Where, exactly, do tax dollars go? Equal parts misinformation and lack of accountability have confused the question for decades, and as a result, Americans’ confidence in their government has plummeted. If more detailed guidance and answers were readily available, suggests Ethan Porter, managing editor of Democracy (Spring 2010), it would go a long way toward rebuilding America’s trust in its leaders. There would also be a lot less grumbling every April.
“Feeling disconnected from their government, people tend to turn on, tune in, and drop out,” Porter writes. “And without the check and the balance of an active public, government performance suffers.”
Porter’s proposal is simply a matter of paperwork. The IRS would issue individual taxpayers a receipt detailing where their money wound up, accompanied by a clear, intelligible graph to reinforce the explanation. He also suggests that receipts could arrive alongside report cards from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, and interested citizens could visit a one-stop website for information about individual agencies’ responsibilities and performance evaluations.
“Done right, a receipt could have powerful and lasting consequences,” Porter argues. “It would make clear the enormous amount of goods and services provided by the government. It would dispel myths: America is not a nation of welfare queens, dependent on the public teat. The amount spent on safety net programs will, to some people, seem stunningly low.” Nearly half of the 2008 budget, for example, went to national security and Social Security; about 11 percent was spent on safety net programs such as food stamps, and just 1 percent went to foreign aid.
It may seem an overly optimistic proposition in these Tea Partying times, but Porter believes Americans might someday be willing to shift federal spending priorities using their own checkbooks. Hardcore environmentalists could send extra cash to the Environmental Protection Agency; space enthusiasts would give NASA a boost. “Think of it as a form of citizens’ earmarks,” Porter writes, “designed to make use of modern technology and wrest a bit of power for the people themselves.”