Against My Interests

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

by Jason Kuznicki

If you can bring yourself to advocate a policy that runs against your personal interests, we can infer two very interesting things. First, the policy is probably especially good for the public; it would not otherwise overcome the personal interest. Second, if you have to “bring yourself” to advocate it, then you are probably under-advocating. You should talk about it more often, not for your own good, but for the good of the country.

Here are some of mine:

  • Phase out the mortgage interest tax credit. My family would suffer directly if it disappeared. That doesn’t make it good policy. The mortgage interest tax credit distorts the housing market and unfairly privileges the upper middle class, of which I’m a member.
  • That goes for the adoption tax credit, too. I doubt very many adoptive parents are swayed on the margin, and those who are probably shouldn’t be adopting anyway. As an adoptive parent, I say we should eliminate it.
  • Just eliminate all tax credits and drop the marginal rates to compensate. Doing so would make compliance easier and eliminate a whole lot of deadweight loss and fraud. The downside for me? It would make policy wonkery a whole lot less fun. That’s not a public interest; that’s a private interest particular to my tribe. Reducing nasty complicated IRS audits? That’s a public interest, because it potentially benefits almost anyone.
  • Privatize NASA. This could mean ending almost all of it, including my husband’s high-paying job as an aerospace engineer. I almost deleted this item. Then I reread my first paragraph. I hope he’ll forgive me.
  • Drastically reduce the length of copyright. There is a good chance that I will write a book one day, and cutting copyright terms will hurt my royalties. But lengthy copyright is bad for consumers and bad for our culture. “Life of the author plus 70 years” is preposterous, but the people who write the most about copyright are… well… writers. Thus the policy we have.

Now I challenge my fellow wonks: What policies do you support that run directly against your personal interests?

It would be extraordinarily improbable if impartial reasoning about public affairs never led you away from your personal interests, wouldn’t it? So when was the last time that you advocated against them? As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, relinquishment is a virtue.

(And yeah, I’m aware that this post can be metagamed ad infinitum. Do your worst. That’s part of the fun of it, no?)

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48 Responses to “Against My Interests”

  1. #1 |  marco73 | 

    Drop the deduction for donations to charity. As millions of American’s do, we give to our Church and to local charities.
    It is unseemly, and a significant paperwork drill at tax time, to have to document that you gave 4 shirts worth $10 each to a local charity at the last clothing drive or put $20 into the collection plate, along with the charity’s address and tax ID number.
    Matthew 6:3
    “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:”

  2. #2 |  Dave | 

    A MUCH better idea would be to get rid of the income tax altogether. The income tax just means the government has first claim on every penny you make, you do not have a right to keep any of what you earn.

  3. #3 |  Xenocles | 

    As a desk-driving military officer in the business of buying military hardware, I say:

    -Freeze or cut officer base pay, but augment combat pays. (After doing this make it so that we hardly ever need to pay combat pay.)
    -Stop reinventing the wheel when so many of our current platforms and systems work just fine. For instance, we’re in the process of designing a new SSBN class from the keel up. It’s going to shoot the same missile and there’s no indication that any enemy has been able to track the Ohio class, so why are we doing this? My only guess is that incorporating new technology justifies R&D money.
    -At some point we need to address the military retirement system. My particular stance on this doesn’t exactly run counter to my interests since I think everyone should have the options that were in place when they joined. But there’s something fundamentally broken with a system that requires no pay-in from workers being paid relatively competitively and then offers a defined benefit for life after twenty years.

  4. #4 |  Pete | 

    Despite the fact that my wife and I are both civilian employees of the Navy, I recognize the need for huge cuts to DoD budgets, support closure of foreign bases around the world, and vehemently oppose the way that the US military is used to “police” the world.

  5. #5 |  MacK | 

    Adoption tax credits do sound a bit perverse to me.

  6. #6 |  shg | 

    While advocating a position contrary to self-interest bears upon one’s good faith and intention to put the interests of society first, it has absolutely nothing to do with the reasonableness or propriety of the position. That’s based on sound reasoning, not the absence of self-interest.

    If you want to promote this agenda, that’s fine, but that it’s contrary to your personal interests is hardly enough of a basis to persuade anyone that the positions are right.

