“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said it nearly a century ago. And, “no one’s said it better since,” New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore reminds us, “and that, right there, is the problem.”

[P]oliticians don’t like to talk about taxes, except to use them the way a matador uses a red cape. Those interested in getting voters to seethe will find no means easier. Read their lips.

The persistence of anti-tax rhetoric in the US is especially strange, Lepore points out, given that “ninety percent of Americans receive direct social or economic security benefits from the federal government.” Yet we find it easier to see what we pay than what we get.

It’s a failure not only of attention but also of communication: scarcely anybody reminds us what taxes actually fund. We talk about taxes without connecting them to the countless systems and structures that make our society tick, the protections that keep us safe and secure, and the investments and infrastructure that make up the foundation of our economy—benefits we all rely on and take advantage of, every day.

Research from Public Works, formerly part of Demos Center for the Public Sector, shows that this communications failure has consequences: “Americans are only dimly aware of what government does.” Further, we tend not to connect taxes to budgets, nor budgets to the work of government that everybody depends on. Unfortunately, when our thinking about taxes is this disconnected from the things taxes pay for, a logical conclusion is a political dead end: “Everyone should pay less.”

But, while it may seem daunting, the folks at Demos believe that we can make some headway in changing the national conversation about taxes by breaking bad messaging habits and adopting more effective ones.

First, here are the bad habits to kick, according to the Public Works researchers:

  • STOP reinforcing the standard negative frames (You know the ones: tax burden, tax relief, hard-earned tax dollars, taxpayers’ pockets),
  • STOP reinforcing prevalent stereotypes of government waste (e.g., “we could save tax dollars if we ended huge corporate welfare payments,” and avoid trigger words like waste, inefficiency, and bureaucracy.)
  • STOP triggering consumerist thinking by talking about what people “buy with their tax dollars.” Instead, activate citizen thinking by giving taxes context in the deeply held values and broadly shared benefits that they uphold,
  • STOP using the analogy of household budgets to explain public budgets,
  • STOP talking about tax fairness without defining fairness as shared responsibility (people have wildly varying understandings of fairness—but most of us see unfairness when those at the top who’ve benefited the most rig the system and get away without paying taxes while low- and middle-income families contribute a far greater share. “Those who’ve done well in this country have a responsibility to pay their fair share”),
  • and STOP assuming facts alone will win the day—always sandwich facts about taxes in values messages.

What we can do is consistently and persistently talk about what taxes support, uphold, and make possible—and not simply with a laundry list of services, but with an emphasis on the shared values that we protect by contributing to the common good. We should talk about the role taxes play in laying the foundations of a healthy economy, providing freedom, protection, and opportunity for our families, and meeting our goals for the future.

Lepore describes taxes as a pact, the pact we make to one another to maintain and invest in the kind of communities—and country—we can be proud to live in, communities where we all have freedom and opportunities to succeed. Here’s how she describes that pact:

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, for modernity, and for prosperity. The wealthy pay more because they have benefited more. Taxes, well laid and well spent, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote all our well-being. Taxes protect property and the environment; taxes make business possible. Taxes pay for roads and schools and bridges and police and teachers. Taxes pay for doctors and nursing homes and medicine. During an emergency, like an earthquake or a hurricane, taxes pay for rescue workers, shelters and services. For people whose lives are devastated by other kinds of disasters, like the disaster of poverty, taxes pay, even, for food.

This tax season, if you don’t have the chance to say all the things about taxes that Lepore does, here are some shortcuts that should become new, better habits:

Talking Points: Why taxes matter

Lead with values. Taxes are our investment in the common good. They protect our freedom and safety. They provide opportunity for our families.

Reinforce what taxes pay for. Our taxes make possible the public systems and structures that keep our communities running: the protections we rely on for food, water, and health; the rule of law; the investments and infrastructure at the foundation of our economy—benefits we all take advantage of every day.

Frame taxes as important tools. Taxes are how we get things done together, how we set community priorities, how we plan for and build a secure, prosperous future.

March 13, 2013