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.
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.
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.
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.”Continued...