  7. #7 |  Scott | 

    Getting rid of statewide smoking bans. I hate being around smokers and smelling smoke. I love that I can now go to any restaurant and take my family without worrying about having to be around smokers.

    While some might claim there is a health benefit in general to the public, in having bans – and they might be right – I doubt it’s that helfpful to the smokers who are now forced outdoors, in the rain or snow, to light up.

    And, if some people want to open smoke-friendly restaurants and bars, work there, and / or frequent them, it is maximizing their utility. I won’t have as many smoke free options, but I’d rather people be allowed to choose for themselves.

  8. #8 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 


    What would you replace an income tax with? I think that a sales tax would be at least as subject to political bushwa, and from what I gather the history of such is that they rapidly turn into VATs, and grow out of control. I would like to see the government shrunk to the point that it could be run on tariffs and fees, but that doesn’t mean I think for a minute that it will happen. Do you have a third idea?

    On the post itself; I love museums, enjoy symphonies (Opera isn’t to my taste), etc. Nevertheless I think the Federal government should get the hell out of the museum and cultural event business. No more Smithsonian unless the public is willing to donate, but more importantly no more Federally supported museum of ball-jar lids in North Nowhere Montana. No more National Endowment For the Arts or the Humanities, unless they can go private. No more PBS or NPR. It probably won’t save significant amounts of money, but it would eliminate a whole strata of small budget items that are a distraction.

  9. #9 |  thomasblair | 

    Adoption tax credits subsidize a good thing – putting children with parents. Yeah, they shouldn’t exist on principle, but they’re not the worst of things.

  10. #10 |  Mattocracy | 

    I believe our governments at the state, fed, and local level need to tax people more directly via user fees. It sucks that the rates for the users go up, but having non users of government services subsidizing for others skews the perception of how much things actually cost.

    For an example, I wish we paid for major roads more directly with tolls and gas tax instead of taxing the general population via sales and property tax. That would blow for me personally, but if people felt more directly the cost of commuting every morning and evening it would spur developement of some better and more efficient means of travel.

  11. #11 |  Jason Kuznicki | 


    Virtually every subsidy subsidizes a good thing, and the problems with them aren’t just matters of principle.

    One common misconception is that we have lots and lots of kids here in the United States who need adoption right away.

    For infants, this absolutely isn’t true. Parents who want to adopt often go overseas for exactly this reason — to get an infant. There just aren’t that many here in the United States.

    For older children things are different, and the tax credit is perhaps more defensible, as it helps lessen the burden on a foster care system that we would be likely to have in some form anyway. As long as popular opinion holds all orphanages to be morally unconscionable, here we are.

  12. #12 |  Dante | 

    I’d like to do away with the policy of “save the children”. No actual child is “saved” as a result of this brain-dead, knee-jerk hysteria and the whole thing costs a lot of time, effort and money, and in fact many children are harmed by being over-protected. Just let kids figure things out all by themselves like our parents did.

    Plus, think of all the labrador retrievers that would not get shot by cops who claim they are “saving the children” as they crash through the door in the middle of the night.

  13. #13 |  Tim | 

    I work for the federal government, and I believe that we should move away from defined benefit pensions for public employees. For better or worse, few private sector employees have them anymore, and it’s unjust for civil servants to retain them. (I strongly believe in retaining Social Security as a defined benefit program, however.)

  14. #14 |  James J.B. | 

    Agreed. While we are at it – eliminate all deductions and shelters for all income – including businesses. Tax on income w no deductions- why should my efficiently run, low overhead business subsidize those that aren’t. Let the market decide who wins and loses –

    Tax all income the same – interest and personal income – same rate. Money is money.

    Now let see who tells me why this is wrong – and who says that the government Should help certain businesses or protect some types of income as opposed to other types.

  15. #15 |  crazybob | 

    Agree with the list except for NASA – they do important earth science research that is essential for economies around the world, work that wouldn’t get done without NASA or some equivalent gov’t entity.

  16. #16 |  Other Sean | 

    This is a cultural thing rather than a policy position, but…

    Decouple the job market from the academic credentialing machine. We all sit here and rail against injustice, discrimination, etc…but probably most of us profit from discrimination in one of its least resisted and most enduring forms.

    If you’re the type of person who posts comments on a blog, the odds are excellent that you’re the member of a privileged class, simply because you managed to acquire a few pieces of paper other people don’t have. Those scraps of parchment entitle you to stand on the winning side of a system that treats people with prejudice of the worst kind – the kind that is unapologetic and utterly inflexible.

