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Singer-Composer Alex Ebert Hopes to Change the World, Starting with the IRS

He won a Golden Globe and sings in a popular folk band. But what he really wants to do is change the way tax spending is allocated.

by Alice Speri
Apr 16 2014, 10:15pm

Photo by Dan Smyth Photography

If you remembered to file your taxes on Tuesday, you might have also found yourself wishing your hard-earned dollars didn’t have to go to pay for things you don’t love — like war, certain cops, and inept lawmakers’ salaries, to guess a few.

But while the Internal Revenue Service might not be too bothered with your opinion, you can now try to imagine the tax world of your dreams at TheNewIRS.com, a website that’s half virtual reality game, half political manifesto in the making, where you get to “play” lawmaker and allocate funds according to your personal ethics and judgment.

Yes, it’s about taxes, but it’s actually both fun and thought-provoking.

'Everything is just an idea until it becomes reality.'

The project is the brainchild of Alex Ebert — who is better known as the lead singer and composer of the indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros than as a fiscal bureaucrat wannabe.

While touring the world with his band and snagging up a Golden Globe award for writing the score of All Is Lost, the 35-year-old Renaissance man — who is also writing a book about the “the history of social anxiety” and calls himself an “armchair philosopher” — set out on his most ambitious task yet: changing the world, one virtual reality website at the time.

Or, as he put it, he wants to help people imagine a different world, “reinserting the creative process into politics, repossessing make-believe.”

In the video below, Ebert accepts the Golden Globe.

“And yet we still try for magic,” Alex Ebert said while accepting a Golden Globe for his score of All Is Lost.

The folk-singer, composer, and sometime-activist launched the "New IRS” interactive website after meeting with a group of web developers at a “hackathon” at the Sundance Film Festival.

With them, Ebert set out to create what he says is the first of a series of “alternative government” simulations, that will live under the SecondGov.org domain and attempt to turn people’s disillusion with government into a collective, creative vision of what governance “could" be like.

Basically a crowd-sourced thought experiment on how to change the world, starting with a simple game allowing users to reallocate tax revenue as they wish.

'Right now we have a bit more misrepresentative democracy than we have representative democracy.'

While the site is brand new, early responses have been trickling in from across the country, and Ebert’s team is set to release a report in the next days highlighting the results of the simulation.

They will present them, in pie-chart format, next to graphs showing how our actual taxes are allocated.

Images via TheNewIRS.com

“Whitehouse.gov has provided a great interactive webpage to see what tax money goes towards on a national level,” Dru Clegg, one of the developers behind the site, said when TheNewIRS.com was first launched. “Unfortunately, seeing how things are done ‘after-the-fact’ doesn’t make me feel any more involved.”

Getting people involved is exactly what Ebert and the team hope to achieve.

VICE News caught up with him on Wednesday, in between stops of his music tour in Australia. Here’s what he told us.

'We need... a safe place, to think as revolutionarily as we want to.'

VICE News: How did it all start? Alex Ebert: It started just because I had this sort of obvious idea that we’d be able to control where our tax money goes on some level. When I thought about how to get that going, I suddenly felt a little overwhelmed with the prospect of how normally things get done, which is that you have to either vote someone in who cares about what you care about, or you have to protest on the street. So instead, it occurred to me that I could just do a simulation of what it would be like, and that might get people to develop a taste for that kind of revolutionary idea. So we made a simulation of a new IRS.

With all the issues out there, why start from taxes? Because the vote matters less and less. The more money rules politics, the more the single donors get to donate sky-is-the-limit kinds of money to campaigns, the less politicians need to make good on the platforms that they’re really voted on, and the less they are really going to be encouraged to. Politicians spend something like 80 percent of their time collecting money for their next campaign, instead of enacting their platform. This is essentially a mandate, every tax day, that ensures the vote of the politicians we voted in in the first place. I think right now we have a bit more misrepresentative democracy than we have representative democracy.

'The first kids in the playground made all the rules, and then suddenly no one else was allowed to.'

Is this basically just a thought experiment, or is there an action component to it? It’s both. Everything is just an idea until it becomes reality, so for now it’s just make-believe, but as anything that’s make-believe becomes popular in the political realm, things become suddenly very real. I’m going to continue this and the team is going to continue this until it’s implemented, or until we die. Hopefully it does manifest itself into reality but for now it’s just a simulation.

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You said there’s more coming. What should we expect? The main thing is a broader platform to provide a playground in which other people can think as creatively as they want, politically. We called that Second Government, SecondGov. The idea is basically sort of like a shadow government of the people. Like the opposition party has a shadow cabinet, this is a shadow government for the entire population, and you can come up with whatever laws you want, whatever ideas you have. And if people like them, they can vote on them. It’s sort of like a virtual reality geared towards politics. Anyone can play. And the great thing is that the ideas that are sort of ridiculous won’t become terribly popular, and won’t work their way into reality. But the ideas of SecondGov that become very popular could start to push to enter reality and I think that that is the exciting thing. We need to reinsert the creative process into politics, we need to repossess make-believe. We need to act as if. That’s how the first kids in the playground made all the rules, and then suddenly no one else was allowed to, but we need a realm, a safe place, to think as revolutionary as we want to.

