It is Tax Day in these United States, a good time to remind American citizens that taxes 1) aren't super fun to pay, 2) are used to pay for things you're not happy with, and 3) this is the cost of being an American citizen in these United States.
There's a website going around that revisits an old idea: maybe everyday Americans know better what to do with the budget than members of Congress! The site is TheNewIRS.com and it offers visitors the chance to decide how they would spend the government's massive income tax haul. Want to scale back spending on international affairs? Move the slider! More money for the Air Force? Slide! Then, when you are done, you fill out a little form and the data goes somewhere, apparently.
The well-designed tool is the brainchild of Second Gov, which bills itself on Twitter as an "open platform for discussion, experimentation, and meaningful change." Or: "@SecondLife meets @Change," which, eh. Why make the tool? Because "[t]he system of representative democracy in this country is broken."
For many reasons, politicians have well-documented problems spending this money as their platforms promised they would. It is not always their fault. Often enough, established interests resist change. Regardless of fault, we are left with this: voting alone does not often create the realities we are promised.
And here's where we get into problems.
First of all, let's note that this is an old concept: Congress doesn't spend money how I want, so I will suggest how I want it spent. It's a corollary to the old trope that the federal budget is just like a household budget, an idea that was thoroughly dismantled last year.
During the Iraq War, complaints about having to pay taxes to support the invasion and occupation of that country were common on the left. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan declared that she wouldn't pay taxes in 2004 out of protest; Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys rhymed that he'd "like to have a say on the income tax / Don't wanna help build bombs and that's the facts." This didn't work, for a variety of reasons. (Among them: Paying your taxes is a very good way to stay out of jail.)
The Tea Party took this to another extreme last October. The government shutdown because Republicans didn't want to pay for Obamacare, facing pressure from grassroots activists to do so. Instead of funding the full government, the House tried to segment out Obamacare, and then tried to re-add smaller pieces of the government that were politically popular in an effort to get to the same end. This also failed, somewhat more spectacularly.
But the point is this: People don't like to pay for things they don't like, be they progressive or conservative. On a local level, this inclination is more obvious, manifesting itself in ballot measures to pay for schools. Older voters, whose kids aren't still attending the schools, are less likely to want to pay additional taxes for the institutions. It makes sense. It is also not how society works.
Second Gov's articulation of the core problem — "representative democracy in this country is broken" — is both sort of accurate and deeply naive. Yes, the wealthy disproportionately control politics. Yes, interest groups weild significant and unbalanced influence. But this is not absolute and it is not black-and-white. Those interest groups reflect a diversity of opinion nearly as broad as the population that gets infuriated at them — labor and health groups and big businesses and the NRA. They're not equivalently powerful, but there is a counterweight.
"The New IRS provides … control for our federal income taxes," the website reads. "Taxpayers choose, from reasonable and established categories, where our federal income tax money goes by choosing a percentage for each category. We call the new feature Personal Allocation." Great, cool. Here's one category: "Additional Government Programs." Here's another: "Response to Natural Disasters." In the first case, the descriptor is so broad as to be meaningless. In the second, it's so narrow as to be unimportant. As Vox puts it, the government "is an insurance company with an army." Tax money pays for the military and social safety net programs more than anything else. Turning the military spending down to zero simply doesn't make any sense in reality. But reality is not where this website plays.
America is an ongoing and always flawed effort to let a diverse group of millions of people take care of themselves. Exxon and Chase and Koch Industries like to throw their weight around, but this is just one of the aforementioned flaws. We vote because we want to help steer the ship; we pay taxes and let our representatives — who in either the House or the Senate disagree with our personal politics — decide how the money is spent because we recognize that other Americans chose those people to represent them. That's the deal. Welcome to America; sorry half the country disagrees with you on everything.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.