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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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    May 7 2012: Ok, finally through some of the comments! Idea: -Let me Spend My Tax Money!
    To re-engage people with their representative governments, since their is a lot of talk about how to bridge this gap, apart from the gap in happiness, wouldn't a progressively higher tax percentage YOU CHOOSE where to spend on catch on? Mathematical buffers can be put in to smooth down great volatility, but basically first year I pay taxes... whatever is calculated for me, be it 10 dollars or 10.000, I can choose in which area ie Health, Infrastructure, education, defense etc... (I recommend further breakdown - so that if the ONE issue I care about is Science, but I would like to see more mathematics there should even be a way for me to pin down a percentage of my taxes directly to that issue), after an initial year or so, one could build up to at least 50% of my taxes being spent THE WAY I WANT THEM spent. Let's be a little Post-modern here and embrace the world we live in and the age we live in too. We know game dynamics work. So why not apply it to this problem. I can have my own tax game -everyone should have their own profile with points, and every year we log in a few times to manage our scores. Imagine if we tie in how many seats MY PARTY got in the last election to how much weight my prioritization of my tax has? Imagine if my party can present me with different definitions and boxes i can tick? -If my representative cares a lot about the environment and I want to fund a new national park...why not give a specific box for his constituency to prioritize or not? Suddenly, although the local government in a large country can have outreach, local identity and involvement and a stronger sense of belonging and identity not to mention the stakeholder's position. Think about it. if someone only cares about military spending, let them funnel all their taxes towards that...if on the other hand I disagree with military spending altogether I would feel more happy if my money DOESN'T GO TO IT

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