The way that taxation is viewed by the public has a lot to do with the way politicians frame the debate. (Artwork: inventions-guide.com)
Something as simple as a metaphor can mean the difference between shared prosperity and widespread suffering.
It's time to tell the truth about tax cuts. This phrase dominates political discourse and is coughed out every time a conservative public figure opens his mouth. It is treated like the basis of sound reasoning, yet no one points out what should be obvious - that "tax relief" and "tax cuts" are just code words for destroying the capacity of government to serve the public.
We've heard over and over again that the source of society's problems is the government. The solution that follows is to "trim the fat," "cut out the waste," "shrink the government" and provide "relief" to millions of citizens who suffer the burden of exploitation by Washington elites. This story flies in the face of the facts, yet it makes sense to a significant portion of the US population. How can this be?
The answer has to do with how we make sense of things in the world. Our experiences shape what seems legitimate by reinforcing (or undermining) our ideas about the way things work. So, for example, a progressive politician may speak honestly and forcefully about the positive role of government in our lives. But this will fall on deaf ears if our typical experience is at odds with such claims. This observation demonstrates a key element of what George Lakoff and I have dubbed the Cognitive Criterion for Public Support:
An effective policy must be popular if it is to stand the test of time and it must be popular for the right reasons, namely because it promotes the right long-term values in the minds of citizens, reinforced through the lived experience.
The reason many people accept conservative claims about taxation and government is that they hold up for many common experiences, especially when conservatives are in control of the government. Conservative officials enact policies that make life worse for people while claiming that things will get better. Then they draw upon these negative experiences to advance their agenda. No Child Left Behind is an excellent example. The strategy works like this (a more detailed analysis can be found here):
1. Declare that the agenda is to "improve" public education.
2. Pass legislation that cripples public schools.
3. Cry out for "reform" when people see how bad our schools are doing.
4. Get rid of public schools and replace them with private schools, especially schools that teach conservative ideology (e.g. elite charter schools, religious schools, etc.).
This strategy demonstrates how *cognitive policy* works. Emphasis is given to how people understand what is happening. The goal is to ensure that our experiences are interpreted through a conservative lens. It is not literally the case that taxation is a burden (a provocative metaphor), but rather that our common sense is influenced by a combination of our experiences in the world and the interpretive filters that give them meaning. (A key feature of how the political mind works, as I discuss in The Great Political Blind Spot.)
Back to the hidden agenda behind tax cuts; we can apply this insight to see that conservatives *want* people to have negative experiences with government. Why? Because it supports decades of propaganda - and an underlying belief that stems from their worldview - that government is the problem. In the early 1970's, conservative elites started investing heavily in the creation of idea factories to spread their views far and wide so that they eventually became the new common sense of our culture. They had to work tirelessly for years to change the underlying values of American citizens because our long history has been devoted to advancing our most cherished values, which happen to be progressive. But, as we can see by the pervasiveness of their ideas today, this effort has been catastrophically successful.
Now is the time to nip their bankrupt idea about taxation in the bud. The way to do it is simple. Take their reasoning to its logical conclusion and see what happens if it is applied to the real world. We can test the conservative belief about taxation against our own and decide what's best by looking at the outcomes.
First, we'll need to be very clear about just what conservatives and progressives mean by taxation. Then we can apply these understandings to the world to see their consequences. (The insights that follow come from linguistic analysis of cognitive "frames" that shape political thought.)
Taxation as Conservatives Understand It
I've already alluded to an interesting metaphor that helps make sense of conservative thought about taxes, which I'll call Taxes Are a Burden to make it explicit. The understanding of taxation that follows from this metaphor can be seen in this story:
Hard-working Americans are in need of some tax relief. Years of mismanagement by tax-and-spend liberals have taken money out of the hands of working people and put it into bloated government programs that serve special interests. We need to cut taxes, return fiscal responsibility to government, and put money back in the hands of taxpayers who know best how to spend it.
This perspective is grounded in two beliefs: (1) The world is comprised of individuals; and (2) People are inherently bad and must learn right from wrong through self-discipline. I like to call this the "Me First" perspective because it assumes that people must help themselves before thinking about others. It can be summarized with the declaration, "You're on your own!" The Me First perspective assumes that any assistance from the community would be "coddling" or "spoiling" us. This claim is asserted as truth in the conservative worldview.
Taxation as Progressives Understand It
Progressives have a different understanding of taxation that can be expressed through a variety of metaphors: Taxes Are an Investment, Taxes Are Membership Dues, Taxes Are Pathways to Opportunity, Taxes Are Infrastructure and Taxes Are a Duty. (Read more about progressive taxation in "Progressive Taxation: Some Hidden Truths") Reasoning that emerges with these metaphors can be seen in this progressive story:
Our great nation was founded on a promise of protection and opportunity. Through our shared wealth, pooled together by taxation with representation, we have invested in the public infrastructure that makes possible the creation of new wealth. We have a sacred trust to keep this promise alive throughout our lifetimes, expand it as we are able, and pass it along to our children.
This perspective is grounded in the beliefs that (1) Individuals are influenced significantly by our communities; and (2) People are inherently good and benefit from cooperation with others. I like to call this the "People First" perspective because it assumes that people must help each other in order to enhance their ability to help themselves. It can be summarized with the declaration, "We're all in this together!" The People First perspective assumes that we are greater than the sum of our parts and that new opportunities emerge when we make wise investments with the common wealth we share.
