Where Our Money Goes (and where it doesn’t)

Posted: January 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

Political rhetoric is exactly what it is – rhetoric. And so when we talk about cutting the federal budget, or reducing the debt, or anything else, people rarely provide particulars. Most usually some red herring is thrown out on the table, some easily attacked program, some function with an easily disputed value, and the battle cry is sounded: “Waste! Big Government! Pork Barrel! Earmarks! Cut it!” Well, ok.

What people don’t do is actually look at the budget to see what proportion any one certain expenditure claims. When that happens people become silent very quickly. We have to actually compare functions and what they cost. Then we have to assign a value to them. After all, a budget of any kind is an exercise in values and priorities. We attribute value to that which we support. The more we support it the more we value it.

So, as an exercise in reasoned restraint, I pass on a summary of  a very interesting spread sheet. It was reported in the Dec 28 edition of The Christian Century. You can draw your own conclusions. Hopefully any one of us will be better prepared to fend off any number of uninformed glittering generalities – regardless of who makes them.

Following is the breakdown of a tax receipt for a hypothetical taxpayer who earns $34,140 and pays right at $5,400 in federal income tax and FICA. Based on that salary and tax bill here are some of the major federal expenditures by category:

  • Social Security   $1,040.70
  • Medicare   $625.51
  • Medicaid   $385.28
  • Interest on the national debt   $287.03
  • Combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan   $229.17
  • Military personnel   $192.79
  • Veteran’s benefits   $74.65
  • Federal highways   $ 63.89
  • Health care research (NIH)   $46.54
  • Foreign aid   $46.08
  • Education for low income K-12 students   $38.17
  • Military retirement benefits   $32.60
  • Pell Grants for low income college students   $29.75
  • NASA   $28.09
  • IRS   $17.69
  • EPA  $11.67
  • FBI   $11.21
  • Head Start   $10.91
  • Public housing   $10.50
  • National parks   $4.27
  • Drug Enforcement Agency   $3.14
  • Amtrak   $2.23
  • Smithsonian   $1.12
  • Funding for arts    .24
  • Salaries/benefits members of Congress   .19

So … make cuts or increases, raise taxes or lower them.  But as we do, consider according to scale where cuts will make any difference. At the same time be able to define, in moral terms because it is a moral issue, why we value one thing more than another.

Then, and only then, will a conversation about a budget and the values that shape it mean anything to anyone.

Bumper sticker politics? Simple unthoughtful one liners? Go to your room without supper.

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