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What a taxpayer receipt might look like

Posted by Jesse Singal  March 24, 2011 12:04 PM

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A few weeks ago, the Globe's editorial board came out in favor of a bill co-sponsored by Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown that would create a "taxpayer receipt" — as the editorial put it, "an itemized receipt indicating where their payroll and income taxes go, breaking the money down into major categories like interest on the debt, defense spending, Social Security, and Medicaid."

Recently, Ethan Porter and David Kendall have been promoting the concept heavily. Porter, a contributing editor at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Kendall, a senior fellow for health and fiscal policy at Third Way, have written an op-ed in the Washington Post touting the idea, and also go more in-depth in an article in the latest issue of Democracy. Both are worth a read and provide a lot of useful information about the thinking behind — and potential execution of — the idea.

The mockup provided in the Democracy article provides a good sense of what the final product might look like (click to enlarge):

taxpayer receipt.jpg

I was slightly skeptical that a taxpayer receipt could provide a significant amount of useful information in a concise manner that the average taxpayer could make sense of, but a design like this certainly seems to do the trick. While these numbers would inevitably get twisted into the shape of outrage by whoever viewed them (one taxpayer might see the amount going to national defense as insane, while another might have the same reaction to the Medicaid commitment), it's hard to argue that having accurate, objective dollar amounts like these wouldn't be a step toward a better understanding of exactly what it is that taxes do.

Porter and Kendall explain the balancing act that comes from trying to distill the endlessly complex federal budget into a concise document:

The key to a successful receipt is making it customer-friendly. This means highlighting well-known programs and agencies such as Social Security and the VA. It also means avoiding jargon; phrases like “domestic discretionary spending” are part of the lingua franca of budget wonks, but don’t mean a thing to most people. As we discovered while designing the model receipt in this article, conflicts between depth and length are inevitable. Anything more than one page will be overwhelming, but anything too compact will fail to be sufficiently illuminating. Our goal is not simply to replicate the entire federal budget for every taxpayer, but to distill it into useful information. The amount paid for specific agencies is more interesting than broad categories (e.g., the FBI vs. law enforcement). But listing only specific items will produce an excessively large “other” category. No one will trust a receipt that appears to be obscuring government spending.

So what do readers think of the mockup? If something like this were enclosed in your tax return, would you find it useful? What's missing from it?

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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