08/23/2012 03:46 pm ET

Time for Targeted Taxes

Americans don't have faith in the government.

There are many different reasons for this. What is clear is that improving citizen attitudes towards government will require changing how the government works in terms of effectiveness, transparency, responsiveness and communication, accountability, and efficiency.

Conservatives have a tremendous and rather unhealthy fixation on size.
The size of the government matters -- but not quite as much as conservatives insist.
Of far greater import are the aforementioned parameters all of which relate to the matter of trust and the quality of the relationship between citizen and government.

Right now, that relationship is characterized largely by suspicion, fear, lack of knowledge and understanding and -- in more extreme circles -- outright loathing of government, sometimes in an exaggerated and obsessive way in which the government has been scapegoated.
Americans are alienated from their government and the causes of this alienation are multiple and complex.

Much of this alienation stems from over three decades of conservative attack on the very institution of government itself, attack that has often been ideological and extreme rather than nuanced, careful, and fair minded.

But it also stems from very real and legitimate concerns which all Americans share about how politicians of both parties determine funding allocations for government programs.

Addressing the parameters outlined above requires a bipartisan effort in a country that is so deeply divided by partisanship it is unlikely to advance anytime soon.

But there are still ways that we can promote more effective governance and a healthier relationship between citizens and the government in the short-term.

One way to increase citizen faith in government which is essential for a successful democracy is by empowering citizens to exercise greater control over government spending through targeted taxes.

Targeted taxes allow citizens to bypass the often corrupt process whereby funding allocations made by Congress are influenced by petty partisan politics and Congressional power plays, narrow sectarian interests, politicians acting exclusively in the interest of their states and districts without taking sufficient account of the interests of the American people as a whole, and the sometimes excessive and distorting influence of lobbying groups with a narrow agenda that does not necessarily reflect the overall public good.

Targeted taxes will allow Americans to have far greater confidence that their taxes are being spent on the exact programs which they prioritize and through the particular revenue generation policies they create and approve.

Targeted taxes are not a panacea. They are a small component of what will eventually need to be a much larger effort to restore citizen faith in government and improve the quality of government in the United States.

They are also not without risk and could lead to some taxes that may not be helpful to the economy or sustainable.

But they do restore a place for the individual American citizen in expressing his or her particular preferences regarding the substance and details of government unfiltered and undistorted by the politicking of Congress.

It is clear that our system of representative democracy is becoming increasingly distant for the average American who is frustrated by his/her powerlessness to impact government and we need to empower Americans to have a greater say in how tax revenue is raised and spent.

Targeted taxes can also result from Congressional action and need not stem exclusively from citizen ballot initiatives. Congress can commit itself to initiating a range of taxes that are exclusively directed towards particular citizen needs such as healthcare, housing, support for senior citizens, education, child welfare, crime reduction, veteran well being, job training, public health, and environmental protection.

Whatever revenues raised from taxes strictly delineated for a particular government program area would be roped off away from Congressional wheeling and dealing and pork spending. This would also help restore faith in the government and would require significant self-control and deference to the public good on the part of members of Congress.

Targeted taxes are already on ballots -- from the smallest local endeavors such as the recent efforts in Michigan described in the New York Times to save the Detroit Institute of Arts from massive budget cuts in which three Michigan counties successfully passed a targeted property tax to fund the museum, to the major tax initiative to be voted on in California to rescue California's severely under funded system of higher education.

A little citizen action and participation can go a long way in improving government and restoring the faith of citizens in the government's ability and willingness to truly reflect the wishes of the American people and their civic priorities.