10/20/2011 05:47 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

Think Again: The Continuing Curse of 'On the One-Handism'

In Time magazine's recent profile of Herman Cain, author Michael Crowley writes of Cain's now famous "9-9-9" plan, "Conservative economists applaud the idea, but many others say it dramatically favors the rich and would actually raise taxes on the poor and require huge spending cuts."

Sentences like these in magazines like this one tell us a great deal about what's wrong with political coverage in the United States. In the first place, the sentence treats America as if it is made up of only two groups of people: "the rich" and "the poor." It does not even allow for the existence of the vast majority of Americans who exist somewhere in-between (generally referred to -- and exalted as -- "the middle class"). Most egregious of all, however, is the implied equivalence between the alleged approval by "conservative economists" on the one hand and what "others" say on the other.

Now, a few questions. Who are these "others?" Are they also economists or are they, say, garbage men? And do these unnamed conservative economists applaud the idea because it "would actually raise taxes on the poor and require huge spending cuts" or in spite of it? And finally, what, Mr. Time Magazine, would the plan actually do? What is the point, Time, if not to offer readers some guidance on competing claims by "conservative economists" and "others" when it comes to the proposals of leading presidential candidates?

It's not like it would have been so hard. The Tax Policy Center broke down the numbers behind Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, and Neil Klopfenstein even offered a visualization of the plan based on the Tax Policy Center's analysis.

What we have here is a prime example of what I have called "on the one-handism," what Paul Krugman calls "the cult of balance" and what James Fallows calls the problem of "false equivalence." The phenomenon derives from a multiplicity of causes but rests on two essential insights.

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