With Tax Day around the corner on April 15th and budget debates raging in Washington, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at where our government is actually spending our tax dollars. We all fund the government through our taxes, so we all have a stake in what it’s doing with those resources in our name. While the budget can seem opaque… it’s important for engaged citizens to understand clearly how our collective resources are, and are not, being spent.
According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, for every one dollar of federal income tax you paid in 2012, the government spent about 27 cents on the Pentagon core budget. By contrast it spent just 2 cents on education and social programs and 6 cents on jobs and economic development. See http://fcnl.org/assets/flyer/FCNL_Taxes12.pdf for more information.
(These numbers cover the “federal fund” budget, which is spending supported by income taxes, estate taxes and the like. It does not include trust funds like Social Security and Medicare that are supported by payroll taxes paid by workers and employers.)
As large a chunk of our spendable resources as 27 cents seems to be, that figure is in fact a gross underestimate of how many resources really go to military and war. That’s partly because much of our spending on war is funded through debt. It’s also because total national security costs are far higher than they appear. The White House tucks away many defense-related spending into other budget categories. Let me explain….
On top of the “base defense budget,” there’s a separate category of actual war spending. (In 2013 it amounts to $88 billion, more than we spend on education.) Entirely separate from both of those are the nuclear weapons programs housed within the Department of Energy. Veterans Affairs and “Homeland Security” costs are also tallied in separate categories. In addition, interest on the large debt we took on to pay for our recent forays into Iraq and Afghanistan—both wars were financed through enormous borrowing—is counted separately.
The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author David Cay Johnston, an expert on economic and tax issues, argues that if you include all of these different tucked-away expenses, the “true cost of national security” is by its broadest measure more than $1 trillion. That’s nearly two and a half times the basic defense budget figure that is typically cited in the press. In fact, he argues, this true cost of national security will gobble up most of the revenue that’s expected to be raised from the individual federal income tax in fiscal 2013. He says: “By this broadest measure, the cost of national security consumes every individual income tax dollar except the last thousand paid per American.”
You don’t have to be a died-in-the-wool peace activist to be disturbed about this fact, especially when you consider how deeply our communities are struggling to pay for schools, roads, and housing, and how much of the population is suffering in this economy.
Virginia taxpayers paid $15.8 billion just for basic department of defense spending (the narrowest definition of military spending) in 2012. For the same amount of money, Virginians could have had:
1.6 million one-year scholarships for university students or
7.4 million households with renewable solar photovoltaic electricity (data from the National Priorities Project).
So much is possible if we get our priorities straight!
This year’s budget debates present an opening in the conversation and an opportunity to fundamentally rethink our priorities.
The Richmond Peace Education Center is encouraging community discussion on this issue. Join us tomorrow, March 19th, at 7pm at VCU for our public forum on “The Cost of War.” Following the forum, working groups within RPEC will focus on: lobbying and “economic conversion,” a Tax Day Action, war taxation, and continued study. Contact us to plug in: www.rpec.org.