When I first moved to the U.S. for graduate school (which was a long time ago), I was very intrigued by and excited about the tax system and tax day. I envisioned it as a matter of civic engagement, a yearly ritual where citizens reflected on their contribution to the common pool of resources—for better and for worse. I imagined that people would consider the benefits of taxes—being able to fund schools, build roads and bridges, care for the poorest members of the community, and fund the defense of the U.S.—while at the same time watching for wastefulness and protesting against it. And indeed this is how I looked at tax day for my first few years here.
Fast forward to when I finished graduate school and started making a real income, then I began to see April 15th the way most other people do. I realized that the tax code is so complex and aggravating that instead of making people consider values and social issues, their contribution to society, and government waste, it is mostly a season of shared grumbling and annoyance trying to get all your records together in time. With all of this complexity and ambiguity (is taking your sister for dinner while she’s in town and discussing work projects a legitimate business expense? What if she gives you a good idea that you later use?), the only bonding we have on tax day is over the tedium of figuring out how much we owe and over the continual worry of whether we have done things correctly or not. So instead of promoting civic mindedness, the way the U.S. tax system is structured now highlights the small details of filing taxes. As a result, all of our attention is directed toward ending the irritating procedure, and in the process trying to find as many loopholes in the tax code as possible in order to minimize how much we pay.
So how can we fix this problem? The first step is to simplify and clarify the tax code to make the process less confusing. The process of figuring and filling out tax forms is so exasperating it’s hard not to direct that feeling toward someone or something—and generally speaking, that something is the agency that seems responsible for your suffering, which in this case is the IRS. After all, it’s difficult to maintain a cheerfully civic-minded outlook, or even an even-keeled neutral outlook, in the face of such frustration.
Now imagine the simplest, least irritating approach to taxation. The least bothersome way of paying taxes is to have it done for you; for instance, in Israel, the government takes taxes out of people’s income before they even receive their salary. This means that in Israel, no one really knows their gross pay, but they do know their net pay, which makes them much more realistic about what they make. Generally speaking, the opposite is true in the U.S., where people know their gross but not net pay.
This is one idea, and it certainly would simplify things, but it would also nullify the idea of tax day as a day of citizenship and a time of reflection. So while we want to minimize the procedural pain of tax day, we don’t necessarily want to eliminate the possibility of thoughtful and critical participation in government that it provides. To make it a more beneficial experience, I think citizens should be asked how they want the government to spend their tax money. I don’t mean in the larger sense of voting for a political candidate and his or her economic ideology, nor do I mean the total amount that an individual pays in taxes; rather, I think there should be a section on tax forms that prompts the taxpayer to decide how to allocate 10% of his or her taxes. The choices could be among education, clean energy, health care, defense, roads and infrastructure, and so on. Not only would this give taxpayers a more apparent role in deciding where their money goes, it would avoid the problem of missing the forest for the trees.
With a less frustrating and more participatory tax system, it’s possible we could remake tax day into a more constructive and less arduous occasion. And maybe (maybe) we could get the government to be more responsible.
For now though, we should all look around at what our taxes pay for—the roads, the streetlamps, the police and fire stations—and remember that paying taxes is just part of life.
Happy tax day!
Will Rogers once said that “The income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf” and I worry that he was correct. During his confirmation hearing to become the Treasury Secretary, it was revealed that Tim Geithner failed to pay Medicare, Social Security, and payroll taxes for several years while he worked for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When asked by Senator John Kyl (R AZ) during the hearing about the (more than $40,000) “mistake,” which Geithner blamed on the tax software he was using, he replied, “it was very clear that this was an avoidable mistake… You’re right. I had many opportunities to see it.” But he didn’t, apparently, and that was that.
There are many problems here—one of which is the possibility of a double standard that allowed Geithner to get away with this entirely (I am not sure if this is the case or not). I suspect that if he had he been working for a domestic monetary agency, that is, the IRS, he would have faced heavy prosecution, fines, and almost certainly been fired. Also, as the future head of the Treasury, we might hope that he understands the tax code well enough to do his own taxes. Part of his defense, was, of course, that the code is too complex. Which is true, but in light of this, and his own errors, we might then hope he would be more aggressive about reforming the code, which he has not. The worst part of it, however, is the personal example he provided to the rest of the American taxpayers: do your taxes wrong, omit a few things, and if they catch you all you need is to pay it back — it’s basically okay.
