Features

Tax dollars at leisure

National | Why does Uncle Sam need so much? A short list

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

At the San Diego bookkeeping firm A&M Enterprises, a framed copy of the 1914 income tax form (the first ever) hangs on the wall. The tax brackets? Just 1 to 7 percent. In 1998, Americans earned a total of $7.5 trillion. And how much did Uncle Sam siphon off in taxes? More than 35 percent. "Taxes are higher than they've ever been," says Patrick Fleenor, a senior economist with the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group. "People want to point to specific income groups and say their tax burden's gone down, but the evidence doesn't conclusively show that." What the evidence does show is that the cost of government-and the pet projects of those who govern-continues to spiral upward. In an age when many Americans are cutting back on fat, Congress is instead piling it on. This year, legislators larded the budget with a total of $12 billion in pork-barrel spending, 32 percent more than in 1998, according to Citizens Against Government Waste in Washington, D.C. Egregious examples of pet projects paid for with your tax dollars include:

  • $4.3 million to preserve "the natural setting of rabbits and deer" living in Greenbury Point, Md.
  • $225,000 for a Maryland project to determine whether poultry litter can generate electricity.
  • $1 million to study animal waste in Missouri.
  • $220,000 for lowland blueberry research in Maine.
  • $1 million to rehabilitate a U-505 submarine in a Chicago science museum.
  • $750,000 for grasshopper research in Alaska.
  • $1 million for an exhibit honoring 19th-century frontiersmen Lewis and Clark.
  • $75 million for a national Teacher Training in Technology Program. (There are already 80 other teacher-training programs in existence.) Each year, Citizens Against Government Waste confers "Oinker" awards to legislators who squander taxpayer dollars on such porcine projects. This year, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) received the Luau Award for his $185 million helping of Hawaiian pork. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) was honored with the Proud to Be a Porker Award for boasting in news releases about the $192 million in federal bacon he snagged for his home state. But congressional pork isn't the only tax drain on American workers. Billions of wage and salary dollars are plucked from family budgets, then dispatched by government bean-counters into the accounting equivalent of the Twilight Zone. For example, government shoveled out more than $1 billion in food-stamp overpayments in 1998 to ineligible recipients, including prisoners and dead people, according to the Government Accounting Office (GAO). Outsized and redundant bureaucratic machinery also gobbles up more than its share. For example, Americans have two federal agencies diligently guarding them from defective frozen pizzas. According to the GAO, the Department of Agriculture inspects meat pizzas, while the Food and Drug Administration keeps an eye on cheese-only pies. That's two separate armies of frozen pizza agents. Expensive federal building projects also suck billions through the high-speed tax-tunnel to Washington. Lawmakers added $152,626,000 to the 1999 federal budget for the Brooklyn, N.Y., Courthouse. (The U.S. Attorney's office in New York has arrested 16 individuals suspected of a kickback and bribery scheme in connection with that construction project.) Another current project dates back to 1998, when the Department of Energy awarded a $5 million grant to select businesses for the installation of 1,000 solar roofs. This year, Congress added $1.5 million to that project-to see how the original $5 million would be spent. So, why aren't Americans storming Capitol Hill to tear down such an outrageous tax-and-spend circus? It's a combination of prosperity and misinformation, says Heritage Foundation economist Daniel Mitchell. First, the strong economy has reduced the "sense of economic unease that is helpful in terms of agitating for lower tax rates," Mr. Mitchell said. "Also, President Clinton has created a clever juxtaposition between Social Security and taxation that has frightened many seniors away from tax reform." (Mr. Mitchell calls that juxtaposition "utter nonsense.") Finally, the payroll withholding system lulls some citizens into believing they're not really paying taxes, but that when they receive a return each year, the government is actually paying them. In many cases, the government is paying them. Analysts estimate that up to half of all Americans receive some type of government benefit. Far from being tax agitators, some of those recipients would prefer not to alter the tax structure in any way. Americans worked the first three hours of each eight-hour work day to pay state and federal taxes, according to the Tax Foundation. This year, if an American started working on Jan. 1, and sent every penny to the government until his tax bill was paid, he wouldn't be finished before mid-May.

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