The Agenda

Tax Receipts and Benchmarks

John Sides at YouGov digs into data on whether a tax receipt — that is, a document giving taxpayers a broad, figurative look at where their tax dollars are going — has an impact on opinion regarding the value of public spending, whether taxes are too high, etc.

Naturally, those who reported paying no federal tax were much less likely to believe that their federal income taxes are too high.  Opinions in the other three groups were similar: about 46-48% of each said that their taxes were too high. (Most of the remainder said that they were “about right”; only about 6% of respondents said they were “too low”). Among those who reported paying federal tax, there was no difference between those who saw their tax receipt and those who did not.

Those who saw the tax receipt were slightly more inclined to believe that their federal taxes are too high, though the difference seems to be within the margin of error.

The tax receipt didn’t make much difference as to the perception of waste:

The tax receipt also had little effect on beliefs about government waste: 74% of those who saw the receipt said that the government wastes “a lot of the money we pay in taxes,” a sentiment shared by 69% of those who pay federal tax but did not see the receipt.  This 5-point difference is not statistically significant.

Some observers find this surprising. A quick glance at the receipt YouGov provided to respondents invites all kinds of questions regarding whether tax dollars are spent wisely. The categories are broad, and we don’t have any useful benchmarks. For example, imagine if we had adjusted numbers presenting how much other countries spend on public pensions or medical care to deliver benefits of comparable value. This might incline some voters to believe that, say, a single-payer health system might be preferable, or that a system of universal catastrophic coverage coupled with health savings accounts, loosely modeled on Singapore’s system, is the best way to go. We could also try to construct benchmarks based on the cost of delivering public services if we offered market-based compensation to public employees rather than rigid salary and benefit schedules. 

This, of course, is way too much to ask of the public bureaucracies. Such a scheme is inescapably political. Imagine something like the food pyramid, but much worse.   

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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