Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Marginal tax rates redux

Today brings a reminder of the dangers of talking about income tax rates as if they applied to people rather than to portions of income (a subject we’ve covered before). Here is Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defending a proposal to cut rates in all five of Wisconsin’s income tax brackets, rather than only in the lowest three brackets:

The tax cuts for high earners are a concern for some Senate Republicans, Fitzgerald said. But Vos said he had no problem with them.

“I think everybody who pays income taxes deserves a tax cut,” he said.

Of course, cutting rates in the lowest three brackets does provide a tax cut for everyone who pays income taxes: high earners enjoy the same rate cut on the portions of their income that fall in the affected brackets. Vos’s statement—variations of which have become a core conservative talking point on tax policy—is carefully crafted to imply (but not entail) that this isn’t the case, and that high earners will be left out unless the top two brackets also see rate cuts. This move is facilitated by talking about tax rates as if they applied directly to people: by this fuzzy logic, no rate cut for the top two brackets means no rate cut for people in the top two brackets, and we are on the slippery slope to “class warfare”.

This kind of misleading talk about taxes is so ingrained that journalists apparently never think to challenge it. Vos’s statement closes a section in the AP article quoted above. Even the self-styled truth-tellers at Politifact indirectly quote, without comment, Wisconsin State Rep. Dale Kooyenga making the same disingenuous point in an investigation of his claims about the state’s tax code.

Politicians of both parties frequently claim to want to “fix” the tax code. A good first step would be to fix the way we talk about it.


Framing the NRA

A suggestion for how to talk about the NRA’s current leadership, in light of the organization’s cynical and unrepentantly gundamentalist press conference this morning: as a failed partner for peace.

The term partner for peace highlights the NRA’s standing as an organization apart from the public and from the government bodies that might enact meaningful gun reform: you don’t need a partnership with those who are already in your group. It frames the failed partner as untrustworthy but possibly improvable, as needing to undergo a significant internal change in order to become a reliable partner; failure to change can then be taken as a sign of bad faith, hostility, or unsalvageable corruption. It is no accident that governments use phrases like this as euphemistic terms of abuse for those they deem to be terrorists but whom they must work with politically. Finally, partner for peace places the focus on peace, which connotes an absence of weaponry, rather than on safety or security, which are intimately tied to the rhetoric of unfettered gun ownership.

It is clear today that the NRA, under its current leadership, is unwilling to be a partner for peace. It’s time for those who seek meaningful gun reform to say as much.

Gun reform

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much has been written about the vexed linguistic opposition between gun rights and gun control in which our national discussion about guns is predominantly framed. The phrase gun rights, which has (apparently) become increasingly common in the past few decades, brilliantly preempts criticism of gundamentalism, framing any firearms restrictions whatsoever as an affront to liberty. Gun control, meanwhile, is rife with negative connotations and is especially self-undermining in light of the rhetorical ascendancy of gun rights: rights are things to be defended, not controlled. That the matter is almost universally framed in the media as one of gun rights vs. gun control is, as usual, a gross oversimplification, and a deeply misleading one in its implication that one cannot simultaneously support both gun rights and gun control. More to the point, this framing is a losing proposition for those who seek meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in America (restrictions that the Supreme Court’s Heller majority explicitly leaves room for in its original, if not originalist, interpretation of the Second Amendment).

So, a suggestion: let’s talk about gun reform. Reform has none of the bad connotations of control: on the contrary, reform is what Serious People nowadays propose in response to all sorts of pressing and difficult problems (see: school reform, entitlement reform, etc.). Unlike with control, the understood object of reform is not guns themselves, but the way in which our society deals with them. Reform frames its outcome not merely as a change from what came before, but as an undeniable improvement. Gun reform thus not only avoids taking the bait of gun rights, but redirects attention away from the false dichotomy of gun rights vs. gun control.

At present, however, gun reform is all but absent from the national discussion. Google searches today return 5,060,000 hits for “gun rights”, 13,800,000 for “gun control”, and just 286,000 for “gun reform”. There is thus a clear opening for those who support restrictions on gun ownership to claim the phrase gun reform as their own, and thereby to disentangle themselves from the unfavorable linguistic framing of the current debate.

