Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Cain’s tax plan: What’s fair? What’s baloney?

It’s an example of how easy it is for the left and the right to talk past each other without any hope of mutual understanding.Devin Henry: Herman Cain’s Monday in D.C.Christian Science Monitor: Herman Cain: To sexual harassm

Herman Cain says that one of the attributes of his tax plan is that it is "fair."
Herman Cain says that one of the attributes of his tax plan is that it is “fair.”

I know that all the excitement on the Herman Cain story currently revolves around the anonymously-alleged sex stuff, but I’m going to ignore that unless and until the evidence of wrongdoing increases. Till then, I’m in the skeptical camp.

I did tune in online Monday morning to a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute at which Cain defended his tax plan. (By agreement, Cain declined to comment on the sex stuff at AEI claiming – fairly absurdly – that he was bound by rules set by AEI to talk only about taxes.)

Two things struck me from my morning of online eavesdropping. First this:

Cain says that one of the attributes of his tax plan is that it is “fair,” and he added:  “that’s ‘fair’ as defined by Webster’s dictionary, not as defined in Washington.”

Article continues after advertisement

I like that. And I get it. It’s a minor laugh line for government-haters and a minor flip of the bird to President Obama. But it’s also a form of baloney.

Democrats and liberals generally believe that what’s “fair” is a progressive tax code. (“Progressive” is itself kind of a self-serving word choice by the left.) Each side in these debates claims that what it favors represents “progress.” Kinda like “reform.” I personally think the word “reform” has lost all meaning and I propose that it be dropped from the language. I call my idea “word reform,” which means I get to decide which words mean what.

But “progressive,” as applied to taxes, means something like a graduated income tax in which those with higher incomes pay a higher marginal rate. When President Obama (and pretty much all other Dems who have received the same word-usage advice) say that they want to “ask” (ha ha) “millionaires and billionaires” to “pay their fair share,” they are really saying that they want them to pay a higher marginal rate because they can afford it.

But OK, Cain and the righties think that, as applied to taxes, “fair” means “flat” which means that rich people pay the same rate as poor people. Same rate for everyone. What could be more fair?

Well, I guess dumping the income tax entirely and substituting a national sales tax would be more fair, since the authors of that idea have named it “The Fair Tax.” (Not only have the proponents named it “the Fair Tax,” that is how it is referred to in general conversation among tax-obsessives, especially on the right. Now that is a marketing coup.)

In spite of the jocular (mocking?) tone of this post, I did start out to seriously say that the basic concept of “fairness” seems to be different on the left and the right and I don’t mean to assert that one side has a monopoly on the correct meaning. It’s just a little example of how easy it is for the left and the right to talk past each other without any hope of mutual understanding, and especially when they use some of the same words but each side has in mind a different meaning.

What’s baloney?
By the way, as cute as the line is about how Cain and the righties are using the word “fair” the way Webster’s defines it, that’s actually baloney.

My online Webster’s lists this as the first (and, for our purposes, most relevant) meaning of fair:

Free from favoritism or self-interest or bias or deception; conforming with established standards or rules; “a fair referee”; “fair deal”; “on a fair footing”; “a fair fight”; “by fair means or foul.”

Article continues after advertisement

I don’t think that a fair-minded or fair-haired or fairly bright member of either sex (including the fair one) could read that definition and conclude that Webster is weighing in on Cain’s side of the meaning-of-fair divide.

By the way, Cain was asked what the role of government was in promoting “fairness” in the distribution of the national wealth and income. He replied: “I believe that the government’s role to create fairness should be zero.”