More “shifting terms”

I am still looking for more cases of fallacious argument.  (If you find any, please email them to me at or Tweet me @WD_Frosty.)  However, an even more prominent example of “shifting terms” has arisen in the prestigious Wall Street Journal.

Stephen Moore wrote an Op-Edfor the Wall Street Journal entitled “A 62% Top Tax Rate.” In it, he had the following:

“If the Democrats’ millionaire surtax were to happen—and were added to other tax increases already enacted last year and other leading tax hike ideas on the table this year—this could leave the U.S. with a combined federal and state top tax rate on earnings of 62%. That’s more than double the highest federal marginal rate of 28% when President Reagan left office in 1989. Welcome back to the 1970s.”

The shift is quite possibly the most blatant I’ve seen.  Most people have the sense to not say the conflated terms. Mr. Moore, on the other hand, is quite obviously switching from “combined federal and state” to “federal marginal rate”.  The federal marginal rate is the rate on the last dollar earned for the federal income tax alone; in the rest of his Op-Ed, he adds together all payroll taxes, state taxes, surtaxes, and the federal income tax.  He repeatedly compares the total tax burden to the federal marginal rate during the Reagan and Carter years.

To put this in perspective, it is as if you told Mr. Moore that your rent was too high, and he responded “Yes, but my rent, car payment, groceries, and utilities are roughly the same as your rent, so we’re in the same position.” It is a nakedly dishonest argument.  I generally live by Hanlon’s Razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”) but Mr. Moore is too well-educated to make this mistake unintentionally. Mr. Moore, with his economics education, clearly knows the difference between marginal rates and total rates. Moreover, in making it so obviously, he lost whatever benefit he may have had from using such a technique.


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