A More Than Marginally Embarrassing Mistake

USA Weekend caught flatfooted on tax goof

See update at bottom of this post.

I don’t want to encroach too far onto Craig Silverman’s territory, but USA Weekend is in the middle of an error/inaction/flawed correction episode that is the model of how to make a muddle of mistakes.

Here’s the background: on Friday morning, USA Weekend—a Parade-style weekly spin-off of USA Today—published a short, puffy, “news you can use” post extracted from a new book called Math for Grownups. Along with suggestions like not paying for bottled water and maintaining a household budget, the item informed readers that a salary raise “might not be as good as it looks”:

The extra money is nice, but it could very well bump you into the next tax bracket, possibly leaving you with less money than you had before the raise. Better benefits, such as medical, can save you money while keeping you in the same tax bracket.

Via Jonathan Bernstein, over the weekend Dean Baker—who attributed the error to USA Today, not USA Weekendcalled this out for the embarrassing mistake that it is. As Baker noted, the writer and editor on the original item entirely missed the point that we have a system of marginal tax rates—when a raise bumps you into a new tax bracket, you pay the higher rate only on the portion of your income in that bracket, not your entire salary. That means that, with possible exceptions involving some very particular circumstances, earning “extra money” is not going to leave you with “less… than you had before.”

Unfortunately, this simple factual error has been made by journalists before. But it seems especially egregious under the headline the editors at USA Weekend gave the piece: “Math tips for the rest of us.”

Bad as it was, though, I’m more inclined than Bernstein or Baker (or Jon Chait and Matthew Yglesias, who are also piling on) to cut the publication some slack for the original mistake. This wasn’t a serious news article. And USA Weekend doesn’t even present itself as a serious publication. (Its webpage promises readers “Celebs, Health, Recipes, Sudoku, Who’s News blog and more!”) The world would be a better place if fluffy mass-market publications could get the basics right when offering financial advice, but mistakes happen, and they happen more often when we stray out of our comfort zones.

It gets worse, though. Baker was hardly the first to spot the error. It was noted by the article’s very first commenter, who flagged it a little over an hour after the original item went live and even offered a helpful link to a webpage that explains the issue correctly. Laura Laing, author of Math for Grownups, soon weighed in in the comments section to acknowledge the article’s error. (Her book’s argument, she wrote, was that it may be wise to seek additional compensation in the form of untaxed benefits rather than taxed wages, not that a salary increase will actually leave you with less.) And over the long weekend, seven more readers joined the thread to call for a correction. But it wasn’t until sometime this afternoon—after the wonky side of the blogosphere started poking fun—that an editor acknowledged the criticisms in comments, and a “clarification” was added to the article. Even allowing for a more leisurely pace due to the holiday, that’s slow work.

More problematic still is the “clarification” itself. The added text declares that the initial article “did not adequately explain the situation,” and provides the full (and not entirely persuasive) passage from Laing’s book. But the most flawed sentence in the original article—“The extra money is nice, but it could very well bump you into the next tax bracket, possibly leaving you with less money than you had before the raise” —is not “inadequately explained,” and it doesn’t need to be “clarified.” It’s wrong, and it needs to be corrected—ideally, with a clear explanation of what marginal tax rates are, and a thank-you note to the readers who have taken time to explain the error.

Update, 9/8: As reader James flags in comments, the text of the USA Weekend story has now been corrected. The latest version notes that when a raise bumps you into a higher tax bracket, “earnings below that threshold are still taxed at the previous, lower tax rate.” A note at the top of the article states that the earlier version “misstated the impact of tax brackets on raises.”

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.