The Tax Man Nudgeth: A New Marketplace Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Tax Man Nudgeth."  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

The U.S. tax code is almost universally seen as onerous and overly complicated. There is always talk in Washington about serious reform -- Michigan Reps. Dave Camp (R.) and Sander Levin (D.) are currently working on it -- but, Washington being Washington, we probably shouldn't hold our breath.

So in this podcast we decided to take a look at the tax code we’re stuck with for now and see if there are some improvements, however marginal, that are worth thinking about. We start by discussing the "tax gap," the huge portion of taxes that simply go uncollected for a variety of reasons. We once wrote about a clever man who helped close the gap a bit. In this episode, former White House economist Austan Goolsbee tells us why the government doesn't try too hard to collect tax on all the cash that sloshes around the economy.

You'll also hear from Dan Ariely, who has an idea for turning the act of paying taxes into a somewhat more satisfying civic duty.

Love Behavioral Economics? Want to Work for the British Government? All Right Then …

A lot of people write to us looking for work -- which, sadly, we are nearly always unable to provide. But once in a while we do hear of a good opportunity for the Freakonomically inclined. To wit:

The U.K. Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insight Team -- better known as the Nudge Unit because of its allegiance to the excellent Richard Thaler/Cass Sunstein book Nudge -- is looking to expand. Here's the job listing. Some relevant excerpts:

Successful candidates will need to show that they:
1. have a good understanding of the behavioural science literature
2. have an understanding and ideally ability to conduct randomised controlled trials to test policy interventions; and
3. are highly motivated individuals capable of developing innovative solutions to often complex policy problems.
4. are strong team players

Candidates should be prepared to work on potentially any aspect of government or wider public sector policy. For example, over the past year the team has led work on health, energy, fraud, electoral registration, charitable giving, consumer affairs, the labour market, and access to finance for SMEs [that's Euro-speak for "small and medium enterprises"]

Your End of Days: Would Life-Length Testing Save the Government Money?

A Spanish company announced this summer that it can help determine when people will die by using a blood sample, a $700 test, and research that earned three American geneticists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Though the test has its critics, and though it won’t offer an exact date for one’s death, it does promise to reduce uncertainty about longevity by examining a tiny part of DNA that reveals biological age as opposed to chronological age. Successive generations of the test are likely to improve in predictive power.

Our ignorance about an individual’s longevity is the source of a number of problems. Many of them are personal, but some have implications for society writ large, and taxpayers in particular. So one wonders: if the government can make you confront the calorie content of your diet, can it also make you confront your mortality?

If the government were to mandate “life length” testing, it could help resolve the intractable lifetime savings problem. Pervasive under-saving among households is a result of our impatience, to be sure, but it is certainly also a consequence of the fact that no one knows how long his savings need to last. Save too much and you miss out on having fun when you're alive. Save too little and you end up broke and reliant on the social safety net that taxpayers fund.

World Water Day: Nudges for Safe Water

What if a simple ‘nudge’ could massively increase the use of safe water in poor countries?

Today is World Water Day, a day to raise awareness for something we take for granted in America: clean water. Normally I yawn at Hallmark-meets-poverty-program type publicity stunts. Reminds me of many a microcredit “awareness” campaign that paraded superstar microentrepreneurs on a stage, ignoring the need for rigorous evidence to find out if microcredit actually works.

Subjective Well-Being Inside the Obama Administration

An interesting observation about the potential policy impact of "happiness economics" in this weekend's Financial Times from the always-astute Tim Harford...

Obamanomics

Tom Hundley had a long piece in the Chicago Tribune on Sunday describing the influence of the University of Chicago on Barack Obama. The most interesting part comes near the end, where law professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Epstein spar over whether Obama really believes in free markets. Sunstein says, “As Nixon went to China, […]

From Push to Nudge: A Q&A With the Authors of the Latter

“‘Libertarian paternalism’ is just the sort of phrase that makes me stop paying attention,” Levitt recently blogged. But he (and I) couldn’t stop reading about it in Richard Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s book, Nudge, which uses urinals, ABBA, and Homer Simpson (and cutting-edge research) to argue that by simply giving more thought to the way […]

Nudge

I am not a huge fan of what people call “behavioral economics,” which is a subfield of economics that expands the standard economic models to incorporate systematic biases in the way humans act. I’ve written about some of my concerns elsewhere, so I won’t reiterate them here. I don’t deny that the insights that emerge […]