Words into weapons

Posted Feb. 01, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.

President Obama’s use of the words “hope” and “change” to effectively win the presidency, show the power of words. Unfortunately, some have been turned into epithets, turning much of the public against effective government programs.

Take “entitlements” for example. Conservative speakers and writers commonly refer to Social Security and Medicare as entitlements, implying disapproval or dismay about their funding. Some have begun to disparage health care reform as a “new entitlement” and as “moving us in the direction of the European welfare entitlement mentality.”

Of course Social Security and Medicare entitle the elderly to retirement and health benefits, just as the Declaration of Independence guaranteed all Americans the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the Constitution granted the rights of free speech and press and assembly. All are perfectly legal entitlements, and if costly they must be paid for, including whatever health benefits may be enacted. Of course, there is little mention that workers pay into Social Security and Medicare. Even though it is not enough to keep the safety net programs afloat, these payments diminish the power of the entitlement epithet.

Another word-weapon is “redistributive taxation” or “spread the wealth around.” Mr. Obama created a brief campaign furor when he told “Joe, the Plumber” that it’s good for everybody. In fact, it is good and legal and broadly acceptable. The progressive or graduated income tax has been the law of the land for generations. And so have legal and respected programs such as Medicaid and welfare, which benefit the poor and the middle class. Inheritance taxes also tend to spread the wealth around. All are redistributive mechanisms that have buoyed the U.S. economy for generations.

Taxes in general have been given a pejorative twist in the widely used term “tax relief.” George W. Bush started using the term as soon as he became president, and it appeared several times in his 2004 State of the Union address. George Lakoff explained its significance in his book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” He said it was a matter of “framing,” as when Richard Nixon said, “I’m not a crook,” and it put that word into people’s minds. “Tax relief” frames the debate because relief means there is an affliction, an afflicted party and a reliever. The reliever is thus a hero and anyone who tries to stop the reliever is a villain.

That’s why tax relief is popular; tax reform is not.

Ronald Reagan used a similar approach when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is our problem.” He set the tone that taxes are bad and tax relief is good and that taxpayers always spend their money more wisely than the government could spend it. Think huge Wall Street bonuses vs. education and police protection.

So watch what they say as well as what they do. And forget about the old proverb that says “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

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