Friday, July 22, 2011

Idiocy and Taxes

Grover Norquist has a rather silly op-ed in the NY Times today.  I'm just going to pick on this:

Others have tried to redefine “tax increase,” specifically by arguing that eliminating a tax credit, exclusion or deduction in order to rake in more tax revenue should not count as a tax hike. The theory is that any dollar the government failed to take from you in taxes had in fact been given to you in a spending program. By this reasoning, the deduction-killing Alternative Minimum Tax is not a tax hike — a cruel joke on the millions of Americans who get hit by it every year. When a mugger passes you on the street leaving you unmolested, he did not in fact give you your wallet. 

 There's no difference between tax credits, exclusions, deductions and spending.  Norquist is playing semantics.  The government achieves the exact same result whether it gives a credit, exclusion, or deduction for something like buying a house or if it simply reimburses the amount spent later as spending.  But, semantically, we get to call this two different things.  So if I pay $1000 less a year in taxes do to the mortgage interest deduction, this is the exact same as if the government sends me a check for $1000 to reimburse me on the interest paid in the home owners mortgage subsidy (admittedly, there probably would be some difference in when payments arrive, but this is over technical).  But one goes under the tax line, the other the spending line.  Norquist's views are either completely insane, or simply semantic juggling, either way, they're not worth paying attention to.

This points to a deeper issue, though one I'm having trouble conjuring the right words for.  Basically, this is a problem with mistaking the words used to describe something with the thing being described.  In this case, we all have equal duties to the society that we are a member of because this protects our individualism (more on this topic later).  However, because we choose to promote certain actions we choose to subsidize them, thus making the burden unequal when we believe people are acting in a meritorious manner.  We do this in two ways, most countries do this with direct subsidies, which is spending.  We do it via tax breaks.  The result is the same, we change the formally even proportionate burden into a disproportionate one.  But, since we imbue many terms with virtue as well, this basic equivalency is lost and we get hung up on the semantics without walking back a couple of steps to see what is really going on.  I think there's a story in here somewhere about symbolic action, but I don't think I'm the one to tell it.  In any case, my main point is that this whole argument is about mistaking symbols for reality and thus not even trying to figure out what the reality is.  The symbols have become in this case what is really real, and whatever lies beneath is simply being ignored.

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