Dictionaries Are For Lesser Mortals

From George Stephanopoulos’s exchange with Obama. (CHT Tom Knapp.)

STEPHANOPOULOS: Probably the most definitive promise you made in the campaign is that no one in the middle class would get a tax increase on your watch. … Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don’t. How is that not a tax? …

OBAMA: No. That’s not true, George. … For us to say that you’ve got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. … [R]ight now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I’m not covering all the costs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy …

OBAMA: No, but – but, George, you – you can’t just make up that language and decide that that’s called a tax increase. …

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don’t think I’m making it up. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary: “Tax — a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes.”

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam’s Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you’re stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition ….

STEPHANOPOULOS: I wanted to check for myself. But your critics say it is a tax increase.

OBAMA: My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I’m taking over every sector of the economy. You know that. Look, we can have a legitimate debate about whether or not we’re going to have an individual mandate or not, but…

STEPHANOPOULOS: But you reject that it’s a tax increase?

OBAMA: I absolutely reject that notion.

Because, y’know, when the President uses a word, it means whatever he wants it to mean. And if someone points out that his usage violates the accepted dictionary definition, they’re the one doing the “stretching.”


24 Responses to Dictionaries Are For Lesser Mortals

  1. Anon73 September 23, 2009 at 5:15 pm #

    Reminds me of how social anarchists reject the anacho-capitalists claims of being anarchists because dictionaries simply define anarchy as “chaos” or “opposition to all rulership”.

  2. Matt September 23, 2009 at 6:42 pm #

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

  3. MBH September 23, 2009 at 7:07 pm #

    How unWittgensteinian of you Roderick. What is more substantial: the essential meaning of a word or the role the word plays in everyday communication? Does it even make sense to speak of the essence of a word (as Stephanopoulus’ single definition implies)?

    I thought you commit yourself to a weak consequentialist filter. If a short-run cost ends up producing a long-run gain — and the absence of the short-run cost produces long-run ruin — then the short-run cost is our Max Pref. No?

  4. Kevin September 23, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    So Hobbes thought that the Sovereign could define words when their meanings were in dispute. Maybe Obama is just a Hobbesian? From what I can tell, that seems to be his view.

    • MBH September 23, 2009 at 8:32 pm #

      He also wrote that positive laws are nothing more than ink on paper if people do not believe in them. Why would a Hobbesian speak that language?

    • MBH September 23, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

      (I’m in an awkward position since my avatar is a Hobbesian… damn!)

  5. Ndugu September 23, 2009 at 9:38 pm #

    Gonna have to agree with the President on this one. I mean, there’s a legitimate point that it’s LIKE a tax in that you must pay money to the government, but it’s not REALLY a tax – which is a specific governmental action. So he’s using a dictionary definition (dictionaries are irrelevant, conscious creations of touters of standard dialects, whereas real language is the only semi-conscious effort of speakers) to fit the claim that it’s a tax.

  6. P.M.Lawrence September 24, 2009 at 5:04 am #

    To be fair, Obama is – technically – correct on this one, because that quoted definition is incomplete: “…a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority…” doesn’t provide enough context to show that the charge isn’t merely brought into being by that authority, it is also paid to it. It’s tax-like, not formally a tax, just as tithes were. For a fuller definition, see here: “A tax is an involuntary fee or, more precisely, unrequited payment, paid by individuals or businesses to a central or local government” [emphasis added], or here: ‘A tax is an involuntary fee – or, more precisely, “unrequited payment” – paid by individuals or businesses to a government (central or local). Taxes may be paid in cash or kind (although payments in kind may not always be allowed or classified as taxes in all systems).’ [emphasis added]; words conveying the emphasised parts are absent from the original quotation.

    Of course, that technicality doesn’t mean that the effect on a payer would be any different from what it would be if it were raised as a formal tax, churned through the government, and paid out as a subsidy to the companies that the payer would actually have to pay. But it does create a technicality that Obama could use if he wanted to play with dictionary definitions.

    • Black Bloke September 24, 2009 at 8:15 am #

      I wish you had your own blog, or at least a well done website.

      • Aster September 24, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

        I wish you had your own blog. Your writing is more insightful (and eloquent) than most prominent internet writers of whom I am currently aware. I know at least two others who feel the same.

