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The Fair Tax Is a Hard Sell
Conservatives are terrible at persuasion, and the Fair Tax proves it
I stopped writing about persuasion almost a decade ago because conservative activists show no interest in persuasion. They are magical thinkers—believing their opinion of how people ought to think will magically make others think that way. They completely missed the fact that Donald Trump’s super power was persuasion. As Scott Adams documented throughout 2015 and 2016, Trump is a master hypnotist who bypasses the critical-thinking part of the brain and operates exclusively in the middle brain. Conservatives, though, like to win arguments with facts.
I wrote about this many times in 2015 and 2016, but this post explains it clearly:
The Fair Tax Is Unpersuasive
At the very first Tea Party in St. Louis on February 27, 2009, a man cornered to tell me I needed to get behind the Fair Tax. He then began to explain it.
Five minutes later, confused, I asked him, “Can you just give me the 30-second version?”
“No,” he said. “It takes at least a half hour to explain properly.”
“In that case,” I said, “never mind. You’ll never be able to sell it.”
He disagreed, but I was done with the conversation. I knew the Fair Tax would never come to fruition for two reasons:
It is too complicated to be persuasively presented.
It is vulnerable to emotional damage.
We saw the Fair Tax’s weaknesses play out over the last two weeks. People unskilled in persuasion tried to rally support for the concept—which replaces income tax with a national sales tax. Within hours, social media were filled with news that Republicans were planning a 30% sales tax that would bankrupt middle class Americans.
In the following days, even conservatives were up in arms that the new Republican majority in the House wanted to impose a draconian tax increase on the very people who just elected them. One conservative pundit wrote:
“I just spent $168 at the grocery store. If Republicans in the House get their way, that bill would have been $218.40.”
Commenters, imitating that man who accosted me in 2009, tried to set the record straight, but they couldn’t. They had no empirical evidence that the tweet was incorrect. So, they said, “Yeah, but you won’t paying any income tax, so you’ll have more money to spend.”
“Yeah, but,” is a euphemism for “I have no rejoinder.”
The Washington Times mercifully announced the Fair Tax’s death:
Conversation over. The Fair Tax—which is not a bad idea academically or morally—was stillborn.
And this is a great lesson for conservatives: for an idea to sell, it must elicit immediate positive emotions. Intellectual ideas do not convince.
I’ve had other Fair Tax supporters tell me that people have a responsibility to understand the benefits of the Fair Tax, that people need to stop being intellectually lazy. I agree, but I also know that’s a useless argument. For 250,000 years, humans have acted almost exclusively on emotional impulse, and those emotional impulses resulted in the species taking over the entire planet. Meanwhile, it was the intellectuals, the highly educated, the people who took time to understand complex problems who gave us eugenics, communism, and the Third Reich.
Everyone who’s taken a basic course in sales knows that people buy on emotion and defend their purchase with facts. Remember Scott Adams’s Persuasion Stack from that 2015 post?
Analogy (okay, not great)
People Love a Flat Tax
That’s why I’ve always preferred the flat tax over the Fair Tax. The flat tax takes 10 seconds to explain: How much did you make last year? Subtract 30,000 from that and multiply the sum by 0.2.There’s your income tax. No need for software, schedules, receipts, 1099s, or the rest.
And, while the flat tax could be instituted through legislation, we should push for a Constitutional Amendment requiring that any tax on incomes and exemptions be identical for all. If the rate is 20 percent, then everyone pays 20 percent. I would further require that the exemption—the first $30,000, in my example—be indexed to inflation.
There would be no filing status based on marriage, children, etc. Each earner would pay his or her own taxes. There would be no deductions, only an exemption for the first $30,000 of income. The rates would be identical for individuals and corporations. Congress could change the tax rate or the exemption amount, but those amounts would the same for everyone.
Under the flat tax, most Americans would increase their after-tax income. Corporations and high income earners would see their effective tax rates increase, though, as loopholes, exemptions, and deductions disappear.
Fair Tax proponents will say the flat tax discourages work, which might be true, but that doesn’t mean people care or can be made to care. They don’t. And a system that involves filing a massive package of rebate receipts will turn people off faster than asking them to help you move.
It Was a Setup
After the battle for the Speakership, I encouraged conservatives to lay off Kevin McCarthy for a while. Now, I’m going to take a mild shot at him.
I think McCarthy knew the Fair Tax was a nonstarter when he pushed it. He killed it with kindness. McCarthy is shrewd enough to know that which ideas sell and which ones put people to sleep—or piss them off. Fair Tax pisses off everybody who never took part in a 5,000 Year Leap study group.
By leading off the new Congress with the Fair Tax, McCarthy got tax reform—always unpopular with Republican donors—off the table. It worked. The Fair Tax debacle means the Flat Tax—or any major tax reform idea—is dead for the next two years.
Conservatives would be wise to keep the Fair Tax dead. It won’t win converts. If we want tax reform, go with the Flat Tax or some other reform that does not require a 30-minute jawboning to explain.
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