Why Republicans win the tax debate — and how progressives can do better

Conservative fiscal ideas are largely nonsense, but they spin a coherent narrative. Leftists must do likewise

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 26, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders; Paul Ryan (Getty/Maddie McGarve/Win McNamee)
Bernie Sanders; Paul Ryan (Getty/Maddie McGarve/Win McNamee)

“Virtually everything Republicans say about taxes today is a lie.” So wrote Bruce Bartlett, one of the 1980s architects of GOP economic orthodoxy, in a late September op-ed for USA Today. Bartlett was an aide to Rep. Jack Kemp, the highly influential New York Republican. “I helped originate the Republican obsession with slashing taxes that came to be called  ‘supply-side economics,'” Bartlett explained, and he still thinks that was useful under the circumstances at the time. But “it has long outlived its usefulness and is now nothing but dogma completely divorced from reality,” he wrote.   

For example, “Tax cuts and tax rate reductions will not pay for themselves; they never have,” Bartlett wrote. “There is no evidence that tax reform raises growth. ... And the Republican idea that tax increases always crash the economy is belied by the experiences after Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993 and Barack Obama did the same in 2013. The economy grew nicely and the stock market boomed in both cases.” 

The next day, in the Washington Post, Bartlett took aim at the central GOP lie that tax cuts inevitably lead to economic growth. “That’s wishful thinking,” he wrote. “In reality, there’s no evidence that a tax cut now would spur growth.”  

Bartlett’s hardly alone in dismissing that claim. The University of Chicago’s Initiative on Global Markets regularly polls a diverse panel of economists on issues of the day. Most recently, just 2 percent agreed that “US GDP will be substantially higher a decade from now than under the status quo," while 38 percent disagreed and 26 percent strongly disagreed (responses weighted by confidence). Most simply registered their judgments, but Richard Thaler, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics, was one of a few who offered brief comments. "Aside from the redistribution of wealth, hard to see this changing much," Thaler said.   

On the other hand, the panel was unanimous in saying that tax cuts would increase the debt — contrary to another GOP article of faith. (“It is Republican dogma that all deficits result from excessive spending, never from tax cuts,” Bartlett noted in USA Today.) Weighted by confidence, 100 percent agreed (56 percent strongly) that "U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio will be substantially higher a decade from now than under the status quo." 

Expert agreement on this issue is even more decisive than in the case of global warming. Past data and current models — every angle you can think of -- leads to the same conclusion: GOP tax dogma is a lie. Yet it’s still very likely that Republicans will act on it, sooner rather than later. The truth be damned.

What’s more, the public tends to trust Republicans on the economy.  Averaging NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls from 2011 through 2017, Democrats were trusted more than Republicans in dealing with health care by a margin of 11 percent, and they were trusted by a margin of 18 percent when it came to "looking out for the middle class." But when it came to "dealing with the economy," Republicans enjoyed nearly a six-point edge. This public reputation is not justified by the historical record, however, as documented in Eric Zuesse's book, "They're Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010." 

The truth is, Republicans talk a good game. This has been vividly illustrated in a number of recent segments of "MSNBC Live" with the financial journalists Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle, both of whom are decidedly data-oriented. They have repeatedly tried to get Republicans to explain and justify what they’re trying to do. While Republicans cannot adequately explain the gap between their claims and the economic data, they’re doggedly adept at their messaging. In late October, for example, before all the details of the GOP tax plan were released, they spoke with Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio. Although information was limited, Velshi said, all indications were "that the top 1 percent get 80 percent of the benefit of this tax plan right now." 

"I just don't agree with that,” Renacci said, but offered no data to support that claim. Instead, he had spin: “The problem is that again it's semantics," he said. "If you take business taxes, if you take pass-throughs, if you take corporation taxes ... when you reduce that tax, of course, it's going to end up looking like the 1 percent" are benefiting, he admitted. "But it's just not true. When you just take a look at taxpayers in general ... you're going to see that the goal here is to get middle American taxpayers with less taxes so they can take more home."  

Velshi, steeped in the data, wasn’t fooled. "So, Congressman, that's an interesting way to do that,” he said. “That's a little bit like saying if you just take away the fact that I don't have hair, I'm not really bald." 