Truth and Consequences
Now that we have a clear sense of what taxation means to conservatives and progressives, we can see what happens if these different ideas are used as governing principles for shaping society. This analysis accomplishes two purposes. First, it reveals key truths about taxation that complicate arguments made by conservatives, truths that don't get talked about nearly enough. And second, it exposes a covert agenda that deceptively exploits real concerns of people to advance an otherwise unpopular agenda.
What happens if the Me First perspective is applied to taxation? Just look to the world we find ourselves in today. A problem defined as "too much spending" leads to budget cuts. This results in a diminished capacity to provide vital services. Public goods like education, civil and criminal courts, road maintenance and fundamental scientific research are too costly for individuals - or even multinational corporations - to afford. So these services are cut and people lose their jobs. Thousands of teachers no longer cultivating young minds. Countless construction workers laid off when city and state governments halt infrastructure projects. Graduates with advanced degrees unable to find work because public agencies are "tightening their belts" and cutting back on grants to academia, nonprofits and the private sector.
Beyond the direct human suffering of disrupted lives, there is substantial reduction in government programs that protect the public against harm. The FDA cannot staff enough inspectors to keep toxic peanuts out of the food supply. The EPA lacks capacity to keep drinking water clean in cities and towns across the country. The SEC is unable to keep a watchful eye on runaway speculation and our economy spins wildly out of control. Bridges crumble and levies break because funds are in short supply.
The consequence of conservative ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People are forced to be "on their own" with no protection against serious threats and no assistance to get them beyond their current means. When disasters strike, there is widespread suffering and death because the tapestry of society - our precious safety net - has withered and decayed. Think I'm exaggerating? I'll just say one word - Katrina.
And despite their claims to the contrary, conservative leaders want this to happen.
Contrast this with the People First perspective. Again, we can let experience be our guide. A decade of rampant deregulation, perpetrated by a conservative mindset about the relationship between government and the economy, led to the great stock market crash of 1929. A visionary progressive leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stepped in and vastly expanded a wide variety of public programs. The flood of revenues accompanying this expansion was enough to put millions of unemployed back to work. New programs that embody the spirit of progress emerged in the decades that followed. Social Security, the GI Bill, Medicare and the FDIC are a few examples of the legacy this pooling of resources delivered to the American people.
Along with this massive investment in societal infrastructure, Americans experienced tremendous growth of shared prosperity. For the first time in our history, an entire generation of children from working-class families moved up the economic ladder with college degrees in hand. Home ownership skyrocketed. Literacy rates went through the roof and new skills emerged to expand the capacity of markets. And two generations of people experienced the benefits of cooperation in their daily lives, codifying the ethic that we're all in it together as a bedrock of sound reason.
I can attest to this from personal experience. Both of my parents came from working-class families. I was the first to get a college degree. Federal and state scholarships delivered me from the rural farm to the hallowed halls. And now society gets to benefit from the fruits of my labor as I work to transform our political system for the betterment of society. The cognitive policy of the People First perspective is a foundation of my identity in the world.
The Hidden Agenda Exposed
The progress of our nation is being held hostage by a malicious metaphor. Treating taxation as nothing more than a burden is tantamount to declaring that citizenship is nothing more than getting all you can for yourself â€¦ everyone else be damned. Conservative elites have undermined the responsibilities we have to one another to advance their agenda. They are fully committed to crafting the world in their image, as we've seen all too clearly these last eight years and throughout the current debate about economic recovery under the Obama administration.
I say enough is enough. Let's call this tactic out for what it is. People are hurting in every corner of the land and they're looking for help where they haven't dared to look for quite some time - in the service of our representatives in the federal government. Conservatives will try to convince us that our hardships are caused by excessive government. The truth is that we are suffering under excessive conservative ideology of governance, which is a very different beast. They continue to claim that we can't get ahead because we're overtaxed. This claim is absurd!
Not a single home foreclosure throughout this crisis has been caused by excessive taxation. The misfortune of illness in a dysfunctional health system has burdened people with horrendous debt. Where did this problem come from? Profit-driven health care created under the Nixon administration.
Banks haven't failed catastrophically through oversized personal W-2 forms. Radical deregulation is the culprit. Who deregulated the market? Conservative ideologues from both political parties. (This is what the word "centrist" really means - conservatives who've infiltrated the Democratic Party.)
Companies haven't been driven to huge layoffs because their tax burden is too high. They are victims of an unraveling market. What undermined the integrity of the global economy? An extremist philosophy of governance that is blind to the role of the regulatory frameworks that give stabilizing structure to our markets.
What can we do to stop the conservative agenda? Call it out for what it is. When someone says, "People need tax relief," respond by letting them know that "We really need to invest in one another." Make it clear what the consequences of tax cuts really are - the destruction of our mechanisms for protecting and empowering one another. And let's stop taking their language for granted just because everyone is doing it. That logic didn't make much sense in middle school. It's all the more dangerous to follow as adults. Challenge the conservative meaning of taxation directly. Declare that we are decidedly NOT on our own. Point to the benefits we've taken for granted too long, things like education and schools and roads and courts.
We mustn't stop with a critique of their ideas either. We need to fervently argue for our own. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. A prosperous community is a place where neighbors pool their efforts for the greater good. Taxes provide resources for investments larger than anything we could build on our own. And these benefits create a space for new ideas to take hold and expand our wealth.
Ideas matter. Words are important. We cannot afford to let a radical minority set the tone of public debate any longer. The time is ripe for moving beyond the era of misguided individualism. Let's take the momentum we've built in the last few years and place the United States back on a course that resonates with our deeply held values - caring for one another, expanding freedoms to the marginalized, and recognizing that our shared prosperity is at the core of our success as a nation.
Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement. This article has been previously published on the Cognitive Policy Works site.