Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Individually-Directed Tax Dollar Spending

Grist recently published an article about how Americans might allocate their tax-dollars if they were given the ability to do just that.  This is a subject I've often thought about... basically, the tax code would be rewritten to establish that the taxpayer, on their annual tax filing, can specify up to a set percentage of their taxes to be dispersed as they choose among various departments, agencies, and perhaps even specific programs and projects.  How specific we get is really up to us.

An example:

I'm a big fan of infrastructure, which I see as an immensely practical, a driver of short-term jobs, and an investment in long-term growth.  I'm admittedly slanted toward getting more bang for the buck: I like walking, bicycling, transit, freight rail, and seaports.  But I'm also a bit of a dreamer: I'm infatuated with NASA... I just love the adventure of exploration (even if I do it from my desk chair), the beauty of their photos, and I can't deny the technological marvels that have come from and continue to come from their mission.

Lets say the law lets me dedicate up to 30% of my taxes.  I might dedicate:
 - 5% to pedestrian & bicycle projects
 - 5% to inner-city transit (local bus & rail systems)
 - 5% to inter-city transit (e.g. Amtrak; high-speed rail)
 - 5% to freight rail
 - 5% to seaports
 - 5% to NASA
 - 70% go to the existing tax structure

That's 15% toward the movement of people, 10% toward the movement of goods, and 5% toward pure science and exploration.  In reality I'd probably fine-tune that a bit more: ped/bike projects don't require nearly as much capital as transit, so 5% of tax revenue could fund a lot of ped/bike projects but wouldn't have nearly as much of a dent in a transit budget.

That remaining 70% would go through existing formulas.  Let's say 10% of all taxes goes directly to healthcare under today's system... well, now it'd be 10% of 70%, for a total of 7%.  Let's say that the rest all goes into a general fund: that means 63% goes into the general fund for spending as per Congress' desires.  Much of that would go to defense, more to healthcare, etc... continuing just as today.

Why a cap?:

I do believe that 30% cap is necessary.  It doesn't have to be 30%, but some number.  Some might think it well & good if we could have such direct democracy where we can all call the shots directly with our tax dollars, but in practice there are some interests which provide a very clear and tangible public benefit even if we do not individually appreciate its benefit to us as individuals.

One example is in infrastructure: we rarely think about how our food gets to us, where our toilets flush to, or where our water comes from.  We only care when it doesn't work or provide the quality we expect, and even then we rarely understand why it fails on the occasions that it does.  Infrastructure is the very backbone of civilization: it's what enables personal freedoms, commerce, and our modern lifestyles.

Another example is defense.  It's fair game to question what role a military should take -- do we engage in an offensive manner, do we strike preemptively to protect ourselves, do we only defend after attack, etc.?  It's also an open question as to what degree of internal security: how we protect our borders, how we identify threats within our country, etc.  But with only some exceptions on the further-left and further-right sides of civil liberties and peace advocates: by and large most agree that some amount of national defense and internal security is necessary, even if we disagree on how much and in what form.

But one likely outcome of individually-directed tax spending: our current hefty military budget would almost certainly suffer considerably.  It's not necessarily that people dislike the military or don't appreciate it's value; it's just that people underestimate its size, cost, and needs while simultaneously placing greater value on issues that more directly and visibly impact their lives.

I'm generally a small- (well, more specifically "local-") government person, but one thing I think is critical to be handled at a national (federal) level is defense, and I'd foresee significant portions of that remaining 70% (or whatever the value may be) helping to ensure that the impact is not too severe to budgets without as strong of an interest to individuals.

One other element is that many budgets require long-term spending forecasts... and doing that with a budget that could vary considerably from year-to-year is quite difficult.  Calling on the same examples: infrastructure projects take years -- sometimes decades -- of sustained funding to build.  And we can't disband an army unit or sell a naval ship one year when the public decided not to give as much to the military; only to suddenly train and arm a unit or construct a ship the next year.  A professional military requires some degree of consistency; not to mention the long-lasting research & development projects that -- like infrastructure -- require many years of continuous investment.

What of businesses?:

So all of the above is from the mindset of a resident paying his or her annual taxes.  But what about businesses?  They pay taxes, too.  It's a question I have admittedly not yet given much thought to... a part of me fears the role of corporate dollars in governance, but on the other hand I think that the large sum of dollars generated by business taxes could similarly achieve great benefits if given the option of directing their tax-dollars.  While infrastructure might not figure too prominently in the minds of residents: it might be a pretty major factor among businesses -- they more readily appreciate the true costs of infrastructure as it becomes apparent in every step of their process; every infrastructure problem akin to feudal lords sapping more and more of their profit away at each turn.

Why?  -For the Liberals:

As the Grist article notes: science and environmental programs would likely see bipartisan increases.  Even social-oriented programs would likely see gains, particularly given that their budgets today aren't exactly considerable.  Social and education programs would find supporters from socially-minded left-leaning individuals as well as more religiously-motivated charitable individuals on the right.

Why?  -For the Conservatives:

This is the very definition of empowering the individual.  While this alone may not reduce your tax bill (that'd still be for the legislators to decide), this enables you to at least have greater say in deciding how it is spent.  Think a program is a waste of money?  Put all your money in something else which you support.  It may not necessarily be small government, but this is a big step toward more capable local government, increasing the power and freedom of we individuals, and demanding greater accountability, efficiency, and benefit out of our government.


This would have not likely been feasible in the past, as the complexity is such that it would cost entirely too many resources to organize up to (and now beyond) 300 million different responses.  But as our governance becomes increasingly computerized, the cost for implementing and operating such a taxing system should diminish considerably.  While there would be some significant start-up cost at building the necessary system, it is absolutely within our technological capabilities and after it's built: the additional cost should be comparatively small.  In my opinion, it's a concept well worth exploring given the greater freedom it grants to each of us as taxpaying citizens of our country.