Let us decide how our taxes are spent

(May 6, 2019)

If you have ever put money in a Salvation Army Christmas kettle, you have participated in “crowdfunding.” Social media has just made that kettle collection into a worldwide affair on Kickstarter, GoFundMe or a host of similar platforms.

The latest variant is the birthday fundraiser, escalating the (free) “Happy Birthday” that Facebook reminds you to send your friends into a donation to their favourite charity.

For every crowdfunder that succeeds, of course, many never reach their target. But crowdfunding opens up an internet avenue for people to contribute to a cause that otherwise they would never have noticed.

For the tragedy surrounding the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, for example, more than $15 million was raised in a matter of days.

I was thinking about crowdfunding the other day as I drove to work. Despite my best efforts at rush-hour slalom driving, I hit more potholes than ever.

Perhaps the best way to end the “Battle of the Brians” would be to give Mayor Brian Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister each a shovel and a trailer full of hot asphalt to drag around the city to fix the roads themselves.

If I were NDP Leader Wab Kinew, however, I would create a campaign ad featuring someone driving around the city with a GoPro camera on their dash — every time the car hits a pothole, the driver would angrily mutter “Pallister!” It might make the premier think twice about calling a snap spring election.

Shifting the scene to Ontario, where the budget antics of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford are in the news daily, I thought about the advantages of crowdfunding as a tool for citizen democracy.

At present, people elect governments for indeterminate reasons. We don’t know why each person voted the way they did, we just see the results. The elected officials, however, interpret these results as a divine mandate. Whatever they choose to do must be right, because they have been given the power.

Yet, even assuming all the people who voted for the current Manitoba government last time still support its decisions, this translates into 53 per cent of the 57 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot. In other words, 30 per cent of adult Manitobans gave Pallister his majority — leaving the other 70 per cent twisting in the wind.

Similarly, whatever reasons people had for voting PC in Ontario, I doubt a majority of voters supporting Doug Ford wanted poor kids to go hungry to school because cancelling the breakfast program would save some money. Nor was cancelling a tree-planting initiative an obvious cut. For that matter, neither was cancelling green-power initiatives, which will cost the government millions in penalties before the lawsuits even start.

The list goes on. Ford does it because he can — not a comforting thought for the rest of Ontario, at the mercy of the leader’s buck-a-beer whims for years to come.

But what if, instead, some of our tax dollars were spent through a crowdfunding platform? You could designate a portion of your income taxes, let’s say, to the things you wanted the government to fund. For once, the elite rich few who pride themselves on paying no taxes would have no say. At least some of our tax dollars would go where the average person felt they should, no politics attached.

Want to keep open the Concordia ER? Forget the lawn signs — designate your taxes. Want those potholes fixed? Don’t wait for some Brian to win — fill them up on PotHoles.com.

Think that $25 a month to support welfare recipients finding work is more important than spending money on government advertising about a PST cut? Make it so. Want electric buses? Ditto.

It could be a next step in real democracy — people making crowdfunding choices on a daily basis about what they think is important, rather than a minority electing a leader every four (or three) years to rule with impunity, regardless of what anyone else thinks or wants.

It would also be a far more effective democratic tool than random telephone opinion surveys to find out “what Manitobans want,” because everyone who had a stake in the decision could (literally) vote with their wallets.

On Manitoba’s climate (in)action file, crowdfunding green initiatives with tax dollars would tap into the anxiety that Manitobans have about the kind of world the next generation will inherit. It would give the rest of us the chance to do what our politicians won’t. Mind you, perhaps only people who have small children should be allowed to vote on initiatives that shape or deny a sustainable future.

As Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg reminds us, our current political dithering robs children everywhere of their future. Their issues are not on the ballot, nor can they vote.

But their parents can. And should.

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