If It Walks Like a Duck, Call it a Turtle

A couple of weeks ago, Catherine Rampell had a must-read column in the Washington Post, beginning with “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that feller behind the tree!”

Rampell focused upon the rampant hypocrisy of the “no tax” ideologues:

Jonathan Gruber has been vilified for (among other things) noting the “tortured” way that sections of the Affordable Care Act were written in order to stay in the good graces of both the Congressional Budget Office and the public. But such budgetary gamesmanship has long been an open, and bipartisan, tactic in Washington. When “spending” became a dirty word, Congress phased out earmarks. In their place, it doled out treats to special interests through the tax code, now awarding more than a trillion dollars each year in federal tax breaks, carve-outs and loopholes. Arithmetically, letting someone pay less in taxes is identical to spending money on them, but voters don’t see things that way….

Voters hate taxes and will punish any politician who threatens to raise them (or, in many cases, does not accede to cutting them). But schools, roads, police forces, garbage collection, firefighters, jails and pensions still cost money, even when you cut them back as much as voters will tolerate. So instead of raising taxes, state and municipal governments have resorted to nickel-and-diming constituents through other kinds of piecemeal, non-tax revenue raisers, an outcome that is less transparent, and likely to worsen the economy, inequality and social injustice.

Examples abound. Call it a toll. Call it a fee. Finance local government with smoke and mirrors.

This “no tax” chicanery plays to our worst impulses, the “I’ve got mine, Jack, and piss on the public good” attitudes that have crippled efforts to improve our communities and build a more inclusive, robust public square. But as intellectually dishonest as the “that’s not really a tax” strategies are, they’re a subset of a larger, even more troubling phenomenon: we’ve stripped our language of content.

I’ve frequently noted–in response to overheated rhetoric from the Right–that President Obama really can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi, because those words have meanings, and they are different. (And actually, in a sane world, neither remotely applies to the President, whether you like his policies or hate them.) Science is not a system of “beliefs” equivalent to religion, because falsifiable empirical facts are not matters of “faith.” LGBT folks don’t have “lifestyles,” they have orientations. I could go on and on.

The problem with misuse and abuse of language is that we lose the ability to communicate with each other. When words no longer have generally accepted meanings, we are just making sounds–and when those words are turned into epithets and insults, intelligible conversation comes to a screeching halt.

Language is one of the most important achievements of the human race; it is fundamental to human progress. We jeopardize more than we realize when we debase it.


  1. Reminds me of the story from Norman Cox at Channel 6 news (http://www.theindychannel.com/news/deflated-dome-leaves-taxpayers-69-million-tab) on how the tax for the various sports arenas gets refinanced so as not to lose the income…”Taxpayers might have thought they were paying off the debt through the Marion County food and beverage tax, but the Capital Improvement Board refinanced the debt three times.
    The money that came from refinancing efforts was used to build new projects, such as Victory Field, and to make improvements to the dome.
    In 1999, the CIB issued another $26 million in bonds to upgrade the dome, including the addition of club seats.
    At that point, the debt climbed to $73 million. Since then, about $4 million has been paid off, leaving the taxpayers’ tab for a building that soon will be demolished at $69 million.
    The remaining debt from the RCA Dome has been rolled into bonds for the new stadium, so it might not be possible to tell when or if it is ever retired.
    Capital Improvement Board officials provided the numbers for this story, but were not available to be interviewed. “

  2. You’re right. Without language, abstract thought becomes impossible, and we’re just emoting our ids all over the carpet.

  3. James Etling – the NSA lying and spying, Fast & Furious, the VA debacle, the IRS lying and spying and covering up, Obamacare rules being changed over a dozen times AFTER passage, the recent immigration executive order AFTER Obama acknowledged not having the authority to do what he did.
    Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored ….

  4. We lament every day the collision between conservatism and government. But what about its impact on business? Equally devastating, for conservatism believes that money is only for those who don’t need it.

    Economics and business can certainly be complex but like all complex things they can be simplified to a few fundamentals. A capitalistic economy is driven by growth, it requires growth to live, and growth is driven by investment, innovation and consumers in number. Conservative “trickle down” hampers them all. You might argue it’s restriction on investment but I believe that the operative consideration is what Conservatives invest in rather than whether they do invest.

    Conservatives, I believe, invest in what benefits them most which they’ve figured out are politics and financial services like banks and investment houses. Why? Investments in innovation and consumer products are risky and require innovation’s partner, imagination. Investments in redistributing wealth, rather than earning it, conversely are no brainers.

    The only downside of the redistribution meme is that it, by its nature, is predatory and self limiting. Like the lions over feeding on one prey. Pretty soon they’re all gone. But, that’s an externality to the job of wealth accumulation today so is not to be considered.

    It’s not emotional at all, but eminently rational given the data that describes America today to believe that the country is being sold to oligarchy. And the end product will be a third world country from which those who bought it flee to havens like Monaco and those that sold it will wonder why and what happened to it?

    The answer of course is that freedom has to be earned and we failed when we had to succeed. As we will be left with relatively nothing, we didn’t sell it at all. We gave it away.

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