for jobs; political parties do this when they offer selective access to their supporters. Discrimination is wrong when it implies unequal treatment under the law, such as when unequal punishment is meted out for the same crime, or when people of color have less access to the mortgage market.

 3. Why then did IRS say it erred in targeting Tea Party and other organizations?  

We don’t have all the data yet but organizations with a strong political orientation have a higher probability of pushing the borderline for what the law allows. The groups at the center of this controversy  generally applied for exemption under IRS section 501 (c)(4) which requires, among other things, that its primary purpose cannot be election-related and cannot overtly support political candidates.

However, the IRS could have  identified  election-related activity as a  practice  worthy of extra attention without  specifying  “tea party” or similar labels to identify such organizations. Had it done so, it might not be facing  a problem now.

IRS apparently initially thought it was just using these labels as a shortcut for such an identification. Had it been engaged early on, the national office might have been quicker to warn against this practice since it would tend to identify more Republican organizations than Democratic groups with similar motives. Who decided what when is still under investigation.

Remember IRS was under pressure  to  examine those c(4) organizations after applications grew rapidly in the wake of the  Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. If IRS waits until after an election, it’s generally too late to make any difference.

 4. Why did IRS start with the exemption process rather than wait and see how the organizations behaved?

Because  IRS audits so few tax-exempt organizations,  noncompliance is a major problem.  But often noncompliance is inadvertent. Organizations trying to do “good” fail to understand legal technicalities or why IRS should be worried about them at all. If the IRS can get these organizations to comply with the rules from the start, it has a better chance of minimizing future problems.

 5. Well, then, why the heck is IRS even in this game in the first place?

A question asked by many. Unlike some other nations with charities’ bureaus or other government regulatory agencies, tax-exempt organizations in the U.S. are monitored mainly by IRS at the national level and the state attorneys general at the state level. The IRS efforts generally derive from the Congressional requirement that charitable dollars (for which there are deductions and exemptions) go mainly for charitable purposes and not others such as electioneering.

 6. But c (4) or social welfare organizations don’t benefit from the charitable deduction, so why don’t those with political orientation just operate without tax exemption or c(4) status?  

They could, but the tax exemption  provides several benefits. The least important may be non-taxation of income from assets since many of these organizations don’t have that much in the way of assets to begin with. However, many contributors interpret (often incorrectly) tax exemption to mean that the organization has satisfied  legal hurdles, thus making it easier to raise money. Some c(4) organizations are closely connected to charities or c(3) organizations that can accept charitable contributions, and sometimes there’s a synergy between the two. My colleague Howard Gleckman reminds us that c(4)s quickly became favored over an alternative “527” tax-exempt political designation because the former does not need to reveal its donors. Finally, tax exemption provides an easy way  to insure that any temporary build-up of donations in excess of payouts is not interpreted as  taxable income to the organization or its  contributors.

 7. What will be the end result of this flap?    

Success at agencies like IRS is often measured by their ability to stay out of the news rather than on how well they  do their job.  I’m guessing this episode will only will increase the bunker-like incentives within the organization. It would be good if Congress used this as an opportunity to  figure out how better to monitor tax-exempt organizations, or whether IRS has the capability under existing laws, but that isn’t likely to happen.

 


When Policy Meets Statistics: The Reinhart and Rogoff Study on Excessive Debt

Knowing how many of us economists toil away in obscurity on most research, I’m always intrigued by what catches the press’s and public’s attention. Take, for example, the significant attention paid to a 2010 study by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that concluded that countries with debt levels above 90 percent of GDP began showing slower rates of growth. When Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin, scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, recently had trouble replicating Reinhart and Rogoff’s results, the debate played out in national news outlet.

