Sunday, February 7, 2016

IT’S A TRAP! SPEAKING THEIR LANGUAGE PART I

The call:
This is a genuine question. This is a real question. If Bernie Sanders is the nominee there will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent to say every vote he’s taken, and to say he wants to raise your taxes. He just said the other night on the forum, honestly, I will raise your taxes.

And the response:

And there will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent against Hillary Clinton, and they will say the same thing about her. What Bernie Sanders can do, speaking with integrity and credibility and an authenticity that Secretary of State Clinton can’t, is marshal that political revolution even before he’s elected, which is to mobilize, and this will be an election of mobilization not persuasion, mobilize millions of people to ramp up their giving to him and be un-bought and liberated to advance bold ideas.

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure watching Chris Hayes banter back and forth with other political policy wonks on his show, often playing devil’s advocate, pointing out the obvious elephant in the room. Listening to The Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel respond to his question, I am struck by the utter simplicity of her initial point: the attacks will be the same regardless of who wins the nomination. I am reminded of this little nugget from a piece I wrote just after the 2012 election:

When the Bush tax cuts were originally supposed to sunset in 2010, the Republicans played their tried and true “tax and spend liberal” card to flip the switch and claim that allowing the tax cuts to expire was in fact Obama raising taxes. A clear majority of the country was not in favor of extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, but Bush & Co. were crafty enough to design the tax cuts as a reduction of rates across the board. The tax cuts for the lower tax brackets were a pittance next to the windfall for the 1%, but tethering the two together allowed Republicans to push the idea that Obama would be “raising taxes” on everyone.

The “tax and spend liberal” narrative that I mention above has been used in every single election cycle that I have witnessed. It isn’t particularly concerned with what or how much those taxes specifically are, or who it is that will pay them (or avoid paying them). The narrative persists even when candidates who have pledged not to raise taxes renege on their pledge, and – raise taxes. It’s a conflict narrative – liberals raise taxes, conservatives do not. Democrats expand government, Republicans shrink government. Vote for more taxes or less taxes, vote for more government or less. Of course, a little comparative research into how these two parties allocate our taxes quickly reveals that this who spends more narrative is nonsense. Republicans have even taken to attacking other Republicans for not being true conservatives, in a desperately cynical attempt to distance themselves from the “big government” crony capitalist policies of recent Republican administrations.

Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is a well known recent example of this narrative, but the mythos of it tracks all the way back to the Boston Tea Party: the quintessential anti-taxation protest that sparked the Revolutionary War, and the ideological anchor for the Tea Party movement. Here’s the thing: the “destruction of the tea” as it was referred to, was a “no taxation without representation” protest, not simply anti-tax. Colonists with no representation in the British Parliament were being taxed without their consultation or consent. The Tea Act of 1773 actually cut taxes on British tea with the objective of undermining the lucrative sale of smuggled tea by colonists, leaving only minimal (but highly symbolic) tariffs in place. Significantly more complicated than tax or no tax.

While the narrative has most commonly been employed as a Republican talking point to universally discredit Democrats, candidate Barrack Obama famously pledged not to raise taxes on households earning less than $250,000 during the 2008 election cycle. He was joined in 2008 by Hillary Clinton who has now doubled down on the pledge in 2016. During recent debates the narrative has been used to discredit Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals by insinuating that his policies would levy high taxes on the middle class. During the recent CNN Iowa Town hall, Anchor Chris Cuomo characterizes Bernie’s single payer Medicare for all proposal as “one of the biggest tax hikes in history” and goes on to question Bernie, not once, but three times (paraphrasing): “What about the idea that you’re bringing back the era of big government, and making it bigger than ever?”

Cuomo’s heavy handed initial formulation of this “question” even offers former President Clinton (with obvious implications) as a direct foil to Sanders:

Right. Senator, then the pushback becomes how you pay. Now, in this room, you’re preaching to the converted somewhat, right? These are presumptively Democrats. But, you will hear people say that your paying for it is actually punitive. You’re going to punish people who make money, you’re going to punish the financial district, you’re going to punish and wind up changing the idea of an open and free economy ’cause you’re going to punish them for speculating. Which means they won’t speculate as much, which means you won’t get as much activity. And, if you do a checklist of how you pay for everything, what you’re doing is amassing the biggest government ever, after President Clinton said the era of big government was over, seems like Bernie Sanders is saying, not only it’s over, I’m going to do it bigger than ever.

