Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Good tax policy doesn't sell itself - it also needs a good name

B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon is reflected in a television screen as he responds to the results of the HST referendum in Victoria on Aug. 26, 2011.


Stephen Gordon at The Globe's Economy Lab blog bemoans the phenomenon of good policy falling prey to disappointing public reactions. He cites the HST in British Columbia and the carbon tax in Canada as two examples.

Gordon continues: "Indeed, it's hard to think of a policy issue where the best advice of economists played an influential role in forming public opinion. (The 1988 free-trade election was won on mercantilist themes of increasing exports, not on economists' arguments based on the benefits of cheaper imports.)"

He's absolutely right.

Story continues below advertisement

The problem with good policy is that its proponents come to understand the idea and believe in its merits, and then think everyone else should. They tend to be policy wonks who get the vagaries of the tax system or medical insurance and use terms like "stochastic distribution" at lunch.

There are huge benefits in an "earned income tax credit" or "value added tax" but those terms are either neutral or negatively loaded. Their advocates often fail to realize that good policy needs to be marketed and sold.

So how do you do that?

Language is critical. What you call a policy and how you contextualize it is critical to its success. Personally, I'm a fan of neologisms. These are new words or terms invented to describe something.

"Death tax" is a great example, as it takes something most people support – a tax on inherited wealth – and describes it as something automatically unappealing – a tax on the act of dying. The old terms of "estate tax" or "inheritance tax" were difficult to campaign against, as they can conjure up images of wealthy robber barons having to pass a little less of their ill-gotten gains to idle grown off-spring.

How the term "death tax" took off is a good example of political marketing:

"It took five years to get Republican lawmakers and lobbyists to use the words 'death tax' consistently. Jack Faris, the president and chief executive officer of the National Federation of Independent Business, said he remembered his Rotary Club members complaining five years ago that the estate tax felt more like a tax on death.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Faris took the phrase ''death tax'' back to his trade group and made everyone in the office use it. Those who slipped paid $1 into a pizza fund, he said, adding, ''The fund grew pretty large.''

The pizza fund idea spread to Capitol Hill, where Mr. Gingrich and others instituted it. Soon, everyone was using the term."

Franklin Roosevelt was a master of using neologisms to define his policy. He leapt on the term " pump-priming," because he knew no Kansas farmer would support "deficit-financed counter-cyclical stimulus spending."

Finding folksy ways to describe complex ideas was part of Roosevelt's genius, so much so that his terms like "brain trust" and "New Deal" remain in our vernacular. But "pump-priming's" agricultural connotations left it a bit dated.

As the population grew more urban following the Second World War, the term fell into disuse except among economists. When the latest round of stimulus spending was described as "pump-priming" it was strictly jargon for most of us who get our water from gravity-fed mains.

The struggle over language in politics is seen in neologisms like "pro-life" and "pro-choice" or the terms "illegal alien" or "undocumented worker." Each term attempts to frame a debate in a context that is appealing toward one side.

Story continues below advertisement

If you want to get technical, the phenomenon of language influencing the way the user perceives the world is linguistic relativity or the "Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis."

Linguist George Lakoff has done tremendous research on the role of metaphor in political imagination. His book, Moral Politics, argues that liberals and conservatives hold two different conceptual models of morality and the relationship of the individual to the state. He employs family metaphor to describe the relationships between the two, and focuses extensively on the use of terminology to influence political debate.

Written in 1994, Lakoff argued that liberals failed to understand this "country as a family" metaphor, and thus failed to use language to frame arguments successfully. In contrast, the conservatives messages of that zeitgeist were stronger: "family values," "tax relief for families," and – of course – the "death tax."

Lakoff wrote: "Words don't have meanings in isolation. Words are defined relative to a conceptual system. If liberals are to understand how conservatives use their words, they will have to understand the conservative conceptual system."

Proponents of the HST in British Columbia did a lot of things wrong. One of them was spending a lot of their time debating the way the tax itself worked, in isolation from their overall economic policy.

In contrast, in Ontario, the government focused on an overall package of tax reform – income tax cuts, business tax cuts, tax harmonization – designed to create jobs. Because it's a lot easier to support "job creating tax reform" than "a harmonized sales tax."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to