How To Solve All Our Budget Fights, Forever

[ Posted Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 – 15:55 UTC ]

That title was long enough, but it really should have also had "by Grace Slick" at the end of it. Because she is the budgetary and political genius I'm basing this column on (and no, I'm not kidding). I also should warn, up front (for those considering fleeing for the exits already), that I'm not even going to talk about deficits, which is a somewhat separate problem. So all you folks ready to pen "But what about the deficits?" comments, be warned that I'm not even going to address that problem herein.

OK, anyone still left reading? Here we go. Every year, Congress is supposed to pass a federal budget. This budget "pie" is sliced up between all the different federal agencies, for all the things the federal government does. The House of Representatives and the Senate (and the politicians within), haggle and struggle over what dollars should go where.

I saw a headline in my newspaper this morning which exemplifies this fight: "House Republicans consider reductions in food stamps to save military spending." This is actually a very old argument, and used to (in post-WWII times) be framed as: "guns or butter." Spending on social problems like feeding the hungry versus funding the military-industrial complex -- a clear choice. While this is merely the most stark choice in the budgetary fighting, such decisions are the heart of the battle -- weighing one program or agency against another, and deciding how much money each will get.

This is where Grace Slick comes in, because while I've also been a believer of this plan, she states it better than I could, from her autobiography Somebody to Love?

The political system I'm in favor of has no name. It's based -- not in a lip-service way but in a real way -- on the concept of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Remember that old slogan? In my perfect world, the government would send each of us a book filled with all the possible things that can be facilitated by our tax dollars and we'd choose our favorites.

Imagine such a radical idea: after filling out your tax form, you then filled in a separate form. Say you paid $5,000 in income taxes last year. You'd then allocate that money as you saw fit, dollar by dollar, among the budget line items you chose. Slick has a list of such possibilities, which starts off with reasonable things like "Anything military" and "Anything peaceful" and "National parks," but (being Slick) also includes such things as "Shoe lifts for short senators" and "Free medical attention for carnivorous plants." Heh.

Slick continues (after providing a pie chart of her own, as an example of how she might split her money up):

Once the computer finished its number crunching, we'd know exactly what the majority wanted. In the above figure. representing the current political setup, shoe lifts get top priority while old people get the shaft. My suggestion is, why not simplify the tax forms and find out what U.S. citizens really want? Surely we've learned by now that the democratic process is thwarted by representatives' questionable motives and by a lack of trust on the part of citizens themselves.

Of course, the list would be more serious than that. Perhaps a list of every federal cabinet department, for those who wanted the easy way to allocate; or a more extensive list of all the federal agencies down to the smallest, for those who wanted to get into the nuts-and-bolts.

What would I allocate my tax dollars for, under such a scheme? Well, that would take some thought. The National Park System would certainly be high on my list, as would the Interstate Highway System and NASA. But I'd have to see a breakdown of all the relevant agencies to really divvy up my precious tax dollars.

The idea is that whatever is most important to you would be what got your money -- whether that was the Pentagon, the National Endowment for the Arts, women's health services, the Department of Homeland Security, whatever....

This would be a true national referendum on what the government should do, and how much each department would get (Social Security -- as is true now -- would be separate from this budget, I should mention).

How would the budget pie look after such a fiscal plebiscite? I truly have no idea. Would either Pentagon or social spending increase or decrease? No clue. Would the National Park System get more money? Well, I'd bet that it would, but that's really just a gut feeling on my part.

At the very least, it would be a fascinating survey for some enterprising social science (or statistics) graduate student to tackle for a project. Conduct a poll of at least 10,000 taxpayers in all parts of the country. Ask them to say (anonymously) roughly how much in income taxes they pay, and what they'd choose to spend it on. I guarantee one thing: the results would hold some surprises for everyone -- no matter where your political beliefs fall on the spectrum.

Of course, I don't see this happening any time soon. Legally, it would probably take a constitutional amendment to wrest the "power of the purse" away from Congress. Slick realizes this:

Now you may ask: Has any large-scale "government" -- U.S.A. or other -- ever given this much autonomy to its constituents? No. Which is why this pie-in-the-face routine would need the overwhelming support of the people to be implemented.

One thing is for certain -- although this proposal doesn't even address the deficit side of the equation, it would certainly solve the budget battles in Congress, forever. We would never see a "guns or butter" headline ever again about the House of Representatives, or the Senate. Call it a post-Tax Day fantasy, if you will. But I'd truly be interested in the data even an academic survey would provide on the fundamental question: What government, specifically, are Americans actually willing to pay for?

