What to Make of Sarah Huckabee Sanders' Beer-Tax Analogy

It tells us a lot—none of it particularly good—about how she approaches her job as press secretary.
By Seth Masket ,

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders speaks during a daily briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on October 31st, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A week ago, in the first White House press briefing to follow the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders greeted reporters by telling a story about beer-drinking reporters that was an analogy for tax reform. Many attending reporters remarked upon how strange and off-topic it was. This may seem a somewhat minor point in all that's happened since last Monday, but I think it gives us some insight into this White House and particularly into Sanders' approach to the job of press secretary.

The story she told is a simplistic explanation of what happens when you adjust tax rates in a progressively taxed society. In her version, the society consists of 10 reporters drinking $100 worth of beer and then dividing up the tab. If they paid for beer the way we pay for taxes, she explained, the poorest four would pay nothing, while others would pay on some progressive scale, with the richest reporter paying $59. She then went on to explain how, if there were a general reduction in payments, the wealthiest would seem to get the largest reduction as a percentage, while the poorest would complain that they hadn't been given any relief.

There are a number of concerns about Sanders telling this particular story. No, it's not a serious problem that neither tax rates nor beer were what reporters had on their minds when they came into the press briefing. Press secretaries are under no obligation to make every moment at a press briefing about the things reporters want to discuss, and indeed one of the functions of that job is to try to steer discussion toward issues that the media might not already be focused on.

What was a problem, though, was the substance of the story. It was designed to make progressive taxation seem inherently unfair. The four reporters who pay nothing "drink for free," in Sanders' words, while just one reporter ends up paying the bulk of the tab.

What we're meant to take away from this is that a system whereby everyone just pays $10 would be a lot more fair, and, even if we don't pursue such a system, the bulk of relief, if it becomes available, should accrue to the person paying the bulk of the money.

There's something pernicious to this analogy, particularly when it likens poor people receiving government assistance to people getting free beer. We don't really know much about the circumstances for the people in the analogy, other than that some have more money than others.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting about tax reform in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C, on September 5th, 2017.

(Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Chances are, there aren't dramatic income differences among a group of reporters gathered together for a drink. But let's imagine that the wealthiest person in this group is Wolf Blitzer, and that the poorest person is a 21-year-old summer intern at the Des Moines Register. Suddenly the wealthiest person picking up a large chunk of the tab doesn't seem quite so unjust. (Indeed, Blitzer is probably making at least a hundred times what the typical starting reporter makes.) Now let's say Blitzer puts away five beers while the intern, who is having some health and financial difficulties, just drinks water. Yes, I dare say Blitzer should be paying a lot more. All of these conditions are consistent with Sanders' story. But we don't know about people's relative needs or abilities to pay because Sanders intentionally left those out. In her analogy, everyone seems to get the same benefits, but the wealthy are generous and the poor are freeloaders.

There's another problem with this tale, and that is its provenance. Sanders didn't sit down and draft this tale as a way to teach reporters, and us, about the politics of tax cuts. As she notes, it "has been floating around the Internet for a while." This Snopes account, in fact, dates the tale back to at least the spring of 2001, when it was used in support of George W. Bush's tax cut proposals. Its author remains undetermined, although none less than William F. Buckley Jr. cited it in support of tax reform. But it's been posted and reposted on websites, discussion boards, and chain e-mails for the better part of two decades.

This tells us a good deal about Sanders' approach as a press secretary. Again, it's perfectly consistent with her position to try to steer discussion toward an issue the White House wants to discuss. But to do so by reading a 16-year-old chain e-mail filled with hackneyed and misleading claims just seems beneath the position. No, it's not as bad as overtly lying, which she has done from that podium on numerous occasions. But it is nonetheless reflective of the esteem she holds for the office she represents and the reporters she works with every day.

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