    But what really is the difference between us and them? We know who won the Peloponnesian War, and we learned how to pronounce “Foucault”. We acquired the dubious skill of saying things like “all other things being equal” and “in the fullness of time” and “should future circumstances prove more conducive…” Mostly we didn’t even do that, because we were just hanging out, getting high, and trying to entice hippie girls into bed before they noticed the presence of “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” on our bookshelves.

    It’s really nothing to be proud of, and yet here we are, earning more money and enjoying a higher social status for no better reason than that.

  17. #17 |  generalgarbage | 

    Raise my taxes. I’ve benefited disproportionately from public goods and I can afford it.

  18. #18 |  marie | 

    Farm subsidies. Doesn’t affect me directly but it does affect my family.

    As for me, let’s see… My husband is about to “benefit” from four years living large at government expense. I would be willing to sacrifice that benefit by cutting funding to the federal prison system. Less funding to the prisons could mean fewer prisons and prisoners. In my world it would, anyway.

  19. #19 |  GÄC | 

    As a DoD civilian employee stationed in Germany, with my German wife, and a mortgage on a German house:

    I sincerely believe we should focus the military on actual defense and close the bases overseas. I could understand having some skeleton bases with some pre-positioned stock for a TSHTF eventuality, but there is no need to have 70k troops in western Europe and a similar number in Korea/Japan. I believe we should stop sticking our noses in other people’s business, and end the let’s-not-call-them-wars wars.

    Regarding the smoking ban, I actually like the way my hometown in the US did it – they gave restaurants the choice of either banning smoking and allowing under 21s in their establishment or allowing smoking and going 21+. There were some places that actually cut their business in half (kitchen in the middle) and had one side smoke free and the other smoking. It gave the business owners a choice, and allowed the people the choice of whether they wanted to go somewhere they could smoke.

  20. #20 |  RobSmalls | 

    As a DoD Contractor, I agree with both Pete (#4) and GÄC (#19). Cut the DoD budget dramatically and rescope the DoD’s mission to focus on defense of America vice projection of power abroad.

  21. #21 |  croaker | 

    @17 That’s pretty much what Obama(lamadingdong) told sucessful people when he gave his “you didn’t build that” harrangue.

  22. #22 |  Brandon | 

    #17, 90% of the time when people say that, they mean “raise other peoples’ taxes.” You can always raise your own taxes without any coercion from the government. If you’d like I can even give you the address where you can send the check to assuage your guilt from benefiting disproportionately. There’s no limit to how much you can send! But of course, that’s not what you really meant, is it?

  23. #23 |  Al | 

    The Planet Money podcast just did a piece on six economic policies that the left, right and center can agree upon that will never happen.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing all six implemented even if I’d be dinged by most of them. (Getting rid of all tax credits was one of them.) Interestingly enough, they don’t mention privatizing NPR or NASA but those expenditures are probably an order of magnitude smaller than the six they talk about.

  24. #24 |  TomPaine4 | 

    Allow anyone to practice law. Or, for that matter, any other profession.

    But the Bar admission hurdle is the one that protects me, so that is the one that fits here.

    And Marie clearly has the best post so far.

  25. #25 |  Red | 

    How about eliminating mortgage loans all together? All they end up doing is raising the price of housing.

  26. #26 |  Dave | 

    #8 I have no desire to replace the income tax with anything. I would like to see the federal government shrink to the size that a modest flat rate import tax would cover expenses. The income tax is the most anti freedom way to collect revenue anyone could imagine. I repeat, you have no right to keep one penny of what you earn under the present system, and that is undefendable.

  27. #27 |  JeremyD | 

    Not sure I agree about copyright. Penguin Classics editions cost just as much as most copyrighted work. Publishers will charge the same price to consumers whether it’s under copyright or not and the price will reflect the value of the item. If it’s public domain, the publisher just doesn’t have to share a cut with the writer. (Yes, ebooks change this somewhat).

