Hyman's Windfall Editorial Just More Hot Air
Continuing with our recent theme of Mark Hyman’s penchant for making arguments that hurt what might be respectable causes, we have his recent editorial on windfall taxes.
Citing a study by the corporate supported conservative think tank, the Tax Foundation, Hyman says that the recent record profits of the oil industry are merely part of a cyclical pattern. In an attempt to put these profits into perspective, he points out that the tax revenue taken in by various levels of government in gas tax revenue is double the total profits made by the oil industry in the period between 1977 and 2004.
Hyman closes with this statement: “Perhaps those Socialists who advocate a windfall profits tax should argue for punishing government for also profiting so handsomely.”
I’m not taking a position on windfall taxes. True, there’s a good argument to be made for increasing taxes on profits garnered through events having nothing to do with a company’s actions (e.g., making a killing on gas in the wake of the Gulf Coast getting wiped out by a hurricane) and using that money to subsidize those who suffer from those same events (e.g., those who are struggling to heat their homes because of high gas and fuel oil prices).
On the other hand, there are good arguments to be made that windfall taxes are counterproductive. The supposedly liberal Washington Post has said so on its own editorial pages.
So Hyman’s position is not necessarily a loser. For the sake of argument, let’s grant that he’s in the right on this one.
Given this, why is it necessary for Hyman to make such a poor case—one that relies on demagoguery and name-calling—to support his point?
The most obvious example of Hyman’s rhetorical sloppiness is his dopey use of the epithet “Socialists” to describe anyone who favors windfall taxes. I’m continually amazed at the cockroach-like fortitude of red-baiting rhetoric in American politics. One would have thought that with the end of the Cold War that the use of such antiquated name-calling would have gone the way of “Roundheads” or “Scalawags.” But Hyman (a.k.a. the Boy Who Cried “Commie”) continues to rely on perverse use of the language, even when he has a legitimate case to make.
The more substantial and more troubling case of calculated simplemindedness is Hyman’s use of a singularly unapt analogy—government as business. Hyman claims the government has “profited” from gasoline taxes. The suggestion is that those in government are somehow rolling in sweet Texas Tea moolah, just as they would if they were board members of Exxon.
But who *is* the government and where do these “profits” go?
The second part of the question is obvious: the sizable majority of gasoline taxes go to building and keeping up the roadways we use every day. As is all too typical of Hyman and certain members of the radical right, they want to give the impression that money that is collected as tax revenue disappears into a black hole. But everyone makes use of the goods and services provided by the government. This makes government neither good nor bad; it’s simply a tool we can use how we see fit. Building and maintaining the roads virtually every American uses on a daily basis is one of the uses we seem to have agreed on.
Which brings us to the first part of the question posed above: who is the government? For some on the far right, government is a monolithic “Other” to be opposed at all costs (except when it provides them with business subsidies, law enforcement, a court system, a national defense, enforcement of property rights, roads, etc., etc., etc.). In truth, even the most thoroughgoing member of the radical right doesn’t really believe this—they just want government to do those things they want (enforcing what George Lakoff calls “Strict Father morality”). But depicting government as a monster serves their desires of weakening or eliminating those uses of government they don’t happen to like (spending on education, Social Security, healthcare, etc.).
And that’s the problem. It isn’t just a cynical language game that’s being played. Language has consequences, and the consequences of much of conservative rhetoric is to erode the underlying principle of a democracy: that the government *is* the people. As the Great Emancipator put it, ours is a nation devoted to “government of the people, by the people, for the people” One can grant this and still occupy any point on the political spectrum, from an honest to goodness socialist to a libertarian. The important point is that we recognize that we are the government. If we all grant that, we can move ahead and discuss the wisdom (or lack thereof) of using government in specific ways.
What troubles me about Hyman’s rhetoric in this editorial specifically, and far right rhetoric more generally, is that in order to achieve short term political advantages, it eats away at the founding idea of democracy in an insidious way—a way I’m not sure those who traffic in it fully appreciate.
Contrary to the intellect-free blatherings of right wing radio demagogues, liberals don’t believe government is a good in and of itself, anymore than a hammer is good in and of itself. Like any tool, it’s useful in some situations and not in others. It can be used constructively or destructively, ethically or unethically. Intellectually honest conservatives feel the same way. The differences come down to deciding which particular uses of government are positive or negative. This is the sort of debate that makes a democracy strong.
Unfortunately, too many of a particularly rabid and/or simple-minded stripe of conservative insist on using rhetoric that is not only insincere (since they themselves don’t fully believe their own vilification of government) but chips away at the shared commitment that defines a democracy, a commitment that all of us, Left or Right, should be able to agree on.
And that’s The Counterpoint.
Hyman Index: 3.57