A More Infuriating Way to Think About Your Tax Burden
Per capita isn't the only way to think about your personal tax burden for minor government programs.
When people talk about the burden of government programs that clearly don't benefit all, most, or even necessarily very many of the taxpayers on the hook for them, you often see their costs calculated in per capita terms across the whole population. Put that way, they seem laughably tiny, not worth even thinking about. Public broadcasting, for example, costs just $1.37 per citizen each year—far less than you pay to avoid getting kicked out of Starbucks every day.
But money is fungible, so you can conceptualize the relationship between what you pay in taxes and any given government program or expenditure in a far more infuriating way. Consider, on this magic day of civic responsibility, that every penny of your federal income tax burden this year (and that of any number of other poor suckers with your same income) is going to some relatively small and insignificant government program.
Here are 17 recent government expenditures, ranked from smallest to largest, that some of you may resent your taxes going to. (Not all of these programs expend all their money in one calendar year—but again, money is fungible.) Their costs are calculated in terms of how many citizens with a given taxable income (according to this handy 2017 tax table, which you should bookmark if you just started trying to deal with your 1040 this morning) it takes to pay for the expenditure. For those with taxable incomes higher than $100,000, where the tax table cuts off, the average tax burden for folk within a given range of adjusted gross income is derived from this IRS data (from 2015, the most recent year they offer).
• EPA chief Scott Pruitt's absurd $43,000 soundproof booth? Every cent of the tax paid by 22 suckers with taxable incomes of $16,000 will go to pay for it.
• Doggie Hamlet. It would be cheap and easy to fill this entire list with specific bits of arts funding. Those who cannot or would not enjoy the art themselves, and who are aware that lots of arts projects manage to support themselves with paying customers or willing patrons, can feel aggrieved by such expenditures. But let's just pick one colorful example, Doggie Hamlet, a live performance that, as described in The Los Angeles Times, "involves a flock of sheep, three herding dogs, six human performers, a few scattered pelts, plenty of green grass and very little (if any) Shakespeare." The Times notes that "Narrative threatened to emerge at points in the production but never really took hold. When language was used, it wasn't always easy to discern what was being said. Speech ultimately seemed no more consequential than bleating or barking." The eccentric show has received, via the New England Foundation for the Arts, $45,000 of our money. That's the total tax burden of five of the sort of $50,000-taxable-income folk who might be apt to trouble themselves to see it.
• Legal education for Department of Energy employees. According to a 2017 report from the inspector general for the Department of Energy, the department "paid for 29 college courses, totaling approximately $138,000, for a general engineer to obtain a law degree." The report concluded that most of these courses "were unrelated to his position at the Department," even though the rules governing such payments for employee education "required training be applicable to workplace responsibilities and be mission-oriented." That lucky public employee enjoyed the full 2017 tax payments of 36 Americans with taxable income of $28,000, folk who would likely be hard pressed to pay for their own legal education.
• The Chesapeake Bay Journal. The EPA has been giving $325,000 a year to this publication, which, as Reason contributing editor Walter Olson notes, "was extensively covering proposed EPA budget cuts and framing them as threats to the bay." While not all of the publication's mission was dedicated to coverage that pleased the EPA, elements of that payment did involve some self-reflexive lobbying for its own mission, eating up the entire tax payments of more than 67 Americans with taxable incomes of $35,000.
• Tomahawk missile. A single one of the 66 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles that rained down on three Syrian targets this week cost $1.4 million. Chump change for the government, but it's the entire tax burden of 446 people at the taxable income level of $24,000 (likely close to that of a typical infantryman who might find himself harmed by the escalation of war in Syria).
• Research on incentives to lose weight. Like arts funding, federal social science research funding is a bunch of costly fish in an expensive barrel when making a list like this. So I'll include just one item. As reported in Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford's Federal Fumbles, "over the last five years the NIH [National Institutes of Health] has spent $1.6 million on research to discover that people paid to lose weight tend to lose more weight than those not paid to lose weight." To determine this, "the researchers divided participants into three groups to see which would lose more weight: a group given direct financial compensation, a group whose members were entered into a lottery to incentivize weight loss, and a group in which everyone was given daily encouragement but no compensation." It wasn't hard to predict the results, "since an almost identical trial was funded by the NIH through a grant to the same university and researcher in 2008. In that trial, the groups receiving the direct financial incentive and those in the lottery lost more weight than those without a financial incentive to lose weight." That exploration into some basic economics of incentives, pettily priced as it might be for government work, still amounts to the total tax burden of 42 low-grade fat cats with adjusted gross incomes in the $200,000–$250,000 a year range.
• Afghan prison. A depressing but powerfully symbolic expense of our 17 years and counting in Afghanistan is the $11.3 million the U.S. spent to build Baghlan Prison there. Three of its buildings were unusably poorly constructed, according to a 2017 report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. Attention, American citizens with $15,000 in taxable income: 6,319 of you are giving your entire debt to Uncle Sam to keep Afghans imprisoned in a crummy construction project.