Wow. What a pile on. Sanders did an admirable job of responding to Cuomo’s long-winded commentary, but is there an alternative to speaking their language? “But just to be clear, you are going to raise taxes to do this?” “Yes, we will raise - we will raise the - we will raise taxes, yes, we will. But...” As Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi famously exclaims, “It’s a TRAP!” The question is intended to draw Sanders into a narrative specifically designed to be beyond his control. While I applaud the Sanders campaign for coming at these issues head on, courageously redefining (or is it simply accurately defining?) and reappropriating terms commonly used to discredit and defame (socialist, revolution, electability, etc.), I do believe there could be more emphasis on the introduction of narratives that have not been pre-defined by the opposition.




For example: you get what you pay for. When the Kucinich campaign put forward a not-for-profit single payer Medicare for all proposal in 2004, the core of their narrative was to point out that the health insurance industry makes their profits not by providing health care, but rather by denying coverage. So the underlying problem is not simply cost, but that you are actually paying the insurance industry to deny you health care. You get what you pay for.

Rather than taking a defensive posture within a conflict narrative designed to constrain the dialogue, why not script a different narrative entirely? Maybe talk about Social Security (taxes) raided to fund emergency appropriations for the Iraq War, in attempts to validate a bogus privatization campaign by jeopardizing program solvency? Or how ’bout the majority of taxes allocated for research & development being used to subsidize the weapons industry rather than to find cures for cancer, aids, ebola, etc.? Or maybe taxes used to subsidize the destruction of food in order to stabilize market price, rather than as an incentive to feed the hungry. Taxes used to subsidize the fossil fuel and meat industries to perpetuate a myth of profitability, masking their true costs, both financially and in terms of the continuation of life on our planet. You get what you pay for.

I prefer this narrative (and this is just one possible alternative narrative), because it tracks back to the idea that taxes are supposedly collected in order to pay for something we want instead of defaulting to the idea that taxes are simply some kind of punitive measure forced on the citizenry, a penalty we pay for the privilege of living in the United States. Our government may currently operate like an oligarchy, a plutocracy, but it was clearly not intended to be a monarchy where we all pay fealty to some oppressive overlord. If our government is truly of the people, by the people, for the people, then we must be clear that our system of taxation should benefit us.

“I don’t see how you can be serious about raising working and middle-class families’ incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them—no matter what the taxes will pay for.” I could give Clinton the benefit of the doubt here, and just attribute her rhetorical commentary to a lack of vision in terms of how
our system of taxation should benefit us. Maybe she actually can’t imagine how pooling our resources will reduce our individual costs, how standing together protects us from the predatory practices of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries? If she really is as versed in the particulars of universal health care as she claims, I’m pretty sure she understands this. And this is why it is so disturbing that she cynically chooses to go with the “tax and spend liberal” narrative here.

Our government splits spending into two categories, mandatory and discretionary. So called entitlement programs (Medicare, Social Security, etc.) fall under mandatory spending, this money will be spent, it is not simply an option if it turns out we have enough cash on hand. The Republican (& Democrat?) personal responsibility narrative would have us believe that everything should be discretionary spending, on the budgetary chopping block. The government can’t spend money it doesn’t have. But this is ridiculous on a couple levels. One – our government is actually spending money it “doesn’t have” all the time. That’s just how it works. That is why we pay taxes – to give our  government money it doesn’t have. And two – this isn’t like an individual buying a flat screen TV or some fancy new shoes, we are talking about people’s lives here.

Thom Hartmann wrote a piece month’s ago pointing out that the question isn’t if we are going to spend the money on health care, it is how we are going to spend it, and who is going to get paid. This isn’t about personal responsibility or fiscal responsibility, and it’s not about hard choices and self-sacrifice, it’s ultimately about who is going to control our tax dollars and what we choose to spend them on. Do we want perpetual war (more than 50% of our taxes)? Do we want to continue subsidizing industries that are destroying our planet? Do we want to continue sinking our health care dollars into an insurance industry that profits from denying us health care? How ’bout a pharmaceutical industry profit model that prioritizes illness over wellness? Do we allow 1%, whether in Republican or Democratic guise, to continue dictating austerity policy to us with catastrophic results, or do we stand up and take back our government and our taxes?
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Related articles:
Hillary Clinton’s no-tax pledge is Republican policy sprinkled with Third Way politics
by Jon Green

These Quakers Are Asking Tougher Questions Than Many in the Press by Lee Fang
The Most Disingenuous Attack on Bernie Yet by Thom Hartmann
Bernie Sanders for President – The Nation

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