Economy Tax VOX

When it comes to making tax cuts palatable, it's all about semantics

Top presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway has made an important rhetorical pivot: The Trump Administration may no longer be pushing for tax 'cuts' or even tax 'reform.' Its new goal is tax 'relief.' Why is this messaging change important?

Kellyanne Conway at a forum at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. on Dec. 1.
Charles Krupa/AP/File
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Top presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway has made an important rhetorical pivot: The Trump Administration may no longer be pushing for tax cuts or even tax reform. Its new goal is tax relief.

Here is what she said about President Trump on ABC’s This Week last Sunday:

“People want to know that they're going to get tax relief and he has promised that. We just hope the Democratic Senate will support his tax relief package the way the Democratic Senate in 2001 did for President Bush…. They passed tax relief for all Americans by June of that year. We hope the same happens here.”

Notice that Conway, a savvy political pollster in her pre-Trump life, repeated her “tax relief” trope three times in three sentences. This reframing of the 2017 tax bill as tax relief does harken back to the 2001 tax cut debate that she’d reenact.  And why not? It worked.

Her reframing may seem like semantic quibbling. But it is extremely important. A long line of academic research and real-world evidence shows people’s responses to tax policy (as well as most other things) is largely based on the way those issues are framed by advocates and opponents.

There are many examples. Think of the famous conservative effort to morph the estate tax into the death tax a couple of decades ago. Or the near-ubiquitous use of the misleading term “loopholes” by pols of both parties who don’t want to talk about eliminating popular tax subsidies.

In 2010, Columbia University psychology professor David Hardisty and colleagues published results of a fascinating experiment into how people respond to the framing of yet another tax issue.

Hardisty recruited test subjects who self-identified as Democrats, Republicans, or  independents. Then he presented them with a choice: They could buy a roundtrip airline ticket from New York to Los Angeles for $345 or they could pay $352 for the identical flight. And he told them the higher-priced ticket included a surcharge to help fund efforts to reduce carbon emissions. For half the participants, the extra price was described as a tax. For the other half, it was described as an offset (whatever that is).

Regardless of political affiliation, about half the respondents said they’d be willing to pay the higher price when it was described as an offset.  But it was a very different story when the extra fee was called a tax. While Democrats seemed indifferent to the label, only one-quarter of independents said they’d pay the tax—half as many as would pay the offset. And only 10 percent of Republicans said they’d pay the tax, compared to roughly half who would pay the offset.

And that brings us to Conway’s tax relief trope.

George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist and linguist who is sometimes described as the “father of framing.” Lakoff is an unapologetic liberal who has studied—with some admiration—the use of the phrase “tax relief” in that 2001 tax cut debate.

Lakoff says “tax relief” is a powerful example of how two simple words can create a dramatic narrative complete with a crime, a victim, a villain, a hero, and a rescue. It starts with the concept of taxes as an affliction from which we must be relieved. The rest of the story naturally flows from there—taxpayers are the victims, Democrats are the villains who imposed this burden, and President Trump and congressional Republicans are the heroes who will rescue us. All in two short words. 

As if that’s not bad enough for tax cut opponents, Lakoff also argues that negating a frame such as tax relief perversely serves to reinforce it. The title of his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” says it all. If I tell you not to think of a pachyderm, the first image that comes into your brain is, well, you know. In other words, the more that Democrats insist that a 2017 tax bill is not tax relief, the more they buttress the original label in people’s minds.  

Thus it is no surprise that Conway has begun the White House pivot to tax relief. Congressional Republicans still seem a bit behind the rhetorical curve—House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) remains more reform-focused than relief-minded. But don’t be surprised if over the next few months the big tax cut of 2017 takes on a new—or not so new-- identity.  

This story originally appeared on TaxVox.

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