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Michael I. Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and a member of Harvard’s Behavioral Insights Group. He holds a B.A. in[…]

Tax Day is one of the most stressful days of the year for pretty much every American, and the biggest gripe about taxes is that most of us have no idea where the money goes. In an age where military spending is off the charts and government officials are taking private planes at the taxypayer expense it’s no small secret that the other 99% of us would like a say in where our hard earned money goes to. But changing that system is a huge undertaking. What Michael Norton suggests is easy to start small and change just some of that pool of money to reflect what the people want. It would be easy to implement; there’s even some cities in America that are already doing it. Michael’s has co-written a book that covers this and other subjects called Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. Professor Norton’s studies are cited in The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others by Tali Sharot.

Michael Norton: When we started studying people paying their taxes we were kind of looking for a real pain point that people have. If you think about what’s the worst day of the year for you, often the worst day of the year is when you have to write that extra check to the IRS. And of course partly we hate it just because we have to give money away that we wish we could keep, but we thought there might be some other underlying psychology going on for why we hate paying taxes so much. 

And if you think about it when you send that check off you kind of have no idea what happens with it. I mean you know it’s going to your state or federal government, but you don’t really know what it’s being used for. You look outside and you see roads and there’s some link between those in some way or another but you don’t really know exactly what’s happening. 

And that decoupling between what you’re sending in and what the output is is actually pretty aversive for us, we kind of like to know when we do something what’s going to happen as a result. 

And so what we try to do in our research is recouple those two things closer together. So imagine, for example, when you pay your taxes you write in the amount and then you can allocate where you want things to go. You could actually say I want more of my taxes to go to schools versus roads versus the military or the reverse if you wanted to support the military more. And the idea there was sure we still wouldn’t like paying taxes that much because we wish we could spend our money on ourselves, but recoupling the cost and the benefits might actually help us hate it a little bit less. 

We’ve talked to a lot of governments, local governments, state governments, federal governments in the U.S. and around the world about implementing this idea of recoupling tax payments with the benefits that citizens get. Politically it’s quite difficult, so you can imagine that if you talk about letting citizens allocate all of their money wherever they want you might not get funding for really basic things like infrastructure that aren’t really that exciting for people to think about. 

So politically there’s a real risk to kind of opening up democracy where instead of taxes going into a pool where elected officials decide what needs to be done, each individual citizen has a voice. One way we’ve tried to deal with that is to think about maybe you don’t need to allocate 100 percent of your taxes wherever you want, but what if I said at the end of the year you know what, you’re going to get to allocate ten percent wherever you want. So most of your taxes are still going to be the old way where they go into a general pool and then the people we’ve elected who we in theory trust will decide where the money goes, but we still as citizens get to say a little bit more about what we want to do. And some cities in the United States have started doing this through something called participatory budgeting. 

And the idea there is that a city can take some tax money, it could be a small amount, it could be a large amount, the city of Cambridge where I live has done this, and let citizens vote for where that money should go. So they’re not getting access to all of the tax revenue for the entire city, but the city is saying we want to set aside some money where citizens can actually tell us where it should go and we will follow through and make sure the money goes there. And again, that helps citizens see that, it’s called participatory budgeting, they’re actually participating and getting to make specific decisions about what happens with their taxes.

One of the things that w'eve thought about are that taxes are big. So if you think about changing the entire tax system that can be politically difficult. It sort of changes the nature of the relationship between our money and the federal government. But you can think about smaller sort of initiatives where it's not the entire tax revenue of an entire city or a country, but you can imagine my colleague Kate Lamberton at Pittsburgh, has shown for example that you can allocate your parking fines. Where you get a ticket on your car and you're furious because of course you've parked in the right place and it's unjust that you get a ticket... what if even just on that parking ticket it could be twenty five or fifty dollars - even there you might be able to say just a little bit on the margin I'd like the fee to go to this in my city instead of that in my city. Now you're not changing the whole political system of taxation, but you're still changing the relationship between citizens and government on a real pain point which is of course you're paying fines and fees that you've incurred, but I can now tell the city yeah it's true that I parked in the wrong place and will now pay you but I'll give you a little voice in where that money goes and I might feel a little bit better in now paying that.