The Corner

Can I Have A Receipt with That?

Megan McArdle reports that “the left hand” of the blogosphere (wouldn’t that be the left hemisphere? Hemiblogosphere?) really likes the idea of giving taxpayers an itemized receipt for their taxes. For instance:

 She writes:

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that opposition to spending rests on misperception of what the money is spent on; Americans tell pollsters they want to cut spending, but it turns out that what they really want cut is the imaginary fortune they think we spend on foreign aid.

But of course, it seems to me that this could just as easily go the other way:  isn’t it possible that the widespread support for programs like Social Security and Medicare rests on the fact that most people don’t realize just how big a portion of your paycheck those programs consume?  I don’t know the answer to that, but I will point out that most economists believe that paycheck withholdings enable (among other things) higher taxes; if people had to write out a check for their tax bill every year, resistance to income tax increases would be much fiercer.  

This suggests that handing people an itemized invoice for their government programs which shows them the total yearly take might increase support for the Smithsonian, and decrease it for the stuff that appears higher up on the bill.

Whichever way it cuts, I think this is a good idea; more information is generally better.  I just think that the emotions this sort of receipt provokes in liberal bloggers may not be the same ones it provokes in the average voter.

I’m with Megan, I think this is a great idea. I doubt very much the effects of this would be easily predictable. I certainly don’t think the “unspoken assumption” Megan plausibly identifies would be obviously rewarded. Indeed, I think many middle-income Americans are undertaxed given the amount of government they are demanding. Giving them this sort of receipt would make that more clear — and, hopefully, make them more amenable to spending cuts and tax reform. I certainly doubt it would generate massive support for higher taxes. Even better, I’m for anything that reduces the mytho-poetic-religious b.s. we’ve heard so much of about government in recent years (it’s the word we use for the things we do together, it’s the realization of the biblical covenenant to be our brothers’ keeper, blah, blah, blah) and replacing it with the language of fee-for-service. The more Americans see government as a product they’re buying, the more they just might realize A) the service is pretty lousy and B) they might be able to get better service elsewhere.

But who knows? Maybe I’m entirely wrong. I’m still for it. As Megan says, more information is better.

Oh, one last thing. I would demand that the receipt show the shortfall, too — that is the stuff we’re buying with borrowed money from our kids and grandkids. Again, more information is better!

Update: Oh, and I’d like to see a line item for how much the taxpayer is getting in services he hasn’t paid for, since something like 60 percent of households get more from the government than they pay in taxes (though I admit that would be tough to calculate).

Update II: Hey can some green-eyeshade budget wonk shoot me an e-mail letting me know what the deficit number added on would look like on the above tax bill?

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