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A Modest Tax Proposal

For the 40th anniversary of the moon-landing, one of the news shows I watch every night interviewed an astronomer who talked about the advantages of declaring it the long-term objective of the United States to put men on Mars. His basic argument is that between now and the time we’re capable of doing that, we’ll have to develop a lot of new technology, and that will help society in general. Naturally, this raised the question of whether funding for NASA is really worth what we spend on it, and he said that only one penny out of every tax dollar goes to space exploration. At that I thought, “Shit, if I could see a man on Mars in my lifetime I’d gladly pay five cents out of every tax dollar.”

This got me thinking. Why not have a tax system whereby I actually could allocate a higher percentage to space travel and things I support? They already let you voluntarily donate a dollar to help pay for presidential campaigns, so why not include more options on your tax return? After giving it some more thought, I developed an entire system in my head that I think would not only work, but could potentially transform society for the better. The system is so simple and obvious that I think there must be some country somewhere in the world that does it or has at least tried it, but I know of no examples.

It would work like this: let’s say the government takes 20% of your income. 10% would be allocated as the government requires, just to make sure everything that absolutely needs funding gets funded. But with the remaining 10% you let people have a choice as to where they want that money to go, and let them distribute it as they decide over such things as education, infrastructure, health care, defense, cancer research, and so on. You give them a list of options and let the people decide the priorities. A military family might give all 10% to defense, a young couple with kids in school might put everything in education, and a person with an illness might decide that everything should go towards health care or medical research. Most would spread out their priorities, perhaps putting 4% towards infrastructure, 3% to foreign aid, and 3% to space exploration. The government still has the initial 10% so there would be no danger of things like prisons not getting funded, but beyond that everyone gets a choice as to what they want their tax dollars spent on.

The way I see it, this would have three major effects:

1) Taxes would no longer be seen as the greatest evil ever done to mankind, and government would finally be seen as it should be seen—the collective will of the governed. As opposed to the way it works now, where the government simply takes your money and the only control you have over it afterwards is to vote for politicians you believe will spend it wisely, under this system you actually get to choose what your own money is spent on. Right-wing crazies who now don’t seem to understand that taxes are actually good for something would be able to see what the benefits are. If more people decide to spend money on infrastructure, and as a result we get high-speed railways that can take people from New York to Los Angeles in 16 hours (technology which exists but which nobody in government wants to pay for), people would better understand just what it means to contribute to society as a whole. Everyone still has to pay taxes, but when they get to choose what those taxes are for they won’t resent it as much, and republicans won’t be able to win elections anymore just by promising tax cuts.

2) It would encourage people to learn more about civics and to participate more in government. Since every single American will have real power—the power of the purse that now belongs exclusively to congress—they will learn what kind of responsibility comes with that power, and will start thinking more deeply about government and society because they now have a certain degree of control over it. Conversely, lobbyists for big industries would lose a lot of power, as instead of having to convince a handful of congressmen, they’ll have to launch marketing campaigns to convince the entire nation why they should allocate more of their tax dollars to anti-smoking campaigns, off-shore oil-drilling, putting men on Mars, or whatever it may be. The newly empowered American populace will want to know what all these programs are about, since their decisions determine how much funding goes to them, and as a result we’ll have a much more educated and socially-aware populace.

3) Finally, and most importantly, over the long-term the nation will move in the directions that genuinely reflect the will of the people. If it turns out that everyone only really cares about defense spending, and 90% of discretionary tax revenue goes to the military, then unfortunately we’ll get more war and death. I for one don’t believe that would happen, and I think if you put the choice in the people’s hands you’d get far more money spent on education, health care, and infrastructure. Of course, these allocations will change as national priorities change. Perhaps 40% of discretionary spending would go to infrastructure at first and almost nothing towards space exploration, but over time as things improve within society, more people may start looking outward, and NASA will see its budget climb as more and more people respond to their ads calling for a national objective of putting men on Mars.

This system, obviously, will never be implemented in the United States, as far too many powerful interests would do everything they can to stop such a thing from happening. For the powerful to remain powerful, they must keep that power concentrated in as few hands as possible, keep the public as disinterested in national affairs as possible, and above all make sure the people in charge of government spending are accountable to the people as rarely as possible, just once every two, four, or six years.

Still, perhaps if more people were bouncing this idea around, discussing how it might actually be implemented, and getting all of the many kinks worked out, there’s a small chance that somewhere way down the line, once the U.S. is no longer a superpower and people are struggling enough to demand more of a say in their government, something like this could actually happen. So I’d urge the two or three of you who are reading this to maybe bring up the idea in conversation every now and then and see what people think about it. Perhaps they’ll mention it in conversations of their own and the idea—which I’m sure I’m not the first to think up—will spread. As of now it’s just a liberal utopian fantasies, but even utopian fantasies can be useful.

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