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Reframing the Budget Debate

Using psychological research on moral values and persuasion.

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The United States government currently owes around $20 trillion, which constitutes 104 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. To people who are concerned with the government’s finances, it is clear that any plan to substantially reduce the national debt must include both reductions in government spending and increases in revenue (e.g., eliminating costly tax cuts, such as those that benefit the rich). Unfortunately, fiscal year federal budgets currently proposed by the White House and Congress, along with congressionally-proposed revisions to the U.S. tax system, primarily address the need to reduce federal spending and do little to address the need for greater revenues. Moreover, those changes that are proposed would do much to exacerbate the distribution of wealth and increase inequality.

How might we move forward? Psychological research on moral values and persuasion offers one way of thinking about how we might shift perceptions on what constitutes government spending and make real progress toward shrinking the national debt.

Tax subsidies are a form of government spending.

The fiscal year (FY) 2018 federal budget proposal issued by President Trump’s Administration in May, and the FY 2018 budget proposal issued by House Republicans in June, seek to both shrink the national debt and decrease federal revenues by enacting enormous cuts in government programs that serve vulnerable populations (e.g., housing assistance, student financial aid, juvenile justice reentry programs). However, neither of these budget proposals addresses the fact that the federal government gives up trillions of dollars annually in tax subsidies and other benefits to the wealthiest 20 percent of households. For example, an analysis conducted by the American Enterprise Institute estimates that, in terms of federal benefits and tax expenditures, $32,000 goes to the top 20 percent of households annually and only $24,000 goes to the bottom 20 percent of households annually.

While contemporary conservative leaders often frame government-supported social programs as a “drain on resources,” few have voiced the opinion that trillions of annual dollars in tax subsidies can also be a drain on resources. As noted in The New York Times, “Spending through the tax code not only offered the false promise of smaller government. Its most insidious effect was to hide what the government does and, notably, to shield from political debate which people it benefits most. That is clearly not those of middle and low income, who don’t earn enough to qualify for many tax deductions and often don’t even claim them.”

A lopsided understanding of government finances, which is currently politically predominant, restricts lawmakers’ ability to craft plans that will effectively reduce the national debt and enact true government spending reform (i.e., tax policy that does not give preferential treatment to the wealthiest). Without a much-needed reframing, the end result will be spending cuts that disproportionately target people struggling to meet their most basic needs.

Changing the conversation about government spending.

How do we change the conversation about government spending? Psychological research suggests that the key to changing a person’s beliefs is framing the argument in terms of the moral intuitions most valued by that person. Moral foundations theory tells us that the values most important to conservatives (loyalty for the in-group, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity) are different than the values most important to liberals (fairness/reciprocity and protection from harm). Thus, framing an issue important to liberals in a way that appeals to conservative values might help shift conservative beliefs on what government spending is worthwhile.

We can even go a step further and focus on the specific political issues most important to conservatives, such as government over-regulation and government “handouts.” For example, we could describe current and proposed tax cuts and subsidies for millionaires and corporations as a form of wasteful government spending and/or government over-regulation, as there is evidence that such spending does not stimulate economic growth in the same way that spending toward the bottom would, and a complex tax code filled with exemptions and deductions is nothing if not over-regulated. From there, one could apply prevailing conservative arguments—the government’s spending is out of control and is harming the economy; government regulation interferes with the free market—to push back against government spending on the wealthy that is hidden within the tax code. I cannot guarantee this method is foolproof, but the research is clear that focusing on the values and concerns of the person you’re trying to persuade is your best bet.

The bottom line is that, while people often share the same broad spectrum of values, people do not necessarily hold the same values to be most important. As the debate on the FY 2018 federal budget continues and as Congress continues to hammer out the details of a bill to greatly revise the tax code, keep your audience in mind as you call your lawmakers, attend town hall meetings, write op-eds, and talk with community members.

Until we can have an honest conversation about federal spending and debt—a conversation that takes into account the real costs of government programs that serve the wealthiest 20 percent of households—the least advantaged Americans will continue to bear the brunt of government spending cuts.

Gina Roussos is a fifth-year Ph.D. Candidate in Social Psychology at Yale University.

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