Since Public Works first launched, we have believed that improved public discourse about taxes and budgets is a cornerstone of rebuilding basic understanding of and support for government. Too often the public seems to support public services but not the taxes needed to fund them or has little understanding of the necessary budgetary trade-offs and decisions. Advocates often find that their arguments for increasing taxes and tax reform are made more difficult by this limited understanding of and support for government in general.
To broaden our toolbox, we contracted with the FrameWorks Institute in 2008 and 2009 to undertake an investigation into how Americans understand taxes and budgets and to help us develop more effective strategies for communicating about these issues. Completed in 2009, this research revealed that taxes and budgets present unique and difficult challenges for those who seek more balanced and adequate revenue systems.
Three primary conclusions from this research are:
1. The cognitive terrain on which discussions about budget and taxes occur has a few well-traveled paths. First and foremost, when discussions about taxes occur without any context about the purposes and priorities they support, Americans see taxes as “taken money” and government as the “thief.” When this dominant view is triggered, people judge tax proposals by the impact on their own pocketbook, and they easily apply their habits of thinking about government – as a massive bureaucracy or political theatre – to the way they think about new proposals. On this terrain, it is hard for productive conversations about the purpose of taxes to take occur.
2. Communications that reconnect taxes to their purposes can foster a more productive discussion about how taxes are an important collective tool for getting things done. This research, combined with our own experiences in the field, has helped hone several techniques to create a more productive terrain for conversations. Examples of these messaging strategies include: leading with “common good” values and objectives; focusing on shared priorities and goals for the future to reconnect taxes to purposes; using a pragmatic, practical tone; creating more agency, transparency, and participation; highlighting the essential public structures that taxes support; and emphasizing how tax reform can help ensure that our public revenue systems are capable of addressing cyclical economic challenges.
3. Strategies that may on the surface seem to be logical ways to talk about budgets and taxes can trigger unhelpful images of government and lead in unproductive directions. Our research concludes that strategies – such as leading with fairness, focusing on the monetary aspect of taxes rather than their purpose, focusing on taxing “them” (the rich and greedy), relying on self-interested arguments, and reinforcing anti-tax frames – can backfire. The results of these strategies range from leaving audiences confused, to making them revert to thinking that all taxes are unfair, to triggering consumer mindsets.