Does Paying Taxes Give Us Pleasure?

No candidate is talking about taxes as if they were country-club membership fees—at least not yet.

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A while back, Democrats turned to George Lakoff, a University of California-Berkeley linguistics professor, for some verbal help on better framing their issues. Take taxes, for instance. Lakoff thinks Dems should refer to them as "membership fees." Sounds much friendlier. As he put it in an interview:

It is an issue of patriotism! Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to get something for free at the expense of your country? It's about being a member. People pay a membership fee to join a country club, for which they get to use the swimming pool and the golf course. But they didn't pay for them in their membership. They were built and paid for by other people and by this collectivity. It's the same thing with our country—the country as country club, being a member of a remarkable nation. But what would it take to make the discussion about that? Every Democratic senator and all of their aides and every candidate would have to learn how to talk about it that way.

Now I listened to both Democratic debates, and I haven't heard any of the candidates go the "membership fees" route yet. Still, they haven't been shy about wanting to raise taxes if any one of them should win. And maybe they don't have to downplay it. A recent study, featured in the United Kingdom's New Scientist magazine, supposedly found that people find pleasure in paying taxes. University of Oregon researchers gave 19 female university students $100 each and told them they would have to pay taxes with the money. As they were read various tax scenarios, their brains were scanned with an MRI machine. Surprisingly, there were spikes of activity in two of the brains' "reward centers."

But before anyone suggests we start taxing ourselves like the Europeans, consider this: Maybe the students felt they were really donating the money, since they had never earned it to begin with. Or this: Instead of acting like taxpayers, maybe they were really acting more like government: spending money they didn't earn—and receiving pleasure from it. Maybe that explains the national debt.

federal taxes
2008 presidential election

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