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Osgerby: Tax transparency

BY PAUL OSGERBY | NOVEMBER 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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Osgerby is studying abroad at City University, London.

Millions of British taxpayers have received letters this week breaking down how their money has been spent by the government in what has been called “a revolution in transparency.”

According to the letters, 24.5 percent of the spending has been categorized as “Welfare.” Another highlight was the smallest expense, which was the UK’s contribution to the European Union budget.

There is only one other economically developed country in the world that provides this information to its taxpayers: Australia.

Immediately, I wondered what my tax breakdown would look like in back in the States. Naturally, the most would go toward the military, right?

In 2011, President Obama promised that Americans would be able to see a Federal Taxpayer Receipt, which was implemented that year and is still in use. The April 2014 report states 24.79 percent is used for “National Defense,” with 10.16 percent of taxpayer dollars going directly into “ongoing operations, equipment, and supplies.”

The largest category was actually the ever-so-broad “Health Care” with 25.19 percent.

“Community, Area, and Regional Development” and “Response to Natural Disasters” came in last and second-to-last, respectively. Both categories used under 1 percent of taxpayer dollars.

This free information is vital for Americans concerned where government prioritizes its spending. These are great steps towards more transparency, but citizens must seek the receipt themselves.

The UK’s method of sending letters with tax breakdown seems more justifiable to be called transparency. It implies the government is willing to release this information to its taxpaying citizens.

It shows the government actually wants to put in the effort to give this information to those its supposed to serve.

However, the UK initiative has already seen criticism by the Trades Union Congress (which represents the majority of trade unions in England and Wales) calling it “party political propaganda masquerading as neutral information.”

Categories such as “Welfare,” “Health,” or “Education” are inherently broad and loaded — they can easily be manipulated by propaganda to assert reforms by politicians. On the other hand, these are first steps in getting relevant information into taxpayers’ hands. I wouldn’t be surprised to see label revisions or sub-categorization as soon as next year’s breakdown.

The bottom line is both the U.S. and UK governments should have done this decades, even centuries, ago, and at least it’s beginning now. Every taxpayer deserves the right to see where her or his money is spent.


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