    As for tax deductions, the idea behind the deduction system is that the government should only tax people on discretionary income. Money spent on basic life necessities doesn’t count as part of the pool of taxable income. Defining “basic life necessities” is the trick. Clearly the child deduction is reasonable: one has to feed, clothe and shelter a child. Home energy tax credits? Eh, that’s where it gets into policy wonkery. You could make a case that reducing aggregate energy demand lowers our reliance on unstable foreign powers, helps mitigate environmental damage in a system that looks increasingly destabilized, and reduces the need for further expensive investment in a public grid system.

    Some people don’t like the use of the tax code to achieve policy objectives. It can create market distortions and unforeseen consequences, but if it’s properly engineered can also help improve society.

  28. #28 |  Jim | 

    Either end property taxes outright (preferred) or at least end the confiscation and subsequent auctions of property by governments where the so-called ‘owner’ is delinquent on his tax payments.

  29. #29 |  Jim | 

    One more – end withholding.

  30. #30 |  SJE | 

    Copyright used to be MUCH MUCH lower, and people’s lives were shorter. Its also ridiculous when compared to patents.

    Copyright only applies once the work is completed and thus is ready for market, and now goes for an effective 100 years. By comparison, patents only get 20 years from filing the application, but it may take serious $ to put it in practice (e.g. a drug, or a piece of high technology). Copyrights are also easier to get and enforce than patents. Why do we make it so much easier for writers, artists and film-makers than we do for engineers and scientists.

  31. #31 |  EH | 

    Worst thread ever. Glad to see Dave@2 was prescient enough to suggest the Somalia Option fresh out of the gate.

  32. #32 |  marie | 

    Privatizing NASA could be the best thing for space exploration. Private industry does a better job at almost anything the government does. Space exploration with less bureaucracy would free up money for more research. Besides, the Constitution doesn’t authorize NASA, does it?

    (Thanks, TomPaine4!)

  33. #33 |  ClubMedSux | 

    It’s a moot point in many (most?) cities by now, but one policy I support that is against my personal interest is allowing business owners to decide whether to allow smoking in their establishments. As a non-smoker, I love the fact that when I come home from a bar, a concert, a bowling alley, etc., I no longer reek of smoke. That being said, I still believe it should be up to the owner to decide whether to allow smoking and up to the customer to decide whether to frequent businesses that allow smoking.

  34. #34 |  Brandon | 

    #25, “How about eliminating mortgage loans all together?”

    Eliminating mortgage loans, or eliminating government-guaranteed mortgage loans? One is a reasonable restriction on government, the other is just stupid and pointless.

  35. #35 |  Peter H | 

    Eliminate patents with method claims. This means you, software patents

    I work in patent law, I’d lose a little business over it, but boy are they dumb.

  36. #36 |  Swimmy | 

    Jason, you might be interested to know (if you didn’t already) that advocacy of policies that don’t promote *narrow* self-interest is the norm in opinion polls. For instance, after controlling for education, vulnerability to busing doesn’t determine opposition to busing, income doesn’t determine tax rate preferences, government employment doesn’t determine government spending preferences, vulnerability to the draft doesn’t determine opposition to the draft, etc.

    There are exceptions, of course–it seems that whether or not you’re a smoker strongly determines, on average, your opinion on anti-smoking laws. I have a great (but hard to find) paper on the subject I’d be happy to email you, if you’re interested. It’s “Self-Interest in Americans’ Political Opinions” by Sears and Funk. Shoot me an email if you want it. (I presume you have access to it from this comment’s info.)

    Of course, you can always define self-interest more broadly or precisely, but that makes the question harder if not impossible to study. Tax incidence is too complicated a subject to do a person-by-person cost-benefit analysis.

  37. #37 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    In general, eliminate all “guarantees” at the Fed/State levels that really just guarantee profits for politically connected. Examples are loans that supposedly help everyone from students to new home owners, but really just hand over hundreds of billions of dollars in business to large banks/financial entities with zero risk (due to Fed/State guarantees). It must be nice to be able to lock in a few billion in profits guaranteed by the USG.

    And, apparently, I directly benefit from billions of $$ being given to countries like Israel, UAE, and Japan. I can do without all that goodness.

  38. #38 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    A MUCH better idea would be to get rid of the income tax altogether.

    This, of course, is the better solution. Get rid of the estate tax, too. I find it amazing that people support the USG taking a massive % of your wealth instead of allowing you to give it to the people you love. Cynically, I believe people support this just because they jelly. Shame on them all.