Dog days at Wayne State

A few links and thoughts on the ongoing administrative assault on faculty tenure (and the corresponding status for academic staff) at Wayne State University (full disclosure: I was a tenure-track assistant professor in the Wayne State English Department and Linguistics Program from 2008 to 2011):



  • The administration’s July 17 proposal unambiguously guts tenure protections. It gives the university president sole discretion to initiate the termination process (section B.2) for an explicitly unlimited range of reasons (section B.1.a; “shall include but not be limited to” is the key phrase), as well as to hear and decide any appeals (section B.3). The July 17 proposal contains no provision for peer review or any other faculty involvement in the detenuring and termination process.
  • The administration is nonetheless adamant that its proposal does not do away with tenure. This may be true, in a narrow, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose sense. That is, the university can keep the tenure process for faculty in place while eliminating all of its protections and guarantees: junior faculty would still have to earn “tenure” in order to keep their jobs, but would be at-will employees every step of the way. This is tenure in name only. It is also a useful demonstration of the difference between lying and dishonesty: the administration can say truthfully that it is retaining tenure for faculty, while omitting the fact that it is seeking to rob the term of all recognized meaning.
  • The rationale for the proposed change is ever-shifting between a desire to terminate “unproductive” faculty and a desire to eliminate faculty in unpopular or otherwise undesirable programs. The two goals are entirely independent: faculty “performance” is wholly unconnected to the matter of program offerings. The two are nonetheless rhetorically linked by the administration, in a classic bit of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down polemical sleight-of-hand: some faculty are bad, thus we must be able to fire any faculty member at any time for any reason.
  • Bound up with the rhetoric above is a persistent effort to preemptively marginalize anyone who might question it. Despite the lack of any checks on its firing power in the July 17 proposal, the administration assures us that it is only going after bad apples. The Detroit News opines, in its editorial linked above, that “Faculty members who do good work have little to fear from the changes.” And the only reason to oppose warrantless domestic surveillance is the fear that your own misdeeds will be exposed, right? This is a rhetorical staple of oppressive regimes; the administration and its champions in the local press should be embarrassed to touch this argument with a ten-foot pole.
  • A detail not much remarked on in press accounts: section B.1.c of the July 17 proposal lists as grounds for termination “forcibly interrupting the normal daily teaching, research or administrative operation of the University or directly inciting others to engage in such actions”. In other words, going on strike or engaging in any other sort of traditionally protected act of protest (or encouraging others to do the same) would be grounds for detenuring and termination.
  • Finally, the local press’s unconditional support of the administration’s position can be traced at least in part to its framing of the university as a business (a frame reinforced by the new university president’s past as an auto executive). In this frame, administrators are viewed as business managers who need business-like control over every aspect of the university. Anything less undercuts their authority as managers; their managerial wisdom is taken for granted. Wayne State, of course, is a not-for-profit research university and a public institution supported (less and less) by taxpayers. If its administrators were viewed not as business managers but as government bureaucrats, they might come in for less-than-total sympathy from the media. We might instead hear calls for the university to rein in and minimize its substantial administrative overhead costs in order to concentrate its resources on teaching and research, the latter especially being an area in which academic peers, and not administrators, have the relevant “managerial” wisdom.

As noted above, the administration’s July 17 proposal has likely been amended in the negotiating process, though we don’t know the details. It is, however, hard to see how anything other than a full withdrawal of that proposal’s section B (or other changes amounting to the same) could reasonably preserve tenure protections for Wayne State faculty (and the corresponding protections for academic staff). If anything like the above-linked language is put in force, it will likely spell the end of Wayne State as a viable research university, as “productive” faculty depart for institutions that grant them the rights and protections they need in order to do their work unmolested by administrative caprice. The continued existence of those protections at other institutions, of course, can’t be taken for granted: as Coleman Young memorably put it, “Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” We appear to be in for a long fight.

Income floors (or, Taxation: it’s not personal)

As Robert Reich reminds us this week, the egalitarian reality of marginal tax rates is largely obscured by the manner in which tax policy proposals are articulated by politicians and reported by the media. This has various bad outcomes. It can lead people to misapprehend the monotonic nature of after-tax income as a function of pre-tax income, as with the silliness of those who attempt to tune their income to exactly $249,999. Moreover, one can draw a straight line from the kind of tax talk that dominates discussion these days to the cries of “class warfare” that emanate from the right whenever an increase in the top marginal rate is contemplated.

This is, in essence, a linguistic problem. Marginal tax rates apply to portions of income, but they are almost invariably described, reported on, and reasoned about as if they applied to people. Thus, we get sentences like this one from the New York Times this week: “Mr. Obama said his proposal this week to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for families making up to $250,000 would allow his hosts, Jason and Ali McLaughlin, to save as much as $2,000 in taxes next year.” By framing the cut as being “for families” with a particular property (earning less than $250,000), rather than “for portions of income” with a particular property (being under $250,000), the report invites the false inference that families making more than $250,000 wouldn’t enjoy the same rate-cut extension on the relevant portion of their income. In reality, of course, the extension would apply to every family’s income up to $250,000: this is simply how marginal taxation works.

It is easy to imagine reasons why we talk about taxes in this ultimately misleading way. It can be politically expedient, as when Obama trumpets the savings a particular representative family would reap. It may be seen as an indispensable dumbing-down measure, of the local-TV-news “…But how does this affect YOU?” variety. It certainly grabs one’s attention better than “portions of income”, a dry mouthful at best. But much is lost in the translation.

