As with so much about framing, I learned about tax relief from George Lakoff. Though it’s only two words long, it says a lot. As he explains in a 2003 interview:
The phrase “Tax relief” began coming out of the White House starting on the very day of Bush’s inauguration [in 2001]. It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for “relief.” For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add “tax” to “relief” and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.
He proposes a different way of thinking of taxes: as the dues we pay to be Americans and to enjoy the freedom, privileges, and infrastructure that comes from paying the dues. Although I used to resent paying income taxes, this viewpoint completely changed my view of taxes, and the more Framologists frame taxes properly, it will change many others’ perspective.
Dr. Lakoff explains tax relief in this video. The first part introduces framing, and the discussion of tax relief begins at 3:20.
Another way to think of taxes came from a financial advisor’s lecture. He said he’s glad to pay more in taxes because it means he made more money than last year! Why shouldn’t paying taxes be a source of pride?
Although America’s largest cities tend to have robust transit systems that include rail in addition to buses, the transit systems of smaller cities often use only buses. Therefore, residents of these cities often refer to the transit system as “the bus,” as in, “I’m not taking the bus! No way!”
Although this negative attitude comes partly from limitations that their city’s transit system may have, I think it’s also connotations of the phrase “the bus.” As I child, I took the bus to school. I got so tired of riding the bus that it was a relief to be able to walk to high school.
Many of my classmates, though, rode the bus until graduation. That made not having to ride the bus seem like a step toward adulthood. Riding “the bus” as a adult to get around town, then, may feel like a developmental step backward. We may unconsciously think that riding the bus is for kids.
Speaking of transit systems, including bus-only systems, as transit avoids this connotation. Transit is a characteristic of a big, grown-up city, and good transit systems are used by people of all ages and walks of life with pride.
Because we have responsibilities in many areas of life, Americans perform many roles. One of life’s complexities is that sometimes these roles have interests that conflict with one another. For example, as a taxpayer, our desire is for the lowest possible tax bill. However, as motorists, we want our streets and highways in good repair, which could mean higher taxes.
When extreme conservatives try to minimize the public sector, partly by emphasizing government debt, they exalt Americans’ taxpayer role above the others. We should remember that taxpayers include corporations as well as human beings, so it’s important to clarify who extreme conservatives are talking about when they talk about taxpayers.
But even more important, progressives should reframe the debate by talking about the other roles we perform and how they could be harmed by maximizing the taxpayer’s desire for minimum taxation.
As parents and others that love children, will our public schools have the funding they need?
As citizens, will we be able to participate in elections and public meetings, visit public parks, drive on safe streets, enjoy police and fire protection, and benefit from wise urban planning and transportation systems, or will tax cuts be used to reduce our access to these public goods?
As workers, will the government protect our rights if we suffer discrimination or unacceptable working conditions, or will tax cuts have left the government too weak to help?
As employers, will the police and fire departments protect our property, or will we have to hire our own security?
As consumers, will we enjoy safe food and other products, or will tax cuts mean that corporations can sell us dangerous stuff?
As investors, will we have accurate information about where we’re putting our money, or will tax cuts mean that banks and other companies can deceive us?
Of these roles, I consider that of citizen as including all the others. Therefore, when extreme conservatives talk about us as if we were one of the smaller roles, we should reframe the debate to the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of citizenship and how easily they could be lost.
What do you think? Am I overreacting about talk of taxpayers? What roles have I left out?