That’s the GOP’s messaging in a nutshell. But it just might work. 

The lies Bartlett cites — repeated ad nauseam by Velshi and Ruhle’s guests — are sustained by extensive, well-funded propaganda efforts, but also by aspects of human psychology, sociology and culture. The ancient Greeks recognized two distinct ways of making sense of the world — logos, which made sense of how things work, and mythos, which made sense of what things mean. Confusing the two is a frequent source of trouble, and it’s far more common now than it was then. The more that logos challenges what conservatives want to believe — from Galileo to Darwin to climate change — the more invested in their mythos conservatives tend to become. And mythos gains much of its strength through language. 

In "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy" (my review here)cognitive linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio highlights the role of language in our fundamental understanding of what the economy even is, much less how it might be fixed. She found that conservatives have a much more consistent, widely-used set of metaphors that express their understanding, which has a relatively clear-cut moral message as well. Perhaps as a result, their understanding often passes as common sense. First, their metaphors reflect a view of the economy as something natural — think “business climate,” “money flow,” an economy that is "ailing” “growing,” “recovering,” “anemic,” “fragile," and so on — and hence best left alone. Second, conservatives describe the "why" of the economy as a moral enforcer, rewarding hard work and virtue and punishing those who fall short.  

Interventions — be they minimum wage laws, welfare state spending, even child labor laws, in the eyes of some — are thus seen as doubly wrong: They disrupt the basic nature of the economy, and subvert the moral lessons it is meant to enforce. The fact that every advanced modern economy violates both these preconceptions somehow never sinks in. Facts are from logos, after all.

Shenker-Osorio did find a progressive metaphorical model, but it’s much less widely used. First, as to what the economy is, it’s a human creation in motion, a vehicle (which can be “jump-started,” “revved up,” etc.), and its purpose is to take us where we want to go. This employs one of the most ancient metaphors in human history: life as a journey (hence, being "on the right or wrong track" or "stuck in a rut," for example). What she found, in short, is that progressives do have the wherewithal to create their own mythos — a mythos that’s actually in tune with the logos of how modern economies actually work. But it’s an uphill climb getting progressives to focus our attention on that task the way conservatives do.   

Given all that background, I wanted more insight into the tax-cut debate itself. There’s a lot going on at once, Shenker-Osorio told me, but a few things stand out as most important. “First, the fact that we're in the situation at all in which we're having an argument about taxes is 'shame on us,'” she said. You’re always in trouble “as soon as you allow the conversation to be about taxes, as opposed to being about the things that taxes pay for … schools and bridges and roads … you know, that stuff we kind of like about living in a modern world.

“When you're in a taxes frame, basically all that you're evoking is taxes, payments, forms, W-2s 1040s, H&R Block, and that's it," she went on. "The other things are eclipsed from view." As a result, you might even think you’re winning the argument — without ever noticing it’s not the right argument to be having in the first place. Instead of critiquing this or that tax cut, Shenker-Osorio said, “We could've been talking about, 'They want to starve schools, they want to take money from roads, they want to destroy bridges or make themselves wealthier.'” 

Not everyone overlooks this, of course. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put out a whole series of policy briefs under the heading, “The Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda,” explained as follows: 

Congressional Republicans this fall are poised to launch step one of a likely two-step tax and budget agenda: enacting costly tax cuts now that are heavily skewed toward wealthy households and profitable corporations, then paying for them later through program cuts mostly affecting low- and middle-income families.

 They followed with a series of briefs highlighting how the GOP would cut programs later that would leave most workers, women, children, the elderly, Latinos, African-Americans and people with disabilities worse off, as well as increasing homelessness and hardship, harming students and schools, and threatening food assistance and health programs — not to mention shortchanging infrastructure investments. That’s precisely the sort of conversation Shenker-Osorio says we ought to be having, and one we could be having that conversation right now, if every Democrat were following CBPP’s lead. 

