The Truth of Tax Transparency Will Set Us Free

It's started. I saw my first ad for a tax help company on TV yesterday, and I received an email recently about using an online service to settle my bill with the government. Soon I'll be sorting through W2s, 1040s, and all sorts of other fun paperwork with esoteric alphanumeric combinations. Yup, it's almost time for taxes.

While the United States continues to muddle through this recession, and Republicans will soon take leadership of the House, I anticipate another year of claims that "Big Government" is the sole cause for the recession. Even with the passage of the recent tax cuts, I imagine we'll still hear grumbling against the government as April 15 approaches. I dread the drawn out hate speech, and I find myself craving positive responses for addressing our country's hardships. I, for one, am tired of the mudslinging and slander. Many on this blog have raised a call for civility, and rightfully so. In addition to seeking respectful public dialogue, I'm also encouraged by conversations around the need for fiscal transparency.

The Tea Party has an easy target in attacking the nebulous enemy of "government." Many of us only have a piecemeal knowledge of how our government operates, and we may be boggled by what happens behind bureaucratic doors. Fear quickly follows the unknown, so it's no surprise that our public sector has been portrayed as a beast of all shades of horrifying hues.

Our response to such political fear mongering should include a call for increasing transparency in how our government operates. As Steve Thorngate at The Christian Century observes, some in the Tea Party have taken advantage of public ignorance of the federal budget with a purposefully vague "cut spending" platform. To counteract our fiscal unawareness, he cites a piece from the think-tank Third Way that advocates for a taxpayer receipt. Such a receipt would break down, penny by penny, exactly where our taxes go.

As Third Way notes, this information is mathematically easy to generate, and would increase accountability and public knowledge. For example, someone earning the 2009 median income of $34,140 paid $1,040.70 to Social Security, $625.51 to Medicare, $287.03 for interest on the national debt, $229.17 to combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and $10.50 to public housing (among other expenses). Just as that nutrition label forces me to acknowledge how many oh-so-tasty calories are in my chocolate bar, a tax receipt would force Americans to recognize how our government currently spends our tax money. With this common knowledge in hand, we'd have a better starting point for discussing ways to improve the budget beyond vague cries to slash and burn.

Others have offered possibilities for increasing transparency in how we oversee our country's income and expenses. Republican Representative John Linder (from my home district in Georgia) spearheads a bill advocating a sales-based Fair Tax that would eliminate the IRS. More left-leaning economists have brought up the idea of implementing a value-added tax, similar to one already in place in many countries around the globe. I admit I'm no economics expert, but thats precisely the point -- I yearn for fiscal transparency so that I can be empowered to advocate more effectively for a wise and responsible budget. The truth of our budget woes may hurt for now, but as Jesus observed, the truth will also set us free (John 8:32).

Melanie Weldon-Soiset is a former policy and organizing associate at Sojourners, and currently works at a church in Washington, D.C.

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