During a press briefing last week, President Donald Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, inadvertently told the truth.
She was trying to explain Republican tax reform with an extended parable that features 10 reporters who go to a bar after work every day to drink beer. The bill comes to $100. Since the reporters pay their bill "the way we pay our taxes," the four poorest reporters pay nothing.
The fifth pays $1, the sixth pays $3 and so on, up to the 10th reporter, the richest, who pays $59.
One day the bar owner decides to lower the cost from $100 to $80. Sanders waded through a couple of minutes of math. If the drinkers try to split the $20 savings equally, then according to the parable the fifth and sixth reporter would be paid to drink beer.
Instead they decide to "follow the principle of the tax system they'd been using," and reduce each drinker's bill by a percentage based on the amount he had been paying. But outside the bar the reporters begin to gripe about the larger dollar amount saved by the richest reporter, compared to their own savings.
The nine reporters "yelled" at the 10th so much that they made him "feel bad," so the next night he doesn't show up for drinks and the other reporters don't have enough to cover even half of the bill. The rich reporter starts "drinking overseas, where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier."
Then at last the truth came out. Sanders said, "This is a silly story, of course." Yes, it is a silly story, indeed, in a number of different ways.
A good fable should not be a fantasy. In our country, people who can afford to spend $59 a night for beer do not go out drinking with the people who can't afford to pay anything or very little for such luxuries. They live in two different worlds.
Clearly, the parable's real message has to do with something other than merely justifying tax reform. It portrays the Republican/Trumpian vision of America, a land where the rich at the very top are carrying the load for the losers and moochers at the bottom, the 47 percent that Mitt Romney called the "takers."
If you want to confirm this, take a look at Sanders' internet source for this parable, a primitive cartoon produced by Johnston Grocke, an accounting and financial services firm. The depiction of the 10 drinkers is telling.
The richest drinker is wearing a tailored business suit and a tie, and he isn't drinking beer at all. He's enjoying a glass of red wine with the second richest drinker and both are schmoozing with the bar owner. The third richest is close by, but the other seven are swilling beer from bottles and cans around a pool table.
Based on their descending economic status, the other seven are decreasingly presentable, until we reach the four moochers at the bottom, who are scruffy and unshaven, especially the one who appears to be the only African American in the group. Of course he expects other people to pay for his beer.
There's nothing subtle about this message or the patent threat by the rich guy to take his money to other countries where they'll be nicer to him. But it leaves out a lot.
For example, the rich guy drinking red wine with the owner is oblivious to three important factors: his wealth largely depends on natural resources and infrastructure that belong to all of us; our prosperous economy is grounded in the hard work and productivity of ordinary people; and when this system is threatened, our nation turns to the "losers" — so the rich guy sees them —at the bottom of the hierarchy to defend us. And they've never let us down.
And then there's this basic truth: A country is not a bar, and the various complex needs and desires of its citizens cannot be described in a simple-minded parable like this one. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, this is what passes for argument.
—John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.