"Hey, big spender"
Cultures around the world have distinct traditions recognizing milestones in the transition to adulthood, and ours is no exception. In fact, my own rite of passage came last April. Although I didn't prove my strength by wrestling a wild boar or test my mettle by walking across hot coals, my personal crucible was equally arduous - and a little more relevant to contemporary society. For the first time, I paid federal income tax.
American culture enshrines some adolescent occasions as turning points in a lifelong narrative - the First Kiss, the Driver's License, the Successfully Completed Keg Stand. But nobody casts ""Baby's first 1040-EZ"" in bronze as a family heirloom. Why not?
We cherish voting as a hallowed ceremony of citizenship, bringing youth into the adult world with a rite replete with the feel-good trappings of participatory democracy. Public advocacy groups exert huge efforts to register young voters and get them to the polls. But nobody (save perhaps accountants) celebrates the venerated civic duty of filing tax returns. And there are no concerned citizens stopping students on the Mall to offer help itemizing deductions.
Of course not. Paying taxes is a painful activity that most of us ritually repress. But paying for a government should be considered just as important as electing one. That's why voters ought to pay their taxes on election day.
I'm usually a fiscally pragmatic fellow, but paying taxes momentarily transformed me into a radical penny-pincher. For a few minutes after writing my first income tax check, I was outraged that federal officials hadn't floated my grandmother's government pension in the stock market, privatized the highways, and abolished the postal service. I still think a couple of those are good ideas, but the experience reminded me how easy it is to overlook massive federal spending - until it's time to pay for your share.
Unfortunately, it looks like financial fecklessness won't be going out of style any time soon. 2008 presidential candidates are already spending wildly on their campaigns. John Edwards is now infamous for his $400 haircut. Mitt Romney paid for a jumping castle to buy off voters in the Iowa straw poll. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both raised hundreds of millions of dollars and run through their cash at a rate that would make even the most pork-happy congressmen jealous.
These are people who aspire to oversee 12 trillion dollars in tax receipts, and if they're as wanton with taxpayer money as they've been with their own hard-won election funds, we should be concerned.
Their proposed policies are even less heartening. Pricey universal health care and anti-poverty programs are in vogue among Democrats, and most Republicans are interested in continuing our massively expensive misadventures in the Middle East. And while we argue about today, few bother to consider the huge entitlement programs that threaten to bankrupt the federal government in the future.
Most troubling, only three candidates - the bizarrely disparate
triumvirate of Barack Obama, Ron Paul, and Sam Brownback - have agreed to support a database accounting for every federal dollar spent on bridges to nowhere, indoor rainforests, and national peanut festivals. Transparency and fiscal restraint just aren't popular with politicians.
Winston Churchill described democracy as ""the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried time to time."" Although free markets - a meritocratic system based on equality of opportunity, and democracy - an egalitarian system based on equality of ends, are complementary and cannot be separated without disastrous results, democracies sometimes make bizarre policies that can leave citizens scratching their heads - or worse, damage the public welfare.
As well-meaning as many voters are, they may not act rationally at all. In his recent book ""The Myth of the Rational Voter,"" economist Brian Caplan proposes that individual voters misunderstand basic economic policies, often widely over- or underestimating their effects. Many of them are also depressingly ignorant about even the simplest issues. Fortunately, the structure of democracy tends to filter out the biases of individually irrational voters, canceling out one misinformed vote with another. But in the voting booth, people think differently about frenzied spending than in the marketplace.
We can't force voters to act rationally, or coerce candidates away from pushing pork, but we can make them think harder about reckless federal spending. In 2008, tax day and voting day will be a whopping 172 days apart. That's about five and a half months, and more than enough time to forget that the bozos you elected have been wasting your money for half a year. So let's move tax day from April 15 to the first week of November.
Don't get me wrong on this one. I'm not suggesting any restriction on the fundamental right to the franchise. I'm just proposing that paying for federal spending and voting on federal spenders should conveniently coincide. Allowing voters to connect the dots between electing stupid politicians and paying for their stupid policies is common sense-and would make both voting and paying taxes more meaningful endeavors.
Connor Mendenhall is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.