Three years before George Orwell published 1984, a stinging portrayal of the ways totalitarian states manipulate language, the journalist and author complained bitterly about the ways words are abused even in democratic societies.
In “Politics and the English Language,” he discussed the disingenuous ways in which certain words were used — “democracy,” “socialism,” “freedom,” “patriotic,” and “realistic” especially irritated him. “Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way,” Orwell wrote. “That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like, ‘Marshal Pétain was a true patriot,’ ‘The Soviet press is the freest in the world,’ ‘The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution,’ are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: ‘class,’ ‘totalitarian,’ ‘science,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘reactionary,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘equality.'”
I tend to think Orwell overreacted on this point. Dishonest people use words in these ways all the time, but very few people are persuaded to change their opinions as a result. When a politician says, for instance, that “we need to put America back to work,” his supporters will know exactly what he means and his detractors will think he’s spouting meaningless verbiage once again. Both, in a sense, are right, and no harm is done.
Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder if Orwell might have had a point. What got me rethinking it is the phrase “penny sales tax initiative.”
We see the phrase any time a county or municipality proposes to raise the sales tax by 1 percent. Under South Carolina law, localities can add to the 6 percent state sales tax in two ways: a Local Option Tax of 1 percent and a Capital Projects Tax of 1 percent. Hence the average local sales tax in South Carolina isn’t 6 percent but 7.14 percent — among the highest in the nation. So, for instance, if a county wants to improve its roads and bridges, it has the authority — pending voter approval — to raise the sales tax by 1 percent for that purpose.
Any time that happens, expect to see well-funded ad campaigns promoting a “penny” increase in the sales tax. One such campaign in my county was titled, if I remember correctly, “A penny for our future.” Its purpose was to improve roads and bridges.
Of course, it didn’t cost taxpayers only a penny; it cost them hundreds of dollars, and it increased the taxes they paid on everything from shoes to groceries. But I suspect the prevalence of that stupid penny — you’d see it as the graphic backdrop on TV news reports, and the ads in newspapers always had that copper-colored Lincoln somewhere — misled thousands of, let’s say, distracted voters into thinking the whole thing would only cost a penny. Or a few pennies.
It reminded me of the old gag on NPR’s Car Talk. A caller asks how much some item will cost, and one of the hosts, Tom or Ray, would answer, “Pennies.” Then he’d add, “Thousands of pennies!”
Why the dishonesty? Why couldn’t the tax hike’s promoters explain it straightforwardly: Look, people, we’ve got bad roads and bridges, and we need to fix them, so we want to raise enough money to do it by raising the sales tax. Are you with us?
Here’s why that wouldn’t work. It would call attention to the fact that county budget-writers have neglected a core government service — roads and bridges — and instead spent the money on staff salary increases, money-losing recycling ventures, tourism-marketing campaigns, job incubators, office refurbishments, and who knows what else. Roads and bridges are the first thing a government — any government — should spend money on. Increasingly, though, basic infrastructure needs are an afterthought.
Nor are county and city politicians solely guilty. In January of this year, Gov. Nikki Haley proposed to pay for road and bridge repairs, not by freeing up existing revenue by cutting non-essential items — of which there are many in a $25 billion budget — but with money from the “money tree.” That’s the colloquial name for excess revenue, or revenue above what state analysts project. Nothing came of the money tree proposal, and Haley says she’ll propose a new plan next year.
Leave aside the thought that if government takes too much money from taxpayers for its stated purposes, it ought to return that money, not find some new use for it. We’re now way beyond that principle. The point here is that even an allegedly conservative governor wanted to pay for one of state government’s most essential services with a ridiculous budgetary gimmick.
Telling taxpayers you can pay for road repairs by shaking a money tree just doesn’t have the appeal of telling them you can do it with a penny or two. It just wasn’t sufficiently Orwellian.