Here’s an interesting plan being floated around once in a while: an itemized receipt which shows how all the taxes you pay are being distributed among government programs. A good example of how an online version would work is Third Way’s tax receipt calculator, which breaks down exactly how much of your money was slated to go to virtually all the major line items of the federal budget. What’s the purpose of all this? To give a realistic idea of how much the government actually spends and for what this money is used. Basically, as we saw before with off-the-cuff estimates for NASA’s budget, it seems that Americans don’t actually know how much is being spent on seemingly big ticket items every year. They think that NASA gets nearly $500 billion in cash when it actually gets closer to $18 billion, or that we spend almost $900 billion on foreign aid, a quarter of the entire budget, when the number is actually 0.6% or so. No wonder, wonk reasoning goes, that so many people are just fine with slashing aid programs and scientific research. They think they’re saving trillions.
Really, though, how many people will be willing to take the time to notice that the programs that they say can’t be cut actually make up nearly three quarters of the budget on an online calculator if they haven’t yet taken any to jump on one of the hundreds of sites which every tax season break down government expenditures with a dazzling array of static and interactive charts? How many times must one be bashed over the head with facts to finally notice that half of his taxes was spent on Social Security, the Department of Defense, and Homeland Security as well as the $83 billion a year intelligence apparatus involving the CIA and the NSA? Education and science get a mere pittance by comparison, less than $55 billion if we omit NASA. The news that science was not well funded has been trumpeted for years across the web, complete with charts and graphs to show just how little was actually being doled out to scientists who are claimed by politicians to be the best in the world, working at the global nexus for the brightest and most creative minds: American universities. The very same politicians, by the way, who go on to decry advanced education as a waste of time on the next breath, then rush to cut its already paltry budgets even further to pretend that they’re doing something about deficits.
So if people are still guessing that we spend $1.3 trillion, or some other ridiculous sum on science, research, and education in the U.S., enough to turn college professors into millionaires and scientists into wealthy, jet- setting experts sought around the world for their advice, what hope do we have of convincing them otherwise with yet another interactive little flash chart? After nearly a decade of complaints we still have voters who have convinced themselves despite all available facts on the matter, that they can cut aid, science, education, and swaths of small federal bureaucracies, balance the budget, and keep their immense military, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as is, with no changes. How many charts do we have to bring up? How many times does someone have to go on TV and slowly, painstakingly, almost hypnotically repeat that it’s those exact and very programs the voters want left as is that are bleeding us dry and if they really want to keep them as is, they will have to pay higher taxes, which happens to be one of the wildly taboo suggestions in politics today? This is probably the most discouraging issue when it comes to government budgets nowadays: an electorate that doesn’t want to take the time to learn about the national finances, and which thinks that by inflicting death by a thousand cuts on agencies amounting to roughly a quarter of the budget combined, we’ll be back in the black and ready to pay down the yawning foreign debt. Math? Who needs it? We have budgets to balance!