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Communicating Effectively about Taxes - Public Works



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Communicating Effectively about Taxes - Public Works

  1. 1. Communicating Effectively about Taxes October 2013
  2. 2. Talking about Taxes Our goal is to….. help more Americans to understand that taxes are the way we all help to support the public structures, systems and services that are essential to our democracy and our quality of life. 2
  3. 3. Default Thinking on Taxes 3
  4. 4. The topic of taxes is highly charged in American discourse, and has been since our founding. But today, it seems almost impossible to talk rationally and pragmatically about tax policy choices. Unraveling our rhetoric about taxes and creating a more reasoned appreciation of their role and purpose is an important aspect of changing attitudes toward government in general. 4
  5. 5. “Legitimacy and a steady source of revenue provide the twin foundations of any enduring government.” - Marjorie E. Kornhauser Despite Americans’ long history of protest over taxation, it is equally clear that the public structures we depend on today would not exist without our tax system. And our collective future is in jeopardy if we don’t have adequate and reliable revenues and public support for them. 5
  6. 6. Taxes have become disconnected from their purposes. Unfortunately, research shows that people do not generally think about all the things we rely on every day that taxes help to pay for. Even when they do recall them they take them for granted, assuming they will always be there and that any discussion about taxes must be for something “extra” or wasteful. 6
  7. 7. The disconnect between taxes and what they pay for manifests itself in many ways. In this example, protestors are bemoaning taxes while literally being surrounded by tax-supported public infrastructure. 7
  8. 8. Unfortunately, most Americans view taxes as “taken money.” They are “theft” by the government that prevents individuals from paying for their own personal needs. This default perception is constantly reinforced by typical media coverage and the anti-tax rhetoric that bombards us every day.
  9. 9. “Consumer Thinking” Fuels a sense that taxes are subtractive. When people view government as a vending machine of services “bought,” the core questions are not civic ones but rather “what’s in it for me?” and “what is it going to cost?” 9
  10. 10. Recommendations for Changing the Conversation 10
  11. 11. First, reconnect taxes to their purposes by focusing on the public structures they fund.
  12. 12. Reconnect Taxes to Purpose The public structures that underpin our communities – such as schools, roads, clinics, police and fire protection, and health inspections – all depend on a system of budgets and taxes that supports them adequately now and into the future. Taxes are an essential part of the equation; how they are raised and the level of resources they provide will affect our quality of life now and into the future. 12
  13. 13. Next, reset the context. Debates about taxes are often lodged in zero-sum arguments about costs and benefits in the current moment. Reset the context by focusing on the role taxes play in helping us meet future goals and objectives and reminding us that previous generations paid taxes to construct the many public benefits we enjoy today. 13
  14. 14. Example of resetting the context “On Tax Day, millions of Americans will do what generations before have done – contribute to our country's future. Just as our parents and grandparents paid taxes to build the schools, transportation systems, health clinics and parks we benefit from today, our tax payments this year continue this effective system of forward exchange.”* * See a description of the “forward exchange” concept at: 14
  15. 15. And, avoid reinforcing bad frames. Too much of our language about taxes infers that they are a burden from which we should be seeking relief. Even the term “taxpayer” reduces our role to check-writer. Avoid terms like: • Tax Burden • Tax Relief • Hard-earned tax dollars • Taxpayer 15
  16. 16. Taxes are Loads to be shared not Burdens to avoid We all have to carry our share of the “load” when it comes to paying for the things we all need. 16
  17. 17. People struggle with notions of tax “fairness” Fairness is a basic American value, but when it comes to taxes “fairness is in the eye of the beholder.” Moreover, people often think that the simplest proposals are the most fair, e.g. flat income taxes or consumption taxes. It is sometimes difficult for people to see how a “progressive” tax system – one that expects the most from those who have the most – is the best design. 17
  18. 18. Fairness = Not Taxing Me As Russell B. Long famously said, “Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!“ Relying only on arguments about fairness may generate a willingness to tax others (e.g. the wealthy, corporations) but it may not help change overall attitudes about taxation. 18
  19. 19. Why should the wealthy and corporations pay “their fair share?” Efforts to focus on those who should pay more – such as the wealthy and corporations – still need to make a practical case for “why.” 19
  20. 20. An example of “why” some should pay more The public systems that our taxes support are the foundation of our nation’s economy. Everyone – individuals and businesses alike – needs to shoulder an appropriate share of these costs. Our nation was built on the notion that those who have benefitted the most from our country’s public investments should also pay the most for their upkeep. For some time now this basic principle has been eroding away. Over recent decades the share of taxes paid by high income earners and large corporations has been reduced while middle class families have paid more and our public systems have declined. This great American tax shift is undermining the foundations our economy and our society. 20
  21. 21. We cannot just tell a morality tale; we also need a story of a tax system that is upside down and needs to be repaired.
  22. 22. Tips for fairness conversations • Take a practical, management stance (what is the best tax structure to run a modern society). • Make it about a tax “structure” or “system” that needs to be changed not just “greedy people and corporations.” • Try using terms like “upside down,” or “out of balance,” instead of “unfair.” • Find ways to turn attention to the investments in public systems & structures that make wealth and economic success possible. 22
  23. 23. Summary of Recommendations • Connect taxes to their purposes • Elevate civic thinking not consumerism • Reset the context and perspective • Avoid triggering bad tax frames • Make a practical case for fairness 23
  24. 24. For more information about talking about taxes, we encourage you to visit