Framing Budgets and Taxes: Elizabeth Warren Gets It Right

Elizabeth Warren has made a big name for herself in a relatively short time. She understands complex social issues and communicates this understanding to the public using simple language and a reasonable tone. Now, she’s using her expert communication skills to strengthen her bid for a U.S. senate seat in Massachusetts in 2012.

Recently, on a talking tour around the country, Warren took on the charge that Barack Obama’s job’s bill represents “class warfare.” In the above quote, you can see just how good she is at messaging on the fly. She takes the classical and episodic story of the self-made businessman who has “picked himself up by his boot straps,” and zooms out to show a thematic story of causal factors, public structures, and our shared fates as citizens.

Near the end of this message, she uses the “Pay it Forward” concept. This is a derivation of the notion of “Forward Exchange,” which is the simplifying model that FrameWorks recommends for explaining budgets and taxes. The model helps people understand that we pay taxes not for the immediate exchange of public goods, but so that we can all have these goods available for our mutual benefit in the future. The model suggests that good public budgets plan for the future (and for unexpected events) and good taxes allow a community to pay for the public goods and services for which it has planned.

One way Warren could have made her message even stronger would have been to start it with a values statement in order to orient the public to “what this is all about” right up front. In our extensive research on budgets and taxes, the value of “Prevention” helps people see that by making responsible budget decisions and paying into the system now, we can head off future problems.

Have you seen other examples of “Pay It Forward” recently in the public discourse on budgets and taxes? What other examples exist that illustrate a more constructive conversation on how government revenue is generated and spent?

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