Spin Art

Vocabulary question: When your weird Uncle Mortimer left you all that money, the tax people who work for your other uncle — for Uncle Sam, that is — took part of it back. What is the name of the tax that gave them the right to do that?

Answer: It’s called an “inheritance tax.” If you said “estate tax” you would also be right. However, if you said “death tax,” you would not only be wrong but you would have fallen (I learned from reading the 21 May issue of the New York Times Magazine) for one of the sneaky tricks of a man named Frank Luntz who works for the Republican Party (and other right-wing bodies). What does Luntz do for them? He thinks up emotionally loaded names for things that they want people to have an emotional reaction to.

Take for instance President Obama’s health-care program. That’s a perfectly descriptive name for a specific plan, but it’s not how Luntz wants you to think of it. He prefers that you call it “a Washington takeover.”

That’s not one of his most ingenious creations, because it’s based on an outright lie: there’s no “takeover” in the President’s plan. The consumer keeps all his freedom of choice. He simply has more options to choose from.

But actually Luntz can get people to change how they feel — and vote — without even having to lie. Do the oil companies to want to make voters feel more kindly about despoiling an environment? Don’t call it “drilling for oil” any more. Call it just “energy exploration.”

If you want to see how this relabeling works in action, just turn on the Fox news channel for a while, or listen to a panel of Republican senators discussing world events.


  1. Kirk Snavely says:

    Sweet. Political wording does trade on the ignorance of voters.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    Cripes, tell me about it.

    Out here in Oregon, we have a mix of progressive politics and “GIT OFFA MY LAND!” politics. So: Lots of nice programs, but also a tax structure that results in skin-of-your-teeth budgeting. Most of any income tax surplus gets sent back to customers. (The “kicker.”)

    Lots of companies pay no corporate income taxes, or a $10 minimum. (PGE, the Portland area power company, charged customers for state taxes and then didn’t pay because they were owned by an out-of-state firm. What was it called? Oh yeah, Enron.)

    So, with the state deeply in the red from the recession, there’s a couple of measures to raise the corporate minimum tax and to raise taxes on high-income folks.

    The opposition to these had booths all over. State fairs, parking lots, the air show down the street. Giant banner: “KILL THE JOB KILLING TAX HIKE!”

    It’s hard to argue with ALL CAPS OUTRAGE! like that.

  3. Jophan says:

    Kudos to the blog team for the accompanying image. “Choking hazard,” indeed!

  4. Denis Drew says:

    Be you alive or be you dead
    The IRS will take your bread

    The IRS has to collect some absolute sum of money to pay the government’s bills. The only question is: do we want them to take it while we are still alive (and if Republican-big entrepreneurs able to invest it to make more money for our survivors and the gov) or wait until we are dead? The IRS would prefer when we are dead because when wont put as big a fight for our money — allowing them to impose an even higher tax rate. :-)

  5. Steve Green says:

    On those occasions I’ve watched Fox News, I not only have problems with their labels, I can’t recognise the planet under discussion.

  6. Ross Presser says:

    Excerpt from _Revolt in 2100_, 1939, Robert A Heinlein:

    ‘Exactly, exactly! To put it technically, I selected terms with high negative indices, for this situation and for this listener. Which is precisely what we do with this propaganda, except that the emotional indices are lesser quantitatively to avoid arousing suspicion and to evade the censors-slow poison, rather than a kick in the belly. The stuff we write is all about the Prophet, lauding him to the skies. . . so the irritation produced in the reader is transferred to him. The method cuts below the reader’s conscious thought and acts on the taboos and fetishes that infest his subconscious.’

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  7. Tina Black says:

    Heck, at work Fox is on all the time. I spend the moments I am watching saying things like “You lie, you slime!” and other vocalizations that express disapproval.

  8. Anton Sherwood says:

    I’ve heard that if you leave your estate to your grandchildren, because your own child is not expected to outlive you by long, the taxman will say you’re cheating and tax the estate twice. If that’s true, it does make sense to call it ‘death tax’ rather than ‘inheritance tax’.