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Ideas

ideas

Taxes, a love story

How (and why) to fix a dysfunctional American relationship

Peter Ryan for the Boston Globe

Few rituals in American life are as widely dreaded as the annual root canal known as tax season. Whether we grumble a bit the night before the filing deadline, or rage for weeks about the arrogance of the IRS, complaining about taxes is as much a springtime tradition as paying them.

What if it didn’t have to be this way? According to a group of tax scholars, it doesn’t. With a little nudging, they say, Americans could just as easily be taking pleasure—or at least pride—in paying our share. And the government ought to be trying to help get us there.

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With more marketing savvy and a bit of reengineering by the IRS, they suggest, the tax system could feel very different. The world of philanthropy is rich in tactics for making people feel good about parting with their money, and a pair of Ivy League law professors recently published a research paper outlining ways the government could take advantage of those insights. A professor at Duke has written a book, “Learning to Love Form 1040,” offering tips for a more satisfying process, and arguing that we’d all be better off if we revived the spirit of a bygone era when paying taxes was regarded as an act of patriotic duty.

The idea of being happy about signing our money over to the government might sound absurd, even impossible. And the notion of an IRS charm offensive has the potential to be a little creepy: Do we really want to be propagandized by our own government, massaged into feeling complacent, even pleased, about sending a chunk of our income to ­Washington?

Yet proponents say it would achieve much more than just a happier tax day. It would also have societywide benefits: If taxpayers were less scarred by the process, they would be less likely to seek out loopholes, put their money in tax shelters, or simply try to cheat. And by reminding Americans what taxes really are—a shared pool of money that pays for infrastructure, defense, and a social safety net that all of us depend on—the IRS could change how people understand their relationship with the government. A citizenry better informed about where its taxes end up, the argument goes, would be better equipped to participate in a serious, honest national debate about what we really want our money to pay for.

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As dean of the Columbia University Law School, David Schizer spends a lot of his time trying to convince potential donors to help pay for new facilities, professorships, and financial aid. He has proven very adept at it so far, having overseen several of the law school’s best fund-raising years in history. In his success, Schizer sees a straightforward lesson for the government: Give people what they want, and tell them what they’re getting.

When Schizer, who is also a professor of law and economics, looks at the US government’s approach to tax collection, he sees a system failing to capitalize on that basic principle. The checks we write in April, and the money that comes out of our paychecks, pay for a huge range of services that Americans value enormously—not just health care and national defense, but highways, disaster relief, cancer research, border security, and food safety. The money for all those programs comes straight out of our taxes—but come tax time, they’re the last thing we think about.

Instead, we think about forms, and sit there with our calculators, worrying about receipts, and imagining what would happen if we were audited. We think of how much money we’re handing over—a married couple earning $70,000 in taxable income would have given up a quarter of it in 2012—and we wince. Unless we turn to page 104 of the 1040 instruction booklet and look at the pie charts the IRS has printed there, nothing about the process reminds us what’s actually at stake beyond our own pocketbooks.

This could be changed. In a recent paper, Schizer and Yale Law School professor Yair Listokin argue that it’s possible to make the connection between taxes and government services stronger in people’s minds—and that if we do, people will be less motivated to try to avoid paying what they owe. “The insight of our project is that people may be more willing, more enthusiastic about paying taxes,” if they had a more vivid sense of what they were getting in return, Schizer said.

Peter Ryan for the boston globe

Much of that challenge is simply about giving taxpayers more information. If you donate money to a charity or a nonprofit, Listokin says, you’re likely getting grateful letters and upbeat reports in the mail every year. The government, on the other hand, “doesn’t do anything, or almost anything, to make people feel good about what it’s doing.”

They suggest a handful of possible ways for the government to capitalize on this. One idea is to have more taxes with dedicated uses, like the existing social security tax. (Studies have shown that people are more likely to buy state lottery tickets when the proceeds are earmarked for a particular cause, like education.) Another idea they float is to let taxpayers set aside a small chunk of their annual contributions and decide for themselves what it will be used for—an out-of-the-box approach that was pioneered in Hungary in 1996, when taxpayers were given the option of allocating 1 percent of their total contribution to a charity of their choice. Finally, Listokin and Schizer suggest enlisting celebrities: In India several years ago, they note, a well-known actor was held up by the government as a role model for paying more taxes than anyone else in the country.

