Digging into the moral reasons the American middle-class doesn’t like paying taxes

A new sociology study looks at the moral opposition middle-class Americans have to taxes. Here are some of the main findings:

“In this study, we demonstrate how people associate the income tax with a violation of the moral principle that hard work should be rewarded,” he added. “Our research has implications for how policymakers should frame fiscal issues. Because people intertwine fiscal issues with morality, approaches to tax policy that only emphasize economic benefits for the working and middle classes do not resonate with everyday understandings about what taxes mean to people.”…

Interview respondents saw themselves as morally deserving and hard-working people, whereas they perceived a tax structure that benefits the idle poor and the idle rich…

Respondents frequently associated their earliest memories of taxation with their first jobs, or wage labor, which in turn was associated with the absence of personal autonomy and dignity, or the ability to control one’s own time and work…

Hard work was viewed as a virtue, and respondents didn’t like idea of being taxed while they work, instead speaking in favor of a flat tax on consumption. “Tax whatever,” one respondent told the researchers. “Don’t take my paycheck.”

A note: the study is limited to a particular sector of the American public. Here is the study group: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” This study has a small N and a targeted group so this limits its generalizability but its value seems to be in hearing how people talk about and understand taxes.

This is another reminder that money is not typically exchanged in solely neutral economic transactions: there is a lot of social and moral weight in economic transactions. Thus, when talking about taxes, policy makers and citizens are making moral arguments in addition to straight-up financial arguments. This applies to some of the current budget debates in the United States: the two sides may be talking some about fiscal issues but there are also underlying moral issues about how money should be used, how it should be acquired, and more broadly, how social life should work.


A call for better macroeconomic statistics

As the economic crisis continues, one blogger suggests American macroeconomic statistics are “pretty weak” today:

In particular, the data coming out of the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the beginning of 2009 was way off. Here’s Cardiff Garcia, introducing an interview with Fed economist Jeremy Nalewaik:

The initial GDP estimate for the fourth quarter of 2008 showed that the economy contracted by 3.8 per cent. It was released on January 30, 2009 — about three weeks before Obama’s first stimulus bill passed. That number was continually adjust down in later revisions, and in July of this year the BEA revised it all the way down to a contraction of 8.9 per cent.

The BEA is happy to try to explain what happened here — but whatever the explanation, the original 3.8% figure was a massive and extremely expensive fail. It was bad enough to be able to get a $700 billion stimulus plan through Congress, but if Congress and the Obama Administration had known the gruesome truth — that the economy was contracting at a rate of well over $1 trillion per year — then more could and would have been done, both at the time and over subsequent months and years. Larry Summers warned at the time that the risks of doing too little were much greater than the risks of doing too much; only now do we know just how right he was on that front. (And even he didn’t push for a stimulus of more than $700 billion.)…

When I told Cardiff that the status of macroeconomic data-gathering has been declining for decades, I was making two separate statements — first that the quality of statistics has been declining, and secondly that the status of economists collating such statistics has been declining as well. Once upon a time, extremely well-regarded statisticians put lots of effort into building a system which could measure the economy in real time. Today, I can tell you exactly how many hot young economists dream of working for the BEA on tweaks to the GDP-measurement apparatus: zero.

Sounds like there is work to do. This commentator seems to suggest the government needs to offer the kind of money that would attract economists to this task. Are there economists out there right now who could handle this job and all it takes it some more money?

If we were looking at the causes of economic crises or perhaps what sustains them, could statistics really play a large role? Even with the best statistics, policymakers can still make bad decisions. But I suppose if the foundation of policy, the statistics that we trust to tell us what is really going on or what might, is faulty, then perhaps there is really little hope.

At the same time, I would suggest this isn’t only a macroeconomic problem: the world is complex, we want to tackle difficult problems, we are very reliant on statistical models, and there is more and more data to work with and collect. We need a lot of good people to tackle all of this.

WIPO points the way forward

Intellectual Property Watch is reporting on a recent speech by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO–Wikipedia backgrounder) Director-General Francis Gurry on the future of copyright law.  You can view the full speech on YouTube here (or here, if you want to skip the pleasantry-preliminaries), and you can read it here.

Gurry wastes no time in touching on the central issue of copyright policy:

How can society make cultural works available to the widest possible public at affordable prices while, at the same time, assuring a dignified economic existence to creators and performers and the business associates that help them to navigate the economic system?

Surprisingly, Gurry answers not by talking about retrenchment and enforcement but balancing competing interests:

It is a question that implies a series of balances: between availability, on the one hand, and control of the distribution of works as a means of extracting value, on the other hand; between consumers and producers; between the interests of society and those of the individual creator; and between the short-term gratification of immediate consumption and the long-term process of providing economic incentives that reward creativity and foster a dynamic culture.

Digital technology and the Internet have had, and will continue to have, a radical impact on those balances. They have given a technological advantage to one side of the balance, the side of free availability, the consumer, social enjoyment and short-term gratification. History shows that it is an impossible task to reverse technological advantage and the change that it produces. Rather than resist it, we need to accept the inevitability of technological change and to seek an intelligent engagement with it. There is, in any case, no other choice – either the copyright system adapts to the natural advantage that has evolved or it will perish. [emphasis added]

Perhaps Lawrence Lessig’s speech at WIPO last year has had a bigger effect than expected!  Gurry even outlines “three main principles that should guide us in the development of a successful policy response”:

  1. “[N]eutrality to technology and to the business models developed in response to technology.”
  2. “[C]omprehensiveness and coherence in the policy response.”
  3. “[M]ore simplicity in copyright.”

Gurry ends with this observation:

Future generations are clearly going to regard many of the works, rights and business agents that we talk about as cute artefacts of cultural history, much as the vinyl record has become in a very short space of time. The digital work is going to change dimensions. We see that happening with user generated content. We see it happening also with 3D printing or additive manufacturing, where the digital file is the manufacturing technology and factory. This is the realm of the blue sky and I hope that this Conference can start to develop the tools for exploring that sky.

Update: I reference this post in the comments section of a recent Copyhype post. Suffice it to say that there’s a lot of heated rhetoric on both sides; I think Gurry’s speech does a good job a forging some reasonable middle ground.