Voices from the South

Making a Case for Taxes

Fundamental to every public policy is the ability to fund that policy. And yet, issue advocates typically avoid communicating about taxes and budgets, leaving that challenging work to budget policy experts. Recognizing the need for a broad and ongoing culture shift that breaks out of issue silos, Topos has made tax and budget policy a major focus of its work.

Advocates and reformers need stories and concepts that can compete with average Americans’ default view that taxes are already too high, unfairly burdensome to them, and mostly wasted by politicians. People easily forget that taxes are not just money taken away from them, but represent a critical shared investment in our lives and communities. Complicating matters, a great deal of discourse about taxation and tax reform takes place at the state level, which presents distinct and diverse challenges for advocacy.

One particular challenge shared across most states is that tax policy can deepen inequities, but advocates struggle to build public support for progressive tax policy. The Cultural Common Sense tells people that flat taxes are fair.

To address this particular challenge, Topos research finds that an explanatory model, anchored by a vivid metaphor, allows people to quickly grasp the concept of progressive taxes AND why increasing taxes on the wealthy is good for all of us. In short, the tax system is upside-down – it asks more of those with the least, and asks the least of those with the most. If we balance the tax code, if the wealthiest pay the same proportion as the rest of us, we’ll have what we need to invest in our communities so every community thrives.

This is a surprising, new idea for most people that quickly builds public support for solutions to make the tax system more equitable. Advocates across the nation are using this explanatory metaphor to great effect, adapting for different state dynamics as well as COVID:

In fact, most states have upside-down tax systems with the poorest 20 percent paying a significantly higher average effective tax rate (11.4 %) than the top 1 percent (7.4%). In other words, we can only ignore states at our peril… States must take the opportunity to dramatically rebalance their tax codes, making safety net programs truly re-distributive. If the federal government hits the gas while states hit the brakes, we will get nowhere fast. Consumers won’t have access to cash; the economy won’t recover; political revolts will make it impossible to build a coalition for the kinds of social investments necessary to truly check inequality.

COVID-19 Unveils Need for Fair Taxation Movement at the State Level,” by Ben Chin, deputy director of the Maine’s People Alliance, Common Dreams, June 09, 2020


Lacking an income tax, Washington has the most upside-down tax system in the nation — if you are poor or middle class, you devote between 9 and 18% of your income to state taxes. Those of us in the top .01%? We pay next to nothing.

And this is our secret weapon: for no other state has more fiscal space to ask its wealthiest residents to contribute more. 

The budget hawks are wrong. We have a choice. Austerity is not our only option. If we finally choose to tax our state’s plentiful reserve of income and wealth, we can avoid the painful mistakes of past recessions. We can afford to choose to invest in a quick and broad-based recovery.

Washington state must tax the rich, like me, not slash its budget,” Seattle Times, by Nick Hanauer, entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, the founder of the public-policy incubator Civic Ventures and the host of the podcast Pitchfork Economics, June 21, 2020






The Arts as a Public Good

Topos strategic paradigm shift for the arts focuses on how to shift people’s thinking about the arts from a private good to a public good.

Our research finds that according to the Cultural Common Sense “the arts” is an elite pursuit, a luxury, that should be paid for through ticket prices (as a market good) or by donations from wealthy individuals (charity). In this way of thinking, the arts is not a public good, and therefore should not be paid for by taxpayer dollars. This insight means that advocates who seek public funding for the arts will fail unless they address the Cultural Common sense – if the arts are an elite commodity, it is wrong for them to be funded by a sales tax paid by working class people, for example.

One Topos strategy that advocates are using to great success is the arts ripple effect: The effects of the arts ripple throughout a community – making places more vibrant, more attractive, and more economically and socially vigorous. This in mind, average people see why the arts are an important common good and a shared responsibility.

This Topos strategy is widely used throughout the arts advocacy community, and the insights have even been translated into the first “game sourced” film, Radius. In addition, this strategy, developed for the Fine Arts Fund of Cincinnati, led to a rebranding of the organization as ArtsWave. With a brand and language that better conveys its contemporary work and role, the organization has achieve both stronger public communications and more effective fundraising with large and small donors.

A second strategy is also being deployed to frame the arts as a public good. Linking the arts to health benefits makes it easier to understand the topic as something everyone should have access to. Doctors are taking seriously the concrete and surprising physical health benefits, so much so that they are prescribing arts experiences. This approach reinforces the idea that lack of funding for the arts in a community amounts to neglect, which can lead to negative health outcomes.

Not only has this strategy transformed advocate communications in normal times, it is flexible enough and engrained enough in the community, that it is even being deployed in response to COVID, as illustrated in the following commentary:

A growing body of research nationwide tells us that the creative sector — the people and businesses that produce and distribute creative products and services — is particularly critical to economic growth in rural states like ours.

… Arts and culture build the infrastructure for healthy, vibrant communities where people want to live, work, and raise their families.

