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At This Fiscal Crossroads, Let's Talk About the Common Good and Our National Future

Focusing solely on taxes is the wrong approach to progressive messaging.
 
 
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What's the worst way to advocate for increasing revenue in today's fiscal fight? Talk about taxes. It only serves folks on the right to bring this topic front and center. Whether the pesky facts confirm it or not, they’ve cemented themselves as your money-saving alternative in governance – the Walmart of Washington. But progressives, a group of people who believe in a collective kitty, do our share of trashing taxes as well. We resort to this even when we mean to be defending them, hoping to make a case for government at the same time.

Consider the current debate about the fiscal crossroads; both sides are tripping over themselves to say “taxes” more often.  Oftentimes this includes implying they’re something to be reviled. Democrats can be heard parroting variations on the pronouncement that allowing tax cuts to expire will “punish” the middle class. What does that tell you about taxes?

Even the official 2012 Democratic party platform managed to convey taxes are a bad thing -- an affliction, to be more precise, by using the phrase “tax relief” no fewer than eight times. This is bad enough. But the bigger problem is that there’s simply too much airtime devoted to talking about taxes.

When was the last time you walked into an Apple store and had them try and sell you an i-anything by rattling off “Have you seen the price? Look at the price. Did I mention the price?” Notice how, in that exclusive boutique with the seven artfully hung items, the price tags are about the size of your pinky fingernail. There’s a reason for that. Marketers know they need you to fall in love with the object – then let’s talk about what it will cost.

So how about those items we’re getting? I personally appreciate having every exit marked for me on every highway. Big fan of stoplights, too. The fact that you can open a faucet anywhere in our giant country and have potable water come out is amazing. These things are government, bought and paid for by taxes. My kindergartener started public school – a fact that makes me so happy I routinely say he’s out of pre-school and into free school. I drop him off at half past eight every morning and know he’s looked after, engaged, socializing with his peers and mastering his letters. If I can say this as a resident of Oakland, California, one of the most beleaguered and resource-strapped districts in our nation, I would say government is working. In short, my taxes are buying me some pretty fantastic things. But, instead of leading with discussion of these items, we accept having a debate on thoroughly conservative terms.

We underestimate just how counterproductive it is to begin an adult conversation with Americans by leading with the price tag. Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that money-primed people (those shown list of words associated with topic) become more selfish. They are, for example, much less willing to spend time helping another student pretending to be confused about a task. When an experimenter dropped pencils, money-primed subjects elected to pick up far fewer than their unprimed peers. Also, when asked to set up two chairs for a get to know you chat, those who had money put on their minds placed the chairs farther apart. Money-primed undergrads showed greater preference for being alone.

The results of these experiments should give progressives pause and serve as lessons for how we do our messaging. Talking about money first makes the whole subsequent conversation start in a mean and selfish place -- the last thing we want when we're talking about the common good and our national future. Our representatives need to stop banging the tax gong, recognizing that the cognitive din it creates drowns out whatever else they intend to say about the necessity of shared responsibility and the value of our public goods.

Keeping the conversation about the things we pool our resources to finance squarely in the realm of numbers only ensures that we'll start off -- or end up -- hating government almost as much as we didn’t like algebra. Those politicians who actually believe in the institution in which they serve would do far better to speak of what government does for us -- and trust that we’re smart enough to know that good things don’t come cheap. The numbers are getting more than their share of airtime. It’s our job to talk about Grandma and making sure we provide her adequate meds, food and shelter.