Unfortunately, this discussion quickly devolved from substance to politics to arguments ad hominem. Without getting into the extent to which I or others can validate Reinhart and Rogoff’s (R&R’s) original findings, I offer six cautions for anyone witnessing this or a similar statistical debate with significant policy implications: (1) statistics should never be interpreted as showing more than simple but potentially useful correlations; (2) healthy skepticism is required for all social science research, which seldom gets replicated for validity; (3) all empirical economic work is based on history that will not repeat in the exact same form; (4) research can certainly contradict conventional wisdom but not reason; (5) arguments ad hominem, particularly by those with their own agendas, are unhelpful; and (6) be careful with labels and straw men.

  1. Correlation versus causation. It’s long been stressed that statistical tests never prove causation, not simply because they can’t but because researchers make many choices and assumptions, often of statistical convenience. This doesn’t mean statistics are useless. Just accept that any result merely shows that A and B seem to occur together even after trying to account for other influences under a huge range of never-fully-tested assumptions.
  2. Skepticism. A growing body of “research on research” shows that few social science experiments, and even many medical studies, are replicated. Also, positive results get published; negative results usually do not. R&R’s study was replicated mainly because it got an unusual amount of attention.
  3. History. The past never repeats itself exactly—or, as Heraclitus warns, “You could not step twice into the same river.” That historical interpretations are contained and sometimes couched in data analyses doesn’t mitigate this well-known caution.
  4. Reason versus conventional wisdom. The R&R debate mainly revolves around two reasonable notions. One is the simple arithmetic conclusion that debt can’t rise forever relative to national income, along with the related economic conclusion that higher levels of debt can and have been shown in many places to have consequences for investment, interest rates, ability to borrow, and how government revenues are spent. The other is that institutions, times, places, and circumstances matter greatly, and they affect how one should interpret past data, such as those presented by both R&R and their critics.
  5. Ad hominem arguments. R&R published some of their work with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, so some of those who attacked R&R may have considered the authors guilty by association because of Peter George Peterson’s concern about deficits and his contributions to that Institute. Peterson’s own “guilt” on budget issues seems to be that he became rich on Wall Street, although he favors higher taxes on what he calls “fat cats” like himself. Still, while many of those who engage in these attacks themselves fail to represent their own or their institution’s sources of funding, let’s be honest. Much social science research is funded in ways that doesn’t necessarily bias how the research is done, but rather what is researched in the first place. So, unless one fully engages and thoroughly analyzes every study, even the careful academic reader must often try to determine trustworthiness in other ways, such as whether the researchers report results only consistent with some special interest or political party.
  6. Labels and “straw men.” While we all use labels and straw men at times to set up the stories we tell, they at best simplify greatly. In this case, R&R are identified as advocates of “austerity” and their opponents as “Keynesians” advocating stimulus, both of which are nothing more than labels. Most budget analysts I know worry about deficits but vary widely in whether they would engage in more short-term stimulus or in how strongly they believe that a path toward long-term balance even requires austerity. For instance, is reducing some rate of growth of spending, no matter what its level, austerity? Is the Congressional Budget Office an advocate of austerity or Keynesian when it asserts that sequestration hurts the economy in the short run, but has long-run benefits relative to doing nothing about deficits?

The bottom line: use extreme caution no matter which economist you read or believe.

Full disclosure: I have spent most of my career at the Urban Institute or the Treasury Department, brief periods each at the Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (which differs from the Peterson Institute for International Economics). I also serve or have served on many advisory groups and boards for such organizations as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Comptroller General of the United States. As a consequence, je m’accuse of being among the many economists limited more than I would like by what research is supported by those institutions or their funders.


Getting the Facts Straight on Retirement Age

On the front page of the Washington Post  on March 11, 2013, Michael Fletcher connects the different life expectancies of the poor and rich to the debate over whether Social Security should provide more years of retirement support as people live longer. He mistakenly leaves the impression that adjusting the retirement age for increases in life expectancy hurts the poor the most. In fact, such adjustments take more away from the rich. Let me explain how.

Suppose I designed a government redistribution policy that increases lifetime Social Security benefits by $200,000 for every couple with above-average income that lives to age 62. For every couple with below-average income that reaches age 62, my program would increase benefits by $100,000.

