Media Could Do a Better Job Explaining Taxes

April 16, 2013

Tax Day has come and and gone and while people all over the country now know their taxable wages and their adjustable gross income last year, most people still have no clue where their taxes go. Many think half goes to foreign aid and the other half goes for welfare. The media deserve tons of blame for this. They insist on expressing spending amount in billions of dollars, amounts that are really, really scary and 100 percent uninformative.

No reporter can tell me with a straight face that when they say we are spending $20 billion on TANF, they have conveyed any information whatsoever to 95 percent of their audience (I’m thinking of NPR listeners and New York Times readers). People have no clue how large the budget is. You could add or subtract a zero to this number and it would mean the same thing to almost everyone who hears it.

It would be very simple and infinitely more informative to routinely express these numbers as a share of the total budget – for instance, TANF is about half of one percent of the budget — but most reporters don’t do this because it would violate the fraternity ritual of supplying very little actual information while sounding very, very serious. So instead, they use a manner of expression that provides zero information and then say they have done their job.

Taxes are actually very simple for most people. We could make them simpler by having the IRS calculate them and send the form for people to evaluate. If they accept it fine — end of story. If they disagree, then they fill out the forms. Several European countries have been doing this for years. Our policy people aren’t that much less competent than the folks in Europe. The reason we don’t go this route here is that H&R Block and other tax preparers don’t want to lose the business. It’s pathetic.

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