CITIZEN AWARENESS AND SHINING LIGHT INTO THE DARK
An Important Question Needs to be Redirected
September 13, 2011 at a Republican presidential candidates debate, 17-year-old Tyler Hinsley asked, “out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” His question got a lot of media attention.
It's a good question but it can't be answered by those to whom it was asked. Why? Because it can only be answered by those who are responsible for what is spent—us.
I suggest that the question that should be directed to all American citizens is:
"Out of every dollar you earn, how much will you happily pay in taxes for all that you demand to be provided by your government (at every level)?"
Whatever we demand and get, it's going to cost. It seems pretty clear that a great majority of our citizens and corporations who pay taxes would like taxes to be reduced. And, indeed, when we look at how little we keep of each dollar we earn, revolutions have taken place for less. Yet we're doing this to ourselves. We cannot blame the politicians. They want to get re-elected by their ultimate bosses. The buck stops with us, not them.
So with all these many citizens wanting their taxes reduced and a balanced budget (just as we are expected to live within our means), the question comes back to us—what costs shall we reduce?
What is the answer in today's society? Reduce all those costs...except for the things that benefit me.
If everyone is a special interest and insists that their interest take precedence over all or most other interests, then our employees in Congress will do as they're told and keep spending our nation into the ground...six feet into the ground. Yet what can we do differently today? There is no moderation. Our citizens feel that they must loudly proclaim their particular interests or they'll simply be lost in the shuffle as others get more than their fair share. And it's the part emphasized that is what raises the most gall and causes spending to spin out of control. Solve that and we have something.
Let's decide what order to ask these questions and then let's ask ourselves:
- What are we willing to pay in taxes? That defines the budget that must then be balanced.
- What do we require the government to provide?
Next, let's consider these questions:
- When our taxes are spent unwisely or selfishly, can we know that it is happening?
- Can we do anything about it?
- Will we be (truly) reasonable about a particular spending issue if "I" am a beneficiary?
I suggest that
- The problem is not "Are you for or against a strong military?"
- It is not "Are you for or against showing compassion to those who are in need?"
- It is not "Are you for or against safe bridges?"
- or a gazillion other similar questions.
Of course we all want ourselves and our fellow citizens to be protected. I think most of us would welcome extending help to those in need in other countries when those countries cannot help their own citizens. And yes, among the gazillion spending priorities there will be no lack of disagreement among our citizens. And there will be extreme views and irrational views.
By observation it appears that when we are spending Monopoly money (i.e., the way it seems to be done now), the majority view is irrational (and that is generally by inaction or inability to take action as opposed to action). I believe that when we start spending our own money, rationality will return to the majority.
Having stated the obvious...the obvious having been beaten to mush for generations...is there anything we can do about it today? What is different about today compared to past generations?
Answer: We now have a capacity to shine more light into dark places.
Our politicians throw tregabucks into dark places where they are spent (or acquired) by people who are not elected. Those monies are generally spent on very important things and accomplish a great deal of good. Do we know about those things and who to hold in high regard? At the same time, far too much of our hard earned tax dollars are spent unwisely and selfishly because there is no light shining on spenders' actions. There is too little accountability. Would unwise or dishonest people spend unwisely or steal if they had to do it in plain sight of those who can take action against them?
How does this generation have the capacity to shine more light into dark places?
November 4, 2013: FYI, I am not talking about Snowden and Wikileaks kind of light shining here. I oppose that. But beyond that, how could we apply social media to this issue?
Incipient Answer: We have already created a social revolution in which we are shining light onto ourselves in ways that strip away privacy to a degree that is shocking to my generation. They/we do this on purpose...willingly!
I'll bet that one of these incredibly bright young geniuses could come up with a way to mold social media technology into a tool that places tax spenders in those same bright lights. Furthermore, I'll bet that this genius(es) could also build in a means for those who's money is being spent to inform the spenders of their priorities. Then we insist that our employees (the government) use it.
If tax spenders, identified at the smallest accountable organization level, if not (in some cases) at the individual level, were required to act at all times in the light, knowing that their actions are measured against the scorecard of citizen priorities and honorable service, would they act more appropriately more often?
The problem is really one of scale, accountability, and alignment with citizen priorities. Indeed there will be all manner of problems that any reader will be more than happy to point out, as will this author. But as a guiding principle, requiring stewards to work in the light within the awareness of those whose money they're spending, has got to show better results than a $15 TRILLION national debt in a setting where school teachers have to buy the crayons for their classes.
Do we want leadership on the principle of the squeakiest wheel gets the money even when the barrel is empty? Or should we require squeakers to decide whence the money comes in order to be moved to where they want it...and to know what is being cut as a result? That is the difference between Monopoly money and "my" money.
Scale: The problem of scale of tax spending is, by definition, humongous. When one considers all the spending that takes place at all levels of government for all things done by government, how could it be possible to illuminate the shadows? Response: For one thing, even partial coverage allows for a greater possibility of bad spending to be identified than is currently possible. Furthermore, there is a lot of us. With social network tools for monitoring tax spending, allowing a lot of people to look over spenders' shoulders, it would be possible for a few to bring to the attention of masses any situation in which a spender is believed to be acting unwisely and selfishly. Those same citizens can also bring to the attention of masses a spender that is doing a great job and deserves commendation (and we should be encouraged to do this).
