Monday, October 3, 2011

A Federal Budget Built via
"Direct-Democracy Earmarks"

by Fred Drumlevitch
October 3, 2011

As the U.S. Congress and its deficit-reduction supercommittee prepare to further cut safety-net and social programs, reduce regulatory oversight, ignore crumbling national infrastructure, continue absurdly high military and security spending, and refuse to make even modest additional demands of those who have richly profited from three decades of laissez-faire capitalism, many Americans have concluded that federal budgeting now operates with a philosophy that ranges from callous disregard to utter contempt for the well-being of the nation and most of its people. Philosophy, process, and result are all faulty.

In any endeavor, when a fundamental paradigm is found to be wrong, the only reasonable course of action is to replace it. I therefore propose a federal budget largely built on a new paradigm of "Direct-Democracy Earmarks" — the people themselves directly selecting the departments and programs to be funded. Every adult citizen would independently allocate an equal share of total federal discretionary spending.

Note that allocation independently done by each citizen not only produces collective expenditures in accord with aggregate public preferences, it also prevents both the subjugation of minority interests by a tyranny of the majority, and the blocking of majority interests by an obstructionist minority. While the proposed process is revolutionary, it stands entirely consistent with the founding of this nation, which sought to advance a more rational, moral, and democratic philosophy of government — a philosophy repeatedly betrayed during the past three decades. The democratic decentralization of my proposal rates as a notable improvement, for it will end many of the betrayals, absurd compromises, and episodes of gridlock now frequent in American politics, reduce the current bloated influence of big business and wealth, and, most importantly, finally empower the people in setting national priorities.

The American people already "own" the budget. Unfortunately, our "ownership" extends only to the debt/obligations side of the ledger. It's high time that we also owned the appropriations. We ostensibly elect representatives, but all too often those representatives view wealthy individual and corporate donors as their true constituency, and a significant portion of tax money is expended in ways harmful to the nation and to many of us individually — military adventurism and empire, unwarranted or inadequately-regulated corporate subsidies and bailouts, etc. However, we also see great sins of omission, with major national problems never adequately addressed, so cries of supposed "excessive taxation" falsely frame the central issue. This nation must categorically reject the never-ending, self-serving disinformation from the wealthy and the corporations seeking to avoid contributing their fair share to a country that has enabled them to prosper. Our problem isn't excessive taxation — it's what those taxes are used and not used for. The people of this nation need to reclaim ownership of national spending — and the only process that can be expected to properly accomplish that in our political environment is direct allocation, by all adult citizens, of the discretionary portion of the federal budget.

Will current politicians voluntarily permit it to happen? Of course not — if they can by any means prevent it. However, the Arab Spring should have taught Americans that today’s impossibility may become tomorrow’s inevitability. Thus, the more relevant questions are: Would such a budgeting structure work? Could it produce an allocation balance more progressive than what we currently have (let alone what we will have after the scheduled evisceration by the supercommittee)? Shouldn't progressives be willing to go forward with what would amount to a true grass-roots people's budget? Shouldn't libertarians and genuine conservatives support such a process as more representative of popular will than is government control? Shouldn't free-marketers of any stripe support it as being as close to their vaunted "wisdom of the market" as government can get? Shouldn't all honest citizens endorse it, as eliminating some of the corrupting influence of campaign contributions on the budget process?

Personally, I believe that more efficient, better results would come from allocation by a strong progressive government. But not only is our present government not progressive, even its center-right proposals continue to be blocked by right-wing extremists brandishing an ideological grenade with the pin removed. Our present course is a path to failure, and right-wing ideology will take us to a new dark age of corporatist plutocratic oligarchy. Absent strong progressive leadership and responsible conservatives, we need a new solution. I have proposed one.

I make no claim that my direct-democracy allocation proposal is perfect. Some government departments and programs would undoubtedly attempt to exploit my proposed system — but our current system has long been outrageously exploited, through fear and the widespread geographic sprinkling of contracts, by our "Defense" and "Homeland Security" departments. A mechanism would be needed to insure that accurate information is available to the people, and that departments/programs can make their case for funds to all citizens in an efficient and fair manner that doesn't bias the process towards manipulative mega-departments. Optimum granularity of the allocation menu and the best frequency and timing of the allocation process are yet to be determined. Finally, the direct allocation proposal I have outlined is not a complete solution; it does not itself impose the modest progressive tax increases that most reasonable economists agree are necessary — though it might make such increases more palatable through the promise of direct citizen control. Overall, one can say that complexities are present, but they are manageable, and quite tolerable in light of the benefits to be gained.

I believe that allocating federal discretionary spending via "Direct-Democracy Earmarks" has the potential to revitalize the nation. I assert that philosophy, process, and result would all be vastly superior to what we have now.

This post is hereby licensed for further use under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Note to readers about a technical problem leaving comments: 
Reader comments are enabled --- and are valued. However, for unknown reasons, they currently will not register when using Internet Explorer. Please use Firefox, which does seem to work (at least for now), or try again at a later time.


