Taxation without representation is still with us

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Change Washington’s Priorities? Here’s How!

Armando Gutierrez, Ph.D.

The Occupy America movement taps into a fundamental American grievance: the irrelevancy of most Americans to the political process. Policies are enacted that affect each of us in profound ways and we have no say. Our tax dollars are scattered hither and yon, often with zero accountability, and we are invisible, barely an afterthought, if that.

Here are some fundamental facts. Every year about 136 million Americans file federal income taxes. We send some $1.2 trillion to the treasury. Congress using its discretionary budget authority allocates that money. Put simply, Congress uses its discretion to divvy up over a trillion dollars as it sees fit. 

Despite the fact that taxpayers fill the discretionary budget purse each year, we have no control over how that money is spent. Imagine that: taxpayers send over $1 trillion each year and then allow Congress to spend it as it (and a few thousand lobbyists) wants, no strings attached.

It would seem self-evident that how Congress spends that $1.2 trillion impacts every American household. Given that the U.S. has over 800 military bases throughout the world, it is not unreasonable to assert that it affects every human on earth. The nation’s not-so-subtle military boot print is everywhere … and growing. The Pentagon’s base budget is almost $700 billion, and that’s not counting actual war costs. Little wonder that defense/military spending consumes roughly 57 percent of the discretionary budget. Our defense budget is almost as much as the rest of the world combined. It begs a fundamental question: is our military budget so big because we have so many enemies or do we have so many enemies because our military budget is so big?

Economists like to talk about “opportunity costs,” that is, policies not undertaken because those taken consumed all available resources. When we wonder why there is no jobs program, or infrastructure bank, or alternative energy funding, or green technology incentives, or why teachers are being laid off, look no further than “opportunity costs.”

If we are puzzled why education, training and social services receive only 9 percent of the discretionary budget, or science, space and technology but 3 percent, look no further than the 57 cents of every income tax dollar that goes to defense.

In a recent book, I combined various areas of government spending into ten functional categories. No category outside of defense received more than 9 percent. This is why China is moving to dominate the green technology future and why, forty years after gas lines, we still have no viable alternative to fossil fuel transportation.

But in a more fundamental sense, the true issue is not how much of our tax dollars go to defense or health or education. The true issue is that taxpayers have no mechanism for directing that spending. At least not up to now.

America: it doesn’t have to be that way. There is an alternative that Occupy Wall Street and every other manner of activist organization and individual can sink their teeth into with immediate results.

Americans should demand that Congress pass a law adding one, simple question to all income tax returns. The question would list the ten categories of government spending outlined in my book (go to to download the book). Every American, either directly or through their tax preparer, would have the option of filling in a numerical percentage next to each category, with the total being 100 percent. An eleventh choice would be “no preference.” The portion allocated by Americans to each category would bind congress and the president in the subsequent fiscal year.

The Bible tells us that where our treasure is, there too is our heart. The American treasure of over $1 trillion is now being spent on priorities diametrically opposed to our values. What’s more, those priorities not only do not reflect the desires of Americans, they even make us less prosperous, less safe, less healthy and less respected in the world. The National Priorities Project estimates that using just half of the current Defense Department budget, in the span of two years we could retrofit virtually every home, office and school in America with solar panels or wind turbines such that they’d never have to pay an energy bill again, not to mention the jobs created by such a project. The money already exists for these and countless other projects. That money will be there year after year. It’s ours but we can’t access it. We know better but Congress will not listen. But even in our current state of democracy-for-sale, if enough Americans unite behind a single, doable alternative, no force can stop us.

Time is short but not out. Change will not come from Washington. It will come from us and it can start with but one question. That question is not the end, but it can be the beginning of the fundamental change so many of us seek.


Armando Gutierrez has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Texas at Austin. He has taught at several universities and has had his own consulting business since 1992.



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