Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Follow the Money

Social Security. The mere words set off something inside me, an intense boiling. I came across a random article on the subject which led me to further research as I grew angry about money that I have earned but will never see. The question loomed in my mind: how to make this more than a long, whiny, complaining rant. There is plenty to say about the misuse of tax dollars, the system being rotten to the core, or any of the other easy roads which are, to greater and lesser extents, largely true. But what would be a more interesting approach?

I decided to get personal. I looked at my paycheck, and I think I may need blood pressure medication. Let's follow the money a bit, shall we?

I get paid every two weeks. I don't want to go into all the details of my personal finances, but I am not overly paranoid or secretive about anything mentioned here. For reference, I am paid every two weeks (typically 70 hours). First, let's look at some VOLUNTARY deductions:

Auto Insurance: $40.13
Charity: $10
Union Dues: $16.11
Subway/bus pass: $29.50

So from this we can see a few things. My car insurance is pretty low, I don't give much to charity (if you are looking for a worthy cause, I suggest BITS ETC - - but that is for another article). I am part of a union (and I believe those are dues for two pay-periods), and have a subsidized MBTA pass (the $29.50 is a 50% discount on my monthly pass). Okay, so that all seems reasonable.

Oh wait! There are some other things that are kind of well, hiding. They aren't listed as "Voluntary Deductions" in the HR system, but they are technically voluntary:

Health insurance: $33.23
Dental: $7.38
Flexible Spending Account: $21.54
Long-term Disability Insurance: $3.06
Life Insurance: $1.92

Okay, so once again I will save my rants about the health care system and taxes for the moment and say that this is all fairly reasonable. My insurance premiums are pretty low (my prescriptions alone right now cost over 20x what I spend on insurance), the flexible-spending account is a big pain in the ass -- I have to submit claims for reimbursements for things like office visit or prescription co-pays, OTC medications, etc. -- but it is deducted pre-tax from my paycheck, so I save a significant amount.

The long-term disability is good for 2/3 of my current salary, forever, and well worth it. The life insurance is basic because I am young and don't have any children or debt or anything else...

So now I am feeling a little bit better. At least my paycheck is going to the right places. Never mind that I am contributing to my retirement, and that my employer contributes another 5% of my gross salary on top of that. But none of that adds up to very much money. So why is my net pay -- the amount that gets direct-deposited into my bank accounts -- so low?

Oh wait.

This honestly makes me a little woozy. Just looking at it, I am struck with a mix of feelings. None of them are good. "Total taxes." I can't bear to write the number. So far this YEAR I have paid enough for a down-payment on a house. I know some of you might be thinking well at least you have a job that pays you blah blah blah that is not the point! That is just a distraction from the fact that my money is being stolen!

What happened to all of this money? I did not give it up voluntarily. They were smart enough to take it before I could get my filthy little hands on it, because then it would be a lot harder for them to get back, not to mention all of the interest that I could earn from it in the meantime, which they happily accrue instead. Sure, some of you are making the argument in your head that you can do this or that to circumvent the system, blah blah blah.

That's not what I'm talking about. I am merely pointing out that we are being tricked. On one level, yes it is armed robbery, because if I refuse to pay, they will send thugs called "police" with clubs and guns and chains to take me away. But by and large, it is more like pick-pocketing. They're filching a third of your dough, and there's nothing you can do about it. So where is it going? Let's keep following the money.

There's even a keen pie-chart:

After looking at the pie-chart, I am feeling more than a little nauseated. Mind you that we're running about a $1.2 trillion deficit as part of this awesome budget. That's "trillion" with the "tr" which you won't ever see in your pocket until our currency is completely devalued (though by then I am sure that the Bureau of Printing and Engraving will be too worried about the Zombie Apocalypse to bother printing trillion-dollar bills, much to the chagrin of Simpsons' fans everywhere).

So there must be some pretty gosh-darned important stuff that we're spending all that hard-earned cash on, right? Instead of a down-payment, let's take a look at some general items:

$677.95 billion - Social Security. It would be way too easy for me to write about how I'm never going to see this particular money again, so let's just leave it at that.
$571 billion - "Other mandatory programs." Okay, I know that actually means something I don't like, but would prefer to lighten the mood a bit and imagine that these are programs for things like happy rainbows and making sure that the butterflies have safe passage when there is a hurricane. Everyone loves butterflies.

