Friday, April 16

Guessing Games: The Psychology Of Choice

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." — Proverb

This isn't meant to be a political post, but politics does intersect with communication. And sometimes, I find myself wondering if the stewards of our country appreciate what they communicate when they play shell games with public policy.

One of the most recent shell games is whether or not President Obama raised or cut taxes. There are varied opinions about it, but the truth is that he did both. He cut taxes with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (However, proponents neglect to mention that many "tax cuts" are "targeted relief," which really means "tax incentives" for people who meet specific requirements or do certain things.) He also raised some taxes and increased the threshold for deducting medical expenses, among other things.

Naturally, none of the conversation accounts for the impact that federal policy has at the local and state level, where the discussions of tax increases are epic. It doesn't accept the reality that the federal government consistently talks about raising taxes in the future. And it hardly accounts for the common public sentiment that suggests that the government is overspending and wasting tax dollars. It doesn't consider American ideology.

When there is talk about taxes nowadays, most people seem to frame it around the idea that we have two choices: embracing more taxes or abandoning neighbors in need. Baloney. That is no choice at all. They may as well be asked if they want to cut off their right arm or left.

The truth is that America is neither a country where it is every man and woman for him or herself nor is it a country where every man and woman must make involuntary sacrifices for their neighbor, leaving them both wanting (except in times of war). It is a country that embraces the sentiment contained in the proverb mentioned above.

Sure, for those that know (plenty people don't), the proverb is hardly American or European. It's Chinese, and most often attributed to Lau Tzu or Confucius. Both of these men also lived under repressive governments, believing that leadership requires humility, a restrained approach in governance, and they shared some ideology with our founding fathers.

"I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer." — Benjamin Franklin, 1766

As someone who grew up poor, I tend to accept Franklin's wisdom. As politicians wrestle with politics that sometimes bear little resemblance to the ideas presented by our founding fathers, they would do better to stop talking about European ideology and more about American ideology. We did, after all, throw away our envy of European statesmanship hundreds of years ago (meaning no offense to my friends abroad) in order to preserve freedom and liberty over governance and public provisions.

Simply put, American ideology comes in two parts: empowering people and empowering giving. No choices are necessary.

Empowered People.

As Franklin alludes, this is a country that works best with the promise that honest work will eventually result in a steadily increasing quality of life, from which each generation benefits from an improved starting point.

Ergo, my grandfather did not have a college education, but he instilled in me the value of education and a work ethic to invest in one for myself. Sure, sometimes the ideal isn't as easy as all that. My grandfather was also a son of the Great Depression, which erased much of his opportunity. So what he could not share in financial aid, he shared in a principled approach.

Unfortunately, the communication undermining our current economic recovery seems to be related to the constant buzz of continually increasing taxes against specific brackets, thereby creating a greater burden on the principle of upward mobility from honest work and education. In sum, the very remedy that will supposedly propel people up is also the very burden that will create deeper dips in retained income at each step. And that hinders mobility and widens the gap between rich and poor.

All the while, some politicians have forgotten that that American people don't work harder with an expressed interest in helping the government spend more. They only do so in order to help their families and endow their future generations with the ability to have an improved starting point. Their honest work is its own reward.

Empowered Giving.

Having worked extensively with the nonprofit sector, I don't believe Americans are by their very nature "greedy" people. From those who have helped me with specific causes, they seem to understand that helping their neighbors, strengthening their communities, and taking pride in American exceptionalism wherever it can be found goes hand and hand with any success they might enjoy.

The vast majority do so voluntarily, with each citizen determining the extent to which they can help. Generally, they prioritize with a tendency toward teaching people to fish over giving people fish. They do so with the hope that those they help will also find that honest work is its own reward. They do so because they are prudent with their charity.

One wouldn't always think so listening to some stewards in this country at times. On the contrary, the communication consistently seems to be that anyone who receives any reward from honest work is obligated to share it not with neighbors but whomever the steward sees fit. Even if they don't need it.

And sometimes, the steward says, maybe the standard is too high, meaning to take any extra fish and then some. Unfortunately, when Americans are faced with such uncertainty or downward mobility, they tend to brace for crisis.

Changing Choices.

The general practice of tossing up two bad choices has got to stop. While Americans have become almost complacent in picking from whatever choices are on the table (e.g,. a bad health care bill or no health care bill), there comes a time when someone could stand up and say that the smarter choice is not to participate at all.

Right now, the only solution politicians need to pursue is empowering people to reach a position so they can help their neighbors become empowered too. Anything else is little more than a shell game. At least, that might be the advice we can glean from previous generations who had fewer assets but somehow created more value for all of us. Good night and good luck.

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