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What taxpayers want

By Lou Zickar, Special to CNN
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Billions for stealth jets worth it?
  • Lou Zickar: Families are tightening belts, companies are stressing value
  • In tough economic times, Americans want to know what tax dollars buy them, he says
  • Question of value is too often forgotten in debate over size of government, he says
  • Zickar: Frustration with Washington is driving talk of constitutional reform

Editor's note: Lou Zickar is the editor of The Ripon Forum, a centrist Republican journal of political thought and opinion published by The Ripon Society.

CNN -- Across America, people have been cutting back on their spending as they adjust to these difficult economic times. They've been cutting back on travel. They've been cutting back on going out to dinner. They've been cutting back on how much they spend at the store.

In response to this adjustment by American consumers, American companies have been adjusting, too. Instead of highlighting the luxury and exclusivity of their products and services, businesses have been highlighting value and how their products and services respond to consumer wants and needs.

Applebee's is a good example. Since 2009, the restaurant chain has been advertising their "Two for $20" menu to highlight the fact that a couple on a budget can enjoy dinner out without having to spend an arm and a leg. Or consider Target. Since the economy took a nosedive several years ago, the chain of stores has been attracting shoppers to their aisles with a simple but powerful pledge: "Expect More. Pay Less."

In part as a result of these efforts, Applebee's and Target have made it through the downturn relatively unscathed. Earlier this year, for instance, the parent company of Applebee's, DineEquity, reported that same-restaurant sales had increased for nine straight months, and predicted continued sales growth in the months ahead. Similarly, the Target Corp. reported that net income in the first quarter of this year was above Wall Street expectations, and that revenue had increased for the past four quarters as well.

The performance of these two companies reflects the fact that they are giving consumers what they want and need. But it also reflects the fact that they are providing consumers with something that is especially important to them during difficult economic times: value.

Now there's a word you don't hear much about in Washington these days. In fact, it seems like the only time value is ever mentioned in political speeches or debates is when there's an "s" at the end of the word. And yet when you look at the dysfunction in our nation's capital, one could argue that Washington's inability to provide taxpayers with something of value is driving the crisis of confidence in our government and the lack of faith people of all political stripes have in Congress and the president of the United States.

Think about it -- in every family budget, there is only one item over which a family has no control. And that is what they pay in taxes. People can cut back on what they spend at Target, and they can cut down on what they spend at Applebee's. But they can't cut back on what they spend on government. The average American family of four making $80,000 paid nearly $10,000 in federal taxes last year, according to the Tax Foundation's calculator. When they see this amount, American taxpayers are increasingly asking, "What are we getting in return?"

This isn't a Republican or Democratic question. Nor is it a liberal or conservative one. Indeed, even the most ardent supporters of the tea party want to know that the tax dollars they are required to send to our nation's capital are being put to good use.

Voters fed up with being ignored

Unfortunately, this question is too often forgotten, lost in the debate over big government vs. small government that grips the political extremes. In some respects, this question of value -- of giving Americans the sense that their tax dollars are being put to good use instead of being squandered amid an unending partisan debate -- is driving much of the dissatisfaction people now have with the political system in Washington. But it's also driving something else -- it's driving people to look outside the political system for change.

Politico reported earlier this year that at least 30 state legislatures are considering resolutions either calling for a constitutional convention or urging Congress to propose changes to the Constitution. And next month at Harvard Law School, a two-day "Conference on the Constitutional Convention" will be held to discuss this very subject. The co-chairs of this conference are Lawrence Lessig, a former clerk for conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who is now considered a political liberal, and Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, which bills itself as the largest grass-roots tea party organization in the nation.

The goal of these efforts is not so much to rewrite the Constitution as to reform our political system, which an increasing number of Americans believe is distorting the Constitution with its incessant focus on hyper-partisanship and its inability to prevent a vocal minority from superseding majority rule. A balanced budget amendment and reforming the nation's campaign finance system are among the changes that could occur.

Mark McKinnon, the former aide to President George W. Bush who has come out in favor of holding a constitutional convention, calls the idea a "long shot" at best. "But," he added in an essay for The Daily Beast this past week, "it may be the only way to restore democracy and return power to the people."

Put another way, it may be the only way to provide American taxpayers with something of value -- which, as any manager at Applebee's or Target will tell you, is what every consumer ultimately wants.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lou Zickar.