Talking Points: Why Taxes Matter

Talking points for tax season.
This post is part of the research project: Flashcards

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said it nearly a century ago. And, “no one’s said it better since,” New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore reminds us, “and that, right there, is the problem.”

[P]oliticians don’t like to talk about taxes, except to use them the way a matador uses a red cape. Those interested in getting voters to seethe will find no means easier. Read their lips.

The persistence of anti-tax rhetoric in the US is especially strange, Lepore points out, given that “ninety percent of Americans receive direct social or economic security benefits from the federal government.” Yet we find it easier to see what we pay than what we get.

It’s a failure not only of attention but also of communication: scarcely anybody reminds us what taxes actually fund. We talk about taxes without connecting them to the countless systems and structures that make our society tick, the protections that keep us safe and secure, and the investments and infrastructure that make up the foundation of our economy—benefits we all rely on and take advantage of, every day.

Research from Public Works, formerly part of Demos Center for the Public Sector, shows that this communications failure has consequences: “Americans are only dimly aware of what government does.” Further, we tend not to connect taxes to budgets, nor budgets to the work of government that everybody depends on. Unfortunately, when our thinking about taxes is this disconnected from the things taxes pay for, a logical conclusion is a political dead end: “Everyone should pay less.”

But, while it may seem daunting, the folks at Demos believe that we can make some headway in changing the national conversation about taxes by breaking bad messaging habits and adopting more effective ones.

First, here are the bad habits to kick, according to the Public Works researchers:

  • STOP reinforcing the standard negative frames (You know the ones: tax burden, tax relief, hard-earned tax dollars, taxpayers’ pockets),
  • STOP reinforcing prevalent stereotypes of government waste (e.g., “we could save tax dollars if we ended huge corporate welfare payments,” and avoid trigger words like waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy.)
  • STOP triggering consumerist thinking by talking about what people “buy with their tax dollars.” Instead, activate citizen thinking by giving taxes context in the deeply held values and broadly shared benefits that they uphold,
  • STOP using the analogy of household budgets to explain public budgets,
  • STOP talking about tax fairness without defining fairness as shared responsibility (people have wildly varying understandings of fairness—but most of us see unfairness when those at the top who’ve benefited the most rig the system and get away without paying taxes while low- and middle-income families contribute a far greater share. “Those who’ve done well in this country have a responsibility to pay their fair share”),
  • and STOP assuming facts alone will win the day—always sandwich facts about taxes in values messages.

What we can do is consistently and persistently talk about what taxes support, uphold, and make possible—and not simply with a laundry list of services, but with an emphasis on the shared values that we protect by contributing to the common good. We should talk about the role taxes play in laying the foundations of a healthy economy, providing freedom, protection, and opportunity for our families, and meeting our goals for the future.

Lepore describes taxes as a pact, the pact we make to one another to maintain and invest in the kind of communities—and country—we can be proud to live in, communities where we all have freedom and opportunities to succeed. Here’s how she describes that pact:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, for modernity, and for prosperity. The wealthy pay more because they have benefited more. Taxes, well laid and well spent, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote all our well-being. Taxes protect property and the environment; taxes make business possible. Taxes pay for roads and schools and bridges and police and teachers. Taxes pay for doctors and nursing homes and medicine. During an emergency, like an earthquake or a hurricane, taxes pay for rescue workers, shelters and services. For people whose lives are devastated by other kinds of disasters, like the disaster of poverty, taxes pay, even, for food.

This tax season, if you don’t have the chance to say all the things about taxes that Lepore does, here are some shortcuts that should become new, better habits:

Talking Points: Why taxes matter

Lead with values. Taxes are our investment in the common good. They protect our freedom and safety. They provide opportunity for our families.

Reinforce what taxes pay for. Our taxes make possible the public systems and structures that keep our communities running: the protections we rely on for food, water, and health; the rule of law; the investments and infrastructure at the foundation of our economy—benefits we all take advantage of every day.

Frame taxes as important tools. Taxes are how we get things done together, how we set community priorities, how we plan for and build a secure, prosperous future.

Sightline Flashcards are messaging memos designed as short, scannable tools for sharing effective communications strategies. Our strategic communications team digests piles of public opinion research, transcripts from speeches, expert advice, and academic studies—from cognitive linguistics and neuroscience to political science, sociology, and psychology—distilling best practices in messaging. Flashcards often focus on values-based communication: strategies for talking about important policies or issue solutions in terms of shared values.

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  1. John Gear says:

    One thing that environmentalists and others interested in a more balanced discussion about taxes should do is note the smart and very successful technique used by the sprawl lobby on every road project: “Your Tax Dollars at Work.”. They federal and state departments of transportation are the only agencies who seem to get the value of explicitly telling people “Look, this is something you’re getting with your taxes.”

    I’ve suggested over the years that every government check issued ought to have that line on the front. But now that we’ve forced beneficiaries to do mainly direct deposit for allrecurring benefits, we need to think about that message (benefits of taxes are invisible, but the deductions appear and are expressly broken out in every pay statement).

    Progressives and government workers seem to have adopted a permanent cowering stance about tax support, doing everything possible to play up “partnerships” with businesses etc. and concealing their dependence on taxes, as if in fear that acknowledging being dependent on taxes will just trigger more cuts. I think this is likely very counterproductive — ignorance doesn’t breed support, it breeds even more bizarre assumptions (look at the surveys of where people think government spends money compared to reality).

    • Eric de Place says:

      Fascinating idea, John. What would happen if a sign near the entrances to schools said “your property taxes at work” or signs at national parks said “your income taxes at work”?

      • Sue Lani Madsen says:

        Perhaps such signs should be posted at all venues supported by taxes, not just the universally warm and fuzzy ones. How about every big league stadium hosting overpaid adults playing games, the local symphony playing to a limited audience , an art exhibit (all of them, they’ll all annoy somebody), Planned Parenthood offices, military recruiting stations, public radio stations, side of every bus, the farmer’s field tied up in a CRP contract. The reason the transportation project signs proudly proclaim “tax dollars at work” is (1) to reduce grumbling while people wait in traffic and (2) there is relatively strong consensus that transportation infrastructure is a priority of government.

  2. Jeff Smith says:

    Recall the judge lives off others paying taxes. Taxes also pay for war and bridges to nowhere and lots else. So, paying taxes is also profoundly anti-social. They’re a vestige of conquest and feudalism and a peon’s worldview and the need to please the powerful. Coercion is not needed. We can fund all we want in a cooperative manner. The worst part of taxes is they reinforce the blind spot regarding common wealth. Let’s just recover all the spending for land and resources, which already is ours, and amounts to the biggest stream in the GDP, using fees, dues, leases, and let taxes become relics. Get rid of subsidies, too. Just share common wealth and we can lock the hood on the economy.

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