The Corner

Not Every Public Policy Decision Is an Attack on You

Why do we have such poor political debates these days? In part, because much of our discourse is spurred by absurd statements such as this one:

“Taxing women for having periods”! “Male governor”! Sounds dastardly.

Is it? Nah. Here’s the Los Angeles Times:

Consumers in California will still pay sales taxes on diapers and tampons after Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed a series of bills that would have created or expanded tax breaks, citing their costs.


There are reasonable arguments against Brown’s position. Narrowly, one could argue that California taxes the wrong items, or that it should tax luxury goods at a higher rate so that more everyday items can be exempted. More broadly, one could argue that sales taxes unfairly corrupt the market — especially when states use them to encourage or discourage consumption. But to argue that Brown must be a sexist — or, for that matter, that he is “taxing women for having periods” — is absurd.

Sometimes, governments do tax items in order to discourage their use. In New York City, cigarettes are deliberately made expensive so that fewer people will buy them. In the Northern Mariana Islands, the legislature has tried to get around the Second Amendment by imposing a $1,000 tax on the purchase of firearms. And, if President Obama were to get his way in Washington, we would see a similar approach applied to carbon. But — and this is the key point here — this is in no way what Jerry Brown is doing in California. On the contrary: He’s trying to balance his budget, and he’s vetoing any bill that would make that harder. Where, exactly, is the animus?

As a rule, I dislike taxes. But I also understand that we cannot have a serious conversation about how the tax system should work if every imposition is transmuted into a personal slight. Some states tax food. Are they “taxing humans for needing to survive”? Some states tax Band-Aids. Are they “taxing hurt children for needing not to bleed”? Of course they’re not — at least not deliberately. It is one thing to say, “I think that government should decline to tax more necessities,” but it is quite another to say, “government is taxing necessities because it is filled with men/whites/Christians.” Jerry Brown was given a choice: a) Sign a bill that reduced revenue, or b) veto a bill that reduced revenue. He chose the latter. Not everything can be about identity politics.

It is possible, of course, that the author at Fusion knows all of this and is simply playing hardball. One of the worst things you can be in America is a “bigot,” which is why pretty much every public policy debate we have these days descends into accusations of bigotry. But if that is the case — if, that is, she is calculating rather than stupid — she should understand that she’s contributing to a political culture in which earnest conversation is all-but impossible. As touching as it is to see progressives rail against taxes, I will presume for now that they don’t want the wholesale abolition of the state. And if they don’t — if we are to continue to have a government — we’re going to have to argue over how we raise funds. It would be nice if we could do that without each and every decision being cynically scrutinized for invisible disdain.


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