A few nights ago, billionaire Mark Cuban, was on the Piers Morgan show. Morgan asked Cuban about the recent statements made by Warren Buffet regarding the wealthy paying taxes. Buffet had suggested that he and most rich people needed to be taxed more, particularly during our tough economic times. He also stated that higher taxation would not lead to an exodus of rich people and corporations from our shores.
Cuban’s response was surprisingly populist. He said that he had no problem with paying more taxes. His problem, he emphasized, was not with paying taxes but with how those taxes were used by the government. More specifically, he said that what truly troubled him was that he had no say over how, when or where those taxes were spent.
I would suspect that most Americans feel the same way. Various studies show a fairly even distribution in whether Americans feel they pay too much in taxes. But Americans do get worked up when the issue is what those taxes support. On the one hand, there are those hard-core religious zealots who believe that any government support for contraception or even sex education is a misuse of public monies. Witness the recent congressional battles over funding for Planned Parenthood.
On the other end of the spectrum, various groups are organized around the principle that tax monies should not be used to make war on foreign shores. The War Resisters League, for example, has as its primary goal the reduction in the military budget.
What these groups and many others like them have in common, and in common with Mark Cuban, is a desire not to have their tax burden lifted, but to be able to direct where their tax dollars go. It is one of the very few issues on which both ends of the political spectrum can agree. And, no, none of these groups is naïve enough to believe that the process for directing such spending is to lobby your local congressperson or senator. They got over ninth grade civics a long time ago.
The reality, however, is that achieving what Mark Cuban and so many average Americans want is not all that hard.
I recently completed a book, One Question Only: A Taxpayer’s Manifesto, in which I study how Congress, through its discretionary budget, spends income tax dollars. I propose an easy alternative that would revolutionize our politics and give power back to the people who pay those same taxes.
Here are the basics. Each year without fail, some 136 million Americans file income tax returns. Those taxes alone, and indeed there are many, many others, transfer approximately $1.2 trillion from Americans’ pocketbooks into the federal treasury. Those dollars are spent by Congress using its “discretionary” authority. Put simply, that means that Congress spends the money at its discretion.
So how does Congress spend that money: about 57 cents of every income tax dollar goes to some form of military or defense spending. Another 9 cents is spent on education, training and social services. Only 4 percent is allocated to international affairs. I combine some logical categories into a final list of ten functional areas of spending. The final tabulation is at its core a testament to our nation’s priorities. Actually, it’s far more a testament to Congress’ priorities and lobbyists’ strength.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I propose adding one, single question to all income tax forms. That question would delineate the ten functional categories of government spending. Each American, while completing their income tax filings every year and in the privacy of their home, would enumerate the percent of each tax dollar that they wish to allocate to each category. So if a sample American wanted each category of spending to receive an equal amount, he/she would write ten percent alongside each category. An eleventh choice would be “no preference,” in which case that amount would be spent by Congress as is done now, at its discretion.
Instituting this change would involve a simple act of Congress. Would Congress do so willingly? No! Congress is not going to surrender power to average Americans unless forced to. But Americans can and must demand this change. Reach a threshold point of popular support, and even Congress cannot resist.
This simple change would dramatically redistribute, not just tax dollars, but also far more importantly, power. It would give the power of the purse to the people who fill the purse – you and I. In doing so, it would fundamentally alter the distribution of power and influence. It would force corporate lobbyists to convince the average American taxpayer of the merit of particularized spending. As things stand now, those same lobbyists only need to convince a few hundred elected officials that their reelection is dependent on their financial backing. That’s why Congress spends our dollars in ways that benefit the few, not the many. That’s why Congress’s priorities do not mirror ours.
With the simple change I propose, both billionaires like Mark Cuban and average Americans like you and I can translate our particular proclivities into policy. The percent that Americans delineate for each functional category would bind Congress and the President in the following fiscal year.
Does it solve all of our problems, no, not by a long shot. It doesn’t even address all government spending. But it’s a start, and a highly significant start at that. It is also real. It is operational. It is doable. Some will surely call it radical or even revolutionary. But what is so radical about having a say over how your money is spent? I would argue that what is radical, and quite frankly illogical, is the opposite: having no say over how others spend your money.
The book can be downloaded at: www.onequestiononly.com or from amazon