In a Feb. 4 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Rick Stone of Madison, Wisc., makes a point that more of us should heed:
If the wealthy knew with certainty that their increased taxes would make the roads they drive safer, resistance might be less. Yet higher taxes have generally not been framed as such, but rather as a fairness issue—that you make too much, so we’ll take some of yours to give to others.
He is responding to an op-ed piece by Cornell University economics professor Robert H. Frank titled “Higher Taxes Help the Richest, Too,” a somewhat abstruse argument that takes about 900 words to make a rather simple point about why the wealthy resist tax increases. Still, we agree with the basic point, perhaps best summarized in the final sentence, “when the anti-tax wealthy make campaign contributions, they are buying only the deeper potholes and dirtier air that inevitably result when tax revenue is low.”
Earlier in his letter, Rick Stone cites the “behavioral economics concept of loss aversion—the idea that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.” The impulse to avoid losses can best be countered by showing what the tax increases could make possible. And then—he doesn’t say this, exactly, but we do—change the discourse from a scarcity and austerity framework to a maldistribution-of-wealth argument.
Naomi Klein on The Rachel Maddow Show in October praised the genius of the “We Are the 99%” slogan and said the Occupy Wall Street activists were smart to take the protest to “the source of maximal abundance,” to put the lie to the discourse of scarcity. “It’s not a scarcity problem,” she said, “it’s a distribution problem.”
Mr. Stone of Madison is not talking specifically about reinforced levees or expanded public transportation, but his point applies there as well. When we push for raising taxes on the under-taxed Upper 1 or 2 Percent (and we do); when we try to generate support for what even sympathetic politicians timidly call “revenue increases,” we must show specific examples of what the revenues would pay for: stronger levees, repaired roads, expanded rail service, schools and post offices that are allowed to remain open, and so on.
We agree that arguments for higher taxes should be framed in terms of what they would make possible—that is why we are calling attention to this letter—but if Mr. Stone is saying that calls for higher taxes should not be framed as a fairness issue, then we disagree. He’s probably right that the benefits to the public (including the wealthy) should be at the forefront, but fairness should certainly be part of the argument.
What Would George Lakoff Say?
We have quoted before the advice given to us by U.C. Berkeley linguist and political analyst George Lakoff. He said that in promoting investment in infrastructure and other public goods, Democrats should not try to imitate Republican appeals to self-interest (and certainly not appeals to fear), but rather should argue for doing what is morally right. People will warm to the moral argument if it is presented simply and directly. It is right and fair for a government to collect some portion of people’s income to pay for the building of schools and roads and for monitoring food safety, etc. As we wrote in a piece on the social contract posted in Sept. 2009:
He said the moral appeal is always the best. It’s honest and it is more persuasive. Democrats and progressives, he said, always fall for the “Enlightenment fallacy,” the naïve belief that if you simply present the facts, people will see the light and support your cause. Not so simple. . . . Democrats should never try to imitate Republican appeals—it’s never believable. Instead, use the moral argument (the golden rule)—It’s the right thing to do. Expanding health care coverage, protecting our cities from hurricanes with reinforced flood protection is the right thing to do, morally and ecologically.
Lakoff said Democrats and progressives are never persuasive with the appeal to self-interest—they can’t compete on that turf with Republicans. Part of the weakness of the self-interest approach is that it is fragmented, does not show how the various parts are connected, and therefore lacks a cohesiveness and persuasive force because it. To be persuasive, what we must do is show how seemingly disparate phenomena are related. Show, for instance, how the nation’s dependence on oil and the ravaging of the wetlands are connected; how the 10,000+ miles of oil and gas canals through the Louisiana wetlands destroy the storm-surge buffer that protects us from hurricanes, while the carbon emissions aggravate global warming, which intensifies hurricanes and raises sea levels, and so on. [Continue reading here.]
Thanks to Rick Stone of Madison for taking the time to write the letter, and our best wishes for the people of Wisconsin—especially the embattled public employees and union members there. We stand with Wisconsin.