Does this sound like a good policy? Well, that’s exactly what Social Security has done by providing all of us with increasing years of retirement support. People retiring today get many, many more years of Social Security benefits than those retiring when the system was first created. And, the primary beneficiaries are the richer, not the poorer, among us. Throwing money off the roofs of tall buildings would be a more progressive policy, since the poor would likely end up with a more equal share.

Why, then, do some Social Security advocates oppose increasing the retirement age?  Because the $100,000 in my example could mean proportionately more money for the poor. For instance, it might add one-tenth to their lifetime earnings (of, say, $25,000 a year for 40 years of work, or $1 million over a lifetime), while the $200,000 to rich individuals might add only one-fifteenth to their lifetime earnings. As it turns out, even this assumption isn’t correct, but let’s assume for the moment it is.

Why would we want to redistribute that way? Following that logic, we should have protected the jobs of all the Wall Street bankers after the recent crash because their wages represented a smaller share of their income than the wages of poorer workers providing support services. Or perhaps we should provide $5,000 of food stamps to those making more than $50,000 and $3,000 of food stamps to those making $20,000; after all, the latter would still get proportionately more.

As it turns out, however, more years of retirement benefits don’t benefit the poor proportionately more than the rich. Yes, the poor have lower life expectancies, but other elements of Social Security offset this factor. A greater share of the poor doesn’t make it to age 62, so a smaller share of them benefit from expansions in years of retirement support. More importantly, those who are poorer are more likely to receive disability payments that aren’t affected one way or the other by the retirement age; hence, again, a significantly smaller share of them benefit from more retirement years. Other regressive elements such as spousal and survivor benefits also come into play for reasons I won’t further explain here. Empirically, these various factors add up in such a way that increases in years of benefits help those who are richer and those who are poorer in ways roughly proportionate to their lifetime incomes.

Setting these disputes aside, the higher mortality rate of the poor at each age does raise many legitimate policy issues. Recipients who stopped smoking a couple of decades ago, for instance, have been rewarded with more and more years of retirement benefits. This, along with many other features of Social Security, such as the design of spousal benefits already noted, does mean that the system is a lot less progressive than most believe.

The more fundamental issue, then, is whether we should better protect those with low-to-average wages during their lives. I believe we should but through better-targeted mechanisms, such as minimum benefits, progressive adjustments to the benefit formula, wage supplements to low-wage workers, and other devices that don’t spend most of the program’s funds on ever more years of retirement for those who are richer.

Yet another reason to worry about the retirement age is that the failure to adjust over time—a couple retiring today at 62 can now expect about 27 years of benefits—has meant larger shares of payments go to those closer to middle age, in terms of remaining life expectancy. Almost every year, a smaller share of payments goes to those who are truly old and more likely to need assistance.

In sum, the recent widening gap in life expectancy, likely due to such factors as differential rates of cigarette smoking, deserves serious attention. But let’s not pretend that throwing money off the roof, or providing more years of retirement support to the non-disabled who make it to age 62, addresses the core issue. There are better ways to compensate than converting a system originally designed to protect the old into one offering middle-age retirement to everyone.


Violence in America: The Wider Conversation

In the aftermath of Newtown and, by one estimate, 25 mass shootings since 2006, the country is engaged in an intense fight over assault-like weapons and the right of Americans to carry them. While I consider it downright stupid and outright dangerous to allow people to buy, sell, and carry around the equivalent of small machine guns—imagine how safe you would feel if all your loony neighbors touted one around—I wish we were engaged in a much wider and thoughtful discussion over violence in America and how to reduce it.

By almost all measures, not just mass shootings, our murder rate is among the highest for so-called developed nations. We also put a lot of people in jail; regardless of how much or how little prison deters repeat offenders, that’s not the mark of a peaceful society. My fear in the current debate is that our focus has become so narrow that even the best congressional bill will only modestly reduce the violence around us.

