The Grassroots Corner October 16, 2020

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  • Source: FAIRtax
  • 04/09/2021

What principles could help make the FAIRtax message “sticky.”

In the January 31, 2020, February 21, 2020, May 12, 2020, and June 16, 2020, Grassroots Corners, we reviewed the first four principles of “sticky” ideas laid out in Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold, and Others Come Unstuck, (Arrow Books, 2007). In taking apart sticky ideas to figure out what made them stick, the Heath Brothers came up with six principles summarized by the acronym “SUCCESS.” (P. 18.) (The extra "S" at the end appears to make the acronym spell an English word.)

The first principle is "Simplicity," which is really finding your message's core idea and expressing it concisely. The second principle is "Unexpected." This principle states that when we break a pattern or expectation, people pay attention. The third principle is “Concrete.” This one is perhaps the biggest challenge to the FAIRtax.  It states that ideas are easier to remember when they are tangible. The fourth principle is “Credible.” Credible dictates that, for us to present an out-of-the-box concept such as the FAIRtax, we need to appear as mainstream as possible so that people don’t dismiss us as radical fringe dwellers.

Today we examine the fifth principle. The “E” of SUCCESS is: “Emotional.” Stated differently, how can our message motivate people to care about the FAIRtax?

For sure, the FAIRtax makes the closest-to-perfect intellectual sense of any existing or proposed tax system.  It removes the tax burden from labor and capital and encourages economic growth. But that message alone may not make people care enough about it to spur them to act.

Mother Theresa said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” P. 165. When people think analytically, they're less likely to respond emotionally and act. When people think about 11 million people who don’t have enough food, they are less likely to respond with a contribution. But when people hear that a little girl named Rokia is going hungry, they act. Pp. 166-167.

One technique to overcome the "analysis" block is by associating something people don't care about, like tax policy, with something they do. To cite one non-tax example, in 1998, the American Legacy Foundation developed an ad that got youth to stop smoking.  P. 169. The ad succeeded where gruesome pictures of end-stage lung-cancer patients did not. How? In the ad, body bags start piling up outside the headquarters of a tobacco company. Then a teen shouts through a megaphone, “Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?”

The ad taps into anti-authority resentment, the classic teenage emotion. Thanks to the campaign's ingenious framing, which paints a picture of a duplicitous Big Tobacco industry – teens now rebel against The Man by not smoking. P. 171.

We FAIRtax-ers, too, rebel against The Man when our President, Steve Hayes, talks about The Swamp. Steve gets voters to care about the FAIRtax by connecting The Swamp to things that voters hate about Washington, D.C., such as the Internal Revenue Code. Passing the FAIRtax becomes the rebellion outlet for angry voters, the way stopping smoking did for teens.

Another emotional technique, besides association, is to appeal to self-interest. Think of a fictitious radio station WII-FM. The call letters mean, “What’s in it for me?”

In 1925 John Caples was assigned to write a headline for an advertisement promoting the U.S. School of Music's correspondence music course. Caples typed out the most famous headline in print-advertising history: “They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano…But When I Started to Play!” P. 177. What could appeal better to the ego – or self-interest – than having people LAUGH at you, and then you SHUT THEM UP.

Self-interest can mean shifting emphasis from something’s features to its benefits. P. 179. for example, “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.”

FAIRtax-ers can use this appeal to self-interest to make the FAIRtax more attractive. With the FAIRtax, you can imagine “doing your taxes” at the checkout counter and skipping the April 15 filing deadline. And imagine getting money from Uncle Sam at the beginning of every month.

However, placing too much credence on narrow self-interest can miscarry. P. 183. In 1954 a psychologist named Abraham Maslow theorized about a hierarchy – or pyramid - of needs, with physical hunger, thirst, and bodily comfort being at the base of the pyramid. At the top was transcendence: helping others to realize their potential.

Later research suggests that the hierarchical aspect of Maslow’s theory is wrong. Needs are not a hierarchy.  The research becomes more puzzling when we consider politics. P. 188. If there’s a proposal on the table to raise the marginal tax rate on the highest incomes, we expect rich people would be against it and most everyone else would be for it.

But this conventional wisdom is wrong. There is not much evidence to suggest that narrow self-interest can predict public opinion. Donald Kinder, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, actually summarizes the effects of self-interest on political views as “trifling.” So, if people aren't supporting their own self-interests, whose interests are they supporting? P. 189.

The answer is nuanced. First, self-interest does seem to matter quite a bit when a public policy's effects are significant, tangible, and immediate. But perhaps the most critical part of the story is this: "Group interest" is often a better predictor of political opinions than self-interest. People are more likely to think of the group with which they identify and then ask themselves, "What would someone like me do?”

FAIRtax may have an inroad with voters if voters do not necessarily think that self-interest in a progressive income tax should shape their opinion. If they come to understand that the demographic group with which they identify would benefit from the FAIRtax, their emotions may impel them to act and become a FAIRtax advocate.

I’d love to hear your ideas on how to move people away from the analysis mode and make the FAIRtax “Emotionally sticky?”

Yours In the FAIRtax Movement!

Jim Bennett
AFFT Grassroots Coordinator & Secretary


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