As Michael Cannon discussed in an earlier post, the White House is trying to claim that health care "reform" does not mean higher taxes. This is a two-pronged issue. First, there is a mandate to purchase health insurance. Second, there is a tax (the White House calls it a fee) on people who fail to purchase a policy.
The White House claims this mandate is akin to state-level requirements for the purchase of health insurance, and that the newly-insured people will be getting some value (a health insurance policy) in exchange for their money. These assertions are defensible, but that does not change the fact that a tax is being imposed.
It might be plausible to argue that the mandate is not a tax if the value of the insurance policy to the individual was equal to the cost. But since these are people who are not buying policies, their behavior reveals that this obviously cannot be true. So this means that they will be worse off under Obama's plan and that at least some of the cost should be considered a tax.
The Social Security payroll tax allows a good analogy. Labor economists correctly argue that the payroll tax functions, in part, as a "premium" for what can be considered a government-provided annuity. As such, when we try to measure the disincentive effect of the payroll tax, it is appropriate to include the perceived value of future Social Security benefits (for most Americans, especially with average or above-average incomes, the "rate of return" is very low or negative, so a substantial share of the payroll tax is a tax both in the legal sense and economic-distortion sense). The same is true of a mandatory health insurance policy (even if the money does not go through the government's hands).
On the broader issue of paying money and getting something of value in return, another analogy is helpful. A share of the gasoline excise tax is used for road construction and maintenance. We all benefit from roads, even if we don't drive (let's set aside issues such as whether the benefits equal the costs, whether the federal government should be involved, etc). Does that somehow mean the gasoline excise tax is not a tax? Of course not.
Turning now to the excise tax, the Administration's argument that this is a fee is even less defensible. The Baucus legislation in the Senate Finance Committee explicitly references an excise tax. Equally revealing (and even more ominous), the IRS is charged with collecting the fee. The White House can argue that the tax - in the economic sense - is lower than the fee if something of value is exchanged. But the tax is still there.
Rather than play games, the White House should make an open argument for bigger government. The fact that the Administration prefers to be deceptive says a lot about the underlying merits of their proposal.