  1. Regarding technical problems commenting here on my blog (and perhaps of relevance to other bloggers using

    SHORT ANSWER (but please also read my LONG ANSWER further down): Try using Firefox as your browser.

    Version 3.6.18 (released June 21, 2011, not the latest, but not that old) works currently for posting comments, but I don't know if that will continue. (Versions 3.6.23 and 7.0.1 are the two versions currently available for download from Mozilla). If anyone tries those or other versions, please include version number in your comment at my blog. If I don't see that newer versions work, then I'll set up an email mechanism for commenting.

    LONG ANSWER, also addressing other things:

    For some unknown reason(s), comments on my blog have been malfunctioning for weeks. It wasn't even letting ME post answers (as comments) to others who had commented there. (That's why comments #9 & #10, my second answers to Valerie and Jay, and first answer to Karen, on my Sept. 10 blog post, didn't appear until Sept 18).

    That problem was apparently the interaction of failure of a pop-up warning to appear in EITHER Internet Explorer OR Firefox (perhaps related to the failure of the CAPTCHA to appear at the Sardonicky blog), combined with my comment being too long. (There is apparently a default maximum length for comments of 4096 HTML characters at I need to check if that can be increased.) As soon as I split what was a single long comment into two, it took.

    More recently, I've experienced the same "disappearing comments" (regardless of length) from the comments window as had been occurring at Sardonicky. Yesterday, I (again) tested commenting on my blog using the aforementioned version of Firefox, and it finally worked. And it works today. We'll see if it continues.

    Comments on my blog are always welcome, and valued. (If large amounts of spam ever start appearing, I might change to a system requiring approval of comments before they appear, but I do not anticipate ever turning comments off). If you cannot post a comment, it is a technical problem. Please try again using a different browser, and if still unsuccessful, please try again at a future time, perhaps with more than one browser.

  2. Fred,

    Thanks for your sharp descriptions of what is taking place and, especially, for this mechanism whereby democracy might be restored in some measure to our republic. I am not a political scientist, but your proposal seeks to ride in the same car as proportional representation (as distinct from winner-take-all). Your proposal applies funds from taxes to departments of government in proportion to their support across the population.

    The forces arrayed against such a reform are powerful. Count in the traditional academic arguments against proportional representation. Beyond the academy, there are the special interests that are doing just fine, thank you, gaming the system as it now exists. Then there is big media, most of which wants to snuff out such ideas and will frustrate the necessary education of the population that must precede the implementation of proportional allocation of tax receipts.

    Last night Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University was on PBS' Charlie Rose Show to talk about his new book, "The Price of Civilization." As might be expected, Sachs was his usual persuasive self advocating real reforms. As also might be expected, Rose was at his usual best in interrupting Sachs and interviewing himself instead of letting Sachs finish his points. That's what thinkers can expect on most of PBS these days. Imagine how interested the other big media outlets would be to hear voices like Sachs and Drumlevitch. Furthermore, I noted this week that a popular Democratic -- I cannot call it "Left" -- blog criticized you for presuming to air some of your ideas on that blog. With allies like that, why worry about crazy Tea Baggers.

    We should at least try to raise awareness, as you are doing, not just with rants but with thoughtful, layered and technical solutions such as you are proposing. Perhaps, the occupy movement will clear some space to allow rational thought and a measure of justice to resume their place in the US.

    BTW, I'm using Safari 5.0.6 on an old Mac and all seems well so far in getting through to your site.

  3. @Jay


    Of late, in my posts and comments, I've been focusing on issues and possible solutions much more than on politicians --- and I don't think I'm alone in that shift.

    I wouldn't object to good progressive candidates appearing; the right politician can be a highly beneficial catalyst for improvement --- think FDR on economic matters, or LBJ on civil rights and Medicare. But a politician who is ineffectually progressive at best, co-opted, or even often engaged in active betrayal (Yeltsin and Obama), can empower reactionary forces such as the individual and corporate selfishness, authoritarianism, and militarism that are always present even in the best of times. Worse yet, they disenchant the public with regard to the entire electoral process, opening the door to a lengthy decline in quality of politicians.

    That leads me to favor an overwhelming focus on the problems, economic and political, and structural solutions to those problems. Hence some of my recent blog posts, which are just my contribution to the simmering stew-pots of ideas on the campfires of the disaffected. (We've all stewed for a long time, so a stew of opinions as result shouldn't surprise). I think that structural solutions are more resistant to co-optation/destruction than are solutions dependent on a particular leader --- and the founders of this country thought so too, which is why they codified individual rights and the functions of government in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, rather than rely on hopes for good leaders.

