Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Taxman's Burden

Reading George Will reminds me of making the rounds of Italian art galleries — working down corridors of massive canvases rendered in classical styles, heavy on the paint and recondite cultural references. ("Recondite" — meaning knowledge that most people would have to look up, signified in a term most people would have to look up — is a typical Williword.)

After your first dozen or so Madonnas, you start picking up the pace, and then consider skipping the next gallery altogether. But occasionally, you find something that breaks the pattern, and you stand admiring it longer than it might deserve.

As with a recent column about Social Security, which begins:

The president's second term will begin today, probably with a flurry of the usual flattery, such as: "My fellow Americans, America is wonderful because you, the people, are wonderful — the way you wear your hats, the way you sip your tea." But his term also begins with Republicans evidently thinking people must be frightened into accepting sensible Social Security reform, and Democrats invoking chimeric "risks" to frighten people away from a reform that enlarges freedom by reducing the degree to which people are wards of government.

The president says Social Security should be reformed because it is in "crisis." That is an exaggeration. Democrats say it should not be reformed because there is no crisis. That is a non sequitur. Social Security should be reformed not because there is a crisis but because there is an opportunity.



We know much persuasive speech relies on exaggeration, from the opinion pages to the advertising pages, and most moderately rational people are able to employ filters against egregious competing claims. "Avert bankruptcy!" cry the repubs. "Abet thievery!" hoot the dems.

But as I continue to remind myself, there is something more subtle and powerful going on. The language used to describe an issue can evoke a metaphor that sets the boundaries of discussion. Let's take Will's introduction as instructive.

Which word is more evocative? Crisis or risk? "Crisis" brings forth imagery of impending doom, claxons sounding on sinking ships, barbarians at the gate, floodgates close to bursting. "Risks" is more of an abstraction, the language of actuaries, not of heroes. If it calls up any imagery at all, we see a stammering Charles Grodin, not a resolute Gary Cooper. "Not a crisis" simply reinforces the idea of crisis and limits where the discussion can go. This is called framing.

By debunking Bush's Social Security scare tactics — not the only thing being indiscriminantly labeled a crisis, by the way — Will had me nodding, right up until "wards of the government."

A cunning phrase, wards of the government. It calls up urchins in Dickensian poor houses ("Please, sir, a little spot o' gruel.") or Thorazine-benumbed patients shuffling past Nurse Ratched. To partake of a benefit toward which one has contributed throughout one's working life is not, say, "cashing in an insurance policy." It's permitting oneself to become a helpless, even contemptible, loser.

Here's one related and more widely used construct: Tax burden.

A burden is not a positive, shared obligation — it's a heavy load. Unlike baggage that can be wheeled through the airport, or checked and carried in the hold, a burden stays on your back. It bends you over, makes you sweat and prevents you from doing what you really want to do. Baggage, at least, includes your golf clubs, tooth brush and clean underwear. A burden probably doesn't even contain your own stuff. A burden is a bale of cotton, and you are a slave.

As for reform, you really don't want to exchange your 100-pound bale for an 80-pound sack. You want to be free of the burden altogether.

Democrats reflexively pick up this metaphor when they try to talk about equitable taxation. They may think they are talking about sharing. To the Republicans, they are talking about slavery.

Let's all put on our frame filters, regardless of who's doing the framing.

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