The Right Way for the Left to Talk About Taxes

I was waiting patiently at the traffic light.  After a few minutes, it turned green.  Instead of driving forward, the person in front of me, who was in no rush, decided to be a “Good Samaritan” and let all the cars from the gas station next to us enter the street in front of him.

As he was letting the last car in, the light turned yellow.  He managed to hit the gas and rush through it, but by the time I got there, it was already red.

This event pissed me off royally–though not as much as it might have, say, in 1995, when there were no smart phones to play with while waiting at red lights.  Regardless, the story offers a valuable lesson on how progressives should frame the issue of taxation of the wealthy.  Let me explain.

Why Was I Pissed?

I’ve been a “Good Samaritan” before.  I’ve given other people a break and signaled for them to enter in front of me at crowded intersections.  Why, then, in this case, did it anger me so much to have to wait for other people, and ultimately miss the light?

The answer is that I got no credit for it.  The sacrifice was forcibly extracted from me without even a “nod” or a “thank you.”  Someone else coerced me to give to others, and yet that person took all the credit for the giving.  He got to be the “Good Samaritan”, the “nice guy” that lends a hand–even though I had to bear all the cost.

In general, people don’t like to be handled in this way.  They are willing to help, willing to make sacrifices for others, but they want to be given credit for it.  They don’t respond well when sacrifices are arrogantly and confidently extracted from them as if owed.

What is it about Democrat Taxation Rhetoric that Angers the Wealthy?  

The answer: The exact same thing that angered me at the light–being forced to make a sacrifice for others, and give away hard-earned money, without receiving any credit, not even the slightest “thank you.”  Even more irritating than this is making the sacrifice, and then seeing the career bureaucrats that forced the sacrifice proclaim themselves the real heros as they take credit.  Or even more irritating than that–being subsequently scolded in public by those bureaucrats for having earned a lot of money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the rich in the United States enjoy more prosperity than any other group of human beings on this planet has ever enjoyed.  In truth, they don’t “deserve” their prosperity any more than a disabled person “deserves” a disability.  The scientific data is unequivocally clear that all aspects of human behavior are neurobiologically determined, ultimately shaped in all relevant respects by environmental and genetic factors.  Success is about luck, including the luck of having been raised in a certain environment, with a certain set of genetic gifts, that together produce traits and talents conducive to wealth creation.

Still, the fact that wealth is a matter of luck and never “deserved” in the ultimate moral sense is no reason for Democrats to embrace rhetoric on taxation that triggers negative emotions in the wealthy.  The majority of the population may be envious of their circumstances, but the wealthy are valuable members of society.  Their presence in the economy adds to everyone’s well being–especially when their wealth is earned through innovation.  If a sacrifice is needed from them to help the greater good, it should be extracted with gratitude and respect.  Nothing is gained for anyone by extracting it in a way that leaves them angry and frustrated.

What President Obama Should Not Do

President Obama–who I think will go down in history as an excellent president–often tries to dissipate tension associated with this issue by describing himself as wealthy.  He intentionally frames the tax “question” as a question of whether people like him should be asked to pay more.

Ironically, this approach adds to the irritation.  Nothing could possibly anger the wealthy more than to have President Obama speak for them.  They don’t view him as a legitimate creator of wealth.  In their eyes, he earned his wealth as a career politician–pandering to the “moocher” class.  Right or wrong, that is their view.  When he claims to be one of them, he rubs it in.

What President Obama Should Do

Any time President Obama–or any leader that wants to bring the country together for the greater good–speaks about the need to raise taxes on the wealthy, he should make a point to mention the value that the wealthy add to our economy.  He should literally say “We appreciate what you do, what you contribute.  Your creativity, your tenacity, your entrepreneurial spirit makes all of our lives better, and we thank you for that.”  And then follow up with, “We just need to ask you to pay a little more in taxes right now, because the less well-off are suffering, and can’t afford to.”

Consider the sacrifices that members of the military make.  They risk their lives in horrifyingly stressful situations.  In some cases, they come home permanently mutilated or dead.  How does the government compensate them?  $30K a year with benefits, a free college education, and lifetime healthcare for any injuries incurred.  Obviously not adequate compensation, especially for those that end up entering live combat.  But despite the poor compensation, people still join the military, they still volunteer to make that sacred, time-honored sacrifice.  At least part of the reason they do so is that society does an excellent job of showing them respect and gratitude, reciprocating their contributions in word and deed.  In America, military service means something.

Now, I certainly am not suggesting that we should treat the wealthy like we treat veterans. I am simply trying to illustrate the point that people are vastly more inclined to make sacrifices when society gives them credit for it.  Society gets an excellent deal from its service members, and it wouldn’t get that deal if it were to ignore them, or frequently bad mouth them.

A Proposal

One excellent way to show gratitude and respect for the sacrifices of taxpayers would be to have the treasury addend tax returns every year with a letter, signed by the treasury secretary, congratulating the taxpayer on a successful year of work, and thanking him or her, by name, for his or her contribution to the greater societal good.

The letter could go farther and give specific concrete examples of how tax funds are being used to help real people in real situations.  For example, the letter might have an article about a student who was able to go to college because of a Pell Grant.  Or a child in poverty that was able to get healthcare because of Medicaid.  And so on.  Putting a face on programs like these helps people to recognize that they are doing something valuable when they pay taxes, something noble and commendable, something that society appreciates.  Given that the gesture is effectively free of charge, there is no reason, other than spite and envy, for society not to make it.

Finally, for the highest earners, the treasury might actually offer them a message of congratulations–maybe even with a specific mention of rank, as in, “You were the 33rd highest earner out of all the individuals in your city.  Congratulations on your achievement, and we wish you continued success next year.”  In truth, making a lot of money, and paying a lot of taxes, is an achievement worthy of mention, and there is no reason why the government shouldn’t acknowledge it.  The advantage of acknowledging it is that people like the feeling of being recognized, they like to know that they rank high among their peers, and therefore with the knowledge of that reward out there, they might not be as inclined to hide their income from the government.  Again, “congratulations” is a gesture that is free of charge to the government.  There is no reason for the government not to make it.

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