        • Black Bloke September 25, 2009 at 1:19 pm #

          Thanks Aster, that’s very sweet of you to say 😀

          I might end up making my own blog in the coming year, some writing, some linking, and some other things. But it all depends upon income and the success of current plans.

      • P.M.Lawrence September 24, 2009 at 6:01 pm #

        By all means make concrete suggestions about my website, but expect a long wait and nothing high bandwidth, highly visual, browser specific, Microsoft oriented and/or rich in images. I have resource constraints, physical, financial and physiological (I have been zonked so much lately that I am way behind on a research paper I promised someone, not to mention personal maintenance). Accordingly, my site is mostly there as an archive and I cannot operate a blog effectively – but do look at the publications page, particularly for approaches to unemployment (hint: much of what is there is meant as suggested first steps in transitions, not spelling out ultimate objectives). Eventually that page will also reference a couple of submissions I made to the Australian Henry Tax Review a few months ago; for now, they are available via this. And I have many comments on Kevin Carson’s blog and the Mises blog if you want to search for them.

        • Black Bloke September 25, 2009 at 1:21 pm #

          Can’t operate a blog effectively? 😕

          You could just do what that persistent “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” guy does and c+p your blog replies into your own blog entries. But I totally sympathize with your constraints.

    • Bob Kaercher September 24, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

      Well, as I understand it (and as Stephanopoulos mentions), I would have to pay a fine to the *government* if I don’t have health insurance. Doesn’t that fit the above definitions?

      • P.M.Lawrence September 24, 2009 at 6:08 pm #

        That side of things would work out as a tax, if things worked out so that a material number of people didn’t have a practical alternative after all. But the idea is that it would only be a default, with most people being realistically able to buy the insurance to opt out of paying the government – and then, anyone paying the government instead is doing so “voluntarily”, another technicality that makes that not a tax. About the only real gain all this might offer is from not churning funds via the government with all that’s inefficiencies and costs (and risk of diversion to other programmes) – but equally, it might make the insurance process just as bureaucratic and costly.

  7. Mike Gogulski September 24, 2009 at 7:57 am #

    Mind control in action, right here.

  8. Black Bloke September 24, 2009 at 8:17 am #

    Off-topic: Roderick, did you get the e-mail I sent you? I know you’ve previously reported e-mail troubles so I felt I should just ask.

    • Roderick September 25, 2009 at 4:31 pm #

      I hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and just responded.

  9. Plug Nickel Outfit September 25, 2009 at 1:18 am #

    Indirect Tax

    Tax is the noun – indirect is a descriptor – an adjective.

    Stephanopoulos dropped the ball – imo.

  10. sadielou September 26, 2009 at 10:39 am #

    As I understand, it’s not an indirect tax. An indirect tax is still a levy to be paid to the government — it’s “indirect” simply in that it falls on the consumers as well as the producers.

    A mandate doesn’t take the form of a tax at all. It comes at a cost to citizens, certainly, but I think it’s better termed a deadweight cost.
    The economic definition of taxes, at least, requires them to contribute to government revenue.

    • Plug Nickel Outfit September 27, 2009 at 2:43 am #

      This will be some small comfort to those who may be incarcerated as a result of these mandates.

      Looking at this article today I read:

      “House Democrats are struggling with getting their 10-year, $1 trillion-plus bill down to the $900 billion price tag Obama prefers.”

      You refer to a definition of taxes as contributing to government revenue – perhaps directly. The sausage-making described in the article above and summed in the quoted sentence are either directly or indirectly a matter of ‘revenue’.

      “Deadweight cost” works for me as well as “indirect tax” – and I’d have enjoyed a recounting of Stephanopoulos introduced that term! Hence my thought that he ‘dropped the ball’.

  11. Shawn P. Wilbur September 29, 2009 at 7:30 pm #

    Obama, who talked about the “hidden and growing tax” supposedly imposed by the uninsured, has certainly left the door wide open for broad definitions of the term.

    • P.M.Lawrence September 30, 2009 at 3:15 am #

      Actually, to the extent that those burdens work through further drains on government funding of hospitals etc. to reach consolidated revenue, that still fits the technical definition of tax. However, I believe that the USA may be unlike other countries in that respect.

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