  39. #39 |  Charlie Potts | 

    Make all taxes progressive: capital gains, unearned income, passive, and payroll. Eliminate the cap on payroll taxes.

    Make credits progressive: more mortgage deductions for less valuable homes, more education credits for people with smaller incomes.

    Take five percent of the Pentagon budget and give it to NASA. Nobody wastes money more than the Pentagon.

    Legalize victim less crimes and tax them. Make as many non-violent crimes as possible result in fines, not prison time.

    There, I just balanced your stupid budget.

  40. #40 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Charlie Potts,

    “Nobody wastes money more than the Pentagon.”?

    I expect that that depends a great deal on what you mean by ‘waste’. When I’m in an especially grouchy mood I feel that you could take the entire budget of Health and Human Services (or whatever the heck they are calling it now if they’ve changed again) and pound it down a rat-hole without affecting much. The military at least buys neat toys that have some physical existence.

  41. #41 |  Xenocles | 

    If test scores are any indication, I’d say the Education Department wastes the most – certainly as a percentage of budget. All that extra money spent with average scores nearly flat…

  42. #42 |  Brandon | 

    “Make all taxes progressive: capital gains, unearned income, passive, and payroll. Eliminate the cap on payroll taxes.”

    Yeah, punish success! Eat the rich! Who cares that it will affect more retirees and small business owners than evil billionaires, it makes some people feel better!

    “Make credits progressive: more mortgage deductions for less valuable homes, more education credits for people with smaller incomes.”

    This doesn’t even make sense. The Mortgage deduction is for interest paid on your mortgage, not for the principal. So to do this you would have to either jack up interest rates on small mortgages or give tax credits for buying less expensive homes, which will make those homes more expensive.

    “Take five percent of the Pentagon budget and give it to NASA. Nobody wastes money more than the Pentagon.”

    Why? Why can’t you just take 5 percent of the Pentagon budget and cut it? You know, not spend it, not borrow it, and not have to pay back twice as much over the next 30 years?

    “Legalize victim less crimes and tax them. Make as many non-violent crimes as possible result in fines, not prison time.”

    This first sentence sort of makes sense, but fining people for non-violent crimes is not much better than imprisoning them. If you’re willing to sacrifice other peoples’ freedoms for fundraising, why not just institute more taxes? Why the punishment?

    “There, I just balanced your stupid budget.”

    No you didn’t. Oh, I see, you’re 12 and your parents just let you on the internet unsupervised for the first time. Congratulations! But you should probably shut up and just read for a while until you gain some actual understanding of the things you are talking about.

  43. #43 |  JThompson | 

    Force people to take a reading comprehension class and pass a test on same before being allowed to post on the internet.

    It would be seriously annoying to have to go through that, but it would probably cut down on posts that ask a question like “What policies do you support that work against your best interest?” being full of responses that amount to “Abolish taxes! Leave my money alone!”.

  44. #44 |  Xenocles | 

    Oh, one more – the new GI Bill is ridiculous. You already bought my college for me when I signed up for commissioning; now you’ll be paying for 36 months of my kids’ college.

  45. #45 |  newshutz | 

    End government run schools, though I hope to become a teacher, soon

  46. #46 |  Alan Miller | 

    Eliminate the capital gains tax – if it’s income, it’s income, tax it as such.

    Get the stock markets back to being for investing in companies by putting a 1/10th cent per share traded fee on transactions. If you’re investing in a company this will have effectively no impact on you; similarly if you’re divesting. If a company’s stock is priced so low that 1/10th cent is a significant percentage of the share price, the company should be doing a huge reverse split.

    Eliminate the mortgage tax credit (and yes, that would also hit me).

    Remove the cap on FICA-eligible earnings.

  47. #47 |  Johnson85 | 

    Why do people always claim that the mortgage deduction unfairly privileges upper middle and upper classes? When people rent an apartment or house, the owner of the apartment or house gets to deduct the interest on the mortgage. Why shouldn’t the homeowner?

    I could see arguing that it would reduce mortgage debt and therefore promote more stable housing prices, but it’s not like people that own are getting the benefit of something that people that rent aren’t.

  48. #48 |  NOYB | 

    No reforms will fix the systemic corruption in the system.

    We need a total overhaul, Zeitgeist style.

    Resource Based Economy FTW!