Netflix e-mails you when it receives a film you return. Why can't the federal government do the same with tax money? "When I purchase almost anything--any good or service," argues Ethan Porter in the journal Democracy. "I am provided with a receipt, which shows not only proof of purchase but also documents what, precisely, I have bought." So Porter finds the U.S. Treasury's approach primitive--he doesn't know his money has been received till the check clears his account.

Accountability is the "idée fixe of democracy," argues Porter, and when people don't know what their money's being spent on--or if it's being wasted--they tune out and "government performance suffers." Porter suggests the introduction of receipts, oversimplified though they would undoubtedly have to be. "Done right ... it would make clear the enormous amounts of goods and services provided by the government," debunking bizarre ideas about welfare, for example. He also wonders what might happen if tax return forms asked not just if you wanted to donate to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, but if you wanted to donate additional money to specific federal agencies. Though there would have to be a contribution cap, Porter envisions "improved government performance; as agencies competed for money, they would have to document the efficacy of their prior spending."

Could reworking the tax system improve American democracy?