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“A Tale of Two Taxes,” or “(Career) Death and Taxes”

July 12, 2012

I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know, but conventional wisdom holds that Americans really hate taxes. Especially new ones. So politicians like to refuse to raise taxes, and conventional wisdom holds that this will make them popular with constituents. And it works, so much so that even promising to mouth your opposition to new taxes should the opportunity present itself can be something people remember decades later. Ultimately, though, I think that there’s more to the way we talk about taxes than the conventional wisdom indicates. I think it’s indicative of how incredibly sensitive to linguistic choices we are, and of how much public discourse is carefully engineered to tap into that sensitivity. I’m gonna rap at you about two seemingly unrelated stories from the headlines that will eventually turn out to share some important key thematic features, all Magnolia-like. But with less in the way of orthodontia and (probably) biblical plagues.

Story 1: The city of Scranton, PA (mere minutes from my hometown. Hi, Mom!) made national headlines when Mayor Chris Doherty decided last week to begin paying all city employees, himself included, minimum wage. As this article from the Scranton Times-Tribune explains, he did this because the city only had like five grand in the bank and found itself unable to borrow more. This is in part because Doherty and the City Council are at loggerheads over his proposed recovery plan, which needs to be approved by banks before they’ll start loaning again. His plan involves, you guessed it, raising taxes. City Council doesn’t like this idea, and thinks that he should find other ways to get the money. Doherty doesn’t think there’s another way to bring in the dough fast enough. And so on and so on.

Story 2: In the aftermath of last month’s ruling on the Affordable Healthcare Act (which our friends Avery Jacob Wiscomb and Jeff Swift have written great pieces about), there’s been a lot made of the Supreme Court’s ruling that Congress couldn’t penalize people for not carrying health insurance using its powers under the commerce clause but that it could demand that, under the tax code, people without health insurance pay the IRS. Republicans have been calling this a tax increase for applicable parties, whereas the Obama administration and other Democrats have preferred to continue to refer to it as a “penalty.” As this MSNBC article points out, this strategy echoes the language that Mitt Romney used to describe his own similar healthcare overhaul in Massachusettes, putting him in an awkward position where he’s still describing the Massachusettes law as a “penalty,” but the Affordable Healthcare Act as a “tax,” despite their many similarities.

So. What do these stories have in common? In both cases, they’re stories of politicians avoiding taxes like they avoid marital fidelity. You’ve got the sixth most populated city in this great state of ours having pretty much less money in the bank than I do, and still the City Council can’t be convinced to raise taxes. You’ve got politicians tripping over themselves, in some cases even going so far as to insist on different names for pretty much the same thing, to avoid labeling something they had a hand in creating as a tax. It’s the politician’s side of that conventional wisdom I mentioned earlier: raising taxes is career suicide. Rhetorically, this turns taxes into a cudgel for political opponents to wield against one another, while it turns defenses against accusations of raising taxes or supporting increased taxes into a performance that needs to be near-symphonically orchestrated.

Which is weird when you think about it. Most of the time, the people wielding said cudgel aren’t the kinds of people whose political philosophies make them opposed to any and all taxes. Instead, they’re the kind of people who want the government to keep funding things like fire departments and schools and police forces and roads and coughcoughwarscoughcough, and I’d certainly assume they realize that in most cases the revenue to do such things comes from taxes. So, as the audience for this cudgeling, we’re denied the opportunity to see candidates deliberate important aspects of tax issues. In effect, we cut some really important steps off the flow chart, steps like, oh I dunno, “do I support what this tax will go to pay for?” or “can the revenue this tax would generate be found elsewhere without cutting other necessary services?” and are left with just “is it a tax?” And an affirmative answer to that question apparently leads to such resolute opposition that it just must be avoided at all costs; all the better if you can accuse your opponents of being pro-taxes, too. It illustrates how powerful a simple word can be, and how awareness of that power can lead to attempts to harness it and turn it against opponents.

If you want to know more:

  • As rhetoricians, the idea that language is powerful has kinda been one of the cornerstones of our discipline for the past few millennia. Still, in writing the above post, I thought specifically of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Of An Elephant and how it applies the rhetorical notion of framing to political discourse, and also what Norman Fairclough calls “the technologization of discourse,” which he elaborates on in Discourse and Social Change, among other places. This idea refers to the way in which public language choices are becoming increasingly engineered to give desired impressions and get desired results; because language and society are so intertwined, language is being treated, in effect, as a tool or technology to affect social changes. So, in a sense, institutions of power are getting wise to what we rhetoricians have known all along. But it’s not just politicians and powerful institutions etc. using language this way; Fairclough also discusses the possibility of “bottom up” social change stemming from the same careful view of language.
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