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Let the people decide: A new plan for the US

What would things look like if voters could decide how Washington spent its budget?
Last modified: 2 Apr 2014 05:53

I’ve been worrying about the fate of the United States. Granted, It’s not high on my list of daily worries, but it does keep popping up.

When I’m asked to explain the way Washington works I usually use words like divided or dysfunctional, but I think that is being polite. The branches of government can’t work together to perform their most basic functions. They did pass a budget, but after heralding their financial restraint they are quietly moving to undo some of what they’ve done. Instead of talking and trying to work together, the President and Congress seem to have moved to their separate corners to plot out the next election.

The media is mostly playing along, perpetuating the myth that the only thing that matters is the next election. That might be good for their ratings, but not necessarily helpful in encouraging actual governing. The country, according to polls, is as divided as the Congress.

I have always thought that official Washington is for the most part an isolated place, an island of wealth and snobbery that often seems more like a foreign country than a part of the America I know. The isolation I sense now is more severe than I’ve ever seen before. So many people here seem truly detached from the people in other parts of the nation, unaware that many are still suffering from the impacts of the last recession. It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and watch sitcoms for the rest of your life in a sad attempt to find a new reality. Then I had an idea – I did my taxes.

I’ve decided that since the Congress and the President can’t agree on how to spend the country’s money, we should do it for them. It’s pretty simple and it would prove this is a pure democracy. Think about it, you work up the amount you’ve paid in taxes and then you tell the government how they can spend it.

There would have to be a list of all of the areas that make up the discretionary budget. Education, transportation and infrastructure, defense – you decide; just make sure your percentages add up to 100%. So if one person says 10% (or $2,000) of their taxes go to education, that money goes into a pot, the amounts are added up and that is the budget for next year.

I can’t help but wonder what the budget would look like if Americans decided how to spend their combined earnings. The federal government spends just 2% of its budget on education. Would parents agree that is the right amount? The US spends about 20% of its available cash on defense and 13% on the safety net.

I really want to know if Americans think the US should continue to spend more on defense then the next 13 countries combined. They might agree, but I don't know. Very few are asked to decide. I am betting that most people who are in charge of their own budgets would cringe at the idea of paying 6% of their available cash just to pay interest on the debt.

A media overhaul

There are ups and downs to this plan. It would likely reduce the power of lobbyists. Imagine if they had to pay for fancy dinners and parties for all Americans instead of politicians. It would solve the problem of campaign financing and what often amounts to publicly accepted pay offs to politicians because they would no longer be the all-powerful keepers of the nation’s purse strings.

Another side effect that could be called a downside depending on your perspective. We would have to ban a couple of television cable networks. The plan wouldn’t work if Americans continued to get their news from outlets that promote their own party ideology. If you believe the earth is flat, and you watch a network that continues to tell you that you are right, there is little incentive to question yourself. This new budget scheme would require a media that believes their role is to educate, inform and challenge the conventional wisdom.

I’m sure there are some who will say the plan will never work because you can’t trust the American people. I would guess that many people in Washington would say the public is not informed or educated enough to make such big decisions. That would be telling, considering it is the politicians in Washington who have set the education standards and funding levels for decades.

It might not work, but then again there is at least a chance it could. I’m not sure you can say the same for the current government.