Progressive Frames for Taxes

By The Rockridge Institute

The Tax Relief frame illustrates how frames control public debate. It is time for progressives to fight back with frames that effectively and honestly represent the progressive view of taxation.

When a frame is applied to an issue, it leads people to think and reason about the issue in a specific way. Suddenly, certain conclusions seem to become inevitable and others become nearly impossible. This is what framing is about.

The phrase tax relief evokes a frame, and the choice of this phrase (instead of tax cuts or tax reduction, for example) is no accident — Conservatives know what they are doing with this use of language. When we hear the word relief, we immediately know that in the situation there is an affliction or burden, a victim of the affliction, and someone who helps us by relieving the affliction.

Without relief, there is continued suffering. Since no one wants suffering, we see anyone who interferes with the relief as a “bad guy” — as someone who must be defeated. This in turn sets up the reliever as a kind of hero. Every time the phrase tax relief is heard or read by millions of people, the more this view, which sets up taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes, gets reinforced.

Once citizens, influenced by media, accept tax relief as the right words to use when discussing taxes, it becomes almost impossible to see why taxes sometimes should go up instead of down, or to point out who is not paying their fair share.

It is critical for progressives to reframe the tax debate-to demonstrate the logic of how taxes support and extend the basic American values of protection, freedom, opportunity, fairness, and community.

New Frames for Taxes

As progressives, we do not believe that taxes are necessarily an affliction. Instead, we think of taxes as investments that give us dividends. And, every patriotic American pays their fair share, to support their country. Taxes are the way we support the common good.

Taxes Are Investments

Conservatives regularly claim that, “you know how to spend your money better than the government does.” This is by no means always true. In a great many cases, the government has invested our tax money wisely, and we have reaped enormous dividends. For instance, take our highway system paid for by taxpayer investments. Imagine trying to take your tax cut and use it to build a highway system? Or take the Internet — it was paid for with taxpayer investments, as was the development of computer chips. Imagine trying to use your tax cut to invent and build the Internet, and design and make chips for all of our computer uses? Through our education system, as well as through the NSF (National Science Foundation), and NIH (National Institutes of Health), our wise taxpayer investments have trained generations of scientists and medical researchers. Imagine trying to take your tax cut to train doctors and scientists.

Dependence on taxpayer investments is even more extreme for corporations. Taxpayers pay for all of our government financial institutions - our national banks, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury and Commerce departments, as well as our courts, of which 90% is used for corporate law. When someone wants to start a business, they do not have to build highways, the internet, educate scientists, found banks, or start a court system from scratch. They are all there waiting for you, courtesy of taxpayers. These are taxpayer dividends.

Our taxes are investments that pay extraordinary dividends. No investment, no dividends. Some of the most important dividends are economic growth and jobs.

Fairness: Everyone Pays Their Fair Share

It costs money to run America — tax money. Somebody is paying, and if others do not pay their fair share, then you are paying for them. Large corporations and the wealthy used to pay their fair share. They do not anymore. That means you are paying their taxes. Is that fair?

Fair taxation means we all pay our way, and we all pay our fair share. The wealthiest Americans use our public infrastructure more than anyone else, and they use parts of it that other people do not. For example:

* An overwhelming percentage of state and federal court time is devoted to corporate law. Businesses and corporations rely on a smoothly functioning court system to negotiate disputes and ensure contracts are upheld.
* The Securities and Exchange Commission and all the apparatus of the Commerce Department are mainly used by the wealthy.
* Companies depend on sound roads, railways and ports to transport their products.
* Companies benefit from an educated workforce, and the scientific and technological research that we have all paid for.

We all pay in to maintain these resources, but corporations and wealthy people use more of our public resources than an ordinary family does — so it only makes sense that they pay accordingly. That is what progressive taxation is all about. We all pay our fair share to support America — corporations should, too.

Patriotism: Patriotic Americans Pay Their Taxes

Taxes are an issue of patriotism. Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country?

Patriotic Americans pay their taxes. Taxes maintain the investments we made to build roads, schools and hospitals - we pay our dues to make sure they remain in good repair and available for our use. Taxes support the infrastructure and services that protect us-the military, our police officers, and our firefighters. As a community, we contribute our taxes so that all of us are safe. We pay our taxes because we love our country and want to support it and our fellow Americans — it is an issue of patriotism.

Taxes Are Our Dues

Taxes are our dues — we pay our dues to be Americans and enjoy the benefits of American society. Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens. This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers. Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure. Our dues maintain it.

It is about being a member, a part of the community. People pay a membership fee to join a gym, the local YMCA, or a club for which they get to use the basketball courts, the swimming pool, and the golf course. They did not pay for these facilities with their own memberships. They were built and paid for by other members, and all the current members maintain them with their dues. It is the same thing with our country — being a member in good standing of a remarkable nation. Americans pay their dues.

These ideas need to be turned into frames that are commonplace in the minds of most Americans — so commonplace that they define our common sense about what taxation is. Once that happens, we will be able to use two-word phrases like tax investments and tax dividends and everyone will know what we are talking about.

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The Rockridge Institute is a project of the Tides Center, a tax exempt research and educational institution organization operating under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. Our mission is to advance public policies leading to a more just, democratic, environmentally sustainable, and humane society. We do not endorse or oppose any particular candidate or party.



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