So Is That 27?

999 slogan on a T shirtIn the last couple of weeks the star of Herman Cain has surprised many people, suddenly shining in the sky of Republican politics. Or maybe it’s been more like a Fourth of July sparkler tossed overhead after a few beers. At any rate, people have been paying attention to Herman Cain—he surpassed Rick Perry, possibly rivaling Mitt Romney in some polls, and I thought it was time to look at some of his political rhetoric. It’s high time, in fact, if I plan to do this, before that star plunges back to earth, which is going to happen fast. What Herman Cain really needed to destroy his campaign was for people to listen to what he is saying.

Cain’s political ideas are most well known for his advocacy of a taxation plan that takes three potential taxes (business, individual income, and a sales tax) and imposes all three on all people at the rate of 9% and 9% and 9%. Naturally in normal speech this quickly turns into the abbreviated form that just names the numbers: 999. Because this is the main thing Cain is currently known for, I’ll keep most of my focus here on his tax and economic rhetoric.

Herman Cain seems to like simplicity, which he has associated with “common sense”. Here are illustrative quotes from his campaign website, followed by my comments.

  • On national security: “National security isn’t about politics. It’s about defending America.”

The words “security” and “defending” connect the two sentences, and the pithiness of the phrase “defending America” makes us almost automatically feel in sympathy. In reality, defending the country means dealing with other countries, joining alliances, and trying to persuade people. At times defense certainly is about politics. The real complexity is reduced to a phrase so simple it actually doesn’t mean much. Here’s another quote from his website: “My foreign policy philosophy is simply: Peace through strength and clarity.” That’s clear. Right?

  • On environmental questions: “Still, liberals continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that the high energy consumption of a thriving nation and conservation of our precious planet are at odds with one another.”

I’m having to interpret this sentence, but I’m taking it to be a criticism of belief in global climate change (“energy consumption” and “conservation of our…planet”). In this statement, 99% of the world’s environmental scientists are reduced to an American political label: liberals. Again in favor of simplicity, complexity of data and science are reduced to a political opinion.

A man who likes things to be simple has also produced a simple tax plan. Cain himself calls it simple. He has bragged that it’s simple. On his website, among the assertions made of his 999 tax plan, we read that the plan “Is fair, simple, efficient, neutral, and transparent”. That phrase sounds good. How could it not? Or are you one of those people who are against fairness and efficiency? But Herman, what exactly is a “neutral” tax?

Another problem, which is beyond my scope here, is that Cain’s plan is reckoned, by analysis on both the left and right, to give tax breaks to millionaires and raise taxes on almost everyone else. Cain claims this is not true because….la la la la, I can’t hear you. “Some people will pay more,” he said. “But most people will pay less, is my argument.” So if that’s his argument, then it must be true. Stupid economists with their fancy computers and mathematical analysis.

In other economic discussions, on general economic policy, Cain says, in part, “The role of the federal government should be to encourage economic growth by ensuring conditions that will allow businesses to thrive, not just survive. That means less legislation, less regulation, lower taxes and business-friendly policies.” This is fairly standard Republican belief, even if it is all extremely vague, with comparative words like “less” and “lower” and variable words like “thrive” and “business-friendly”.

I find it very interesting that in the midst of his generally laissez-faire philosophies (he refers on the website to the “alleged risks of Wall Street” as if he has never seen a newspaper), Cain’s website makes a nod toward understanding the opposition. We find the phrase “While labor unions once provided a representative body to lobby for fair wages and safe working conditions for employees”, though the current activities of unions are criticized. Similarly, in a discussion on getting rid of regulations, we read “No one is arguing for lead-based paint in toys for kids or unsafe food.”

Rhetorically, these types of acknowledgements can be rather powerful, if carefully done, creating a sense of fairness (one of Aristotle’s basic recommendations for giving the speaker a positive ethos and increasing credibility). This method of recognizing the other side can also make the speaker seem more broad-minded and intelligent. The acknowledgement must seem fairly and honestly done, however, to make it appear that the speaker is truly listening to the other side. Whether that seems true in this case, or any case, may depend on the reader.

In style, I found one sentence that struck me as very well phrased, and rhetorically compelling, in further discussion of regulations. “We pay for regulations with every bite of food we eat, with every drop of gasoline we put in our cars and with every good or service we obtain.” The sentence has three short phrases each introduced by “with every”, so the power of the sentence builds through repetion. The phrases also try to connect with the reader by referring to our most basic biological necessities, food, one of our great social necessities, gas, and then expanding into everything.

If you happen to like Herman Cain, enjoy his brief flight across the sky, because now that he is up there, people are looking at his simple 999 tax plan, and most people are realizing that while simple sounds good in our complicated lives, the largest economy in the world cannot be managed with only three numbers.

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