'The New IRS is to give people a simulation of a world in which they have more power.'

Is this just online or are you reaching out to groups that have been protesting on the streets, or organizing in other ways? First and foremost this is an idea that can be implemented by anyone at any time simply by remembering that we have the ability to create. We are creative animals and I think we just forget that in the realm of politics. It’s just a philosophy, and anyone can do it, anywhere. But yes, we will be providing a platform online so that the entire nation, or the entire world, or any sort of nation, can participate because I think that’s really necessary, that the entire country have the ability to participate in creative government. That will be at SecondGov.org. The New IRS was the first idea, we put it out first because tax day was coming up.

How does it work exactly? The whole idea, and even the name "The New IRS" is to give people a simulation of a world in which they have more power and to actually provide a platform in which they can experience what it would be like if they did. When you see the categories and are able to slide them and choose your percentages of where you want your money to go, that has a profound impact as opposed to just talking about, ‘oh yeah, that would be cool’. You get to actually do it. That changes the dynamic of the experience; the point is really to give people a taste of a new paradigm.

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Were people’s entries realistic and balanced? Or is everyone just giving all funds to education and slashing the defense budget? So far the reports that I got back from people — including myself — is that it is actually harder, you end up really thinking about it, and it takes you a little longer than you thought because you’re contemplating, 'ok, where do I want these funds to go', and I do want to give a fair and balanced approach as opposed to just filling out the form. For example, instead than putting 100 percent into education because not enough is going to education, I think what people are trying to do is to give a synthesized approach, where they really try to allocate the spending exactly how they would want it to come out. I think that’s the right way to do it.

'It will completely open up people’s minds.'

How did you allocate IRS funds in your distribution? A pretty large portion for the environment, and sourcing new forms of energy. A decent amount towards health care and some research and development, science. I had it pretty spread across. For defense I had something like 8 percent.

So you did keep a defense budget. I did, and that’s really what you were asking right? That’s the real tough one. Because of course it’s actually the Department of War, not Defense. It’s a difficult category, but at the same time, there’s a realistic quality to defending a piece of property called the Unites States of America, with all these resources, and the world being what it is. I do not think that we need anywhere near 52 percent of our money going to the military. I think somewhere underneath a standing army and a bunch of people on alert should do the trick as far as I know, and as my ethics are willing to go, in the world I want to see. I pushed myself as far I could on that one.

How did all of this come out of Sundance? I met the tech team that really put the site together at Sundance, through a hackathon. It was my first time doing a hackathon. I had had the idea already for SecondGov, and it just so happened that I got linked up with these site builders and geniuses. It was pretty remarkable how on the same page they were with the idea. We kind of tried right away and we tried to keep the ball rolling. Because SecondGov is such a huge project, I thought it would be a good idea to release something before, and gain some interest in this idea of what I call the ‘second approach.’ The first approach is, when you want to change something, approach it directly and try to change it by mutating it, killing it, or whatever you are trying to do. But the second approach, which is the creative approach, is that in order to change something, you invent a new thing that makes the existing one obsolete. I thought that we could present basically the premise of SecondGov through The New IRS, which is a much simpler, single-use site, and that’s what we did. It will be fun and it will completely open up people’s minds.

'Hey, you know what, this does make sense, let’s do it.'

How does this relate to your other work, your band, your score writing? I have been sort of an armchair philosopher a lot of the time. I have been active and an activist on occasion, and probably more so than the average American, but that’s not saying that much. I think that my philosophy, and my writing, and my thinking got to a place where I started being very firm. Instead than just being angry and just being frustrated, I started to really feel like I had a grasp on solution-based thinking, and that’s basically where I started really going forward.

How do you manage it all? Right now you’re in Australia, on tour, while also preparing to release the first set of “New IRS” data. I make sure I meditate and try and get some sleep, but otherwise it’s full blast, all the time. Between scoring movies and writing music, and touring, and doing this stuff, and writing. I’m writing a book about ‘cool,’ about the history of social anxiety, and the current stage of that evolution to ‘cool.’ I have a lot of thoughts on my mind.

Did you hear from the actual IRS? I’m waiting to see if they give me any trouble. But so far, nothing. I’m just sort of waiting for some politician to say, ‘hey, you know what, this does make sense, let’s do it.’ The problem with things that are perceived as radical, even though this is ridiculously obvious and basic, people sort of put their entire careers on the line. But that’s how great things are done anyway. It just takes courage, that’s all.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi