Wonks R Us

Where Public Policy and Small Business Meet

Opening Pandora’s Box

I was reading NPR’s Planet Money blog the other day, when I came across this link to a Third Way brief. The basic argument is that it would be cheap and easy to provide each taxpayer with a detailed receipt of exactly where their taxpayer money goes.

It’s really very easy. The total amount of federal spending is the denominator and the amount of money spent on a particular program is the numerator. The resulting quotient is the percentage of all federal spending that goes to that program.

It is a lovely theory, but as I have argued before, it would not be as easy as it might seem at first blush.  For one, Third Way massively oversimplified the federal budget. This is the taxpayer receipt that Third Way proposed:

And here is the 6ft poster detailing the federal budget that Death and Taxes recently released:

Not quite as neat as the Third Way’s vision, but certainly a lot more accurate.

Have you ever been in a long check-out line in a store when a customer who has just completed a transaction decides to take issue with a receipt? I certainly have.  Sometimes the issue is the result of poor signage or operator error.  But, I have also stood waiting while someone complained that an item he/she purchased was cheaper at another store (this is a true story).  The poor check-out clerk couldn’t do anything, so she called a manager over.  The manager calmly explained (several times) that she had verified that the price for the item was clearly listed on the shelf and she that she would be happy to refund the cost of the item so it could be purchased elsewhere.  The customer didn’t want a refund. She wanted the store to lower the price for her because it was cheaper elsewhere.

I am a strong proponent of government transparency, but context is critical.  Without adequate context I think a taxpayer receipt would grind the federal government to halt (I realize that is only a short distance from where we are now, but I digress).  Suddenly, citizens would have just enough information to make them dangerous. They would haggle over the cost of their share for a specific item.  Or, feel entitled to choose what they will and won’t pay for. I can just hear the complaints now:

“I oppose (insert Program X here), I want my share refunded.” or “I will only pay part of my taxes because I don’t support (Program x).”

“Instead of paying taxes, can I just buy supplies and give them to the government, it would be cheaper that way.”


2 responses to “Opening Pandora’s Box

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