    Unfortunately, conditions have since changed drastically, in particular with regard to corporate dominance, the influence of the military-industrial complex, sophisticated mass media-based manipulation, and the aforementioned decline in leadership quality. All that makes it very difficult to bring about the structural changes that are necessary. Ultimately, that means that we do need to make some effort to elect genuinely progressive candidates. (An additional argument for the importance of progressive politicians at the highest level is that arrogant/malevolent politicians can, via secret decrees, take actions that contravene constitutional protections, as was done with warrantless surveillance and torture). And it means that we do need to get a progressive message out to far more people than are currently receiving it.

    I did catch part of the Jeffrey Sachs interview you referred to, and he seemed to make a great deal of sense. However, I do remain somewhat suspicious of him because of his role long ago promoting economic "shock-treatment" in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. That was a major contribution to the rise of the oligarchs there, and Putin's empowerment.

    As far as the recent criticism of me that you saw on another Democratic blog is concerned, 1) I'm thick skinned, so I'll live, 2) I recall A. J. Liebling's statement that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one", and 3) If I get around to it, I might dispute the basis of the criticism, but right now I've got more important and more interesting things to do.

  4. Well, Mr. Drumlevitch, I can only applaud your enthusiastic calls for such 'direct' democracy even though the Constitution calls for a 'Representative Democracy' so your idea will take a major, major amendment to implement. And that is never going to happen.

    Worse yet, it won't help. The 'bought' politicians will still have complete control with your system because, well, who chooses what the public gets to vote on? Someone has to present the proposals in the first place which means that the Congress will still have complete control over spending. Nowadays even our representatives only get to vote on bills that the 'leadership' support and put before them. 300 congressmen could support a spending bill, but if the Majority Leader & the Speaker don't put it to a vote, it isn't going to happen.

    There is only one answer to your quest for more direct representation. Get The Money Out of Politics. It is the poison that enables a tiny fraction (the 1% most fortunate) of the population control our government.

  5. Fred,

    I was not aware Sachs was part of the American team pushing shock treatment after the Iron Curtain came down. Maybe that was his ticket back to the Charlie Rose Show. In addition to enabling oligarchs there, the shock treatment also earned the US much resentment from people in that part of the world who suffered under it.

    Your proposal for proportional taxation by direct vote does run into huge constitutional obstacles and would require imposing amendments. Passing amendments to the Constitution for matters much less broad is nearly impossible. What are the chances of overturning congressional rights to tax via representative government? I think slim, and as likely to be passed by the amendment process as a changeover to proportional representation itself.

    The chicken or the egg? The politicians or the laws? We already have a good legal system on paper: the Constitution. Even with the great advances in electronic communication, we must still rely on representative government for such basic matters as taxes and budgets. The problem is not the Constitution, it's the people staffing the three branches who twist its meaning and its purpose. For instance, the Supreme Court in Citizens United reinterpreting one person one vote as one dollar one vote; and the Congress is essentially bought. That and the Court's knocking down every attempt at campaign reform put us in the pickle we're in up against muscled corporate interests.

    Maybe you're right. Perhaps my preferential focus on finding the right people to govern is a greater challenge than passing earthquake amendments to the Constitution. Sure seems that way over the past few decades as I look back at the presidents, congressional leadership and the justices we've had to put up with. Corruption rules.

  6. @GaryWaldman

    While you are correct that the implementation of my proposal would constitute a major change and is therefore unlikely, consider that the abolition of slavery and many changes to election procedures including women's suffrage, selection of the president and vice-president, and popular election of senators all have occurred since this nation was founded.

    You say "The 'bought' politicians will still have complete control with your system because, well, who chooses what the public gets to vote on? Someone has to present the proposals in the first place which means that the Congress will still have complete control over spending."

    Not necessarily. First of all, my proposal is not a "vote" by the public, (that is to say, it is not a majority-rule system). It is an appropriation by each citizen, done completely independently of every other citizen. At the very least (the coarsest granularity), citizens would be able to select the departments to which they want their appropriations to go. For instance, one person might want their entire allocation to go to Health and Human Services, another person might want theirs to go to Defense, a third person might want to split their allocation evenly between Agriculture and Labor... . Finer granularity of appropriation should also be available, and there should be an objective method for guaranteeing that those choices will be available. Finally, there should also be a method for the public to initiate worthy programs that don't currently exist, in the same way that many states have a ballot initiative process; it could be done by citizens pledging their appropriation for that purpose.

    I largely agree with you about the need to "Get The Money Out of Politics". Be aware, though, that incumbents have a significant advantage, and that to mount a successful challenge requires organization and communication, which doesn't come cheap. A very large mistake made in recent years was the failure to require that television stations provide a large amount of free and/or low-cost access to political candidates during campaign season, and for many debates, as a condition of those stations receiving their allocation of the spectrum for digital broadcasting.


    Part of my reply to Gary Waldman above also addresses some of your points. As to your point about it being a "chicken or egg" problem, yes it is. So let's make chicken omelets! A multi-pronged strategy is required to overcome the forces arrayed against the people. I believe that we need to work towards having better politicians, AND structural changes in how tax money is spent.

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