Who are "the masses"? In general I would define "masses" in this context as that group from which the tax dollars come for whatever spending is being monitored. Notice that I didn't say "from those who pay the taxes." This is about every citizen having their vote. Still, whether these citizens individually are tax payers, future tax payers, or those deserving of our help, it is their (our) money, NOT the government's. Think of us as investors who want a reasonable return in security and benefits for things that the government should provide (preferably guided by the Constitution).
Accountability: The envisioned social network tools for monitoring tax spending would allow those monitoring the expenditure of their own money (collectively speaking) to have access to "spending purpose" descriptions that are written succinctly and clearly according to easily read and easily understood required standards. Tax code writers are not invited. The standards would instill consistency to further improve quick readability. The tax spending monitoring tools would include version control so that edits during the life of a spending task are tracked. At the conclusion of a task (or for interim reports), a cumulatively gathered value can be placed to measure its success. Ok, so one problem is to figure out who gains stature as experts (and how) to have greater weight for their evaluations.
Alignment with citizen priorities: Our young social network geniuses will need to develop a way to present information in a way that allows priorities to be set on the basis of a balanced budget. When funds are tentatively made available in one area, those funds are not available to be used anywhere else. No further borrowing is allowed and debt elimination is a top priority. The process should require sufficiently high granularity for the decisions to be meaningful. In fact, it should be possible to zero in at the basic unit of budget and allow those looking into that area to indicate their budget priorities.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that this social network carry direct decision making authority. The point is to shine light and increase accountability to both spenders and citizens. It becomes a guide for decision makers that carries weight to the degree that comes with public awareness and voting seasons. And maybe it will indeed work well enough eventually to gain some degree of authoritative budget guidance.
The overall task is huge, but we do what we can as it progresses in stages. And, again, we have a lot of people who could be involved. Every aspect of government spending at any level could have voluntary citizen participation. We already do this and can judge for ourselves who adds value in their participation and who does not. Dealing with spammers without moderation slant is another issue to solve.
Leadership accountability could be applied as a measure of the degree to which those with authority are managing spending according to the priorities of their "bosses"—namely, the citizens who have an interest at the level of any given representative. Those measures would accumulate to be clear and present at the time of the next election for that representative. In the event of light shining onto egregious conduct, either by elected representatives or by spenders, more immediate consequences may be demanded.
As we establish broad citizen awareness of how stewards are spending our money for us, its fast impact may be all that is needed. Those who then have the authority to act appropriately can do so in a timely manner or gain their own illumination.
I realize that confidentiality and secrecy are sometimes required for national security...a dark place by definition. It is another challenge to discover if these general principles can be safely applied in some manner even there, especially since "national security" as a justification is often stretched thin.
What is waste?
Some will argue that space exploration is a waste, while to others it is vital. Some will argue that funding the creation of vulgar art is waste, while to others it champions personal freedoms.
For our purposes here, I'll define waste as spending that does not, for a reasonable cost, benefit those who were intended to receive benefit and/or that does not match up with citizen priorities.
What about foreign aid? For reasons that have not made sense to me but seem to make sense to the state department, trillions of our dollars go to help those in need in other countries but often end up doing very little for the people in need. Yet we continue to send what (it seems from this seat) can only be characterized as bribes. The justifications I've heard focus on the importance to our nation to preserve our "influence" in [fill in the country's name] and minimize the influence of countries that are unfriendly to the U.S. Historically it doesn't seem to have made much difference. The bribees seem to be a rather fickle bunch. Is there a true benefit to our citizens? The cynical side of me considers that a billion dollars can be divided in the dark in interesting ways that have little to do with benefit to those who provided those dollars.
If more light is successfully shining onto the tax spending process, and if that process can successfully communicate citizen priorities, and if that results in spending coming more into alignment with those priorities—will our people feel more willing, more patriotic even, to share their resources, even when it is sometimes used in ways that are against their preferences?
Will some things fail to get funding because too many citizens did not make it a priority? Likely. However, opinions can change. Also, the government is not the sole source of funds or the sole way for individuals or groups to accomplish something that is important to them. Too often, in my opinion, the government involves itself in things it should not. But it's not about just my opinion. This is about placing spending priority responsibility into the hands of all citizens. If their spending decisions are foolish then the consequences will follow. Gee, that's what's happening now isn't it? Only now we citizens have little or no control over how our money is spent. How's that working out for us?
This social network tax spending oversight process, implemented well, will allow people to learn from honest mistakes. It will allow people who make selfishly driven or not-so-honest mistakes to reap the consequences rather than having a dark place to hide and laugh.
If we are willing to believe that most people are basically good, then as light shines on the needs of a small group, compassion will be exhibited. This should be especially true when there is confidence that we're all being treated fairly. If we do not believe that most people are basically good, then none of this matters. Greed, evil and selfishness will prevail. I believe that most people are basically good.
We're talking about the government. The government loves acronyms. So how about we call the social network tax spending oversight process Social Oversight Network on Tax Spending (SONOTS). "So nots" so good? Your ideas?