This brings us to her second point. “We've also trapped ourselves in a useless conversation about who loves the economy best,” Shenker-Osorio said. Republicans have argued "forever and ever and ever that they love the economy best, and the way you make sweet love to the economy is give more money to rich people. And we've said, no, we love the economy best, and the way you make sweet love to the economy is by paying workers another 50 cents, or letting them join unions, or whatever the issue du jour is. But we've still agreed that the topic up for debate is who loves the economy best.” Despite all the real-world evidence referred to above, she concluded, “That's their brand strength. That is what people know them for.

“So, if the topic is who loves the economy best, and it's a white guy from the Chamber of Commerce and an African-American woman representing some community group, then she lost before the debate began, because of the topic.” Which again goes back to whom voters trust on the economy. That’s Trump’s argument in a nutshell: I’m rich. Make me president, and you’ll be rich, too! Sure, it’s illogical nonsense, but it’s pre-logical nonsense too, and that’s what makes it so powerful. 

Third, Shenker-Osorio talked about world-views and how human cognition works. “The most accurate description would be, ‘I’ll see it when I believe it,’ not the other way around,” she said. “People literally do not see things that do not fit inside the framework of ‘the way the world works.’”  

It’s harder to recognize this in debates about money, she said, but easier to recognize elsewhere. “So, for example, when people tell us they don't see racism, they believe that everybody is equal and everything’s on a level playing field; or they don't see sexism, they think women have already made it, and everything is equal. They don't see it because they don't believe that it is happening. So they're able to discount what to anyone else is an observable moment of bias.” 

The same thought process is at work in the economic realm as well, Shenker-Osorio says, where conservatives claim "that these kinds of tax cuts will have a stimulative effect because they believe in this theory of trickle-down [economics] and they're able to cherry-pick information or ignore information or spin information,” whatever they need to do to keep seeing what they already believe.

Returning to the basic metaphors described in her book, and the influence they have, Shenker-Osorio added a few more illustrative details. Perhaps the most important is the question of “the why of the economy, the purpose.” Republicans love to use the terminology "job creators," she observes, as opposed to "job makers" or "job suppliers," perhaps to suggest "that big-C  Creator in the sky. They're all selling indulgences at this point, through their Lord God the economy, and their high priest of Wall Street and the wealthy, so that we can keep the economy happy. It’s a beautiful self-contained system because it tells us you should reward good people, who are rich, and you know they're good people because they're rich. And you should punish the bad people, who are poor, and you know they’re bad because they’re poor.” They may be poor because they’re not trying, or because they’re committed some more intangible moral offense, “But either way, they've done something wrong.” 

So what should we do to fight back? What kinds of messaging, what kinds of arguments, will actually work? “This is going to sound ridiculous, given where we are,” Shenker-Osorio warns. “But when we test messages, the messages they end up winning out – and this made me laugh – is some permutation of ‘We can have nice things.’ ... In the richest country on earth, who is telling us that we can't have a world-class health care system that covers us all? Who is telling us that we can't have excellent schools that are up to the quality our children deserve? Whoever those people are, I don't know where they're from, but I'm from America, where we put a man on the moon and invented the Internet. I know that we can have nice things.”

But it’s not always such an easy shift to make, she warns, “to exit the conversation about scarcity, and about hard choices.” Progressives often try to win that conversation instead — and they’ve found many ways to try to do so. “There are a million permutations on this … like a year in prison costs this much, and a year in school cost that much. Or building [Trump's] wall costs that much, and money to pay for every person's health care costs that much.”

These are all arguments that make sense inside a limited framework, but they imply that "the reason to chose schools over prisons is because they're cheaper,” she says. “That is not the reason. The reason that we pick those other policies is not because they're the ones on clearance. It's because there the better policy.” 

A related point she makes is that “Americans have 99 problems and they don't want more.” Progressive approaches on the economy "tacitly reaffirm the sense that the bottom is falling out, and we’ve got to do something drastic,” Shenker-Osorio said. “We need to actually reaffirm the sense that actually, there's plenty of money,” which conservatives affirm all the time when it comes to spending hundreds of billions more on the military or national security.  

The question, in short, is not about how to cut corners and do everything on the cheap, but about what kind of world we want to have. There’s always enough money for that.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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