Words Matter: ‘Taxes’ vs. ‘Investments’

The politics of meaning. Beginning a new series of articles charting how meaning is manipulated to serve political ideologies in books, news, media and movies.

Can you really believe everything you hear and read, even in a dictionary? (Image via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, February 7, 2015 – It’s been instructive over the last forty or fifty years to follow the changes in political dialogue, particularly as it’s expressed by politicians and bureaucrats laboring within the vast maw of the Federal government. The long accepted meaning behind key words and phrases has slowly, inexorably been eroded and altered during that period of time to provide organic support for left-wing and statist causes and ideologies.

A good example of this phenomenon has been the gradual redefinition of the terms “investment” or “investments” to serve as camouflage for the terms “tax,” “taxes” and “taxation.”

“Tax” and “Investment.” In media and politics, aren’t they really the same thing?

“Tax” and its various forms are well understood by most citizens under most political systems, dating back to ancient times. Broadly defined, a tax is a mandatory charge levied on individuals in a given political system whose purpose is to fund that system.

At least within functional to minimally-functional democracies, the taxes citizens pay are understood to be the most efficient means to fund a representative government, provide for the public safety and assure reasonably unimpaired commerce and freedom for all, at least within accepted limits.

Beyond this, taxes can also be levied to support additional, presumably agreed-upon key services for the citizens of a given entity. Familiar services in the U.S. today range from the construction of interstate highways to support for stable retirement and almost anything in between.

By 2015, however, we have to conclude that, at least on the Federal level, taxes are now levied on the taxpaying population to pay for whatever the government decides that it wants, needs, or should control.

Practically speaking, however, there’s a limit to how much taxation the average working person will put up with. Every dollar subtracted from every paycheck means that much less can be spent by an individual on either mandatory items (such as housing and food) or discretionary items (like a family vacation to Disney World). If at some point, taxes are perceived as taking away too much of a taxpayer’s discretionary income, taxpayers are likely to rebel.

The left-wing, statist solution to this potential problem is to subtly change the accepted terminology of the argument to manipulate the public into somehow perceiving certain new taxes as “investments,” thus deflecting attention away from the increasingly hated terminology of taxation.

George Orwell’s well-known novel, “1984,” popularized the word “doublespeak” as one way of defining this game of words. “Doublespeak,” according to a decently crisp Wikipedia definition,

…is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., ‘downsizing’ for layoffs, ‘servicing the target’ for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (for example, naming a state of war ‘peace’). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. Doublespeak is most closely associated with political language…

Italics above by the author. More succinctly put, doublespeak involves substituting new or different terms or terminology to replace generally accepted terms or terminology. The general objective is to conceal the truth or lead public attention away from it.

A feelgood word is like a spoonful of sugar: It helps the medicine go down.

Hence, the novel use of the word “investments” for “taxes,” a trick that was deployed early and often in the first Clinton Administration and later, although its use likely pre-dated Clinton I.

Here’s how this particular doublespeak game is played. If I’m paying taxes to the Federal government, that means that the government is taking some of my money away from me to pay for things I may or may not want to agree with. But if my money is being used for “investments,” well, that’s okay, because when I invest money, that usually means that I’ll get that money back eventually, plus a decent return on it besides.

But, with rare exceptions, when the government takes away a portion of our income, we don’t generally get a real return on it. The money simply goes into a huge pot and is spent wherever politicians and their friends ultimately decide it should be spend, no matter what the public is told. There’s no real return on this money, including things like Social Security, which is a wasting asset that will eventually become insolvent.

Today, when we pay our “taxes,” or see them deducted from our paychecks, we’ve become cynical enough to understand this disparity on some level. This causes us instinctively to become hostile to any mention of new taxes.

Government officials, bureaucrats and politicians understand this. So to disguise the imposition of new taxes, government bureaucrats and politicians re-label certain new taxes as investments.

When taxes are disguised by substituting the term “investments,” we instinctively let our guard down. Taxes bad. Investments good. It’s the magic of doublespeak. That’s because in the world of government, taxes and investments are two words describing the same action—the government helping itself to ever-larger portions of our formerly discretionary income.

How characterizing expenditures as “investments” disguises the fact that they’re new “taxes.”

Examples: In President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address to Congress, he pushed a vague plan to “increase” our “investments” in “critical infrastructure.” In other words, he claimed we need to spend more on things like roads, bridges and transportation. “Fine,” we say. “Our roads are pretty bad these days. Some of our old bridges look pretty scary. So yes, we certainly need to “invest” in that critical infrastructure.

But implicit in these “investments” is the need to raise money to accomplish them, i.e., raise taxes. For that reason, these proposed investments are really going to be funded by tax increases and not by the current amount of money theoretically available for such work.

Worse, note how the term “investments” is often used to describe “infrastructure improvements” as well as “education needs.” It’s a clear signal to union constituencies that such investments are, first and foremost, intended to fund construction and education projects that will either increase the salaries of union members in those trades and/or increase the number of union jobs.

All of these, of course, are government expenditures that are funded by taxes. They are not investments. They will produce no real return on the increased money we’ll be sending to the government, unlike real investments in stocks, bonds or real estate, from which we can generally expect some kind of reasonable return plus a return of our invested capital.

By using the term “investments” to describe certain “taxes,” politicians connote the same warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we see that our 401(k) plan went up five percent last month. But in this case, the politicians are describing an entirely different animal. They plan to spend these particular “investments” to buy votes and squander bigger budgets. But taxpayers will see no return on these investments because they are actually taxes, not investments.

It’s all pretty devious and pretty clever, we have to admit. But it’s all essentially dishonest as well, and our purpose in this series is to expose such systematic and systemic Washington dishonesty as one way of helping voters in 2016 and beyond vote in a more informed manner. To paraphrase the Bible—specifically John 8:32 in various translations, if we come to know the truth, the truth will set us free.

In the vernacular: In this series, we’re going to help you cut through the crap you read in the news, hear in the classroom, and see on network TV news. We think you can handle the truth.

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