Benjamin Franklin once famously said that taxes and death are two certainties, yet many Americans don’t know much about taxes or tax policy. Marjorie E. Kornhauser, a professor of law at Tulane University Law School, is attempting to do something about that.
Kornhauser has launched “TaxJazz: The Tax Literacy Project,” a new website that offers nonpartisan, nontechnical, accessible tax information to help people participate in discussions about tax policy and problems facing the nation.
TaxJazz addresses basic tax questions, such as: Why do we have taxes? Are there any legal constraints on taxation? What can be taxed? How do we decide what is a fair tax? It plans to add material on particular tax issues and provisions.
Before launching its website, TaxJazz’s readings, work sheets, dialogues and other materials were used by over 350 people between the ages of 12 and 80 in a variety of different settings including high schools, a city recreation department’s after-school program and a community senior center.
Here’s a piece about the project by Kornhauser.
By Marjorie E. Kornhauser
The power to tax, as the Supreme Court noted early in the 19th century, is both the power to create and the power to destroy. People — especially politicians — often emphasize the destructive aspect, but we ignore the creative side at our peril. An 1851 report to the Vermont House of Representatives explained taxation’s positive side this way: “Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.” Taxes, in other words, are necessary but have the capacity to cause harm. Therefore, we must use taxing power wisely. But we cannot use it wisely unless we know about taxes.
Unfortunately, most Americans know little about taxes. Often people find the subject so dry and confusing that they don’t even try to understand it.
Alas, I don’t have the creative talent to turn taxes into a musical extravaganza that will capture the country’s imagination like Lin-Manuel Miranda illuminated civics with his blockbuster “Hamilton.” But TaxJazz, my tax literacy project, does make taxes less boring and more accessible. I don’t use rap, but I do use some theater, role-playing, and games. These activities make it easier for people to learn about taxation and to understand that even if they think they don’t like taxes, they — and society — need taxes of some kind.
TaxJazz’s materials on the subject of tax fairness illustrate how tax can be made easier and more interesting. Both senior high school students in their classrooms and senior citizens in community centers have engaged with the materials. The content and methods are basically the same in both situations, but the format differs slightly. This is how it works in the classroom:
The students begin by acting in a very short play about — you guessed it — a student who doesn’t want to listen to the teacher talk about taxes. The main character — Jayden Brierre — grumbles that the topic is too boring for him to pay attention. After all, why should he care? He doesn’t have a job, and so he thinks he doesn’t pay any taxes.
By the end of the play, Jayden has learned that even though he didn’t pay any income taxes, he pays plenty of other taxes. For instance, he paid tax last weekend on the pizza he ate with his friends, tax on the concert tickets he purchased and tax on the gas he bought to drive his girlfriend to the concert. By the end of the play, Jayden does care about taxes — very much so since he pays them all the time.
Another short play helps the students understand the connection between taxing and spending — a connection that many people forget. The students also engage in a thought exercise that furthers their understanding of the connection between taxing and spending. In the exercise, they consider what a day in their life would look like if there were no government.
What would happen, for example, when they drove to work or school? Would the absence of traffic lights and laws telling you which side to drive on be dangerous? What if the car or certain car parts (air bags, for instance) exploded while they were driving? What if somebody pointed a gun at you and demanded that you pay $20 to drive on this road? Would laws or governmental agencies help in any of these situations? If government could help, how would it get the money to do so? Borrow money? Print money? Confiscate property?
The students learn that, in the long run, taxes are the best way to pay for the governmental goods and services that the people — through the legislature — decide they want.
Next, the students participate in another play which explains that constitutions and laws limit the taxing power in the United States. Following the play, the students engage in role-playing. They serve as legal advisers to a legislature and advise it on whether a proposed tax is legal.
With this background, the students then turn to the question of what is a fair tax. Although there is no one right answer to this question, they learn facts and get tools to analyze the issue and decide for themselves whether a particular tax burden is fair. Again, they learn through doing.
They begin with an exercise I call Shipwrecked, which allows them to think about distributive justice in the context of receiving goods rather than the controversial and confusing context of tax burdens. They consider eight people stranded on an island. Each person has different characteristics — such as differences in age, health, creativity, willingness to work — that mirror some of the differences among people generally. The students then debate how they should distribute the limited supply of food and water.
Should a pregnant woman and a nonpregnant woman get the same amount, for example? Does it matter how big or small a person was? Or how healthy? Does it make a difference if the food was washed ashore from a sinking ship or if the people have to put in effort to find and gather the food (e.g. coconuts)? Does it matter if the food from the ship consists of cans of tuna and jars of peanut butter, and one person is allergic to peanut butter?
The students learn from this exercise that there are a variety of standards they can use to determine whether a distribution of goods was fair. For example, a fair distribution might be one that simply divided all the food equally. Or maybe it would be fairer to take into consideration effort or need. Perhaps, one standard might be fairer in one situation and another standard fairer in a different situation.
After considering fairness in the context of distributing benefits, the class turns to examining fairness in distributing the burdens of paying for the benefits governments provide. Should everyone pay something? And if so, should each person pay the same dollar amount (a poll tax)? The same percentage (flat or proportional tax)? An increasing percentage (progressive or graduated tax)? The class discusses how a flat tax can actually fall more heavily on some people than others. For example, a 10 percent sales tax places a heavier burden on poor people than rich people because poor people, by necessity, have to spend more of their income than richer people to obtain food, housing, clothing, medicine, transportation and so forth.
The class then uses their learning in a role-playing exercise in which the students first serve as consultants advising the legislature on the effects of different proposed taxes. Then, acting as lawmakers, they vote on the proposed bills. The class concludes with a “Jeopardy!”-style game that tests their knowledge.
By the end of the week, students have not only learned basic concepts and vocabulary of taxation, but they have also placed taxation contextually in the realm of government and philosophy. They do not learn that any one particular vision of distributive justice or taxation is the correct one — because there is no correct one. But, they obtain knowledge and a framework that allows them to analyze the issues and come to a reasoned decision about their own beliefs. And that is the goal of TaxJazz.
TaxJazz has just launched its website so that anyone with access to a computer can easily access understandable and unbiased tax information. My plan is to expand these materials substantively and to add video and games and even workshops. Individuals will be able to learn at home, and instructional guides will be available for those who want to lead group discussions, such as teachers and community leaders. I also plan to continue real-world talks and classes.
TaxJazz provides people with basic knowledge about tax fairness, basic tax concepts (e.g., the difference between a tax credit and a deduction), and specific provisions that apply to large numbers of people (e.g. mortgage interest deductions). In this way, people will be able to decide for themselves which tax policies they think are the right ones. This informed public can then demand that politicians and lawmakers engage in substantive tax debates and enact rational, consistent tax policies that help solve the many problems that confront America.
Ben Franklin once said that taxes are as certain as death. This is true. Yet taxes can be fairer, more economically efficient, and more effective tools of problem solving than they are now. The country needs an educated and engaged public to make this happen.