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How Americans really feel about taxes

IRS data show that more than 90 percent of Americans agree that paying taxes is a civic duty. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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As we take this next step into the national conversation about taxes, it’s worth looking at a common tax misconception.

Turns out most Americans don’t hate them.  

Some, like 17-year-old Courtney Yeh, who worked her first job in California this summer, see them as civic responsibility.

“You need electricity, you need the roads to drive, so it does make sense,” she said of paying taxes. “You do need to chip in for everything.”

And that’s not just youthful idealism talking. 

“I feel good about the sense of citizenship that is involved in paying federal taxes,” said 37-year-old Raj Kottamasu. He supports helping pay for infrastructure and public schools.

“Americans have demonstrated again and again that they are really quite willing to pay taxes when they know where they money is going and they think that it is a good use of money,” said Vanessa Williamson, a fellow at Brookings and author of the book “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes.”  

She points to IRS survey data that shows more than 90 percent of Americans agree that paying their fair share of taxes is a civic duty.  

“The kind of questions that get that level of consensus are things about whether the moon landing happened,” Williamson said. “It’s hard to find survey questions with similar levels of consensus.”

There are other data points out there proving our non-hatred of taxes. 

Tulane University economics professor James Alm researches tax compliance, tax evasion and an idea known as “tax morale.”

“Tax morale is an attempt to measure one’s intrinsic motivation to pay taxes,” he explained.

There’s a rate at which economists predict people would pay taxes based on the likelihood of getting caught and punished for not paying. In the U.S., more people pay more taxes and cheat less than what the “rational model” might suggest. Alm’s research shows we have the highest tax morale of any developed country.

It’s hard to say exactly why, Alm said. One possibility: “There is a stronger belief on the part of most individuals, on average, of trying to do the right thing, and that’s reinforced by a lot of the institutions in U.S. life,” he said.

Any successful plan for tax reform, Alm said, should keep our shared values and social norms in mind. Reform, he said, needs to be perceived as fair if we want to keep our national tax morale high.

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