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Here's a Thought

Here's a weird thought for Tax Day (I did mine in March, but since it's coming up a lot today).

What if you could specify on your tax forms what you wanted the money spent on?  Say, 25% for social security, 25% for education 25% for public transit, fire and police, 20% for scientific research and 5% for the military?  What if all the government programs had to persuade taxpayers that they were the best bang-for-the-buck as far as funds went?

Do you think it would work?  What do you think would happen? 

Comments

I think people don't know enough about the relative needs of various government programs to adequately allocate their tax money (which, btw, has generally already been spent by the time people typically file unless they're doing installment payments). Congress makes the budget because, in theory, they have access to the best information of what program needs what funding for which projects. I could say to spend all my money on defense, and someone else on education and someone else on scientific research, but unless we all happened to do so in exactly the right proportions, some programs would be swimming in unexpected cash (like the Homeland Security folks, who gave my local firefighters money which they used to make door-to-door smoke detector inspections, I kid you not) while others would be even more strapped for cash than now (my guess is that social services would be hit very hard by people who think Welfare is an invention of the Devil).

Think about it like Sim City run by committee: we'd underspend on infrastructure in order to spend more on education and defense, and then before we know it, the roads all break down right before the giant robot attacks. (But hey, giant robot. That'd be pretty awesome.)
people don't know enough about the relative needs of various government programs

Yeah, this is a major drawback to the idea. I consider myself to be more intelligent and interested than the "average voter" and I *know* I have more free time, but I would be intimidated by the amount I would have to learn about government funding to have a good idea of how to allocate my money.

I was wondering if some "wisdom of crowds" would kick in, since the system effectively averages the contributions over the whole population. But I don't know that would actually happen.

gave my local firefighters money which they used to make door-to-door smoke detector inspections, I kid you not)

Could have been worse; smoke detectors are actually useful, unlike some of the stuff Homeland security does.
Could have been worse; smoke detectors are actually useful, unlike some of the stuff Homeland security does.

And while this is true, they weren't supplying smoke detectors, just asking if people had them. V. strange.
I've thought about that in the past and generally love the idea as a theory. One concern I have for us up north is that the Canadian government is already insane concerning the amount they spend on advertising and I'm worried that a proposal like this would only make it worse. Every minister would start a massive "public information" avalanche to convince people how important that sub-empire's programs were.

(Advertising is already used to promote partisan cheer-leading or act as a form of money laundering to pay friends and buy votes. They once created a campaign for the national mint.... "Excuse me. You're advertising money!")
Every minister would start a massive "public information" avalanche to convince people how important that sub-empire's programs were.

Another serious drawback--every program that wanted federal funding would have to advertise itself to the voters, meaning less of the money that gets to it actually gets used for the program. Good point.
It's one of those "wouldn't it be great" ideas that just seems to fall apart more the more one thinks about it.

If people allocated their money to broad categories, I have no doubt that the government would find lots of excuses for shifting the money to the programs they really wanted. If individuals had the binding authority to allocate their tax money to specific programs, it would make the process far too complicated for most people to understand; a few programs would get a lot of media attention and receive absurd amounts of money, while many worthy programs would be ignored. How likely are the people to allocate the right amount of money to paying air traffic controllers or rangers for national forests?
I have no doubt that the government would find lots of excuses for shifting the money to the programs they really wanted.

I think they already do, as a matter of fact. I remember my mom pointing out once that people's willingness to vote in favor of extra property taxes or whatever to fund schools just lead to politicians shifting budget money away from schools, confident that it would be made up.
Well, the tax form *does* have a little check box so that you can choose one dollar to go towards election funding.

Maybe doing a few more of those "add a dollar" to budgets, without touching the budjet allocations would get more funding extra to your special funding choices, and tell the government a thing or two about the U.S.'s actual priorities. I'd do education, natch (being a teacher and all.)
That's a thought. Or maybe our tax forms could include a poll on what programs people think are important.
There was a short story about this idea that I read a decade or so ago...you had to go online and allocate every penny. I think politicians had to do public relations to give people an idea what they should allot things to, but anyone could designate a category, so if money was pledged to a project, the politicians had to use that money toward that goal. The punch line of the story, as I remember, was one person added a category of "world peace" and millions of people designated most of their taxes toward that goal...

Being a short story, it left out the nitty gritty of how the politicians might try to implement it.

(And I don't remember anything helpful like the author's name or the magazine it was in or anything.)

I remember that story...

The story was called "We the People", and I'm 90% sure it was in Analog (if not it was in Asimov's), and it pretty much had to be more than 20 years ago because I haven't been reading the magazines since then. But I have no clue who wrote it, which is why I didn't mention it myself.

Re: I remember that story...

Thanks for expanding on that. I may try to look for the story, and having the title would be helpful.
:-) This sounds like an interesting story.
What I think would happen is that *every* branches of government would end up spending a huge percentage of their budget on advertising to persuade the public to allot their tax dollars to it rather than a different branch. The total waste would be enormous.
Yeah, this is a major drawback to the idea. Plus, to really put it into practice in an intelligent way, people would have to be well-informed about what government services need how much funding. So they'd have to wade through all that advertising trying to find reliable information on that.
It's actually a fairly popular radical reform. I suspect it would work like the initiative, unfortunately; very easy to game. I think we need better voting systems before we try more direct democracy; our current voting systems plus mass media seem to get us into a lot of trouble. Your proposal is at least a range voting system, which theoreticians feel has some possibilities. (For a bit on voting systems, see Poundstone's article; he's also written a book. I keep meaning to write a note on voting reform & never getting a round tuit.)
I didn't realize that people were already thinking along those lines.

What worries me is that we somehow need to come up with a system of government that can be overseen by busy people who don't know a lot about it and don't really care most of the time (the average voter). The present system isn't working very well (though the argument can be made that we're getting the government we collectively deserve--but I'm not in favor of collective punishment). But coming up with a better one is hard.
[old business]

One thing I like about your proposal is that a taxpayer would be allocating money they are obliged to contribute, which I think is likely to inspire a certain sense of ownership--if people are spending money, they are likely to spend it on what they really care about. But the current media environment, I think, would make a poor result likely.

I had enough thoughts inspired by this note to write some of them down in my own journal.
mtgat is right that infrastructure would suffer. More than that, there are very necessary parts of our government that it would be virtually impossible to explain to folks. The government needs people to be actuaries, to set standards for insect parts in grains, to inspect textiles, to write tank-maintenance schedules, and to do research on improving the nutritional content of soil. In a direct allocation system, anything that's too obstuse, or anything that *sounds* like a waste of money, would go away.

If you get rid of all the telephone sanitizers, Murphy's Law dictates that eventually, as spelled out IIRC in "Restaurant at the End of the Universe," somebody somewhere will contract a plague from a dirty telephone.
If you get rid of all the telephone sanitizers, Murphy's Law dictates that eventually, as spelled out IIRC in "Restaurant at the End of the Universe," somebody somewhere will contract a plague from a dirty telephone.

True--but how many person-hours of telephone sanitizing would it take to prevent one death, and would those person-hours prevent more deaths if spent elsewhere?
Point taken.