Participatory Budgeting

This is a fascinating idear.

The main reason it’s unlikely to happen, of course, is because President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning of the then-impending dominance of the military-industrial complex has come to pass, and that behemoth would deploy the massive financial weapons in its aresnal to fight any such movement in this direction—and those financial weapons are mighty powerful indeed.

I’m reposting the entire thing in full, with the original poster’s consent, to try to get as many people to think about it (and repost it themselves) as possible, but you should click through to be able to access all the groovy hyperlinks and whatnot.

But just imagine it: being able to have a direct say, even a small one, in how our tax dollars are spent. As I’ve written before, I suspect funding for cancer research, for example, would skyrocket.

It’s hard to believe that Bush’s proposed budget is what anyone wants. For example, he suggests cutting half the federal funds for public broadcasting, while he spends the same amount ($200 million) in Iraq every 12 hours.

Unfortunately, as ordinary taxpayers, we don’t have that much influence over the final budget. If we want to see more money put into biomedical research or the arts we can vote every couple years, we can try to lobby Congress, or we can give to charitable groups and bypass the government entirely. Maybe there ought to be a more direct method.

Suppose we try something new. Take the budget — Bush’s proposal is over $3 trillion — and make a 0.1% across-the-board cut, reducing every agency’s funding by one penny out of every 10 dollars. Take the resulting $3 billion and put it into a Taxpayer-Directed Spending fund. And let the people decide where that money should go.

You could simply have a box you check off on your tax form, where you indicate which departments you want to receive your ~$10 share of that funding. Or, we could adapt the federal matching funds model and have a website where anyone can contribute small-dollar (or large-dollar) tax-deductible donations to an agency, and the government would match those contributions dollar for dollar out of the Taxpayer-Directed Spending fund.

The central idea is to give taxpayers a direct voice in how their dime is spent. The amount should be small, so as not to bollix up the entire budget on public whims, but large enough to make a difference. $3 billion is 1/1000th of the budget, but it’s 8x what public broadcasting gets, it’s 20x what the National Endowment for the Arts gets, and it’s enough to increase the NIH by a hefty 10% rather than effectively cut it with sub-inflation increases, as is the current plan.

There is some precedent for this kind of direct, taxpayer-driven spending. The federal campaign matching funds operate on a similar principle, for example, using voter-driven fundraising to direct public dollars. Apparently, following the 2004 tsunami, the Canadian government sent matching funds in disaster relief for whatever its citizens raised (helpfully blogged about at this site). As that writer points out, the US government already provides a kind of 30% matching fund for charitable contributions each year by making them tax-deductible.

The motivation for this project would not only be to redirect 0.1% of the budget (although that’s a start), but to use Taxpayer-Directed Spending as an indicator of where people want their money spent, kind of a national petition, that would help organizations more effectively lobby for funding. It would be the writing on the wall to tell Congress what taxpayers want.

(On that note, see also my post a year ago with a proposal for “YouBudget”, which I still think is a good idea.)

Sara recently wrote about how government can still do good and do it well, from health care to education (or, in her words, from polio vaccines to the GI Bill). She also wrote about how the power of these programs lies partly in the long-lasting infrastructure they create. Those great projects were conceived at a time when Americans had been exposed to undergoing personal calamity and willingly making personal sacrifices, during the Depression and again during WWII, and doing it together as a nation. Compare that experience with today’s, when as Bush said, the biggest sacrifice most Americans make for the war is to “sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible image of violence on TV every night.”

Today, I don’t feel like the public has a sense of being part of public works or public spending. It’s not our government anymore. I’m not sure great public deeds can be undertaken successfully again until it is. The basic methods for people-powered politics, especially using the internet as an organizing tool, have been developed over the campaigns of 2004, 2006 and now 2008. I think that by applying these tools to policy-making — something as simple as divvying up the budget — we can begin to return to Americans the sense of ownership of our nation that made great national projects possible.


About the other scott peterson

Writer of comics and books and stuff.
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