J. Brad Hicks (bradhicks) wrote,
J. Brad Hicks
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WallStat's "Death & Taxes:" Don't Argue Politics without It!

It's finally here! Jess Bachman over at WallStats.com has come out with this year's "Death and Taxes!" I put my order in the first day: being able to put the whole Obama administration's budget request for all discretionary spending, 2009 and 2010, up on the wall in a single, entirely readable, very informative 24" x 36" poster is worth every penny of the $24 he charges. Bachman, who does info graphics for a living, has a side business in economic infographics via his site, WallStats.com, and this one is his flagship product, from back when the site was called TheBudgetGraph.com. He takes two months every spring to take the current year's budget request, pull out all of the spending over which Congress and the President have any year-to-year say, and categorize it, then categorize it within each category again.

I love having this thing up on the wall of my living room in a poster frame. The first time anybody new realizes what it is, they do one of two things: look for some government program they depend on personally, or look for some government program they despise. Almost entirely without exception, they are stunned to the point of being slack-jawed to find out that they were nowhere near right as to that program's size relative to the rest of the federal budget. And this is a long-standing burr in my saddle: Americans have always felt entitled to complain about how much or how little the government spends on this, that, or the other thing without having even the slightest idea how much it actually does spend.

You can see the whole thing, with really easy to use Flash-based pan-and-zoom technology provided by Zoomarama, at wallstats.com/deathandtaxes. And this year, he even made it available to be embedded in blogs, like this (if it works):



It's pretty self-explanatory, if you look at the legends. Military spending is mostly on the left, civilian spending is mostly on the right -- except where civilian agencies are forced to absorb part of the military budget, where the part that's military is also marked. (See, for example, the Energy Department, which is almost entirely cleanup of radioactive waste at old nuclear weapons plants; all other energy research and development spending is a sliver of that.) A couple of the ways the Obama administration changed the budgeting rules complicated this year's chart, and I'm not entirely happy with the choices Bachman made:
  1. Remember when the Obama administration canceled the "War on Terror" and replaced it with "Overseas Contingency Operations"? Bachman went along with this, which eliminated one of the larger circles on last year's chart, the one for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, military spending line items get a percentage in gray, at the end of the line, saying how much of each number is related to those wars. The only place the old number still shows up is as a tiny little summary, buried deep in the lower-right corner under the big Department of Defense circle: Baseline DoD spending = $534B, up 4%; Overseas Contingency Operations total = $130B (on top of the $534B), down 8%; Total = $664B, up 2%. Bet you didn't realize Obama was asking for an increase in military spending? Drill down on the chart, you can see who the actual winners and losers are in the DoD. But back to my complaint, it's now left up to you to do the math, and visualize, that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq total roughly 20% of all DoD spending, or 11% of all discretionary spending. The old way of showing it made that a lot clearer.

  2. This year also has a lot, and I mean a lot, of supposedly one-year changes to the budget, under the stimulus bill. Given my druthers, I would have broken that out as its own separate circle, but since it's all going to existing departments, I can sort of see why Bachman included it in each department's individual subtotals. But what makes it more confusing, though, is that he wanted badly to show that some of the huge increases are (again, supposedly) only temporary, so what he did was created an entirely hypothetical "what the 2010 budget would look like if it were exactly like this only without the stimulus" number, and shows that as the first percentage on the line, not the second, putting 2010 before 2009. Confusing. So where you see something like (to pick one at random) "Federal Railroad Administration 2.701 Billion +35% +595%" (presumably thank you to the former Senator from the state of Amtrak), what it means is that in 2009 Obama has asked for $2.701B for that department, which is up 595% what they got last year. But if you take out the stimulus spending, it would have only been up +35%. I think that's a very confusing way to display that information.
But my personal favorite part of each year's diagram, the one I start out with, turns out to also be relevant to today's political news, the Obama press conference on health care overhaul. This is Jess Bachman's inset, in the lower right corner, that includes all federal spending, not just the discretionary budget, and shows all federal income inside that chart:



If it's not obvious to you how to read that, it's basically a pie chart inside a pie chart. The outer ring of bubbles show the size of the only really big items in the federal budget: $901 billion to the military, $696 billion to Social Security retirees, $520 billion to "other" executive branch departments (which will be clearer in a minute), $477 to unemployment insurance pay-outs, $452 billion to Medicare (retiree health care), $290 billion to Medicaid (health care for the poor), $176 billion in interest on the national debt, $57 billion to the Veterans Administration, and $24 billion to the other two branches of government. The reason for that $520B "other" category is that there's nothing else in the entire federal government budget that comes anywhere near the size of those numbers, it's all a bunch of individual chump-change numbers that total up, among the hundreds of them, to that one number. The inner ring of bubbles is where the money comes from: $1.05 trillion in personal income taxes, $939 billion in money that comes in (supposedly) just for Social Security (FICA taxes) and Medicare (insurance premiums), $221 billion in corporate income tax, a bunch of tiny little chump-change taxes, and $1.405 trillion dollars in new borrowing.

Here's how this is relevant to today's political news story. I prefer to total up Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA into one larger administrative category: Health Care. What the resulting table looks like is:

SpendingPercent
Military$1,050 billion28%
Health Insurance payouts$749 billion20%
Retirement Insurance payouts$696 billion19%
Unemployment Insurance payouts$477 billion13%
Interest on National Debt$176 billion5%
Everything Else$544 billion15%

Thus confirming the old truism: we don't have a government. We have an insurance company with an army. And what President Obama has joined former presidents Clinton, Nixon, and Truman in warning us is that that $749 billion is the fastest growing, most out of control part of the federal budget, and it has been since, well, at least since the Truman administration; by comparison, even the rate of growth in the military/industrial complex (that President Eisenhower warned us against) has been tame. The same people who've been screaming and howling about out-of-control deficit spending need to be made to understand (or, in the case of some of them who know better and have just been lying): we cannot save the US dollar, we cannot cut the deficit, without getting a whole heck of a lot better price for the health care we're buying with tax dollars than $749 billion and rising. Seriously -- look at those rates of growth. Defense, +1%, even in wartime. Medicare +8%, Medicaid +22%, VA +13%, even during a recession. The status quo is just flatly unsustainable.

Looking at this chart, it should also go without saying, it's as plain as the nose on your face, that even if we zeroed out every single other government department, not just the earmarks but the whole freaking departments like the entire federal law enforcement apparatus, customs and immigration, education, agriculture, the Centers for Disease Control, national parks, all maintenance on government buildings, the entire federal courts system and every employee of Congress altogether, it would shave only about 1/3rd off of the deficit. We're not going to "trim the fat" or "eliminate waste, fraud and abuse" our way out of the deficit, not even if 100% of what every other department spends is "fat" or "waste, fraud, and abuse" in your opinion (and you're wrong), if we can't substantially cut health care industry profits and defense contractor profits. Period. It's that or raise personal income taxes and corporate income taxes, across the board, by about double.

And, specifically, every point I've made above, and every other observation you'll make poking and zooming around, and showing it off to other people when they see it on your wall, demonstrates exactly why I say that each and every one of you should make sure that you Congressman and both of your Senators have copies of this up on their walls, and why a copy should be in every classroom, and library, in America: there is no way to argue rationally about any of this with people who don't even know the basic facts.

P.S. One last tidbit for your entertainment, this one more explicitly political: Bachman also dabbles in infographics for a personal-finance website called Mint.com, and collaborated with them on this lovely little YouTube video:

Tags: economy, politics
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