Ending the Hidden Agenda Behind Tax Cuts

Tuesday 17 February 2009
Joe Brewer

Something as simple as a metaphor can mean the difference between shared prosperity and widespread suffering.

It’s time to tell the truth about tax cuts. This phrase dominates political discourse and is coughed out every time a conservative public figure opens his mouth. It is treated like the basis of sound reasoning, yet no one points out what should be obvious – that “tax relief” and “tax cuts” are just code words for destroying the capacity of government to serve the public.

We’ve heard over and over again that the source of society’s problems is the government. The solution that follows is to “trim the fat,” “cut out the waste,” “shrink the government” and provide “relief” to millions of citizens who suffer the burden of exploitation by Washington elites. This story flies in the face of the facts, yet it makes sense to a significant portion of the US population. How can this be?

The answer has to do with how we make sense of things in the world. Our experiences shape what seems legitimate by reinforcing (or undermining) our ideas about the way things work. So, for example, a progressive politician may speak honestly and forcefully about the positive role of government in our lives. But this will fall on deaf ears if our typical experience is at odds with such claims. This observation demonstrates a key element of what George Lakoff and I have dubbed the Cognitive Criterion for Public Support.

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Joe Brewer is founder and director of Cognitive Policy Works, an educational and research center devoted to the application of cognitive and behavioral sciences to politics. He is a former fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a think tank founded by George Lakoff to analyze political discourse for the progressive movement. This article has been previously published on the Cognitive Policy Works site.