Torturing the Truth: The Tax Cut Debate vs. the English Language

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On April 26, the Trump administration released a one-page summary of its tax reform proposals. The following morning, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin appeared on CBS This Morning to discuss those proposals. Co-anchor Norah O’Donnell didn’t waste any time ham-handedly injecting  the mainstream media’s dishonest narrative-shaping language into the conversation.

“As you mentioned this would be historic tax cuts [sic],” her first question began. “Estimated to cost the American taxpayer $7 trillion over a decade. So when will you tell us how you will pay for it?”

Unfortunately Mnuchin played along: “In regards to the pay for [sic], I don’t know how people can estimate the cost since we don’t haven’t released all the details, but this is going to be paid for by economic growth and by a reduction of many, many deductions in special interest.”

O’Donnell tried to put two ginormous lies over on her viewers. And Mnuchin let her get away with it.

Tax cuts don’t “cost the American taxpayer” anything. Quite the opposite, in fact. Taxation takes money from taxpayers and gives that money to politicians. Tax cuts leave some of that money in the taxpayers’ pockets.

Tax cuts don’t “cost the government” anything either. The money the politicians aren’t taking as taxes wasn’t theirs in the first place. They didn’t create the wealth it represents, the taxpayers did. Not taking it isn’t a “cost,” any more than me not shoplifting a pair of shoes “costs” me footwear or constitutes “payment” by me to the shoe store.

Nor do tax cuts need to be “paid for.” Yes, the government will have less to spend if it takes less from those who earn it.  Spending cuts aren’t “payment” for tax cuts. They’re not “payment” for anything. In fact, they are the exact opposite of “payment.” They are, by definition, NON-“payment.”

If O’Donnell had phrased the question truthfully, it would have gone something like this:

“With these tax cuts, the government will take $7 trillion less from American taxpayers than it would have taken if the current rules were kept. What are you guys not going to buy that you would have bought if you had taken that $7 trillion?”

O’Donnell’s torture of the English language — and of the truth — implies that that $7 trillion just naturally belongs to the government rather than to the people it was to be taken from — that not taking it somehow constitutes a “cost”  both to those people and to the politicians who want the money. That’s the opposite of the truth.

Taxing is taking, not giving. Spending costs and not spending doesn’t. If there’s a good argument for either, that argument will be based on those facts, not on parlor tricks like O’Donnell’s sleight of word.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.