Speaking Good Words for Taxes
Conservatives have successfully framed “taxes” as bad. They defined taxation as an affliction or burden. Even liberals will moan about taxes because we use the conservative framing. Most Americans say their taxes are too high. Most Americans claims they pay more than their fair share of taxes.
When Jesus was asked about taxes, he said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Jesus makes no distinction between politics, economics, and faith. Jesus insists that the coins belonging to the emperor are idolatrous. We can’t serve two masters. Being a faithful follower of Jesus complicates the paying of taxes. Christians are often more likely to struggle with paying taxes and assume that such tribute is bad. Maybe not.
There’s a phenomenon you have probably noticed. A conservative on TV uses two words, like “tax relief.” And a progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion of his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase tax relief. But there is no established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there.
Perception: Taxes Are Bad
For decades, Republican politicians have been telling Americans that their taxes are too high (regardless of where actual tax levels are). Then, in the past decade or so, Democratic politicians, perhaps wary of being branded as “tax and spend” liberals, all but conceded the issue.
Only 25% of Americans say that they trust the U.S. government to spend tax revenues effectively to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor. But even among Democrats — who are often stereotyped by the opposition as being “tax and spend” proponents — only 28% have faith in elected officials to use the money to reduce income inequality.
There are a few more areas where Americans tend to agree across party lines: nearly 9 in 10 believe the tax code is too complicated, three-quarters say it’s not OK for people to underreport income on their taxes, and 77 percent say their own personal federal income taxes are too high.
What If Taxes Are Good?
George Lakoff asks, “What is taxation? Taxation is what you pay to live in a civilized country—what you pay to have democracy and opportunity, and what you pay to use the infrastructure paid for by previous taxpayers: the highway system, the Internet, the entire scientific establishment, the medical establishment, the communications system, the airline system. All are or were paid for by taxpayers.”
Taxes Are Investments
What if we changed the way people talk about taxes? Since conservatives dominate the framing of words, let’s suggest an alternative: Investment. Imagine an advertising campaign. A respected spokesperson says, “Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs. This investment was paid in taxes. Look at how those investments have show up: Interstate highways, the Internet, the scientific and medical establishments, our communications system, our airline system, the space program. When we pay our taxes, we invest in the future of our children and grandchildren. We reap the benefits of our investment in taxes every day. Today we have assets—highways, schools and colleges, the Internet, airlines—that come from the wise investments they made.”
When we pay taxes, we reap tax benefits. When we make wise investments with our tax money, we receive assets and benefits.
Imagine versions of this ad running over and over, for years. Eventually, the frame would be established: Taxes are wise investments in the future.
Taxes Are Dues
Lakoff suggests a second metaphor: Paying dues. Taxes are dues, paying your membership fee in America. If you join a country club or a community center, you pay fees. Why? You did not build the swimming pool. You have to maintain it. You did not build the basketball court. Someone has to clean it. You may not use the squash court, but you still have to pay your dues. Otherwise it won’t be maintained and will fall apart. People who avoid taxes, like corporations that move to Bermuda, are not paying their dues to their country. It is patriotic to be a taxpayer. It is traitorous to desert our country and not pay your dues.
Paying taxes is an act of patriotism, a fulfilling of our duty by paying our dues. Corporations who move to foreign countries to avoid taxes are traitors. They have deserted our country and haven’t paid their dues. Taxpayers are good patriots.
Taxes are investments; taxes are dues. These are accurate metaphors, but they are not yet enshrined in our brains. Progressives have to change the conversation about taxes for the common good. We are about forty years behind, so it is imperative that we start now.