Menus Subscribe Search

Give Me a Receipt Next Time I Pay Taxes

• July 14, 2011 • 5:26 PM

If Americans saw exactly how their specific tax dollars were being allocated, would it change the substance or tenor of discussions on, say, the debt ceiling?

One common misperception about how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars popped up last week during the president’s Twitter town hall. In response to Obama’s own query into cyberspace about what costs America should trim to reduce the deficit, Elizabeth from Chicago suggested we “stop giving money to countries that waste it.”

“You know…” Obama began, tapping into the professorial tone he often uses to disarm political memes. “I think it’s important for people to know that foreign aid accounts for less than 2 percent of our budget. And if you defined it just narrowly as the kind of foreign aid to help feed people and what we think of classically as foreign aid, it’s probably closer to 1 percent.”

If this were common knowledge among all the Netizens who retweeted Elizabeth’s suggestion — if U.S. citizens generally had a more accurate sense of how much it costs to fund Social Security or what we spend per taxpayer on the arts, defense and veterans affairs — would it change anything about the tone or outcome of Washington’s latest nasty fight over raising the debt ceiling? Would it enable both the public and our politicians to have a more productive negotiation?

David Kendall, a senior fellow for health and fiscal policy with the center-left think tank Third Way, suspects this might be the case.

“And I’m going to go out on a limb,” he added, “and say maybe [the debate] would be more civil because it would be based on objective facts.”

Kendall and colleague Ethan Porter lately have been pushing an idea for how to seed such facts in the public consciousness: a tax receipt. You get a record of your transaction with every other purchase you make, whether it’s a new car or a cup of coffee. So, why doesn’t the IRS send one? The very idea of a receipt implies that you’ve just gotten something for your money. And a basic itemization — Kendall and Porter suggest the receipt stick to a single page — could also tell you exactly how many of your taxpayer dollars go toward specific national priorities such as homeland security and the space program.

The little research that currently exists on the idea suggests that looking at such data won’t change many minds about the basic size of government and the level of taxes people pay. Tax hawks aren’t likely to realize they spend only $43 on foreign aid and suddenly ask to contribute more. And progressives are likely to find only more confirmation of their take on America’s misplaced priorities when they see that the single largest line item (larger than Social Security) is national defense. [class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“More than anything, it will probably reinforce peoples’ exiting values,” Kendall said. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good idea. “The thing that’s more important,” he said, “is that a tax receipt would give people a chance to express those values. If you think that there’s humanitarian need for foreign aid and you come across people who say, ‘Well, we can’t keep spending 20 percent of the budget on foreign aid,’ you could whip out your handy dandy tax receipt and say ‘Actually it’s less than 1 percent of the budget.’ Those types of extreme perceptions out there could be batted down.”

There’s also something to be said in a democracy for illustrating the real connection between tax collection and government services, between tangible programs and the abstract deficit debate in Washington, and between far-flung citizens and their federal government — all of which a tax receipt could help do. As Kendall and Porter wrote this spring in the journal Democracy, “government has become akin to a distant relative — one whom you hardly know, who shows up routinely with his hand outstretched, asking for a donation.”

The logistics of a receipt wouldn’t be that difficult, particularly in the digital age where most people now file their taxes electronically. The data already exists (in fact, as momentum for this idea builds, the White House put online its own version of a receipt calculator earlier this year). The main cost would be in mailing paper receipts to the minority of people who still file a paper tax return.

So no, Kendall says, we would not need a line item on the tax receipt detailing how many of your taxpayer dollars get spent providing you a receipt for your taxpayer dollars. “It would be negligible,” he said, laughing.

The trickier question is exactly what to put on the receipt — how to balance the need to keep it short and clear with the specificity that’s required to connect people to real-life programs. Jargon would be bad. Few people know what the Bureau of Reclamation does, but we all value “flood protection.” Should more popular programs, like the National Park Service, make the cut, while funding for the Federal Election Commission not? Some research will be needed to figure out the best — and most nonpartisan — design. Everything else, Kendall and Porter suggest, should be available on a related website for taxpayers who want to drill deeper into the data.

More sophisticated future versions of the receipt could also give us an accounting of how much of the collective taxpayer pot has been spent on each of us. After all, much of the current problem of public perception is that not only do we not know how the government spends our money, we often don’t realize when government spends money on us.

All of this raises one other question: Does Kendall think people will even open a tax receipt when it arrives in the mail (or email)?

He is quick with his answer: “No. You have a 50 percent open rate on anything, even the newspaper. How many people even open their magazines that they subscribe to?” (He suggests Miller-McCune not think too hard about that last question.)

But, he adds, this doesn’t mean the tax receipt would be a failure. He suggests it would influence society in the same way writer Malcolm Gladwell has shown so many other ideas have. First, there will be the early adopters, maybe 5 percent of the population. Then, maybe 20 percent of people who receive the receipt will be “influencers.”

“And if 20 percent of people read this thing and they were influencers,” Kendall said, “that can extend the impact well beyond the people who actually open it.”

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


September 15 • 12:00 PM

2014: A Pretty Average Election

Don’t get too worked up over this year’s congressional mid-terms.


September 15 • 10:00 AM

Online Harassment of Women Isn’t Just a Gamer Problem

By blaming specific subcultures, we ignore a much larger and more troubling social pathology.


September 15 • 8:00 AM

Atheists Seen as a Threat to Moral Values

New research attempts to pinpoint why non-believers are widely disliked and distrusted.


September 15 • 6:12 AM

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.


September 15 • 6:00 AM

Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you’ve made your living off of finally becomes legal?


September 15 • 4:00 AM

A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses

The ability to delay gratification has been held up as the one character trait to rule them all—the key to academic success, financial security, and social well-being. But willpower isn’t the answer. The new, emotional science of self-regulation.



September 15 • 2:04 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Do Places Make People?

We know that people make places, but does it also work the other way?


September 12 • 4:00 PM

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Plastic Bags

California wants you to pay for your plastic bags. (FYI: That’s not an infringement on your constitutional rights.)


September 12 • 2:00 PM

Should We Trust the Hearts of White People?

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, revisiting a clip of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show.


Follow us


3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

In Soccer as in Art, Motifs Matter

A new study suggests a way to quantitatively measure a team’s style through its pass flow. It may become another metric used to evaluate potential recruits.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.