• Unused IRS email program. The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration reported in 2016 that the IRS had "purchased subscriptions for an enterprise e-mail system that, as it turned out, it could not use. The purchase was made without first determining project infrastructure needs, integration requirements, business requirements, security and portal bandwidth, and whether the subscriptions were technologically feasible on the IRS enterprise….The IRS authorized the $12 million purchase of subscriptions over a two-year period between June 2014 and June 2016. However, the software to be used via the purchased subscriptions was never deployed." For 4,728 Americans with taxable income of $20,000, your total payments in 2017 to this same IRS will equal this particular wasted expense.
• The federal government's car collection. A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on federally owned vehicles found that just two of the agencies whose car ownership and use it reviewed, the Customs and Border Patrol and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, "cumulatively incurred an estimated $13.5 million in depreciation and maintenance costs in fiscal year 2015" for vehicles they were unable to prove had even been used that year. For 2,001 Americans of $44,000 taxable income, who would likely be keenly aware of the service they were or were not receiving from vehicles they might or might not own, all their tax burden goes to those federal mystery vehicles.
• Donald Trump's inauguration. Not something most of us went to, not something many of us ever wanted to happen in the first place. And despite over $100 million raised from private sources to defray expenses, it also cost at least $100 million in public funds. Which means it ate up the entire average tax burdens of at least 5,575 taxpayers whose adjusted gross incomes were from $100,000–$200,000.
• Federal grazing fees. This program supposedly puts money in the federal coffers, but by the time government is done with it, it tends to spend $120 million a year more than it takes in administering the program, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Biological Diversity. That's the total tax burden of 6,577 Americans with a taxable income of $90,000, who can certainly afford their own beef but perhaps shouldn't have their entire tax payments go toward subsidizing the people who raise it.
• Using the National Guard to fight the drug war. I'm sure those who joined the National Guard to defend their country are delighted that Congress in fiscal 2017 earmarked $150 million for, in the words of the Center Against Government Waste, "the National Guard Counter-Drug Program…which allows for the use of military personnel in domestic drug enforcement operations [despite] the existing Drug Enforcement Administration…budget of $2.1 billion." Is it constitutional? The National Guard certainly thinks so, and wasting Guard members time and ruining innocent American lives is eating up the entire tax payment of 10,348 Americans with a reasonably hefty taxable income of $75,000.
• Navy Air Operations Center. Some government programs are so apparently insignificant the government just abandons them before they are completed, like what Defense News last year described as "a network upgrade for the Air Operations Center, a key tool used by the service to plan and conduct air operations." It was cancelled last year after an estimated $745 million had already been spent failing to get it off the ground. If you've got an adjusted gross income of over a quarter-million yourself, you and 4,137 of your fellow plutocrats had to cough up all your 2017 taxes to cover that mistake.
• F-35 fighter plane. The mere acquisition cost of the troubled F-35 fighter plane is now estimated at $164.6 million per jet, never mind the cost of keeping them operational over a lifetime. If you're earning in the $100,000–$200,000 a year range of adjusted gross income, and you and 9,176 of your fellow Americans are on the hook for your entire yearly tax bill to get just one of those monstrosities onto the field.
• Public relations. The federal government doesn't have to sell anything to survive, but rather lives off money appropriated whether the poor folk paying for it want to or not. You might think such an entity doesn't feel the need to spend much on public relations. You would be wrong. It takes 414,258 poor folk with taxable income of $10,000 to pay for the recent average of $430 million a year spent on public relations employees of the federal government, according to a 2016 GAO report.
• Fighter planes that the F-35 is supposed to replace. Remember that F-35 that costs $164.6 million per jet? While we're waiting for that decades-long program to come to complete fruition, the Center Against Government Waste points out, we are also spending—in fiscal year 2017 alone—$1.02 billion
for four earmarks funding two planes intended to be replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF): $979 million for 12 additional F/A-18 E/F Hornets for the Navy; $24.8 million for F-16 mission training center simulators; $12 million for a missile warning system for the F-16; and $5 million for anti-jamming GPS for the F-16. The Air Force declared its variant of the JSF to be combat ready in August 2016, 15 years after Lockheed Martin won the contract. However, a report released in the same month by former DOD Operational Test and Evaluation Director Michael Gilmore found that, "achieving full combat capability with the Joint Strike Fighter is at substantial risk" of not occurring prior to the end of development. The report described the JSF as "… not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver."
If your taxable income is just a nose under the maximum for the tax table, $99,950, 48,629 people just like you are paying around one-fifth of that income every year, your total federal income tax burden, just to keep these planned-to-be-obsolete jets in the air.
• San Diego's trolley. What's even more expensive than a notorious Pentagon boondoggle? It's easy for most Americans to be unaware that federal aid for local transportation boondoggles even exists, even (or perhaps especially) if you are one of the many locals who will never use the subsidized transportation. Consider, then, the $1.04 billion that the Department of Transportation has earmarked for extending a San Diego trolley system by 10 miles. That hasn't all been spent yet, but if the department stays the course let's think of how that will add up for San Diegans with taxable incomes of $33,000, whether or not they ever ride the trolley: 223,707 of them just spent their whole tax bills on it.