Posted by: bridget | 19 June 2007

Misleading Headline of the Week

Well, it’s from the NYT, so colour this pachyderm unsurprised. According to the New York Times, paying taxes is pleasurable – and there’s some real live studies to back it up!

Upon closer examination, the study in question really had nothing to do with paying taxes: it has to do with charity. Scientists studied the brains of college women as they gave money to charities. The women started off with $100 and could choose to donate any amount to the charity of their choice. To eliminate the effects of social approval, the researchers would not find out how much money was given, nor the organisation to which it was given. They found that pleasure centers of the brain were activated when the participants donated money to the charities of their choice, despite the fact that the students reap no social rewards from the transaction.

Sounds like taxes are fun, right? Well, this little snippet tells a different story: “But these pleasure centers were also activated, albeit not as much, when she was forced to pay a tax to the food bank.”

Our taxation system does not work by requiring people to give 4.6% of their paychecks to the military, 3% to highway construction, and 8.5% to welfare government-imposed charity. Rather, the government decides how much to tax people and the proper way to spend it, with no itemisation given to the populace. There is an unsubstantiated leap from findings that people enjoy giving to charity (and, to a lesser extent, receive enjoyment from having their money commandeered for charity) to the theory that people enjoy paying taxes.  As Tammi pointed out, the college students are also disposing of money given to them: they did not have to earn it.

As for the idea of rational self-interest (i.e. good hormones) that arise from paying taxes: one need only look at Massachusetts to understand the absurdity of that claim. In 2001, Massachusetts lowered its personal income tax rate to 5.3%. The commonwealth allows guilty souls to voluntarily pay the old 5.85% tax rate. In 2003, only 0.046% of MA taxpayers opted to pay the higher rate.

We don’t like paying taxes. We do like giving to charity, as we are able to determine the most worthy of causes and the most efficient way to serve those causes. When pressed, we’ll happily dispose of our money ourselves.



  1. The NYT could use better editors. Someone should have killed that silly story.

  2. good points. I love giving to help. But i hate giving to the government knowing they don’t use my money wisely.

  3. I like that you have that Mass. stat. I’m not one of the .046% and never will be. I also doubt I’ll miss my tax happiness if I get out of here.Truth be told many local pols are looking to make people happy. I saw this and not to bring down the intellectual quality of your blog. Ever see the cartoon Ren & Stimpy ? There was one episode where the Ren was forced to wear the “Happy Helmet” For me to be happy w/taxes I’d need one of those.

  4. I think the keep is that these nutty students were given the money — nothing they had to earn.

  5. keep should be key :)

  6. Neil,

    Ditto that. If they didn’t kill it, they should have titled it differently – something along the lines of enjoying giving money to charity; taxes, not so much.


    Understandable. The gov’t also doesn’t use your money in a way that you would like it to be used; after all, if some of it goes to Planned Parenthood, you aren’t going to be very thrilled. It’s also incredibly inefficient.


    I’m originally from MA. I voted for a reduction in income taxes back in the day (a measure which passed 70-30, as I recall).

    The “optional tax” thing is fantastic. As Tammi’s blog headline reads, “I remember the day when a liberal was generous with his own money.” The fact that people aren’t paying the optional higher tax tells us that they really don’t think that the government will make the best use of their money. Do we really need paternalistic liberals to tell us that we’re not generous enough?

    Tammi – great point. I added it to my post. I didn’t mind paying taxes when I worked as an engineer, mostly because I worked on military projects. Figured that the gov’t was paying my salary anyway (albeit in return for functional products), and I was just returning a portion of it.

  7. I also noticed that they “were given” $100 bucks. They didn’t have to work for it. Might be a totally different story if they worked hard for the money. :-)

    It is always easier to give away found money compared to earned money.

  8. Bridget……….Most people don’t pay taxes, and that is why they can glibly say that it is pleasurable. By this I mean that because of payroll tax withholding they don’t really “get it” that they are paying taxes. They would suddenly however (I believe) get it if they weren’t having their taxes withheld, but had to write a check for their taxes in a lump sum fashion…….steve

  9. Steve
    Exactly right. Payroll tax withholding is one of the most insidious things our government ever invented. In fact I do know people who like income taxes, because their tax refund is the only way they can have a big chunk of money at one time. I find that sad.

    On the other hand, as a farmer I have to write that big check at the end of the year. I always thought that was stessful, but maybe I just don’t know when I’m really happy.

  10. I like you and your great expression of the calamities that are our government. Kudos- another great post!

  11. Steve,

    Good point. :)


    Thank you! :) Your site is adorable.

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