Thoughtful discussions can occur. At a recent Urban Institute conference, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier enraptured the audience with her command over homicide and other crime statistics, her understanding of what community qualities lower crime, and her constant effort to prevent, not simply solve, crime by engaging police on the ground, social welfare agencies, and others in preemptive efforts.

When we have these types of discussions, it becomes clear that there is no one solution to violence because there’s no one simple cause. Smart police work, early intervention in violent households, neighborhood integration, family counseling, safer gun triggers, mental health efforts, reduced availability of weapons, social norms and pressures, and granting mass murderers less of the media attention they seek all play an important role. Reducing violence requires movement on all fronts, so that vicious cycles become replaced by virtuous cycles, where one positive step multiplies upward the gains from other positive steps.

But, once again, we’ve managed to turn an opportunity to confront broad issues of how to build a better—in this case, safer—society into a narrow political battle where victory will be defined mainly by whether the National Rifle Association gets its way. Advancing societies like ours should aspire higher.


Our Imperfect Work

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” Barack Obama proclaimed in his second inaugural address. Interestingly, the Washington Post blazoned its front page with the first three words without noting the succeeding dependent clause. Yet within this clause, I believe, lies the means by which the president—and Congress—and we—can move past so many of our conflicts and face up to the problems that confront us. The solution lies not in acting, but in recognizing the imperfection of what we do. If our budgets are to be vehicles for change, then we cannot enact so many laws as if the priorities of one time and place must endure forever.

More than ever before, our recent fights carry with them the implication that victory must be complete and total, setting in stone the institutions that will rule over our successors for decades and centuries to come. “We must act,” each political party seems to say, “as if our work will be perfect, else our opponents may someday slow down or even reverse our course.” Permanent monuments must be made to some liberal or conservative agenda, regardless of whether that monument rests upon unstable ground, employs an architecture glued together from incongruous designs, or fails to leave room for the improvements that only future knowledge may reveal.

Today, if we favor Social Security, it must be maintained permanently in its ancient design. For all generations of ever-expanding life expectancies, we must allow beneficiaries to retire as early as 65, or, when feeling temporarily richer, at 62. We must even accept its 1940s stereotype of the two-parent family, with abandoned mothers required to pay taxes to support spousal benefits for which they are ineligible. Similarly, if we favor less government, we can’t just work toward that goal by reducing spending. No, we have to create permanent tax cuts even if that means running economically disastrous deficits.

If we favor helping the poor, then we can never give up support for benefits like SNAP or food stamps. These programs must be etched in the law as superior to any alternative use of those funds, including ones that might provide better opportunities to people in need. If we subsidize an industry, whether oil or alternative fuel or agriculture or manufacturing, then we must enshrine that subsidy in the tax code.

Now, of course, there’s good reason for using legislation to try to provide some certainty or security. With perfect foreknowledge, we can plan for the future. But what if that future remains uncertain? Planning for it then requires creating a way to respond to its surprises, good and bad.

Unfortunately, we’ve gone long past the point where our federal budget could be flexible. A fiscal democracy index I developed with Tim Roeper shows that the combination of entitlement growth and low revenues means that today most revenues are already committed to permanent spending programs. Almost every congressional decision to adjust national priorities has to be paid for out of a deficit, or by overturning some past “permanent” enactment.

Earlier, before entitlements became so prevalent and dominant, spending was largely discretionary. Congress also felt that we should pay our bills on time, so it didn’t finance tax cuts for today’s generations by passing those liabilities onto future generations. Though many programs survived for decades, most still had to receive new votes of support. Even more important, almost none had any built-in growth. That made it easy to let some ideas languish as others came into prominence, leaving room for new choices or reconsideration over time.

Compromise is much easier when one side or the other isn’t forced into reneging on past promises to the public. It’s easier when it’s possible down the road to proceed on the same course, pursue the same objective via a different course, or decide on both a new objective and course. It’s easier when we’re not asking our opponents to keep funding some permanent monument we want erected to ourselves.

“But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges…We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time…Let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.” (Barack Obama, January 21, 2013; emphasis mine).


