The terminology used to frame arguments can have crucial impacts on how those arguments play out in the public domain. For example, in the post-Roe v Wade era, “pro-life” has been a particularly masterful public marketing frame for one set of beliefs surrounding a provocative topic, in that it forced those in opposition to frame their own soundbite arguments from problematic “pro-death” or “anti-life” standpoints, or to shift the frame of argument away from “life” completely, focusing instead on “choice” as the issue in play. Recently, “Ground Zero Mosque” similarly came to be used as powerful short-hand for a complicated issue. “Oh, sure, freedom of religion is important, but, wow, a mosque at Ground Zero?? How can anyone support that?!?”
In these and so many other cases, peoples’ understanding of the root issues can be compromised by unthinking dependence on buzzwords, and passive acquiescence to the easy talking points that our establishment News-As-Entertainment Industry and the shoot ’em up Wild Wild Web feed us all so readily. Today, we seem to once again be smack in the middle of another media cycle where clever framing words are diluting the real issues of debate, with “tax cuts for the rich” becoming an increasingly common tag-line online, on the air and in print. When media figures and politicians frame the complex issues surrounding the expiring (so-called) “Bush-era tax cuts” simply as a matter of whether one is for or against “tax cuts for the rich,” then they’re subtly steering people in a certain policy direction: “Of course! It’s wrong to cut the taxes of corporate fat cats, bloated political plutocrats, and capitalist greed-heads! Let’s stick it to them instead, because they can afford to pay!”
But that’s not really what’s happening here.
Some history: the” tax cuts for the rich,” as well as the tax cuts for everybody else, actually took place in 2001 (with the passage of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, EGTRRA) and in 2003 (with the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act , or JGTRRA). EGTRRA was passed in the summer of 2001, in an effort to put annual government surpluses back into the pockets of the citizens who had paid them, as opposed to sitting on the surpluses for the proverbial rainy day. History quickly demonstrated that the latter approach would probably have been the wiser (though less popular) one, as the rainiest of all rainy days (September 11, 2001) came soon thereafter. The aftermath of that terrible dark day ultimately led to massive global financial crashes and multiple wars, which quickly and significantly over-burdened Federal revenue streams, contributing to growing deficit and debt. JGTRRA, in its turn, was in response to those post-September 11 economic doldrums, providing a relief of tax burdens that were designed to stimulate economic growth.
Again, you can argue whether that was wise fiscal policy or not, but the fact of the matter is this: these two Acts were signed into law seven and nine years ago, with diabolical expiration dates that put the onus for future tax increases smack into the middle of the likely-next President’s term, which is where we stand today; with no explicit Federal action, the Acts’ sunset provisions kick in, and the tax laws return to where they were before the Acts were passed. But up until now, we have all been personal fiscal beneficiaries of those tax cuts for nearly a decade, if we have earned wages during that time. So the core tax policy at stake with regard to EGTRRA and JGTRRA’s looming expiration date has but three possible outcomes:
- Let the terms of the Acts expire for everybody, so that everybody experiences a tax increase next year over what they’ve been paying for seven years.
- Let the terms of the Acts expire for nobody, so that nobody experiences a tax increase next year over what they’ve been paying for seven years.
- Let the terms of the Acts expire only for those above a certain household income (say $250,000), so that only households making more than that threshold see a tax increase next year over what they’ve been paying for seven years.
So where are the “tax cuts for the rich”? It looks instead like what we’re talking about here is either tax increases for the rich, or tax increases for everybody, or tax increases for nobody. The double negative associated with “not canceling the expiring tax cuts” (e.g. do we or do we not minus the minus tax rate?) is leading this argument to be framed in terms of the wealthy getting some new break on the backs of the middle class. But in reality, the best break that anybody gets out of this deal is that their taxes won’t increase. It’s not like we get to go back in time to 2001 and 2003, press the “re-do” button, and eliminate the personal financial benefits that every wage-earner in the United States received over the past decade from these tax cuts, even if those personal financial benefits led us, collectively, to what some see as the brink of economic ruin on a macro basis.
And so this is how the issue should be framed in the media and by our elected officials: “Do we or do we not increase taxes over where they stand today, for some or for all of our citizens, in a time of catastrophic National debt, high joblessness, and stagnant economic prospects?” If you place the highest priority on alleviating debt, then you’d probably conclude that the right thing to do is to “increase the taxes on everybody.” If you place the highest priority on stimulating a stagnant economy, then you’d probably say the right thing to do is the “increase the taxes on nobody.” The thing is, you can’t have it both ways, and couching the debate for political or commercial reasons as “tax cuts for the rich” is simply cynical sloganeering designed to curry votes and viewership, not to fix anything from an economic standpoint.
We’d be in a better place as a Nation, politically, socially, and economically, if we didn’t let such cynical sloganeering frame our most pressing arguments.