By Mark Zwelling, Vector Research
It's not what you say or intend that matters — it's what people hear that counts
One of the right wing's greatest achievements has been the demonization of taxes. The Right's anti-tax language is devastating — "job-killing taxes," for example.
When you want to reduce taxes, use a tax "shelter" to "protect" your wealth. When a tax controversy erupts, the news media call it a tax "revolt," bringing to mind uprisings against oppressors.
The Right's success in framing taxes as a "burden" or tax "load" that requires "tax relief" stifles debate about which taxes are effective and which are not. The labour economist Hugh Mackenzie has appealed for "an adult conversation" about taxes. Good luck with that.
No doubt the Right's jargon has worked. Only three in ten Canadians have a positive view of taxes (four in 10 a negative view), according to a Vector Poll™. On the other hand, nearly half the public has a positive view of profits.
Right wingers constantly prescribe tax cuts for every problem, but invariably critics on the Left blame tax cuts for every ill: government budget deficits... inequality... lousy public services.
The problem is that repeating the words "tax cuts" — even to disparage them — is free advertising for the conservative cause. Repetitiously drumming "tax cuts" into the public's brain weakens resistance to the words, in the way almost no one's shocked today when they hear "goddamn" on the radio.
"Freedom" is another brilliant bullet in the tax war of words. The arch-conservative Fraser Institute declares Personal Tax Freedom Day, and a calculator on the think tank's website invites visitors "to determine the day you stopped working for government and started working for yourself." (Tax Freedom Day usually arrives in May or June.)
Attempts to rebut Fraser's "tax freedom" day with a "Corporate Tax Freedom Day" commit the same error of repeating the word that frames taxes as a kind of jail term that ends with your "freedom."
Both Right and Left talk about taxes as penalties. The Right claims taxes are punishments inflicted on the innocent middle class. The Left promotes taxes as revenge on the rich. For the Left, tax cuts reward good behaviour — for companies that create jobs, for example. Companies that don't create jobs are bad and should pay higher taxes. Over and again the links are soldered fusing taxes and hardship.