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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:

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:


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2009 07:03 am (UTC)
Thanks for the link to the Bachman bailout visualization. You may also like these:

Obama Budget Cuts Visualization

The National Debt Road Trip

The Obama Stimulus: Predictions vs. Reality

Edited at 2009-07-23 07:41 am (UTC)
Jul. 23rd, 2009 08:08 am (UTC)
Thanks for this post Brad. Excellent way to understand what is going on for very lay people.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 09:31 am (UTC)
I remember a friend who works at a library recounting the tale of one of those angry customers who say things like, "I'm paying your salary!"
He joked about putting a nickel in the guy's hand and saying, "You can have your money back."

Looking up some facts and figures, it seems the average person is paying less than a cent.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 10:44 am (UTC)
In the spirit of checking on government programs one hates, here's the War on Drugs (budget) Clock. Looks like about 11 billion a year from the feds. I suppose I could be impressed with how much damage can be bought for a moderate amount of money.

I'm not sure whether the clock includes the amount spent on imprisoning drug offenders, but I don't think it does.

Yeah, you're right about the estimate-- I was guessing between 1 and 3 per cent. Unless I've dropped a zero, it's actually about a twentieth of a per cent.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)
And even that number is indefensibly high, unless he's also counting state and local spending. Zooming in on Department of Justice in WallStats (which you can easily do via the menu widget Zoomarama provided) gives $2.2B for the entire DEA, and about $6B for the entire federal prison system. I don't have a reference handy, but I vaguely recall that about 1/3rd of the prisoners are non-violent drug offenders, so call that $2B. And all State Dept funding to counter-narcotics operations by other countries is a hair under $2B. So I don't see a total of over $6B, or roughly 0.4% of all federal discretionary spending.

You can make a case for ending the War on Drugs, but it'd be hard to do so honestly on a federal spending basis. I think it's more interesting to note that politicians seem to think that it's enough of a voter priority that they all have to take a stand in favor of something that the government ends up spending so little on.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
It's more the converse... no one wants to be the "pro drug" congressperson.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Is there generally a correlation between what politicians feel they have to take a stand on and how much is spent?

I assumed that what the public cares about is partly how much they get in services and partly symbolic issues.

Jul. 23rd, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
Brad, this is awesome. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Jul. 23rd, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
So now we have the numbers that prove real health care reform is necessary to the budget and to future financial security. Will that convince both sides of the aisle to draft and debate plans on how to achieve that? Or can we expect more of "The President's Plan is wrong, so we need to delay and kill it" without hearing all that much about the alternative and better plan? (If there is an alternative plan already there/coming, then I've missed it. Do point it out to me, please.)
Jul. 23rd, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
As Rachel Maddow pointed out right after the President's speech, President's Clinton, Nixon, and Truman gave roughly the same speech. I'm not yet convinced that it is even possible to reform health care in this country, ever.

The health insurance industry, the hospital industry, the pharmaceutical industry are all tightly concentrated, so call it a total of fewer than 10 CEOs who control, between them, roughly 1/6th of the US gross domestic product. That makes them more powerful than the entire federal government, combined. Overthrowing them is like trying to be a 1950s Russian dissident trying to overthrow Stalinism: it's not ours to overthrow, it's theirs to own (and own us) until they screw up so badly that there's genuinely mass anger. And they're smart enough, so far, not to let it come to that.

More on this later.
Jul. 24th, 2009 12:05 am (UTC)
I listened to that segment and didn't make the connection. Thanks. Looking forward to the more part, although a bit worried as to what a screwup of the kind you're talking about would entail to get the populous angry enough to wrest control back from them.
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:16 am (UTC)
That's something like my take on it.

The US has grown the most corrupt medical industry in human history, and I have no idea how it could get untangled.

I'm betting that there will be significantly wider coverage, but the costs will keep going up.

My only hope is improved medical tech.
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:20 pm (UTC)
Which is how we ended up with this bullshit "solution" in Massachusetts which boils down to "buy private health insurance or you'll be fined". My options are paying thousands a year out of pocket to some jackass who will play the fine-print game (such as only paying for *half* of a standard strep test because they only cover the cost of labor, not the actual testing kit - true story) or getting fined by my government. And now the whole *country* wants to do this? Are you all on crack?!?
Jul. 24th, 2009 06:58 pm (UTC)
Everyone who's really looked at it knows that the Massachusetts plan was a massive failure. But individual mandate systems put a lot of money into corporate hands, both private money that would otherwise have gone into a medical savings account (or for Kraft dinner), and public money in the form of subsidies, so it looks really good to mainstream corporatist politicians. As for the public, all they hear is "Obama's going to fix the healthcare system", without really understanding any of the specifics of the plan, and how similar plans have failed.
Jul. 24th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
Hey Brad, thanks for the review. <Jess here Allow me to address some of your concerns. Adjusting the way the GWOT or OCO funding was depicted was a big decision and one that I did not take likely. I knew I wanted to separate the Marines from the Navy instead of doing the dual figure method as per last year, so I knew I would have less room. Absorbing the OCO into the DOD free's up some space in that regard. I also though the dual percentage would give a better insight into the make of up the OCO. Previously it was hard to separate what was Army and what was Army in Iraq. But now you can look at sometihng like Army Operations and see that damn, 60% of that is OCO. This extends across the whole DOD, Lots of Humvee's for OCO, but not so much the Strykers anymore. Predictably, the Navy isn't really involved over there as their OCO percentage will show. This is the type of data you can pull out of the dual percentage figure. But yeah, it was a trade off between having a giant circle for OCO vs have it be absorbed proportionately into the the rest of the DOD. As for your point 2. Believe me, I wasn't happy about the stimulus bill skewing the data. If I had done the same thing as last year then almost every line item on the poster would have a red percentage as the 2009 budget was so greatly inflated in the last few months of the year. I though that depicting it this way would have been misleading, so I averaged the percentage change over 2 years, to compensate for the stimulus. But I still wanted to represent the stimulus in there some how. If I had broken it out as a separate circle it would have been larger than the DOD and obviously wouldn't fit on the poster, there is that space limitation again. So I used the 08 to 09 percentage change to show the effect of the stimulus. If you see some programs in the Energy, Transportation, Education depart have huge grey increases, like +500% you know that there was some serious stimulus funds going there. I actually posted a few blog entries describing my method before and requesting feedback. Anyways, I am glad you liked the poster!
Jul. 27th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)
We are working on an innovation/invention in green energy. I have been reading the long paper on how to apply for a grant from the DOE.
On the website that pertains to the DOE's Inventions and Innovation Programs, I learned that they haven't been funded since before 2007.
This strikes me as a bit suspicious, since we keep hearing how the government is working on "green jobs" to help the "green economy".
Here's the page:


There's a link on the page to financing, and it says about the same, but more updated, though not really current....
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )