Meme watch: Tax the poor!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Nov. 27 2002 4:06 PM

Introducing the Meme Watch

A periodic series tracking thought-viruses of interest.

"Meme" is a term coined by the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins to apply epidemiology to the world of ideas. A meme is a thought-virus. Meme theory leaps over such questions as "Is it true?" or "Is it virtuous?" to ask mechanistic questions about how and whether ideas spread through the population. Meme theory is especially useful in examining how bad ideas spread. From time to time, Chatterbox will track memes he finds particularly bizarre.

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We inaugurate this periodic series by putting under our microscope the new conservative idea that poor people pay too little in taxes. Chatterbox has already explained at length (here and here) why this is not so; many readers won't need to be told. Now it's time to watch the virus spread.

The practical reality of forcing poor people to pay more taxes has been with us for a long time, but the first time Chatterbox saw somebody claim it as a positive good was in a Nov. 20 Wall Street Journal editorial headlined "The Non-Taxpaying Class." Perhaps naively, Chatterbox predicted that this meme would start to spread among conservatives after a judicious pause for the Christmas holidays. In fact, the idea has started to spread already. This is excellent news for Democrats, who ought to have no difficulty using it to portray Republicans as extremist monsters. (Caveat: Chatterbox thought the same in the late 1990s when Republicans made repeal of the estate tax a cornerstone of their philosophy. Instead, the GOP ended up controlling the White House and both houses of Congress.)

Who caught the meme? Former Attorney General Ed Meese.

How do we know? He said it on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes.

How did he say it? From the Nov. 26 broadcast:

Well, it's very unfortunate that we have the situation in our country now, where as I believe someone pointed out a short time ago on your program [Note: Chatterbox tried and failed to track down who that is], that we now have a constituency that pays no taxes whatsoever. And it makes it very easy for demagogues on the left to try to raise taxes. And soon we're going to have only an even smaller faction paying the taxes.

Who'll catch the meme next? Readers are invited to e-mail media sightings to chatterbox@slate.com. Chatterbox is especially keen to find out when or whether any Bush administration officials adopt this line. He is also eager to find out whether any congressional Republicans do so, and somewhat interested to learn whether other members of the GOP chattering class do so.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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