Progressives surely understand by now that Barack Obama has no intention of making the rhetorical case for progressivism a theme of his presidency. This is a continuing disappointment; if he spent as much time attacking conservatism as, say, Ronald Reagan did attacking liberalism, we might actually be able to change our national conversation on the role of government. And unfortunately, what ought to be the most powerful tool in that effort -- strong policy -- may have only limited effect. Republicans today decry the potential horror of government health insurance while simultaneously posing as valiant defenders of Medicare; tomorrow they will likely celebrate the health insurance exchanges the current reform establishes, while they mount a rearguard action against a public option.
Given that Democrats have control of government for the moment, perhaps it would be a good time to come up with some creative ideas to shift the public's perceptions about government -- not in a propagandist way, but in a way that actually enhances understanding. Writing in Democracy, Ethan Porter has one such idea: "Let's offer individual taxpayers a clear breakdown of what they're getting in return for their taxes. The IRS should provide individual taxpayers with a receipt." It would lay out, in broad terms, where your tax money went: This many of your dollars went to defense, this many of your dollars went to transportation programs, this many went to education, and so on.
It would be hard for conservatives to argue that there is something sinister about letting Americans know what the government does with their taxes. Yet such an effort would, in fact, advance progressive goals. The reason is that the public is massively misinformed about what tax money goes toward, and in a particular way: They tend to overestimate the amount of money spent on programs they don't like. For instance, lots of people believe that much of the federal budget goes for welfare or for foreign aid (neither very popular), when the actual amount spent on each of those items is less than 1 percent of the budget. And when you give them the opportunity to say how they'd like their tax money spent, they give very progressive answers: Cut defense spending, but increase spending on education, medical research, and renewable energy.
Congress could enact Porter's idea -- a yearly mailing to every household following tax day -- at relatively low cost. It would be a boon to public understanding about government, which would increase the likelihood that the next major debate could be a little more grounded in reality. Why not?
-- Paul Waldman
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