And perhaps just as important as the economic impact: the arts will help us to heal…Artists are already mobilizing across Vermont in response to COVID-19, devising creative responses to the pandemic. Live-streamed concerts, online performances and film-watching parties, and family arts activities will help to ease the social isolation and fear experienced by ill and vulnerable Vermonters in the coming months.

“Art in a Time of COVID-19,” VTdigger.org, by Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier, and Jody Fried, chair of the Vermont Creative Network and executive director of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury.





Research Video:


Radius is the world’s first game-sourced movie, created by Possible Worldwide, a WPP Digital company. The filmmakers were inspired by the Topos Partnership’s ground-breaking work in The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research-Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts.

Defeating Privatization Efforts

Topos’ recommended approach is the leading strategy for anti-privatization advocates, resulting in scores of wins.

Our investigation determined that the existing cultural common sense advantages those who seek to expand privatization of public services and structures. The CCS says:

  • Private companies have to be efficient and innovative to survive, while governments are inefficient and waste our tax dollars.
  • Business employs experts while government employs bureaucrats.

Attempts to convey all the flaws of privatization (greater costs, lower quality, profiteering, less transparency, etc.) fail to convince people that in a choice between government and business, government can run things better.

Our approach changes the question. Instead of “who would do a better job?” our strategy asks “who should control?” Drawing people’s attention to the idea that privatization means handing over control of important public goods and responsibilities to private companies (that have their own interests at heart), causes people’s perspectives to change. They focus on losing their voice in how things are done, and begin to look at privatization proposals with a much more critical and skeptical eye. 


Handing over control is now the main strategy anti-privatization advocates are using to great success:

In 2017, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) introduced a bill to give oversight of air traffic systems to a board comprised of commercial airline representatives and workers, and the system for paying for air traffic control services would have been privatized and sold to investors who would charge user fees. As the bill progressed through Congress, the Handing Over Control frame spread through public discourse and led to the defeat of privatizing air traffic control services.

“Our airspace is a public resource and a great national treasure. Control over it should not be handed over to a private board with no oversight from Congress and, therefore, no obligation to represent the best interests of the citizens of the United States.”

~Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., Louisiana’s 5th District

The Public Water Collaborative – including In The Public Interest, Food & Water Watch, ACRE, and Corporate Accountability – used our strategy and communications materials to develop rapid response and outreach/work with grassroots organizations across the country working on various anti-privatization campaigns related to water. Among the many successes are:

  • Baltimore became the first big city in the US to ban water privatization.
  • The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority pledged to keep the water utility public, and residents got the Mayor to make the same pledge.
  • Providence, RI was also successful in pushing back against the Mayor’s plan to privatize the water system.

Supplanting Trickle-Down Economics

Topos’ new mental model for how the economy actually works, is providing advocates with the tool they need to win progressive economic policies.

While Americans reject the phrase “trickle-down economics,” our research shows the way they think about the flow of money in the economy has continued to reflect that supply-side model: People with money hire and invest, and that money eventually gets to the rest of us through wages. That mental model allows conservative, supply-side policies to continue to get traction.

Without a clear, alternative model, progressive advocates can easily sound anti-business, forcing a debate that boils down to “what workers need” vs. “what businesses need,” as though one side comes at the expense of the other in a zero-sum conflict.

To win, Topos research recommends simple, common sense ways to reverse perceptions about the flow of money and make the case for progressive economic policies. Instead of reinforcing the idea of workers and businesses at odds, we link the two what workers need IS what business needs, because when workers and families have enough, they spend their money, lifting up businesses and communities in the process. “Economy-boosting” jobs and policies are ones that give people more money to spend and greater economic security, that therefore boost Main Street, create jobs, and help our communities thrive.

This approach has been the foundation of winning minimum wage and job benefits campaigns:

“If we raise the minimum wage, we won’t just put more money in workers’ pockets; they’ll spend that money at local businesses, who in turn will hire more people. In the two years since I first asked Congress to raise the national minimum wage, 13 states and D.C. went and raised theirs. And more business owners are joining them on their own… Let’s give America a raise. It will make the economy stronger…. California adopted paid leave, which boosted work and earnings for moms with young kids. Let’s follow their lead. Let’s make our economy stronger.”

~President Obama, Northwestern University, October 2, 2014

“The economy is built from the bottom up, not the top down. Every job should be an economy boosting job… My business’ employees are another business’ customers. In the first decade of Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law, low-wage consumers will have $3 billion more to spend.”

~Makini Howell, owner of Plum Restaurants and a leader with the Main Street Alliance, addresses Seattle’s landmark $15 Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Days laws at White House Summit on Working Families

“When the National Fund for Workforce Solutions started using the Topos Framing Research on economy boosting jobs we were amazed by how much it opened up our own thinking. Proof that we were on to something came when an employer who heard our presentation told us that they now see the value in creating these jobs and that they’d never thought about job quality that way before!​”​
~Janice Urbanik, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, Senior Director for Innovation and Strategy