Thursday, March 26, 2015

Is the Word "Taxpayers" Politically Loaded (3/26/15)

Tax Professionals commonly refer to the U.S. tax paying public as "taxpayers."  The word (and its singular iteration, "taxpayer') is strewn, perhaps unthinkingly, around in judicial opinions.  We even do that when those "persons"/"taxpayers" opt out of the U.S. tax system or some part of it.  Does the word diminish the fact that when the "taxpayer" is an individual, it ignores the humanity of the person or the importance of the person -- not the taxpayer -- to our myth of who we are as a nation?  Is the word taxpayers a loaded term?  See Elizabeth Stoker Bruening, Dear Politicians, Stop Calling People "Taxpayers" (New Republic), here.

Though addressing people as “taxpayers” is common enough to appear politically neutral, it tends to carry more argumentative weight than it’s typically credited with. The House budget is full of examples of seemingly straightforward deployments of the term which are, upon closer inspection, clearly furthering a particular ideology. “There are too many scenarios these days in which Washington forgets that its power is derived from the ‘consent of the governed,’” the plan reads in one instance of the term’s use. “It forgets that its financial resources come from hard-working American taxpayers who wake up every day, go to work, actively grow our economy and create real opportunity.” In other words, Americans’ taxes are parallel with taxpayers' consent, suggesting that expenditures that do not correspond to an individual’s will are some kind of affront. The report goes on to argue that   
food stamps, public housing assistance, and development grants are judged not on whether they achieve improved health and economic outcomes for the recipients or build a stronger community, but on the size of their budgets. It is time these programs focus on core functions and responsibilities, not just on financial resources. In so doing this budget respects hard-working taxpayers who want to ensure their tax dollars are spent wisely. 
Put simply, taxpayers should get what they pay for when it comes to welfare programs, and not be overcharged. But, as the Republican authors of this budget know well, the beneficiaries of welfare programs tend to receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes, because they are in most cases low-income. The “taxpayers” this passage has in mind, therefore, don’t seem to be the recipients of these welfare programs, but rather those who imagine that they personally fund them. By this logic, the public is divided neatly into makers and takers, to borrow the parlance of last election’s Republicans. 
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Whereas "taxpayers" is strewn throughout political documents, “people” is associated with populist and revolutionary movements, and not for nothing. Power to the people, the evergreen revolutionary slogan trumpeted by popular fronts around the world, has a ring that power to the taxpayers does not precisely because it demands an inclusive view of public goods. The same could be said about the first line of the U.S. Constitution: "We the Taxpayers" would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation. So let's leave "taxpayer" to the IRS and remove it from everyday speech. With every thoughtless repetition of the word, we’re carrying political water.

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