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.
Editor's Note: In her new book Don't Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy, communications specialist Anat Shenker-Osorio makes a compelling case for why progressives have to find a better way of talking about the economy if we ever hope to set things right. In a presidential election where voters' preferences often hinge on language, telling the right story with the right words is as important as getting citizens to the polls. Below is an excerpt from the preface of this handy guide that can help make policy discussions -- not to mention dinner table conversations -- a lot more clear and effective.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. -- Exodus 20:13
Many of us are daily left wondering how to make sense of the contradictions we personally experience and hear about the economy. The news tells us the recession ended in 2009, but unemployment has proven stubbornly stable. Pundits contend we’ve seen the end of the housing bubble, but home prices in most places won’t budge and foreclosures continue. Our growth rate has registered positive since the summer of 2009, but poverty levels are also on the rise. What’s going on, what will happen next, and how do we even begin to make sense of the economy?
I’m here to save you some boring. There’s no need to actually read long economic treatises, sit through lectures, or decipher expensive textbooks; you don’t even have to bother scrutinizing the graphs on the Wall Street Journal business page to learn what’s going on right now with the U.S. economy. It’s simpler than you think: all you need to know about the economy you can get from cartoons—a single show, in fact.
In their magnum opus, “Margaritaville,” season 13, episode 3, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done us a service, revealing over the course of 22 animated minutes what it might otherwise take several semesters at a decent business school to learn. The episode opens in the small Colorado town of South Park, which is wracked by a sudden and serious economic decline. After a period of collective soul-searching, the locals hit upon the obvious cause of rampant unemployment and plummeting stock values: the Economy is pissed.
The citizens cower upon realizing the truth—the Economy is an angry and vengeful god. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, “There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.”
The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modern-day Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice. The cartoon version of this goes full throttle: Bible-inspired acts of piety and prostration ensue. Citizens turn their sheets into togas and cease to buy or sell things altogether in an attempt to show deference before the Economy.
“Sacrifice” is not an arbitrary or accidental word choice. It’s become a hallowed term in our national lexicon, the preferred prescription for achieving propitious economic results. Minus the dead animals and altars, politicians, pundits, and peddlers of conventional wisdom have asked us to sacrifice over and over again. In 2010, WashingtonPost columnist David Broder wrote that “everyone and every institution will have to contribute—no, genuinely, sacrifice—if we are to repair the damage to our economic health.” GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney admonished, “My plan for America requires real leadership—and it calls for sacrifice. It does not require a leader to promise bigger and bigger benefits and something for nothing. It requires a leader to call for sacrifice.”
When Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) outlined his plan to cut spending, he remarked, “There will not be one American that will not be called to sacriice.” They may not be asking us to pull on hair shirts or flagellate ourselves with whips, but their high praise of austerity as solution rings sadly true to South Park’s notion of Economy as deity.
Deity isn’t the only form our economy takes in popular perception. In current discourse about economic policy and in prevailing explanations of events, it has become all too common to treat the economy as a living, breathing, intentional being. One that by all means we should avoid hurting. You can likely recall hearing on TV or reading in the news some variation on “We can’t do [ill in socially beneficial act] because it will hurt the economy.” Or, “If we do [thing that will make Americans’ lives better], it will scare the markets.”
In 2011, Representative Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) warned, “Increasing tax revenues could hurt the economy.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA) echoed his sentiments in a USA Today op-ed: “With nervous markets...the worst thing Washington can do for our economy is raise taxes on the people we need to start hiring again.” Conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has long preached that unemployment benefits damage the economy.
Other things that supposedly give the economy apoplexy? Take your pick: regulations, welfare programs, government spending, helping the poor, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But when was the last time you heard a discussion about whether a potential policy might hurt, harm, weaken, or threaten people? Americans like you and me. Instead, we’ve been taught to be so preoccupied with the abstract fate and feelings of the economy that what happens to us doesn’t even enter into the discussion.
Other issues of national concern don’t evidence such rhetorical treatment. Military matters, for example, are generally framed as being vital to protecting our national security interests. No one attempts to justify military action because our armies need to grow or because if we don’t start a war, some branch of the military’s feelings might be hurt. Military action has to be linked to the good of the American people in any effective sales pitch.
