I’ve been saying for years that all-you-can-eat buffets represent the best and worst of America. The best in that they showcase the abundance and variety available in America, thanks to our fabulous wealth and cultural/ethnic diversity. That they can be 24-hour affairs (in Las Vegas, anyway), underscoring our on-demand, city-that-never-sleeps ethos. That they are a great deal: a little bit of infinity for a reasonable price.
They represent the worst in that they encourage gorging, in order that we milk every last drop of value — whether or not it makes health sense — out of our buck. That their offerings are very often mediocre, watered-down versions of originally great dishes. That they compel us to eat things because we can, rather than because we really want to or should. That at the end of the day, vast amounts are thrown away because in trying to appeal to all tastes, these buffets make much more food than will ever be eaten — and because we are incented to try everything, rather than finish everything.
And so it is with spending in our specific brand of representative government. The legislators who control government purse strings are generally elected because they promise to bring money to their districts. Does the typical campaign rhetoric fool anyone anymore? No matter how much candidates go on about family values and abortion and fighting crime, they win elections by pledging to and succeeding at procuring government spending for their donors and constituents. Even the most ardent “small government”, “fiscal conservatives” are incented more to feed at the money trough than to behave responsibly on a city/county/state/country-wide level. They can campaign all they want about balancing the budget, but if they don’t bring home the bacon, their coffers are empty. Our legislators are simply customers at the buffet line, trying to grab as much as they can from watered-down, misguided, too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen programs — whether or not it makes fiscal sense. With so much to be grabbed, there are horrible wastes of money, money that’s probably better left in citizens’ pockets.
So where does that leave us as an over-spending, debt-burdened nation? How do we remove the incentive to gorge/spend?
Let legislatures determine the relative distribution of spending, but have an independent body (something like the CBO) cap spending, based on some index of previous years’ government revenues. Since legislators (a) can’t seem to control themselves and (b) want to continue looking good to their districts by fighting as much as they can for dollars, taking them out of the spending level decision, but leaving them in the spending share decision seems like a good idea. All the normal fighting, cajoling, and horse-trading can continue and they can ask for whatever they want. At the end of the process, all of the “virtual” appropriations will determine the fraction of the total expenditures that goes to each area (5% for education, 10% for defense, etc.). However, similar to a private company’s budget process, a central group will set the overall expenditure amount, which then gets divvied up according to the legislature-determined distribution. The legislature gets to do what it’s supposed to be good at (negotiating priorities across a wide body of needs/wants) and is excised from what it’s horrible at (controlling how much is spent). In the end, legislators can honestly claim they did everything they could to bring home the bacon and the independent body can be the bad guy. Control how many plates they can fill, but let them choose how to fill them.
I also think we should put direct, broad control of expenditure distribution in the hands of taxpayers through spending options on W-4 forms. Forget about “no taxation without representation”…I’m talking about “no taxation without direct participation”! It’s like when you make donations to your alma mater: you get to choose which broad areas receive your contribution (economics department, football program, etc.). In this case, your W-4 form will include options like “education”, “defense”, “healthcare”, “monkey research”, etc., and you get to fill in what percentage of the taxes you pay go to each. It’s then up to the legislatures to distribute the dollars within each broad area. I know, this suggestion doesn’t really address the deficit/debt problem per se, but at least it’ll make taxpayers feel a little better about their “contribution” to our great nation. Furthermore, I think it would make legislators more accountable to the public and introduce a little more “free market” to an increasingly inefficient government system. If you think it’s unfair to allow individuals to determine government spending based on how much money they pay in taxes, ask yourself, “What’s fairer and works better?” A system where lobbyists determine spending? A system like California’s proposition ballots, in which thousands of people who don’t shoulder any of the tax burden, directly determine spending? Even all-you-can-eat buffets have a focus based on what paying customers want (Indian, soup & salad, Chinese seafood, etc.), rather than letting non-customers decide…