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Taxes: Say what you mean and mean what you say

I’m reminded as our political campaign rolls on toward Election Day that we must listen and read, speak and write carefully and critically. This week the focus has been on taxes, and it is important to make the distinction between taxes in general and income taxes in particular. Yes, Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were insulting and condescending. But bear in mind he said the 47% pay no income taxes. He did not say no taxes. With standard exemptions and deductions for dependents, mortgages, medical expenses, etc., many Americans pay no income tax (49%, according to one source; the Washington Post says 46%), but it is not a crime and it is not a sign that half the population is shirking its responsibilities. These people do pay sales and excise taxes, property taxes, etc. Even those living in abject poverty pay sales taxes in most states. Bottom line, most people in America pay taxes. So be aware when politicians or the media, intentionally or otherwise, conflate “income taxes” and “taxes” and make statements like “half of all Americans pay no taxes.”

A few days ago the Washington Post ran a much more elegant discussion of the subject that began:

At the heart of the debate over “the 47 percent” is an awful abuse of tax data.

This entire conversation is the result of a (largely successful) effort to redefine the debate over taxes from “how much in taxes do you pay” to “how much in federal income taxes do you pay?” This is good framing if you want to cut taxes on the rich. It’s bad framing if you want to have even a basic understanding of who pays how much in taxes.

I recommend it highly if you still don’t understand how the conversation is being manipulated.

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