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by Shivam Patel

Shivam Patel smiling in front of a stone and brick background.
Shivam Patel is a public policy major.

Late in my microeconomic public policy course we had the pleasure of listening to a virtual lecture by the author of our class textbook— Professor Robert Frank of Cornell University.

He explained the important phenomena of behavioral contagion: the visible actions of others that we begin to imitate.

Professor Frank explained the reason many of the rich resist an increase on their taxes is because they suffer from a major illusion that plays into behavioral contagion.

When rich people think of increasing taxes, they think of times when they lost money, through divorces, bad financial years, or tragedies, when they were the only ones in their relative social group to have a financial loss. 

 The behavioral contagion comes in because the rich start to believe that an increase in taxes will stop them from meeting the standards in their relative social group.

Professor Frank presented a very compelling argument as to why increasing the tax on the wealthy would be a very effective policy that will have far reaching and invaluable consequences for our society.

Tax increases on wealthy would pay for improvements in infrastructure, health care, and social programs, improving life for everyone, without decreasing the wealthy’s relative standing, since they all would be taxed the same amount.            

I completely agreed with every point that Professor Frank made. A society where we can significantly combat climate change, drastically improve healthcare, and improve American infrastructure, but still enjoy the relative luxuries life has to offer makes complete sense to me from the policy perspective.

However, I sometimes forget, because of the memos, midterms, and op-eds, that we aren’t just policy analysts; we are students of “Public Policy.”

Listening to this lecture gave me a takeaway that I don’t think Professor Frank intended; we can’t ignore the “public” in public policy.

Even when policies look good on paper and pass the economic litmus tests or our utilitarian calculations, we don’t always vet certain narratives with the public.

As public policy majors, we cannot ignore the reality of the relationship between policy and the public.

Professor Frank presented a clear and concise argument as to why increasing the tax on the wealthy would work and to me it seemed completely rational.

I discussed it with a good friend of mine, who pointed out how such a large endeavor would unfold in our society.

America’s endeavors to increase the quality of life for all Americans has not always been equitable. African American communities have consistently received the short end of the stick throughout history when it came to US social programs. Sometimes these programs just exacerbated inequality.

When I considered Dr. Frank’s policy proposal in relation to the public, I began to really reflect on people’s individual narratives.

Before quarantine, I remember my barber complaining about paying taxes. The reason he had so much animosity towards taxes was because that tax money was supporting the military industrial complex.

He had family in the Middle East living in fear of drone strikes every day. He was living in America and working to bring his family over to America. However, he felt like he was betraying them by financially supporting the U.S., which was threatening his family’s life every day.

It is easy to get caught up in stakeholder analysis, cost benefit analysis, or whatever tool we learn in our classes when it comes to crafting policy.

If we forget to consider the public, we undermine the valid narratives of that same public we are crafting the policies for. I don’t believe it’s out of ignorance, but it is just the consequence of our appreciation for analytical and scientific approaches to policy.

The lecture provided a great argument as to why an increase on taxing the rich would lead to a better society.

After listening to Professor Frank, I feel a deeper appreciation for the study of public policy rather than just studying policy. His presentation about behavioral contagion has many take-aways and interesting ideas that other students will also find captivating.

Shivam Patel is a public policy major at Sanford pursuing a career in medicine.