We need a better way to talk about portions of income and the marginal tax rates that apply to them. As always, we need not just new terminology but a useful metaphor in which to ground its logic. Here is a suggestion: let’s talk about “income floors”. Think of income as a building: the higher the income, the taller the building. Various nice inferences automatically follow from this metaphor, owing in part to its grounding in the ubiquitous “more is up” metaphor. If you have a relatively high income, then you have a relatively tall building, with all its attendant advantages: nice view, distance from the street, etc. Even very high incomes have low portions; even a skyscraper has a second floor. Marginal tax rates apply to portions of income, i.e., to different ranges of floors in the building. Increasing the rate on high income floors has no effect on the lower floors: if you have a two-story building, you’re not affected, and even if you have a skyscraper, some sizable chunk of your building won’t be subject to the increase (i.e., the lower portion of your building won’t shrink). Anything affecting low income floors, good or bad, affects floors that everyone has and affects them equally. Anything affecting high income floors affects only some floors that only some people have, leaving their (and others’) lower floors untouched. This metaphor reflects the reality of marginal taxation far better than our dominant mode of discussion, which treats tax rates as if they applied uniformly to entire buildings.

By better reflecting the facts of marginal taxation, income floors and the income-as-building metaphor make it easier to understand the implications of particular policy proposals. The metaphor confers no obvious advantage on any faction in debates on tax policy; rather, it clarifies the terms of debate, in stark contrast to the reality-obscuring, highly personal, and often inflamed talk of tax rates applying to people. Like all metaphors, it omits a lot: for instance, it says nothing about the uses to which government puts tax revenues, thus preventing us from drawing any associated inferences. But it also gives the lie to the notion, so often propounded by those who rail against “class warfare”, that removing the top ten floors of a skyscraper might somehow turn it into a three-story walkup.

It’s the wrong mapping, essentially

The Megyn Kelly–Bill O’Reilly conversation about Friday’s unconscionable pepper spraying incident at UC Davis has now gone viral (see video here), and Kelly has, unsurprisingly, garnered the lion’s share of criticism for her meme-ready comment that pepper spray “is a food product, essentially.” (We all look forward to the inevitable segment in which Kelly gamely downs a slice of pizza doused with the stuff.)

Not to be outdone, O’Reilly counters later in the discussion with his own howler:

“I don’t think we have the right to Monday-morning quarterback the police.”

If O’Reilly’s comment lacks the patented Fox News mix of shock value and dismissiveness favored by Kelly, it more than makes up for it in the deftness of its metaphorical sleight-of-hand. Setting aside the troubling framing of public outrage at police brutality as a special right, explicitly enumerated only so that O’Reilly can, in the same breath, deny it to us—to say nothing of the vexed relationship between freedom and rights in right-wing political discourse—what makes O’Reilly’s football metaphor so pernicious is the fact that it applies the wrong metaphorical mapping to police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect.

O’Reilly would have us be spectators, imagining ourselves in the role of the police and unjustifiably complaining about perceived deficiencies in the execution of a task whose actual demands we cannot understand. A more apt, if still imperfect, metaphor would have us as referees, the agents with the ultimate authority to enforce the rules of fair play. Notice the very different roles played by the UC Davis students in these two metaphors: if we are Monday-morning quarterbacks, then we are invited to take on the perspective of the police and thus view the students as our opponents; if we are referees, then we are neutral arbitrators who must place the students and the police on an equal footing.

Metaphors run deep, and O’Reilly’s flawed football mapping will only further entrench the repugnant notion that student protestors are a public enemy. Perhaps, though, we can embrace the football talk for good ends: while we can’t play Monday-morning quarterback, we can examine the video replay, call penalties, and issue ejections.

No denying it

The UC Berkeley administration’s absurd overreaction to the Occupy movement on its campus (well documented on YouTube and elsewhere) has, perhaps unsurprisingly, produced a Nixonian, doth-protest-too-much linguistic blunder to go along with it. Here are the chancellor, provost, and vice chancellor for student affairs, as quoted in the Daily Cal last week:

It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience.

Setting aside the problematic (to put it mildly) nature of the second sentence’s semantic content, there is a basic pragmatic, rhetorical difficulty here: denial names its object, and calling something by name makes it discursively and cognitively salient. To deny that an action constitutes non-violent civil disobedience is to make your listener start thinking about non-violent civil disobedience. As an argumentation strategy, this is about as weak and self-defeating as it gets. As Nixon could attest, declaring that you’re not a crook simply makes people associate you with the word crook. Likewise, declaring that linking arms is not non-violent civil disobedience just makes people associate linking arms with non-violent civil disobedience (an association that doesn’t require much of a mental leap to begin with).

This is pretty elementary Don’t Think of an Elephant territory: if only Birgeneau et al. had bothered to stop by one of George Lakoff’s classes (on their own campus!), they might have learned this very basic linguistic lesson. Maybe after their refresher on the free speech movement…