Jonathan Chait

From the Chait Vault: Greek Love

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Jon comes back from vacation tomorrow, so here I bring you the final installment in Chait masterpiece theater--in two parts. Back when Jon was an intern, he got a mysterious, unsolicited invite to a free lunch at the Greek embassy. What did the lowly, penniless youth do to deserve the honor? Well, Jon didn't really know either. But what he did know was that the only thing he loved more than giving gifts was free spanakopita:

Several weeks ago, the Greek Embassy invited me to attend a luncheon at the National Press Club featuring a speech by the Greek prime minister, whose name escapes me at the moment. It wasn't Papandreou--if that's spelled correctly, thank TNR's assistant editors--whom I believe is dead or very ill, but rather his successor. I think his name ends with -itis. Apparently the embassy believes I'm the house expert on Greece. I was specifically chosen. My name was handwritten on a fancy invitation. Nobody else at the magazine received one. Clearly, the Greeks see me as an important opinion-shaper whose views they want to influence. Although flattered to be wooed by powerful interests, the moral implications troubled me. Would accepting a free meal from Greece--no small gift for a perpetually hungry intern like myself--bias my coverage of the country? True, I've never covered Greece, or any foreign country, but I could conceivably do so in the future. Journalism reviews devote countless pages to the question of whether or not reporters like Cokie Roberts are unduly influenced by the hefty speaking fees they get from private organizations. (I, of course, have never accepted such an offer.) Yes, I admitted to myself, it is likely that if the occasion to opine about Greece arose, some part of me would hearken back to the delicious souvlaki or spanakopita the taxpayers of that country had generously provided me. I resolved to accept the meal but refrain from ever commenting on Greek-related matters.

A few months later, Jon followed up on the Greek issue in a column that also featured this fantastic riff:

Judging by TNR's letters to the editor, the two issues that rile our readers the most are the capital gains tax and capital punishment. The former makes sense to me. Our readers, many of them stockholders, have a personal interest in the fate of the capital gains tax. Yet personal interest alone can't explain this preoccupation; our demographic profiles suggest that very few of you face the prospect of imminent execution. In any case, whenever this magazine publishes something in favor of the capital gains tax--it's been weeks now--we face a torrent of hostile letters. We have always argued that capital gains income should be taxed exactly the same as ordinary income. The other side has always argued that capital gains shouldn't be taxed at all. At present we have a compromise: capital gains are taxed at half the rate of ordinary income. The next time the issue is debated, our side is going to be arguing to keep the capital gains tax as it is, and the other side is going to argue for eliminating it. If we keep splitting the difference, the capital gains tax will eventually approach zero. Our only chance of winning is to argue from a position of strength: people who earn profits from capital should have their assets confiscated. No, wait, that's not strong enough. They should get the death penalty.

The above paragraph was designed to provoke an angry response from Daniel Mitchell, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation whose sole apparent function is to monitor the print media for insufficiently obsequious references to the sanctity of capital gains and to respond angrily, always taking care to end his letters with a ringing endorsement of the flat tax. (Capital gains nuts are always flat tax nuts, too, since the flat tax doesn't tax income from capital gains.) Since Mitchell has no doubt already dropped his copy of this magazine and sprinted off to the nearest word processor, this is a good opportunity to warn any readers who might ever put their views in print that provocations far less direct than this will set off Mitchell's trip wire.

Be sure to read the first piece here, and the follow-up here.

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