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posted: 7/31/2014 9:25 AM

Darth and taxes: Assumptions can be misleading

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Sometimes, assumptions are so embedded in our consciousness that not only do we take for granted their universal acceptance but we forget there could even be an alternative view.

I was reminded of this in an email communication last week in which reader George Peternel challenged the "spin" he sees in newspapers, politics and elsewhere that taxes are universally presumed to be "painful" or despised. His original email sought merely to "rattle (our) journalistic conscience a bit," but I found his ideas thought-provoking, so with his permission, we published them among our letters to the editor.

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Coincidentally, on the very day I received Peternel's missive, this headline began making the rounds on the e-circuit via a blogger for The Washington Post: "Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates."

The Associated Press picked up the blog item, which made a loose connection between another website's Survey Monkey poll on the popularity of various Star Wars characters and unrelated polling data on the popularity of Congress and various political candidates. The result was the nyuk-nyuk notion that Jar Jar Binks, the most hated character in the Star Wars geek-iverse according to the Survey Monkey poll is more popular than the U.S. Congress.

I'll set aside for a moment the issue of contrasting a blog site's unreliable Survey Monkey with unrelated legitimate polling data, an act of dubious logic and equally suspect ethics. What captured my attention on this particular day was the driving assumption of the story line: Let's all have a laugh on the unpopularity of politicians. The underlying assumption of the story approach was that, as with the very idea of taxation, nearly everyone concurs in the disdain for politicians. So much so that the late night talk show joke is merely presumed, and context, balance or fairness are simply superfluous distractions.

The Star Wars comparison is an extreme example, but it emphasizes an idea that I think Peternel was getting at in his lament. While I disagree with his assertion that people don't consider other routine bills -- the mortgage, the car payment and so on -- "painful," there is no question that taxes hold a unique place in our thinking. If nothing else, they are the one expense that managed to get themselves equated with the certainty of death, in spite of the fact that in our capitalist democracy, they are the one expense that people themselves -- as opposed to impersonal market forces -- control.

People have hated taxes since long before Zacchaeus the tax collector had to hide himself in a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus, and they'll no doubt go on hating them eons after space adventure becomes routine. Same with politicians. And what else? Utility bills? Registration fees? No doubt, many more costs for things that don't provide immediate gratification. Perhaps we all need to be reminded from time to time to give these things more than superficial thought. Just as we in the media should be careful now and then that our tone and reporting don't merely reinforce common but questionable assumptions.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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