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Bill Harrison


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How can we re-frame tax policy to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

We already require people to pay taxes, both for their own good and for the good of society as a whole. Michael Norton's talk, everyday experience, and our tribal evolutionary history suggest that pro-social spending makes us happier. Yet, many people hate paying taxes, possibly (as per Rory Sutherland's talk) because of the way tax policy is perceived or structured, or because they hate the lack of control as to where their money goes.

If you think social policies should be structured in such a way as to give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, then is there a way to structure tax policy in such a way to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

For example, maybe allowing (or requiring) people to pay some percentage of their taxes (beyond what they pay to the general fund) on some pre-approved set of necessary social programs, but allowing people to choose which ones, could be a policy that would promote pro-social behavior, and thereby produce happier and tighter-knit communities, nations, etc.

Such a policy would, in fact, be less restrictive than either taxation or education, both of which we already require. We don't allow selfish behavior (not paying taxes, remaining ignorant) in either of those cases, because we understand that pro-social laws and policies are necessary for society to function at all.

Policies like this are particularly necessary right now in the US, for example, where the country is extremely divided politically. This could also get the Mitt Romneys of the world to gain an appreciation of the interdependence that allows them to become and remain wealthy.

So, given that pro-social spending makes people happy (a la Michael Norton's talk) and given that re-framing where money goes can make people happier about paying money (as per Rory Sutherland's talk), how would you structure taxes so that people would be happier about paying them?


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    Apr 25 2012: It would be interesting to see anyone try to implement such a policy, especially now, in this climate. I nelieve the great resistance you will find to implementation is that everybody believes the lie that their money a) has any real value and b) is theirs to begin with.

    First of all, it is a Biblical mandate to pay your taxes. Taxes in America are for the common good, and they keep the country maintained. I think it is sad that we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that Mr Evil government is taking away our money. Refusing to pay taxes is not only un-Christian but also un-American, and should again be seen as such.

    Second of all, since American society views anybody who struggles as being lazy or at best unlucky "too bad, buddy". We are less inclined to want to be required to assist. Or even worse, should we be requiredto give additional funds directly for the support of others, then we would in our arrogance try to place restrcitions on the use of the funds, such as only giving to certain groups, etc.

    Were something like this ever to work, we would have to shift our thinking from a belief in the indiividual right to have as much stuff as we can, to one in which we no longer see our earnings as our own, but as something to help for the good of all. We also must stop judging each other. . . But that just has to end regardless.

    And before any Libertarians start spouting me out as a commie,I'd humbly ask them to understand that I got this crazy notion from the Word of God.
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      Apr 25 2012: we should see our earning as not our own?

      lucky it is nothing else than the word of god, thus having no relevance to me. otherwise it would sound really crazy.
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        Apr 26 2012: Ah Mr Pinter, I do appreciate your forthrightness. Especially since you do indeed prove the point that it will be very difficult to implement additonal taxation for the express purpose of helping others on the community.

        Yes, I'll admit it sounds nuts as all git-out, but what I am proposing is this: the only way that we will as a community agree to the plan of spending a portion of our income helping others is when we viewothers as more valuable than our income. The perfect way to do that is to see it not as "our" earnings but something that has been given to us, that we should use for the best effect, which is to help others. The idea of divorcing ourselves of the idea that we "earned" anything, I quote scripture, but I've found similar ideas in karma, the kindness of the universe, dumb luck, etc, Just think of all the money you get just as something that happened to come your way just because the universe is magnanimous.

        When you have reached that level of thought, you will no longer see money as something to be used wholly and singularly for your benefit. You will see yourself as a steward of a resource, and the. You will see this resource as something that needs to be "paid forward" for example, in direct application to make other peoples' lives as fortunate as your own.

        Yes, again, you will find it crazy. But it is precisely because you and many others find it crazy that I realise that what is proposed in this question will never come to pass. And that, good sir, is a cause of great sorrow.
      • Apr 26 2012: Krisztian, thank you for the author references.
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      Apr 27 2012: "Taxes in America are for the common good, and they keep the country maintained"... Evidence please?

      25% of our money goes to defense... That means buying weapons which are no longer used for defense, but wars of aggression... In your personal life, are you spending 25% of your money on weapons?

      I'll assume no.

      So... Don't you invest your money more wisely, and less violently than the government? Don't they waste enough of you money needlessly murdering people and erasing our constitution?

      Is it really important to you that we get drug addicts off their parents couches and into prison cells? I find it incredibly convenient that god wants us to give the government more money... Especially since it's fighting his holy war for him.
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        Apr 27 2012: "defense"
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        Apr 28 2012: As for keeping the country maintained, I would think that should be fairly evident, in that we have a country to live in, but if you need some examples: street lights, school systems, highways, police and fire departments, even subsidiesto farms that keep the prices of your food down to a manageable level (managing us, by the way, not the food) and yes, also my little deposit that supplements my income that is evidence of all the years of work that I've paid into this baby, as well as another little assistance program that I can use as my body starts falling apart.

        I should assume you should know by now my stance on war. It is anathema to God (the true God, that is) and the money we spend on war (sanitized by the word "defense") is a twisted sickness.

        The reason why Jesus teaches us to pay our taxes is 1) to understand our place in the world, 2) to keep everything in perspective as to what's really important (a) not to be tied to the possession of money and (b) submit our souls and lives to God and our physical bodies to the state, and 3) by all this, so we can be good examples of His grace and His love.

        Instead of all this "we're angry so we shouldn't have to pay our taxes because all the government does is drone bomb and buy catregena coke for secret service agents and dare to give us all socialized medicine" what we are required to do it act. Get involved. Go into politics at whatever level. If you don't like how the government is spending your money they tell them, That's part of what OWS is all about. They were saying look, these guys already got thier money, why is the gvmt giving them more of ours?

        And again, your comment about me just wanting to get lazy junkie off the couch and into prison iis evidence that Mr Harrison's premise will be terrifically difficult to implement, given that we have already made such qualitative judgments on other people.

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