An Extremely Mucked Up Medicare Debate

Or

Democrats and Republicans Favor Medicare Cuts and Then Deny It

Medicare is taking on a primary role in the presidential race. The discussion often turns to whether the program should continue in its current form, with more direct government controls over costs, or shift its emphasis to vouchers or premium support plans. Let’s try to set the record straight.

Lowering Medicare spending growth over the next 10 years from, say, an additional $500 billion to an additional $400 billion means spending $100 billion less on covered services. It doesn’t matter for budget purposes the source of the saving. It is a benefit reduction.

Both presidential candidates claim to save money on Medicare without cutting benefits.  President Obama says his reforms “will save Medicare money by getting rid of wasteful spending…that won’t touch your guaranteed Medicare benefits. Not by a single dime.” Meanwhile, Governor Romney promises that his “premium support” plan will save money while still providing “coverage and service at least as good as what today’s seniors receive.”

But politicians aren’t the only ones dispensing that free-lunch rhetoric. Even highly respected journalists and researchers get pulled into it.

Consider two New York Times stories. After the first presidential debate, Michael Cooper, Jackie Calmes, Annie Lowrey, Robert Pear and John M. Broder said that President Obama “DID NOT CUT BENEFITS by $716 billion over 10 years as part of his 2010 health care law; rather, he reduced Medicare reimbursements to health care providers.” A few days later, David Brooks cited an AMA study of a premium support plan put forward by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, saying that “costs might have come down by around 9 percent with NO REDUCTION IN BENEFITS” [cap emphases mine].

Can you see what is going on? Politicians, reporters, and experts all recognize that cost growth must be brought under control. But they also want to suggest that benefits won’t be reduced—if only we go with a particular approach.

It’s one thing to say that we can spend $100 billion less on health care so we can use the money better for education or tax cuts or paying off our debt. But it’s another thing to pretend that we can get $100 billion more in educational benefits or money in our pockets and absolutely the same quality of health care.

We know from personal experience that certain medical procedures, at the end of the day, are worthless or worse. But there’s no budget line called “worthless health care” that our elected officials can bravely vote to reduce.

Instead, we are left with blunt instruments to control costs. A Medicare board may recommend or members of Congress may elect to cut payments to providers, as they have done many times in the past. One can argue such cutting may not produce a great loss in services, depending upon how providers and consumers react. But no loss whatsoever? Come on! Try lowering government payments for anything—rental vouchers, school lunches, highways—and see if the same services are provided.

Similarly, suppose that Congress puts more Medicare recipients into a premium support system, like Medicare Advantage–type plans run by health maintenance and similar organizations. The system then limits the growth rate of payments to those groups. Again, there’s less money to go around.

Both the regulatory and voucher approaches have a precise accounting correspondence. If the government spends $100 billion less, then it purchases $100 billion less in services and makes $100 billion fewer payments to providers.

Back to the presidential and vice presidential debates. Directly trying to control prices for individual services may not have the same effect as trying to control the total amount paid for all services under a premium, and vice versa. But no candidate can deny that he favors benefit cuts relative to today’s unsustainable promises.

To add to the confusion, each side talks as if some idealized system of cost control or premium support exists. Almost inevitably, we will be taking ideas from both approaches.  We’ll cut back on high reimbursement rates when we believe the effect on actual services would be moderate and, at the same time, use limited budgets to encourage providers to operate more efficiently. For instance, we might lower the payment rates for many operations faster and simultaneously induce more Medicare recipients to opt into groups like Kaiser-Permanente that make many allocation decisions within a fixed budget.

Ferreting out the truth in this Medicare debate also requires looking beyond health care. Benefit losses in health care must be contrasted with benefit gains elsewhere. Yet even health care will likely be much worse if we continue to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars more from unfriendly nations and let excessive debt inhibit economic growth.

Bottom line: both parties favor cutting Medicare benefits, or, more accurately, slowing down the rate of benefit growth. The issue isn’t whether but how this can best be done.


Throwing My Hat in the Ring

My fellow Americans.