Consider, as another example, how we craft our arguments about education. Whether on the side of vouchers and charters or on the side of unions and addressing disparities, you better believe the people arguing it are characterizing their position as “for the children.” This phrase is repeated so often it has become a punchline. But the point is, you won’t catch anyone insisting that his or her big education reform idea will further the field of pedagogy itself or contribute mightily to our awareness of child development.
But the “for the people” sales pitch becomes insufficient, or just plain inaudible, whenever talk turns directly to money matters. The American people are admonished to work, consume, and sacrifice to make sure the economy doesn’t get grumpy, skittish, or vindictive. In most domains, policies must be advertised as serving our national interests, but when GDP talk rolls around, this is no longer the case. We’re here to please the economy, not the other way around.
Our Economy is furthermore billed as a pretty particular deity: an Old Testament style of god. Apparently, insufficient “faith” in it can catalyze disaster. Economists have a special variable to quantify this kind of belief: it’s called consumer confidence. We measure it like any other economic indicator; only instead of being an actual tabulation of monies spent, jobs gained, or taxes collected, it tabulates the vague sense of how people feel about what may or may not come to pass.
Our monetary high priests’ readings of the economic Tarot have taken the place of centuries of lived experience, cross-country comparisons and testable theories. Their say alone can justify policies of austerity and debt reduction peddled to us most often by the right. You’ve heard of faith-based social initiatives? Welcome to myth-based economics.
With the Economy established as our overlord, the bankers and CEOs who interpret its omnipotent ways can be seen as its ordained intermediaries, presiding in their too-big-to-fail temples. Simple serfs like you and I hand over tithes and tributes in the form of obscure fees, but frustrated as we may get, we don’t dare defy the clergy of finance. No matter how naked their greed and obvious their sins, we’re scared to topple these people. Without them who would make sense of and pay proper homage to the Economy? The direct line of communication to the almighty dollar is theirs alone.
Like their priestly predecessors, those closest to the Economy dress up in their bespoke Brooks Brother vestments, break all the rules, and tell the rest of us peons to keep our heads down and noses clean and to sacrifice. CEOs’ golden parachutes and bankers’ bonuses, doled out regardless of performance, make the old-school practice of selling indulgences seem almost quaint. And yet, for fear of upending the established order, making Wall Street less “competitive,” and thus enraging the Economy anew, our leaders turn a blind eye. Or, perhaps more aptly, offer a wink and a nod.
As of this writing the Justice Department has yet to try a single financial firm executive in criminal court for fraud. Let me clarify—our government hasn’t even tried to try them. Granted, there have been some civil finger wagging and a few lines that are—considering the riches of the parties involved—little more than chump change. Some may make the argument that this failure even to attempt to hold top bankers accountable is due simply to the fact that while deeply unethical, their actions were not actually illegal. In other words, they fall under the heading of stupid and crappy but do not extend to violation of our laws. But refusing to even ask the question in court signals just how loathe we are to challenge these mighty men of money.
Mainline thinking about the U.S. economy is starting to resemble Scientology: beyond a coterie of high-profile, high-income believers, the more those of us outside the fold learn about the teachings, the wackier the whole enterprise sounds.
Members who attempt to leave either orthodoxy—in one case a church and in the other a market-worship orientation—are shunned and ostracized.
Where once we looked to the weather to indicate how we were tracking with God, now televised market reports tell us hourly how the Economy regards our latest offerings. Whether we have our life savings wrapped up in the stock market or have nothing at all, a bad NASDAQ report today has become as crucial as rainfall quantities were to our ancestors: a serious matter of life or death. You may have no idea what the 10-year T-note is, but hearing that it has fallen as good as assures you there’ll be lean times ahead.
The debt clock, the consumer price index, the unemployment report, the latest quarterly earnings—we’re bombarded by figures we barely understand that nonetheless profoundly affect how we feel about ourselves and the world. Our hope and our happiness have become intimately tied to abstractions. It’s a quick hop from there to getting us to think we’re here for the Economy.
In a nutshell, the overriding message is twofold: it’s your fault that the Economy sucks, but there’s not much you can do to improve it. This storyline must sound achingly familiar to Christians. The blame for damnation to hell lies with you and you alone. Yet though prayer and piety are good ideas, only God determines who merits redemption. Economic salvation is out of your hands, but that’s no excuse to quit your night job or start spending on luxury items like college.
Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.