What if you decided how government spends your taxes?
Are you annoyed that $12.8 trillion of U.S. money has gone to bail out the financial industry? Do you wish that more of that money could have gone to strengthening education or the military or helping you pay off your mortgage? Do you feel that it's wrong for you to work hard and play by the rules only to see your hard earned tax dollars go to help bail out some rich bankers who brought the financial system to the edge of a global catastrophe? If so, you're probably not be alone.
But the simple fact is that the whole idea of taxpayer money is misleading. If you earn a monthly paycheck, you may have noticed that a big chunk of that money never even reaches your bank account. While you may feel that the government is taking "your" money, it was never really yours to start with.
You may believe that when you write checks to your state and federal treasuries that you have a right to decide how that money is spent. Unfortunately, those feelings have no basis in the law. The best you've got is the opportunity to vote out your Congressional representative or the president if you don't like what they're doing in office.
But what if you could decide how the government spends the tax checks you write? This would, of course, require passage of new law (probably several, in fact), and a complete re-thinking of tax policy, but, as they used to say on The Six Million Dollar Man, "We have the technology . . ."
It could be done by having an additional form on your tax returns that would allow you to indicate how you'd like your tax dollars to be allocated among various government departments. Ideally, you could view a report about the taxpayer benefits of each government department along with its efficiency to help you indicate your choices, all of it online.
As I see it, this ability to choose how government should spend your tax dollars would have two big benefits and one big problem. The problem is that my proposed allocation-of-tax-dollars-by-popular-demand could starve critical programs of the resources they needed and over-fund other departments that did not need so much money.
The benefits? People would feel a greater sense of control over how the government is run and their choices of how to allocate budget money would send a powerful signal to the people running those departments. If people were voting to send a particular department more of their money than its current budget, then that department would grow. And if people voted to starve other departments, then those would need to become more effective and efficient.
There are a few realities that ruin my proposal. First, Washington would never be willing to give up so much power to the people -- nor would lobbyists who play such a big role in political campaigns and in getting government money for their clients. Second, much of Washington is funded by issuing government debt, so the taxpayers' real potential influence is limited anyway.
So maybe as a starting point, it would be helpful just to compile and analyze how people would choose to spend their tax checks. In fact, why don't we get get the ball rolling right here.
Peter Cohan is president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates. He also teaches management at Babson College. His eighth book isYou Can't Order Change: Lessons from Jim McNerney's Turnaround at Boeing.