Look, up in the Sky! It's a Tax! It's a Penalty! It's a Stupid Argument over Semantics!

Since not much campaign news happens over the July Fourth holiday, Mitt Romney took the opportunity to change his campaign's tune on whether the penalty in the Affordable Care Act for those who can afford health insurance but refuse to get it is a "tax."

To review, the Supreme Court said that the government has the authority under its taxing power to penalize those who refuse to get insurance, leading Republicans to cry, "Tax! Tax! Tax!" with all of their usual policy nuance and rhetorical subtlety. The only problem this poses for Romney is that calling it a tax means that Romney imposed a tax with his health-care plan in Massachusetts, which means admitting that Romney sinned against the tax gods. First his spokesman came out and said that no, it's really just a penalty, but then Romney came out and said, well, if the Supreme Court said it's a tax, then it's a tax, but it wasn't a tax when I did it, because the Supreme Court didn't call it that.

What does all this arguing over semantics tell us? It tells us that the press and public are both complicit in creating the hurricane of stupidity into which all presidential campaigns devolve.

As for the press, they could treat this as the inconsequential semantic quibble it is. The fact is it doesn't matter whether you call it a "tax," a "penalty," a "freedom fee," or a "Lenin levy." It's the same thing. For the record, according to the Urban Institute, only 2 percent of Americans will be subject to the tax/penalty. The whole idea is that most of them will be motivated by the tax/penalty to get health insurance, so the whole idea of the tax/penalty is that almost no one will end up paying it.

But the press has treated the question of what Mitt Romney will call the fee as though it matters. Because of some weird nostalgia, I get the dead-tree editions of both The New York Times and The Washington Post, and when I went outside into the 150-degree heat to get my papers this morning (note to self: get time machine, go back and convince George Washington to put the nation's capital in someplace cold and rainy like Seattle), I found that both front pages had stories about this virtually meaningless issue.

That's partly because it's a slow news day but also because the press knows just how dumb the electorate is. If all voters were at least reasonably informed about things, stuff like this would matter far less. No one who actually knows even the first thing about the Affordable Care Act could possibly have their opinion altered by what we decide to call the penalty for not carrying insurance. No one who thinks it's a necessary measure will say, "Gee, now that people are calling it a 'tax,' that really changes how I think about it." If you didn't like it before, you won't like it any more or less if we put a different name on it.

But the press operates on the unspoken assumption that meaningful numbers of people actually will react that way. In other words, they assume that the public is stupid, and that assumption leads them to make decisions that do nothing to make the public any less stupid. At the same time, if the public knew more about the actual consequences of the election, reporters would certainly pick up on it and alter their coverage accordingly. But since only 55 percent of the public even knows what the result of the most important Supreme Court decision on a policy issue in decades even was, reporters will stick to assuming that the public is clueless, and they'll largely be right.

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