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.
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.Continued...