Speaking of Values

I may be one of the last individuals on the planet to realize it, but it is dawning on me that what happens in public policy is not ultimately about facts and figures. It is about images, stories: it’s about what happens in the emotional side of the brain that matters.

I have begun to learn about this through reading The Political Brain, by Professor Drew Westen, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University. He argues persuasively that it is the parts of our brains fueled by emotion rather than dispassionate reason that determine how we respond to our political choices.

Why am I sharing this insight with you now?

Because, armed with facts and figures, I am about to make the case for a graduated income tax in Illinois. (The Board of Protestants for the Common Good adopted this position last spring.) The arguments are so compelling that it is hard for me to understand how anyone could disagree.

Illinois faces a deficit of $10.5 billion for FY2013, even as we owe vendors who provided services in good faith roughly $6 billion in unpaid bills. We are cutting human services so drastically that we don’t even pause to feel the pain any more. We have the lowest credit rating in the nation.

A graduated income tax could:

—produce $2.4 billion annually, which would do much to eliminate our structural deficit,
—reduce the tax burden on 94% of all taxpayers (that is, all with an annual base income below $150,000),
—keep the effective tax rate on millionaires at just 4.3% (an increase from the current 2.3%).

A graduated income tax would bring fairness to our state tax structure, which right now taxes the poor at about 13% and the wealthy at about a 4% effective rate.

It also would ensure that state revenues grow as the economy grows. Most of the increase in income and wealth in recent years has been concentrated in the upper income levels; lower and middle income families have lost income in real terms. We forego revenue by placing the tax burden on those whose real income has been declining rather than where the growth is.

A regressive tax policy makes it hard to invest in education, and physical infrastructure—the things necessary to generate revenue growth.

Some will argue that the poor become better off as the wealthy become wealthier, a trickle-down argument that has not worked in recent memory. New jobs are more likely to come from consumer demand on the part of the 94% receiving a tax cut.

(The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, an Illinois think tank, has offered these figures as only one possible way to structure the tax and will be working with other groups to explore a range of alternatives.)

If it is the emotional rather than the rational side of the brain that matters, how does Professor Westen suggest we might approach a graduated income tax for Illinois? “A progressive moral critique of right is past due,” he writes. “It should be framed as a debate about fundamental values and principles, and it should be designed to elicit moral emotions, including righteous indignation.”

He draws upon the national scene. In 2006 “Congress passed a $70 billion bill to extend tax cuts to the super rich, locking them in through 2010. Just four months earlier, in the name of fiscal responsibility, they had cut $40 billion in social programs, including student loans and Medicaid.” His moral perspective? “The people of whom Jesus spoke most scornfully were those who were wealthy while others suffered.”

We have a similar case in Illinois. It is time we get started making it. We have talked in the past about our values getting hijacked. Maybe that is because we didn’t talk enough about values.

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