April 14, 2014

Reform

I heard a radio report this morning of a Republican plan to “reform” the Pennsylvania tax system. The plan would involve reducing or abolishing property taxes in favor of higher sales and income taxes. In other words, the scheme would transfer tax burdens from more well-off people to the less privileged and the outright poor. Is this really reform?

In the American political lexicon, any plan to change the status quo, whether in law or practice, is touted as reform. One person’s reform, however, is another person’s backward step. Democrats and Republicans can advance diametrically opposed legislative plans, each of which is said to constitute reform. If a plan involves a change more aligned with one’s philosophy or desires, it is easy to call it a reform. Those who do not share that philosophy or desires may have a quite different view. The theme of “reform” is such a powerful rhetorical tool that we cannot expect politicians to abandon its use.

Journalists, however, should be more careful in how they use “reform.” It is one thing for a journalist to say that a legislator or party calls a proposal a reform; it is quite another for that journalist to place the reform label on a proposal without attributing that description to a person or group. Given our present political divide, a journalist who calls a plan to change immigration law a proposed “immigration reform,” is likely, if inadvertently, carrying water for the advocates of that plan.

When can “reform” properly be used by a journalist who strives for objectivity? When there is a clear consensus that something is wrong with the status quo and changes need to be made, it is fair to say that politicians are seeking reform. Certainly, “immigration reform” is on the national agenda now—everyone seems to believe that change is needed, though there is much dispute as to what that change should be. Also, when there is both a consensus that something is wrong and a consensus as to what is to be done, we can properly speak of reform. (I’m hard pressed to cite an example of a piece of legislation that qualifies as reform legislation, but I’m sure there must be one.)

In any case, not every change—indeed, few changes—are really reforms. Therefore, a reporter writing about one proposal or another regarding, say, immigration, should simply refer to the “immigration bill.” Let the politicians do what they will do, but don’t let them get away with selling their “reform” snake oil.

Snake oil salesman

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