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “How To Solve All Our Budget Fights, Forever”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    Love it. Love it. Love it!

    I like to think that as humans continue to evolve and advance, someday, somewhere, real, practical "representative" government will occur.

    Well, actually, I remember reading an article some years ago about one of the Scandinavian countries - can't recall which - actually has something, to a degree, like what I envision. The crux of the article was that there was some thorny problem that needed addressing, and the "government" conducted basically a 2 year-long (or so) discussion/debate with the citizenry until they reached a genuine consensus. (Shades of Occupy.) The government simply didn't take action until the thing had been thoroughly hashed out and everyone was on board.

    Such things are possible and even exist, to an extent, today.

    Just not here.

  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Such things are possible and even exist, to an extent, today

    I would submit that such things are possible under VERY limited circumstances..

    Can you imagine if this Scandinavian country came under attack and put it to their people as to how they should respond?? Two years later the populace is ready to fight.. Too bad that the conflict was already over after the first two hours..

    You simply cannot run a country by committee... You simply MUST have elected representatives to make decisions for us.

    The problem we Americans have is that we're always suckered by Shiny Beads and Shallow Flattery that we keep electing over and over the worst our country has to offer..

    Obama is a perfect example. America was breathless that we finally had a REAL leader, a Jack Ryan... Turns out we got a Richard Nixon...

    Our problem is, we don't hold our leaders accountable. We mitigate their sins and their greed because WE elected them and we simply cannot admit to ourselves that we might have been wrong.. Or we fool ourselves into thinking that the OTHER guy just HAS to be worse.. So we go on and let our leaders walk all over us, betraying us and our principles at every turn and they are smirking, "What are ya gonna do? Vote against your Party!??" all the way to another term in office...

    Slick's concept is a nice fantasy and would work well under very limited, very controlled conditions.

    But to actually apply it en masse on a country wide scale?? The country applying it would cease to exist before the ink dried...


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Slick's concept is a nice fantasy and would work well under very limited, very controlled conditions.

    Sorry.. I was mixing up Slick's idea with Paula's...

    My bust....


  4. [4] 
    dsws wrote:

    It would be a disaster, if it were tried for real. I don't know what stuff actually costs, and I'm pretty number-savvy compared to the average taxpayer.

  5. [5] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    This idea would absolutely not work. Nobody would choose the stuff that's necessary but not cared about. The part of the idea that would work very well is to tax based on the spending instead of the income. one of the reasons people don't want to pay taxes is that they have no idea what they're getting for their money. If your tax bill said, for example, "30 dollars to pay armed forces personnel, 5 dollars to help states pay for teachers, 5000 dollars to pay Halliburton to drill for oil in iraq, 1000 to finance the national debt," then you'd know what you were getting for your money.

  6. [6] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Everyone -

    I apologize for being mostly-absent here in the comments, I am pushing to finish up the book proposal in the next few weeks with every spare moment.

    But I do still read everyone's comments.

    For those commenting on the "will it work" aspect here, a simple question: wouldn't it be interesting to do such a study and find out how the American people would divvy up their tax money? Purely academic, some poly-sci grad student, I mean.

    And the $64,000 question: what would the results look like? The more I ponder that question, the less certain of any answers I come up with, personally...


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    For those commenting on the "will it work" aspect here, a simple question: wouldn't it be interesting to do such a study and find out how the American people would divvy up their tax money? Purely academic, some poly-sci grad student, I mean.

    It would be a fascinating study.. Maybe get some small town in Podunk, Kentucky and do an experiment...

    Logistically speaking, it probably wouldn't be that hard..


  8. [8] 
    dsws wrote:

    We already know pretty well what the not-paying-attention public wants to do to the budget. Decrease foreign aid by $38 trillion a year, use $15 trillion of that to wipe out the deficit, cut taxes by about $15 trillion, decrease spending on "government" by about $3 trillion, and increase spending on every item of actual government spending by a total of about $5 trillion.

    Well, those numbers come a little too close to actually adding up, to really represent the typical swing voter. And they actually have some connection to reality, because I used actual numbers for part of it, to get a numerical representation of what the swing voter verbally supports. Nonetheless, you get the idea.

  9. [9] 
    dsws wrote:

    The core idea is explained in at 1:41.

  10. [10] 
    dsws wrote:

    Rather than just saying it wouldn't work, I should have responded by brainstorming variations that might.

    We could have a modest percentage of the budget, say 20%, allocated as follows. Let organizations produce their own federal budgets. Let taxpayers name an organization on their returns. If an organization gets named by at least a million taxpayers, its budget allocates a proportionate part of that 20%.

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