Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sin tax and semantics

Willard Mitt Romney, having sent out his henchman on July 2 to say that the Obamacare mandate nonpayment fine-tax is not a tax even though the Supreme Court had just decreed that it was, by a majority of minus-eight votes,* came out himself on July 4 to agree with the Court. This latest flip-twist, by the way, is more than just a fun example of the difficulty he has agreeing with himself. Although it certainly is that.

I don't think he's ever made it quite so clear that while he lies with perfect cheerfulness, it makes him cross when he has to contradict himself. If he said the Obama administration has raised taxes on the middle class by 300% and you showed him evidence that this was not true, he'd just smile and repeat himself, quite comfortably; but if you showed him video of himself saying that the Obama administration had not raised taxes on the middle class, he'd be visibly angry.

I don't know why it is—it could be part of his definition of manliness, that if you have a lie to tell you should just tell it, squarely and boldly, not going all vacillating and equivocal. But since he does, in fact, contradict himself often, he's almost always just this side of a real temper tantrum. [jump]

*Just kidding. Everybody knows that it was a 9-0, 1-3-1-4, 5-4, 5-4, 3-2-4 decision, as NCrissie B carefully explains, and the liberal minority signed that piece of it; but we're free to believe that they didn't really agree with it.

So the Roberts court gave him a kind of proactive excuse to be consistent, for a change, and on no less than the most embarrassing issue of all, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which he must denounce with horror even as he defends the very similar bill he signed in Massachusetts a few years ago.

Namely, if Roberts said the penalty for not buying insurance was a tax and that made the mandate constitutional, then Romney could say that no, it was not a tax, just as he had always said the Massachusetts one was not a tax, which would apparently make the Obama bill unconstitutional (US constitution),  but not the Massachusetts bill (Massachusetts constitution). Or something like that. But it would explain, if not very clearly, why one bill was deadly poison and the other the water of life, even though they resemble each other so closely—demonstrating his non-inconsistency in two different directions at once.

But it was not to be—it was too sophisticated for the Party, and he had to get out there and contradict himself again. If the Chief Justice said it was a tax, that was the shortest and easiest way of saying it was evil even if it was constitutional, and so a tax it had to be.

Which raises the broader question of why it was so important to the Republicans to call the fee a tax—so important that it was worth giving up the easy opportunity of agreeing with Scalia and Kennedy and arguing that the case had been decided wrong, as Romney had already begun doing. Isn't it, as Jonathan Bernstein says, "Just semantics"?

And the answer to that is "Yes, but—"
Republicans really believe that just the word “tax” has the voodoo hoodoo power to turn the masses into a blind herd of craven tax-avoiding zombies . . . when things aren’t going their way, they toss it out there like the little kid who tries to scare his Dad by telling him there’s a monster under Dad’s bed. (Bette Noir in comments at Rumproast)
They have pretty good reason to believe it, because it's worked that way before. Semantics, you see, is the key ingredient in lying, as in the Times story we started with:
Conservatives, despite their deep dismay over the ruling, have pounced on the tax issue, saying Mr. Obama deceived the American people by disguising a huge tax increase as a health care reform bill.
Roberts having introduced the word into the discourse, the Party picks it up and runs with it, out into deep falsehood; the Times doesn't even bother to correct it, and the legions are already out there saying that Obamacare is the biggest tax increase in US history. (The logic, when there's any logic, being that if the penalty for not buying insurance is a tax, then buying insurance is a tax too.) Anyhow, they'd never have been able to do that if it was a fine.

The word "tax" has the sound of something fatal, that gets us all in the end: "There are only two things certain in life, death and taxes." When the Republicans combined those two to make up "death tax" as a synonym for "estate tax" or "inheritance tax", they made it sound universally ineluctable, even though in fact hardly anybody is rich enough to pay it. Millions of poor white people imagined the feds coming to take their houses away from their bereaved families and voted accordingly for the partly most likely (as we now know) to cause them to lose their houses.

Lying about taxes, indeed, has become virtually their whole shtik, and it has been amazingly successful for them, on the whole. But there's one kind of tax to which it doesn't easily extend: the "sin tax" or sumptuary or Pigouvian tax government levies ostensibly not to raise money but to exert pressure on social behavior: taxes on tobacco and alcohol, for example. People don't really like these, either, but they understand that you don't have to pay unless you have a weakness.

By the same token, you could combat Republican lies about the tax/fine on failing to buy health insurance by calling it a "free-rider tax"—a tax on people who hope to get sick at community expense; similarly, the estate tax could be a "Paris Hilton tax" or a "trust-fund baby tax", drawing attention away from the deceased and toward the obnoxious people who actually have to pay it. And it wouldn't be doing what the Republicans do because you'd be telling the truth...
And a greenhouse-gas tax, if only there were some more of these...

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