The gist: The word “taxes” carries with it a lot of negative baggage. But with careful “redirection” or reframing of our messages about taxes and budgets, we can shed some of that dead weight. The first rule, of course, is to immediately discontinue using the most damaging frames—unfortunately very prevalent ones: “tax burden,” “tax relief,” “taxpayers’ dollars,” and “out of taxpayers’ pockets.” All of these reinforce individualistic, consumerist, and defensive reactions to discussions of taxes. Here are some alternatives that pave the way for more productive discussions.
Start with “common good” frames.
When messages start with a vision of community priorities, it reminds people of the purpose and importance of taxes.
The “common good” frame focuses on shared priorities and values, a common vision of the future, and working together to ensure our quality of life—those aspects of our country’s, communities’ and families’ futures that we wish to see realized.
Starting with these frames helps remove the offense from taxes as arbitrary reductions in personal assets, and shift people away from short-term, consumerist thinking.
Link budgets, taxes, and community priorities.
Out of context, taxes are viewed as theft. Always connect them to the community priorities they support—it’s how we get things done together.
Unframed discussions of taxes become about taking money away from people who have worked for it, rather than of taxes as a means to contribute to public services, quality of life, and shared priorities. To frame the conversation effectively, talk about budgets before taxes and define budgets as collective priorities. Talk about taxes as our way of realizing these priorities—the way we get things done. Use a practical, pragmatic tone to lay out where the community (or country) needs to go and how the process of budgeting and taxation can get us there.
In FrameWorks’ research, discussions of taxes were relatively more positive when they were preceded by the concept of budgets. This “order matters” effect can be explained by the fact that individuals are more likely to be positive about taxes when they can see and have in their minds the budgets and services that tax money funds.
Pull back the curtain.
Taxes and budgets can be mysterious. Make the process more transparent, explaining where taxes go, how budget choices are made, and where to see results.
Bring people into the budget and tax process—ownership breeds better understanding and support.
The research shows that the public views the budgeting process as almost magical in its lack of transparency. It’s something that happens somewhere behind closed doors and the money disappears. Services that result are largely invisible, making outcomes as mysterious as the process. Communicators can bridge this gap by engaging people in the transactions that lead to budgets and taxes, revealing the hard choices that are part of the process, and reminding people how this process relates to meeting the country’s or the community’s priorities—this is how we get where we want to go.
Beware of consumerist appeals that reinforce the idea of “getting one’s money’s worth out of government.” The dominant models used to think about taxes are anti-collective, short term and individualistic. Getting your money’s worth, not paying more than others, and having choice in what you “get” or what you fund are all negative entailments of this way of thinking.
This means we should avoid the most ubiquitous—and damaging—phrases used to describe taxes: “tax burden,” “tax relief,” “taxpayers’ dollars,” “right out of taxpayers’ pockets.”
Beware of emotional idealization of how budgeting and taxation “should” work. FrameWorks’ research revealed a widely-held perception that the ideal never matches up with reality. Peoples’ impressions of how things actually work is negative and defeatist. The problem seems too big to resolve. Thus, overblown messages aren’t believable.
Discussions of “fairness.”
When fairness is evoked, it leads to models of regressive taxation as the most available way to achieve equity. The perception is that the most “fair” system is a flat tax—everyone pays the same.
This is true despite almost universal consensus among FrameWorks’ research participants that rich people and wealthy corporations should bear greater burdens in the tax system. Put simply, when people tried to be “fair” in assigning sources for taxation in FrameWorks’ budget simulations, an across-the-board fairness trumped people’s earlier expressed views that the wealthiest sectors of society should pay more. It is possible that the very complexity of taxation cries out for the simplest solution; indeed, in the peer discourse sessions, it was often the very simplicity of the proposal that “everyone pays the same” that attracted support