Feb 122012

Taxes necessarily are unpopular. They represent an economic burden and do not yield obvious benefits. Though some make a show of embracing their civic duty, few voluntarily would undertake to do so if given a choice. The criminal penalties attached to evasion and the substantial efforts at enforcement are evidence of this. Nonetheless, there is a tie between one’s sense of social responsibility and the palatability of taxes. A perception that our sacrifice benefits ourselves, our loved ones, and society as a whole can mitigate the pain it causes. Conversely, if our hard earned money vanishes into an opaque hole of possible waste and corruption, resentment is engendered.

The taxes paid by an individual represent a substantial sum to him, but a mere pittance to the government. If there is no accounting for this money, then it appears to have been squandered. This assumption is natural, as the government is known to be a notorious spendthrift. Nor does the publication of a voluminous, incomprehensible, and largely euphemistic budget lend transparency. Even if it were perfectly accurate, and every taxpayer troubled to read it, the human mind isn’t wired to accurately grasp the relationships between large numbers. Thirty thousand dollars in taxes is minuscule compared to a billion or ten billion or a hundred billion, and it makes little difference which of those quantities is involved. Therefore an effort to elicit confidence through a full disclosure of expenditures would be ill fated even if well intentioned. However it would serve to enforce accountability, and should be required in addition to any other measures employed. If nothing else, this would allow watchdog organizations to analyze government behavior and identify waste.

So how could we restore individual faith in the system of government expenditure? There is in fact a way to do so and encourage fiscal responsibility at the same time. Individuals like to know where their money went. A successful tactic of certain charities is to attach each donation to a specific child or benefit. A person feels more involved, is more likely to contribute, and is better satisfied with their contribution if it makes a tangible difference. We need to know that we aren’t wasting our money.

The pain of an involuntary contribution may be assuaged through a similar approach. It may even transform into pride. There will be individuals who remain resentful, just as there are those who do not donate to charity. And some people simply don’t like being forced to do anything. However the majority of taxpayers likely will feel better if they know precisely where their money went.

We propose that an exact disposition of each individual’s taxes be reported to him. At first glance, this may seem infeasible. Funds are drawn from pooled resources rather than attached to such specific revenue streams. However, what we suggest can be accomplished without any change in the way the government does business, and our reporting requirement would not prove onerous. The federal, state, and most local governments already meticulously account for expenses — even if they do not exhibit particular restraint in incurring them. They must do so for a variety of legal and regulatory reasons, and records generally exist even if not publicly available.

Individual tax contributions need only be linked to expenditures at the time of reporting, but this must be done consistently. To that end, expenses could be randomly matched with the taxes that paid for them. This could be done each February or March for the prior year. We simply require that each dollar of taxes collected be assigned to one and only one dollar spent and vice versa. If there is a surplus, then some taxpayers would receive an assignment of “surplus” and if there is a deficit then certain expenses will be assigned a non-tax source – such as borrowed money or a prior year’s surplus. If a taxpayer’s contribution has been marked as surplus, then his true assignment is deferred until such time as the surplus is spent (again using a lottery system for matching). If it covers a prior year’s deficit then it is matched against that year’s excess expenses. The point is that every dollar of taxpayer money eventually is matched against a real expense.

For example, one taxpayer’s report could read “10K toward the construction of 121 example plaza, New York”, or better still “3K used for the purchase of air conditioning units, 5K for ductwork, and 2K for electrical routing for work done at XXX and billed to YYY contracting on ZZZ date. Work completed on AAA date.” An individual receiving such a report would feel a sense of participation, accountability, and meaningful sacrifice.

It may seem that few people would feel pride in defraying the cost of mundane items, but such an objection is misguided. These are real expenses and represent a more comprehensible and personal form of involvement than does a tiny fraction of an abstract budget. If an expense would appear wasteful, pointless, or excessive, then it is appropriate to question it.

What of the pacifist whose money goes toward weapons or the religious individual whose taxes pay for programs that contravene his beliefs? It may seem unfair to potentially violate a taxpayer’s conscience by assigning him an unpalatable expense. But no exceptions should be made. Their money is being spent in the manner described. Whether their contribution is diluted or dedicated, they live in a society that violates their ideals and they should vote accordingly.

It is our belief that a feeling of involvement in the operation of government, along with the requisite increase in transparency, would alleviate much of the general perception of irresponsibility, excess, and unaccountability. An individual may object to his relative contribution, but the means of its use would no longer be inscrutable. This could go a long way toward restoring faith in our government.