Lawrence Zelenak, a professor at Duke University School of Law and the author of “Learning to Love Form 1040,” has his own proposal, focused on making the taxpaying process itself easier and more gratifying. The IRS could start by filling out forms automatically with information provided by employers, and close the loop afterward by sending out “receipts” that offer an itemized account of how a taxpayer’s contribution was spent.

The Obama administration took a stab at the receipt idea in 2011, building a website where taxpayers could enter the amount they paid and find out what it was used for. But the only people who saw the page were those who sought it out themselves. “If you think you’re just sending your money to Washington and they’re, you know, fueling a bonfire with it, then you’re never going to feel good about it,” Zelenak said.

The fact that many taxpayers do feel this way—a 2011 Gallup poll showed that on average, Americans believe the federal government wastes 51 percent of every dollar it spends—turns the very idea of taxes into a powerful political weapon that fosters partisan rancor and, in turn, congressional gridlock.

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The effect of changing our feelings about tax day, argue proponents of a more solicitous and user-friendly IRS, would be profound. At the individual level, people would feel something closer to the “warm glow” they get when donating to charities. “People are very willing, surprisingly willing, to give away money,” said Listokin. “And the things they give money to support”—like education, cultural institutions, and medical research—“are often not so dissimilar from the things that government is doing.”

At the societal level, there would be other benefits: Citing research from experimental economics and psychology, Schizer and Listokin argue that getting people to feel less angst over their taxes would reduce tax-dodging and the tax-avoidance contortions many people go through in investing and planning their careers.

It’s hard to know how successful even the smartest rebranding of taxes would be. Anger and taxes have a long history together—not just in America, which more or less owes its existence to people being mad about taxes, but all over the world. Considering that even ancient Egyptians complained about having to pay taxes, and that in Biblical times, tax collectors were barred from testifying in court because they were considered so dishonest, it might take more than marketing to change people’s aversion to taxes. Plus, for those who dislike paying taxes because they actively believe the government is flushing their money down the tubes, it’s unlikely that any amount of marketing will alleviate the sense of being mugged by Washington.

Then there’s the question of whether we actually want the government working its marketing magic on us. Disliking taxes, after all, gives citizens an incentive to stay vigilant about what their government is doing, which has benefits of its own. In that light, the idea of a PR campaign that soothes taxpayers until they stop resisting carries the whiff of propaganda. Even if a government could coax its people into being happier to pay taxes, said Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, “the ethical, political question then becomes: Should the government be entitled to do that?” Determining where the line is between harmless and deceptive manipulation is not straightforward, Selinger said. “The devil is in the details.”

Those advocating for the IRS to undertake a hearts and minds campaign emphasize they are not in favor of the government lying to taxpayers. On the contrary, they say, a better-informed population is exactly the goal. And it could have a deeper payoff in the often toxic national conversation about taxes, spending, and what the government does.

If people didn’t hate taxes so much, Listokin said, “We could disagree about where the balance [between spending and taxation] should be drawn, but it would be a disagreement of degree and not of kind. It would no longer just be...‘taxes are bad’ or ‘taxes are good,’ or ‘spending is bad, spending is good.’”

Instead, we would recognize taxes for what they are: the price of admission to civilization. Speaking by phone recently, Zelenak recalled an episode of a late-1940s radio sitcom called “Life with Luigi,” in which a recent immigrant from Italy living in Chicago encounters all sorts of problems while trying to file his tax return. At the end, Zelenak said, Luigi writes a letter home to his mother, and tells her, proudly, that of all the millions the American government had collected that year, he had contributed a full dollar and 56 cents.

“I get goose bumps whenever I listen to that,” said Zelenak. “I think it would be great if more people felt that way.”

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.
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