$453 billion - Medicare
$290 billion - Medicaid

Sigh. This just makes me tired. Let's pretend that all of the money going into Social Security, "Other mandatory programs," Medicare, and Medicaid, all goes to provide health care. That's a total of almost $2 trillion. That's also with a "tr." Most sources I have found say that we have 50 million people in this country without health insurance. That works out to what, about $40,000 per uninsured person? Seems like it should, on average, be enough. According to Wikipedia, "In 2006, per-capita spending for health care in Canada was US$3,678; in the U.S., US$6,714. The U.S. spent 15.3% of GDP on health care in that year; Canada spent 10.0%.[5]" ( for the whole dreary article).

But wait, some of that money isn't for health care, right? The Social Security money, that was originally supposed to be about retirement. So let's take that out. Where else do you think we might be able to find some money in the budget? How about:

$663.7 billion - Department of Defense
$42.7 billion - Department of Homeland Security
$51.7 billion - Department of State
$23.9 billion - Department of Justice

Surely, I don't mean to cut all of it? Ho, ho. These are just some of the big numbers. Where is this money going? Well, we're killing lots of people. And we're making lots of people angry at us. The Department of Defense (which should really be called the Department of Offense, for more than one reason) and the Department of Homeland Security, along with the State Department, make sure that everyone who doesn't get killed by us at least dislikes us. And State does that to our own citizens, as does the Department of "Justice."

Think for a minute about this spending. You pay dollars to kill people. You like that? If you don't, then too bad. If you do, then you are lucky, because you are on the side of what is Good and Right. Do you like the idea that predator drones are blasting people with the dollars you earned today in, let's say the last third of your day? I hope you do.

Do you like that we have multiple overseas conflicts going on, but very little news coverage of them? Does this make you curious? The government depends on a population that is easily overwhelmed by the appearance of facts and the easily tricked out of doing any critical thinking. Have you bothered to check any of the numbers in this article? Do you intend to? I took them directly from Wikipedia. Do you trust them?

Let's accept that my numbers are, at least roughly, correct. Does that make them meaningful? How meaningful is a number like $663.7 billion? How do you put that in terms that are understandable? Well, it is a lot of hamburgers.

What is in the rest of the budget, though? What doesn't merit the same level of importance (assuming that funding is a proxy for importance)? Let's see:

$13.3 billion - Department of Labor
I wonder what all those unemployed folks think about that... What does the DOL actually do, anyway?

$12.0 billion - Department of the Interior
$10.5 billion - Environmental Protection Agency
Aren't these people supposed to keep things nice for us? Seems like they could use more money, if we're going to play that game, than the people who destroy shit.

$7.0 billion - National Science Foundation
$0.7 billion - Small Business Administration
I'm so glad that we are supporting science and small businesses.

Are you depressed yet? I am depressed that instead of mortgaging my future on a new house, I am forced to mortgage my future on weapons of mass destruction and other toys for those in charge to play with. Oh well. If you don't pay your taxes, those toys you are paying for will be used against you...

And don't forget, every year, you are going to be paying at least:
$164 billion - Interest on National Debt

Good times for years to come!

1 comment:

  1. I've always assumed that the whole dance of pretending to "take money" from people is just a clever trick to get everyone to report on intimate details of their lives. If they just sent out letters to everyone demanding detailed reports about everything, there'd be a revolt, but instead they threaten to take a huge amount and then offer to charge less in exchange for the information, bad cop then good cop, and that apparently pacifies people. It's not as if that's the only way the government could get any money-- they establish and operate the entire financial system!!

    Anyway there's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that our military expenditures are irrational, indeed flatly corrupt. Never mind being a misplaced priority in general, I feel absolutely sure that we're entirely misspending the money even if you limit your consideration to the accomplishment of our military objectives. I mean consider, here we are spending $100 billion a year in Afghanistan-- they have a population of 30 million, a GDP of only $10 billion!! For what we're paying we could employ LITERALLY THE ENTIRE COUNTRY MANY TIMES OVER. It's so obvious that the whole thing is not just some innocent misprioritization but rather a massive outright theft.

    But I've made my peace with all of it. Here's how: I am quite seriously and intently working on inventing an alternative economic system to replace money and markets. Ever since I've been working on that, all of the irrationalities and terrors have been flipped on their head: They are the weaknesses of my enemy. My enemy is very weak and irrational indeed, and so I expect and intend total victory.