Grave issues face this country. This year is unlike any other year.  After listening to the Presidential candidates debate, I’ve decided to give Americans a real choice for president: me.

First, a little bit about myself.

I know what it’s like to be poor. My great-great grandfather was poor, so I understand getting by on almost nothing. I can think back to a time when he didn’t even have indoor plumbing.

I know what it’s like to be a minority. I’m a male, and the majority of the population is female. Most people belong to religions other than mine. Only a small share of the population is my age.

But, unlike my opponents, I don’t identify with some narrow subgroup of the population. I support the right of women and men of all races and religions to pursue the American dream––as long as they agree with my policies. Now, one of my opponents has special appeal to female Tibetan Scientologists from Utah, the other to black male lumberjacks living in New York City. That means the rest of you still have a chance to be represented by voting for me.

In today’s troubled world, I know what it is to be a real man who deals with power. Just thinking about putting troops or police in harm’s way exhausts me. Heck, my hair has already thinned and grayed thinking about the sacrifices I will have to endure as the most powerful person in the world. I’ll try to make available some before-and-after pictures for you to see, too, how eight years in the White House will age me eight years. One day, others will testify how they witnessed my bravery when they weren’t out grabbing me another Diet Coke so I could stay awake past midnight in the Situation Room.

And, I know what it’s like to be a woman. My mother was a woman. I know all too well the difficulties of childbirth: I was right there next to my mother when thrown into the spurned class of the bare at birth. Now, as a candidate, I’m not supposed to talk too sympathetically about myself, but my surrogates have put together candid shots of what my mother, if still alive, would have said about my destiny even from a young age. Other women who have known me when I was out in the working world pursuing my destiny while they were taking care of the family will talk about my humanity and dedication to my family.

Finally, I know what it’s like to struggle. At times I’ve even been between jobs. After leaving the presidency, I’ll have to struggle while I decide whether to sit on corporate boards or make millions of dollars writing my autobiography.

But enough about me. Now to real policy for real Americans––that is, those who show their respect for America by voting against my opponents.

First, you. You’ve paid an unfair share of taxes and gotten an unfair share of benefits. You’re not like that rich guy who pays no income tax or the welfare cheat with houses in Malibu and Miami. They support my opponents. But I understand you. If you’re rich, you already pay infinitely more tax than someone with no income with which to pay taxes. That’s not fair. And if you’re poor, it’s clearly because my opponents’ government policies don’t support you enough or don’t give you adequate incentives. That’s not fair, either.

As for the 99.5 percent of you who are in the middle class, my opponents continually tell you how much they care, but they really don’t.  If they did, why do they confine their borrowing from China and other friendly lenders to a few trillion dollars?

Next, jobs. My opponents hire Harvard economists who calculate the expected growth in the labor force assuming that the unemployment rate will decline to about 5 percent. Then each claims that he individually will create the jobs that the economy would normally create. Not me. Under my policies, the unemployment rate will fall to 4 percent, so I will create at least 1 million more jobs than either of my opponents.

To spur economic recovery, I’ve combined the Democratic Keynesian and Republican supply-side economics of my opponents. That means I can spur demand when I provide you more benefits and increase supply when I reduce your taxes. The former will induce people to spend more, the latter will encourage them to work and save more. Under Steuerle-conomics, a dollar of spending and a dollar of tax cuts will together spur several dollars of increased output, while reducing the deficit because of the economic expansion and investment.

And let me thank you in advance, my fellow Americans, for accepting those higher benefits and lower taxes for the good of your country.

As for the budget, I will take whatever increased deficit I might induce and cut it by two-thirds by the end of my two terms. My opponents pledge to cut their additional deficits only by half, and usually for years after they’ve left the White House.

I could go on. For instance, one of my opponents favors healthcare vouchers for the nonelderly and opposes them for the elderly, the other favors just the opposite.  Both my opponents would reduce Medicare benefits, either through vouchers or greater price controls.  I, however, would grant healthcare providers higher incomes and health consumers more benefits than either of my opponents. And it won’t cost existing taxpayers or Medicare recipients a dime. I’ll just create a special form of government debt that will be paid only by future generations not yet voting.

