Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

February 28, 2013

Voting By Tax Return

By David K. Shipler 

            Years ago, my wife’s parents wrote on their tax return, “For use in the national parks only.” It made them feel better.
            Wouldn’t this be fun? What if, when we sat down to do our taxes, we discovered a new section on our 1040s that listed government programs, with a blank space beside each one? We’d write in the percentage of our tax payments that we wanted to be spent on defense, foreign aid, food stamps, housing subsidies, education, border security, and the like. Very empowering. It’s worth wondering how it would alter the federal budget. Polls give us a clue.
            As the dreaded sequester goes into effect, a larger minority of Americans than usual is tuning into the government’s spending patterns, and of course President Obama is working to make sure the impact of sudden cuts will come through vividly to voters who, he hopes, will rise up against obstructionist Republicans in Congress.
            The 24-hour media are cooperating by broadcasting as much hype as they give a predicted snowstorm in Washington, DC. Airport delays loom. Food inspections wane. “Illegal aliens” slated for deportation are being released from jail into the innocent streets. Patriotic government workers and defense contractors are being saddled with furloughs and layoffs. Terrorists may exploit the absence of sufficient intelligence analysts and FBI agents. The draconian cutbacks cast ominous clouds over an economy struggling to recover from the Republican Recession.
            The stock market, hovering near record highs, doesn’t seem to have noticed. Nor will most Americans until things get much worse than they already are in a country with decaying roads and bridges, overcrowded classrooms, child malnutrition, high unemployment, unsolved murders, spotty health care, and so on. Much of what government does in a modern age is so routine that it is unnoticeable until it’s gone.    
So, if we taxpayers could decide directly, what would we do?
             There might be surprises. Take foreign aid. It makes up only 1 percent of the total budget (2.6 percent of discretionary spending), but polling shows that people think it’s about 20-25 percent. That’s the median response. When asked what an appropriate amount would be, the preferences work out to a median of 10 percent. It’s probable, therefore, that those who want to cut foreign aid by more than half might actually raise it ten times by writing in 10 percent. (About 48 percent of those recently surveyed by the Pew Research Center urged cuts in “aid to the world’s needy,” while only 24 percent wanted to decrease “aid to needy in U.S.”)
            On the other hand, military spending might take a hit, since it requires about 20 percent of the budget, and polls show more Americans supporting cuts in defense than in various social, infrastructure, and environmental programs. This readiness to cut defense is one reason that Republicans haven’t seen the sequester as dire enough to prompt a congressional compromise on raising taxes. The fear factor about military unreadiness doesn’t have the punch that was expected.
            In fact, the Pew survey shows very small minorities willing to cut government spending on health care, environmental protection, scientific research, anti-terrorism defenses, roads and infrastructure, food and drug inspection, disaster relief, education, and so on.
            So, let’s have that new section on the tax form. We wouldn’t have a say over mandatory payments for entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt—only over discretionary spending, that shrinking part of the budget that Congress controls. Still, that covers a good many direct services that we like, and programs that we may think are bloated.
Of course those paying the least in taxes will have the least influence, and the richest will get the most bang for their buck—but that’s nothing new. It would be a kick to have a tax return that’s like a ballot.
I know, this is a silly idea in a complex economy where the representatives we send to Congress are much better equipped, more responsible, more sophisticated in the ways of government, can see far beyond the parochial interests of individual taxpayers, are tall enough to look ahead to a sensible future, and devote themselves to putting the good of the country first.
OK, let them continue, they’ve been doing so well. We’ll just write the checks.

1 comment:

  1. The Government, and governments, (all parties) have backed-off on the income tax and switched to a revenue system based on employment taxes, sales taxes, fines, and 2013 tax brackets. If you look at the big picture, both parties want more of your money. Who knows, maybe they deserve it.