The Eighth Word?
On this Fourth of July, on the two hundred thirty-sixth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (or the date on the document, anyway), let’s take a look at one of our most cherished freedoms, next to which nearly everything else pales in significance: the freedom of speech. Without this freedom, it is impossible to have a national debate, impossible to have a discussion of social issues, impossible to express dissent, or to advance a cause or to worship as we choose. The right to assemble or to petition the government for a redress of grievances is meaningless, if you can only say approved things. You can’t run for office against an incumbent, or rely on the existence of a free press. There is no other right so central to our democracy.
But there are limits, even on this most basic of freedoms. One is not entitled to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It is illegal to threaten the President. The Supreme Court, only three years ago, affirmed the right of corporate persons to out-shout everyone else.
But perhaps most importantly, forty years ago, George Carlin gave us the classic description of the seven words you can’t say on television. This puts limits on everyday speech by everyday persons. Recently, it seems, there has been an addition to the forbidden words. This addition has had a chilling effect on our politics, our priorities, and even our privileges.
I am talking about the most obscene word in American cultural language today, the word that makes strong men faint and war heroes tremble, the single word that can destroy a political career or even cause a landslide to backfire, the Policy That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I am talking about the word (shield your eyes and whisper it in secret): tax.
In 2009, America was witness to a backlash against policy seldom seen since the days of Vietnam protests or civil rights demonstrations. Patriots in tri-corn hats and tea bags told us, in no uncertain terms, that we needed to balance the budget, refuse health care to Americans, and, most importantly, prevent the rise of taxes. The shout-out to 1776 represented by the Revolutionary-era outfits in conjunction with anti-tax rhetoric was inspired, perhaps, by the famous cry of “No Taxation Without Representation!” Apparently, though, the modern protestors forgot that we do, in fact, have representation, and we did even in the dark days of 2009.
The Revolutionary-era patriots were not protesting taxes. They were protesting the lack of representation.
Taxes are how a government pays its bills. The Tea Party protests combined an anti-government message with its desire to not raise the money government needs. This modern movement may have begun with Ronald Reagan, who preached both cutting taxes (while raising taxes eleven times) and limited government (while presiding over the largest expansion of government in a generation). He went Carlin one better — two, actually, informing us of the “nine [not seven] most frightening words in the English language” — “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
The Revolutionary-era patriots were not protesting government. They were protesting the lack of representation. If anything, they wanted an expansion of government, albeit one they could control.
Yet, under Reagan, anti-tax became tied to anti-government. This movement peaked, perhaps, in the attempt to make the United States default on its debts in 2011, a spectacle that combined hatred of taxes with contempt for the goods and services those taxes purchase. This tactic also showcased, however, something darker than the cheerful attempt to starve the government — an unconcern with the damage such actions would do to the country.
This fear of taxation among segments of our populace appears to know no bounds. The Supreme Court decided last week that the Affordable Care Act’s penalty associated with the “individual mandate” is constitutional under the power of Congress to tax. This, all by itself, furnishes a new reason for Republicans to deny health care to millions of Americans in their drive to express their patriotism. Since last Thursday, we’ve heard a drumbeat of anger from Republicans claiming that the mandate penalty represents the “largest tax increase in American history”, and we therefore must repeal Obamacare. Pete Hoekstra, a resident of Holland, Michigan, and candidate for a United States Senate seat, in attacking his political opponent, said it best:
[Incumbent Senator] Debbie Stabenow voted specifically to keep the individual mandate in the health care bill, which is now the largest tax increase on American families in history.
Apparently, this terror of the word tax has so unnerved Republicans it has made them unable to perform math. In point of fact, the mandate penalty will raise perhaps two billion dollars annually, or about 0.014 percent of GDP. Just one of Reagan’s eleven tax increases (TEFRA, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982) amounted to 1.1 percent of GDP… seventy-nine times as big as the individual mandate penalty.
But let’s be fair, and consider the entire costs of the Affordable Care Act to be “a tax”. Is that the giganticest tax increase ever? Not even close. Look at the above chart (which came from here). It turns out the total cost of Obamacare is roughly comparable to (actually a bit smaller than) President George H. W. Bush’s tax increase of 1990, or President Bill Clinton’s tax increase of 1993, or President Jimmy Carter’s Oil Windfall Tax of 1980. It is significantly smaller than President Lyndon Johnson’s tax increase of 1966, and 40 percent less than Reagan’s tax increase of 1982. It is dwarfed by tax increases that happened in 1950, 1968, and the giants of them all, the Revenue Acts of 1950 and 1951, the latter of which was more than three times bigger than the entire cost of the Affordable Care Act.
So much for it being the biggest tax increase ever. Not even close. But such fear does merely speaking the word tax strike in the hearts of Republicans, they are powerless before the force of it, and forced to reach for these superlatives.
And thus, the presumptive Republican nominee for President is put into a terrible bind, since the health care law he championed while governor of Massachusetts included this dreaded tax-disguised-as-a-mandate. He even insisted any national health care plan should include an individual mandate. Romney not only raised (I dare say it!) taxes in Massachusetts, but also urged that taxes for all Americans should be raised.
Should Republicans continue insisting the Affordable Care Act needs to be repealed because it is a tax, they must also insist Mitt Romney is unfit to be President because he, too, has a history of raising and supporting taxes.
Of course, Romney is refusing to adMitt that the mandate penalty is a tax, putting the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee at odds with the Republican Party on what is the defining issue of modern Republicanism. Whether the Republican Party will allow such heresy from its nominee remains to be seen.
Any nation needs taxes. No nation can function without them. With an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, it is simply not sane to imagine we don’t have to raise taxes, let alone the absolute madness of suggesting we cut taxes further, particularly as tax rates are already at historic lows.
Maybe this dichotomy will cause a cathartic crisis, and help Republicans get over their unnatural fear of the word tax. The first step in getting better is admitting there is a problem.
On this July 4, we can perhaps hope the Republican Party can overcome its psychosis over this word, before their fear does further damage to our nation.
- Tea Party Protesters Plan to “Storm Senate” (cbsnews.com)
- Taxation without representation — it’s back, again (wnd.com)
- Massachusetts Town Fines Profanity: WTF Would Hitchens and Carlin Say? (orangeroomstudios.wordpress.com)
- It’s Time to Inhale (logarchism.com)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson