Tuesday, April 05, 2011

For better politics, talk about money

"We're not allowed to talk about money in our society. You can't ask someone how much they make. That's considered impolite. It's taboo. But who does that benefit? The rich people. They don't want us talking to each other about money. Because if we do, we're going to want to do something about how much we're all struggling and how much money they make."

That blew me away about a decade ago at a fundraising workship put on by Kim Klein. The topic was how to fundraise for a non-profit organization (key point: ask someone for money), but I learned then that talking about money is the key to progressive politics.

Politics is basically about money. The rich want to keep it. The rest of us want to take that money and spend it to make our lives better off. That's the bottom line.

Turns out, the rich are actually better off when we take that money and spend it on everyone else, because that makes the economy work better. Wouldn't you know it, when the masses of people have more money to spend, we spend it! And that makes the economy work. When the masses do not have a lot of money to spend, we don't spend it, and that slows the economy down, hurting the rich as well.

Unfortunately, most of the rich (and the Republican Party that supports them) do not see it that way. They just want to keep the money, even if makes the rest of the country essentially bankrupt. So the big ongoing fight at the center of American politics is whether we are going to take the money that the rich get now and spend it on the rest of us or not. That's going to be at the center of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in a year and half, when he campaigns to raise the federal income tax rate on income above $250,000 and all Republicans will oppose it.

The fascinating part of American politics is trying to figure out how to convince the people who make less than $250,000 a year and who vote Republican to understand that they are hurting themselves financially. They may have other reasons to vote Republican that are correct on the merits (maybe they are anti-choice or they are for unilateral military action) but on whether or not they are making their family better off financially, people who are not rich and and vote Republican are objectively voting to make their families worse off.

This paradox of non-rich Republican voters choosing to make their families worse off on behalf of some other cause (the concept of a small government, perhaps) needs a lot more attention. We need polling data and focus groups with all sorts of representative demographic groups (women, men, younger, older, southern, northern) to really understand how best to point out to non-rich Republicans the financial consequences of Republican policies. We non-rich people vastly outnumber the rich people in any given year (the top 2 percent of wage earners by definition only make up 2% of the population). But somehow, 98% of Republican voters are supporting tax policies that only benefit the top 2%, and they either don't know that they are hurting their families by doing so or they don't care. We need to understand which it is, and we need to find out which of those non-rich Republicans are open to accepting that financial truth if explained to them from a trusted source in a non-confrontational way.

I think the main reason why so many non-rich people vote for tax policies that hurt them is how little we talk about money in our culture.

It is to our advantage to get people talking about money. When people talk about how much they make, and whether they are getting by, and then talk about whether the people who are making a million or twenty million or two hundred million dollars this year can afford to pay more in taxes to make them better off, they are much more open to voting Democratic to raise taxes on high incomes. And when people do not talk about money at all, because it is taboo, they are not very open to raising taxes on the top 2%, because they assume that might somehow in some way be worse for them.

Most of politics is defining the question. A great and powerful independent educational campaign would be to ask the question directly to millions of middle-income Americans "Do you think millionaires can afford to pay 5% more of their income above $250,000 in taxes in order to make your family better off?"

Perhaps it's another version of class consciousness. An educational campaign to remind people how much they make and that in order to look out for their family, they should vote for the party that will look out for families who make about what they make, not the people who make a million dollars a year.

It's a campaign that will never be waged through earned media. But by getting people to think -- perhaps through paid media or through social media or direct mail -- "I have to look out for my family, and since I make under $100,000 a year, I have to vote for whoever will look out for people who make that amount of money" we are on the path to a consensus to raise taxes on the wealthy who can afford to pay it.

I can imagine a radio ad that appeals to men broadcast on the news stations. Instead of hawking gold investments, insurance or hair growth products, sell the listener on how he and his family are better off if we raise taxes on income above $250,000 a year, since somebody's got to pay for the government, and it's either going to be you or them. Or a financial advice columnist type of voice, like Terry Savage, but instead of calling on people to wake up and get their personal spending under control by acknowledging how much they make and bringing their expenditures in line with their income, send out the same frank, insistent call for families to take control of their finances by voting for the candidates who are going to help people who support their income bracket, not the wealthy.

I want to help run an independent, educational campaign that gets more American voters to think about politics through the lens of how much money they actually make in order to make their family better off.

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