Taxes: Jointed Goatgrass or Your Life

How much of your tax burden do government programs cost?


Public radio costs American taxpayers just 29 cents a year," Los Angeles radio station KCRW recently announced while defending their continuing public subsidy in the wake of threats to eliminate it from the new, Gingrichized Congress.

Arguments like that are inescapable whenever threatened parasites defend their picayune share of the federal gift grab bag: "At piddleydink million a year, the tribute rock band support program on which I depend only represents one-scintillionth of the federal budget, and only costs each taxpayer 2 cents a day. Most people drop that kind of money on the floor without a thought every day…."

But money is fungible. A per-capita division of the costs of some barely-worth-worrying-about nonsensical program isn't the only way to think about your tax burden. It is equally legitimate–and more infuriating–to figure that every single cent of what you pay is going to your particular favorite abuse of public funds.

What you'll find, unless fortune has smiled upon you indeed, is that your entire year's worth of taxes–in some cases your entire lifetime of taxes–barely accounts for a percentage point of a year's worth of such programs as, say, the National Endowment for the Arts. However much it might be per day per capita, it's still $183.9 million a year. (All budget figures in this article are for fiscal 1995.) Which means the entire federal income tax burden of 267 millionaires is going to pay for it–and nothing but. Soak the rich, indeed.

It's one thing to think about working one month and two days of the year (based on the Tax Foundation's 1994 calculation of Tax Freedom Day) to pay for all the government your federal income tax can buy–which is far less than half of all your total taxes, but still the most noticeable. It's quite another to think about working that same time to pay for 1/1000th of the yearly budget of a federal giveaway to educate native Hawaiians ($12 million).

The chart shows how many people in a given income range it takes to pay, out of their average federal income tax burden, for one year's worth of a motley collection of the mutts of the federal budget. (The figures are based on 1992 income tax returns, the most recent year for which data are available, showing an average of the actual federal income tax as paid by those with adjusted gross incomes within the given ranges.)

These are mostly mangy, pathetic little programs, not noticed at all by most, hated by some of the few who do, but dear indeed to the hearts of those whom they benefit. These programs are so minuscule by Washington standards that acting agitated about cutting them would garner raised eyebrows and a "get a load of this naif" stare from a seasoned Washingtonian. "Why, these programs are so insignificant they're not even worth looking at…."

And yet these programs–barely noticeable, and barely worth noticing, as their beneficiaries would no doubt insist–can be weighty indeed when looked at as percentages of an individual's total federal income tax burden.

We'll start small: Consider jointed-goatgrass research, a $296,000 special research grant under the Department of Agriculture. Jointed goatgrass is a pesky weed with a similar growing cycle to winter wheat, and herbicides that kill it also kill the wheat. If not eliminated, it ends up mixed in with the wheat flour, making the flour less palatable. This problem for winter wheat farmers becomes a serious problem for 119 unlucky income earners in the $25,000-30,000 income range, who have every cent of their federal income tax burden go to paying for it.

A relative bargain at $462,000 is the Education Licensure Commission in Washington, D.C., which exists to "protect the residents of the District of Columbia from substandard educational programs at the postsecondary level and protect employers from fraudulent educational credentials." (Like a D.C. high-school diploma, for instance.) You might be well-educated yourself, earning in the $50,000-75,000 range, but you and 60 of your hapless fellow income earners are still throwing all of your federal income tax away on this program.

And can you afford not to buy, at $1.5 million, a survey of Boston-to-New York Amtrak riders? This survey is to ensure that ridership guesses made by Amtrak in 1986 to justify spending money on "high-speed rail" are still accurate. You can't afford to pay for all of it, to be sure. But if you want to avoid eventual imprisonment, you can't afford not to purchase the 1/420th of it the taxman demands if you're earning in the $30,000-40,000 range.

We're all just a drop in the bucket in the $4.75 million to be spent for the Rice Germplasm Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas–dedicated to housing and cataloging the feds' prize collection of rice genetic material, which has now outgrown its old cigar box. But they couldn't do what they do without you (and 978 people like you, if your taxable earnings are in the $40,000-50,000 range).

Even if you think there's no strong evidence that global warming is a serious threat, you've got money down on the table betting you're wrong–$55 million to an international Global Warming Initiative. In the $75,000-100,000 range, 4,241 of you are working all through January plus a couple of days to pay for this program.

To Washington, as these figures show, any one of our lives is insignificantly small, barely worth considering. But it is the time of your life that they are taking from you, in larger and larger quantities, to spend on the above silliness, plus other obscure private industry pork such as Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems ($114.5 million).

Even if you were as well off as the companies that benefit from things like Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, you can't buy that time back. Stop looking at the federal machine in a way that makes it look small and insignificant, and start thinking seriously about what they are doing with the time of your life–the big things and the little things.