I’m not calling for punishing Geithner (retribution isn’t necessarily helpful, not to mention it’s a little late), but as we draw closer to tax time, it’s worth recalling this incident and how it might affect the American public. In the research my colleagues and I have carried out on dishonesty, we’ve found repeatedly that people become more likely to lie and cheat after witnessing the dishonest behavior of others. In one of our experiments, we tested to see how participants would respond to a blatant act of dishonesty in their midst—would they think they too could cheat and get away with it, or would they perhaps straighten up and fly righter than ever? To find out, we gave participants 5 minutes to solve as many mathematical problems as possible (where they were instructed to find which two numbers out of 12 add up to 10).
In the control, where no cheating was allowed, the average student solved 7 problems, which gave them a pay off of $3.50 out of a maximum of $10 (if they solved all 20 problems). To see how witnessing and act of dishonesty would affect participants, we had one student—a confederate named David—stand up after only a minute and claim he’d solved all 20 matrices. The experimenter merely responded that in that case he could take his earnings and go. So how did the participants respond to this display when asked to self-report the number of matrices they solved? By cheating a whole lot: they claimed an average of 15 correct answers, more than twice the average score when cheating was not allowed.
Seeing someone cheat for their own benefit and then get away with it clearly has an impact on our moral behavior—loosening it to a substantial degree.
So, what does this experiment means for paying taxes? It means that the more we see politicians—the people who make our laws—fudge their taxes (which seems to happen continually), the more likely the rest of us are to adjust our understanding of what is right and wrong about paying our taxes, and do the same.
But there is hope. When we ran the same experiment with one slight difference, we found that dishonesty decreased dramatically. This time, instead of looking like all the other participants, who were students at Carnegie Mellon University, we had our confederate wear a sweatshirt that located him within a different social group. This time h was wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweatshirt (Carnegie Mellon’s neighboring and rival university). When the dishonest act was committed by a person from an out-group, we found that cheating decreased dramatically to the lowest level in all the experiments (participants claimed “only” 9 correct problems).
What this means is that if we think of ourselves and our politicians as being part of the same social group, we might follow their footsteps when we hear about another politician or celebrity who hasn’t paid taxes in years. On the other hand, if we don’t think that we belong to the same social group we might not feel more justified in our own moral indiscretions, and instead be extra careful not to be confused with this other, not so moral, social group.
So the moral of the story is: when you settle in to work on your taxes in the next few weeks, try not to think about the individuals who cheat on their taxes—and if you can’t avoid thinking about them, at least try to separate your own social group from theirs.
Go forth and be financially virtuous.
Dan Ariely is the James B Duke professor of Psychology and behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of (the soon to be released) The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.
April: That time of year when the weather is perfect and the mosquitoes have yet to emerge full swarm. When you can start to think about lying by the pool without fully having to come to terms with wearing a bathing suit in public….
…And yet it’s that time of year when the majority of the country will be gripped by stress as that fateful day moves ever closer – April 15th, tax day.
No one likes cutting a check to Uncle Sam, and the fact that the process of filling out the tax forms resembles a nightmarish (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure) story does nothing to improve matters. But as is often the case, the anticipation is arguably the worst part, and typically one dedicated night (in addition to a more substantial amount of time taken to organize) is sufficient to finish the paperwork. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself to sit down and do it.
But what if it wasn’t such a dreadful experience? Imagine how the tax experience would change if you had a way to alleviate the stress and maybe even enjoy some of the aspects of the task at hand…
Let’s say that your 1040 came with a little extra stuff: maybe a container with an alcohol content, or perchance something of the chocolate persuasion. What if your tax forms arrived in a gift box with some financial documents on the side? What if the instructions for filling out the form told you to type in your personal information and take a bite of chocolate, type in your W-2 information and drink some of the alcohol, add your deductions and try some of the nuts etc? What if we could live in a world where you actually looked forward filling out these forms?
What do you think? Would you be interested in doing something like this on this tax season?
If you don’t mind, click this link and let me know what you think about this idea.