As you can see, I have everything it takes to run for president in today’s world. I simply take today’s campaign strategies to their logical conclusions. Honest deception! That’s my motto.


Aurora: Giving Mass Murderers the Rewards They Seek?

While we can’t totally prevent the type of tragedy that has taken place in Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma City, we can certainly reduce the probability of such events reoccurring.

While these mass murderers may have multiple delusions, almost all seek publicity, copy what they have seen elsewhere, or, often, both. Their final actions, as well as how much of their earlier life revolves around elaborate preparations, clearly give them some bizarre sense of identity. Then, when they carry out their plans, they are rewarded instantaneously with the fame they could not otherwise receive. Reduce the attention given to them, and you reduce the likelihood future people with this type of mental illness will seek violent outlets for their distorted worldviews.

To cut back on giving them the rewards they seek requires a bit of honesty. The huge publicity following Aurora is big business, very big business. Billions of dollars of print and media output follow, as do billions of dollars of advertising that supports those news organizations. In a way, all the news about Aurora is a form of entertainment—not in the sense of amusement, but in the original Latin meaning of the word: intertenere, or “to hold inside” or occupy our thoughts and time. We pay the media for information on the subject, they give it front-page coverage, the murderer gets the reward he seeks, and the next mass murderer gets new ideas and is enticed by the fame he can achieve.

A related area is the emulation of suicides, known as the Werther effect. Waves of suicide followed the publication of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the protagonist commits suicide after failing to attract the girl he wants. Similar trends were found after media coverage of the first jumpers off the Brooklyn Bridge. We have all become quite familiar with the proliferation of suicide bombers in recent decades, their goal achieved as much if not more through the publicity they attain. Social scientists study these contagion effects, as well as their tendency to cluster in time and space as learning about them expands. One such cluster of suicides followed that of Marilyn Monroe.

There’s no debate as to whether these imitative behaviors occur. Researchers such as Dr. David Philips, who coined the term Werther effect, have examined the ways and patterns by which people engage in violent behavior by following the examples of others.

So here’s the box we’re in. If we’re the newspaper reporter or TV broadcaster or talk-show pundit constantly giving attention to the mass murderer and the results of his actions, we’re part of the problem. We consumers aren’t off the hook either; we buy the newspapers and increase the ratings of the TV shows and web sites covering these events.

When The Sorrows of Young Werther was linked to a spate of suicides, Goethe’s book was banned in some jurisdictions. No one suggests this type of action today in a country with a strong free-press tradition such as the United States. Even a voluntary ban would be impossible given the widespread outlets through which the media operates. One can also legitimately argue that the information is useful, not just entertainment, to some people.

Here, then, is a simpler and more modest suggestion. Let’s agree not to give mass murderers front-page or large-headline coverage. Let’s decide not to give them at least the most visible rewards they so desperately seek. Remove the splash. The news can be covered just as thoroughly, let’s just downplay its display. Some brave media leaders might even agree to send their above-average company profits or wages for reporting on the murderous event to the affected communities. Some businesses might reduce advertising on the most exploitive media outlets.

Of course, I understand the response from the back of the newsroom. How can we, it will be argued, not give more banner and headline attention to these events than our competitors? We would simply lose more money. If we consider ourselves among the better news outlets, then that profit loss would put us even further behind the eight-ball in being able to do the things we do well. On top of that, it’s all over the web anyway. Political campaign managers make a similar argument: whatever the short-term social cost of misleading campaign information, the victory of their candidate is for the long-term good of the country.

In the end, I’m not sure my simple objective of granting mass murderers less of the fame they seek is achievable without some consumer demand for it, perhaps led by organized consumer federations, churches, or other groups. Until then, I can just do my own bit and try to be honest with myself about my part (including writing this column) in these continually unfolding tragedies.