“The government who robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul,” George Bernard Shaw once said.
For a socialist, Shaw demonstrated good sense with that quotation. Unfortunately, America has become a laboratory in which his hypothesis is being tested.
The theory of government I was taught says that government provides benefits, primarily security, to the entire population. In return we pay taxes. But lately the government has been a distributor of special privileges, taking money from some and giving it to others. America is now about evenly split between those who pay income taxes and those who consume them.
The Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center recently disclosed that close to half of all households will pay no income tax this year. Some will pay less than zero — that is, they’ll get money from those of us who do pay taxes.
The Tax Policy Center adds that this year the average income-tax rate for the bottom 40 percent of earners will be negative and that their cash subsidy will equal 10 percent of the total amount the income tax brings in, thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit and President Obama’s “Making Work Pay” program.
The view from the top also shows the lopsidedness of the tax system. The top 20 percent of earners makes about 53 percent of the income in America but pays 91 percent of the income tax. The top 1 percent pays 36 percent. The IRS says the bottom half of earners pays less than 3 percent.
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Soaring government spending and trillion-dollar budget deficits have brought fiscal responsibility–and reducing government waste–back onto the national agenda. President Obama recently identified 0.004 of 1 percent of the federal budget as wasteful and proposed eliminating this $140 million from his $3.6 trillion fiscal year 2010 budget request. Aiming higher, the President recently proposed partially offsetting a costly new government health entitlement by reducing $622 billion in Medicare and Medicaid “waste and inefficiencies” over the next decade. Taxpayers may wonder why reducing such waste is now merely a bargaining chip for new spending rather than an end in itself.
It is possible to reduce spending and balance the budget. In the 1980s and 1990s, Washington consistently spent $21,000 per household (adjusted for inflation). Simply returning to that level would balance the budget by 2012 without any tax hikes. Alternatively, merely returning to the 2008 (pre-recession) spending level of $25,000 per household (adjusted for inflation) would likely balance the budget by 2019 without any tax hikes.
Not Easy, but Necessary
Reducing wasteful spending is not easy. Even the most useless programs are passionately supported by the armies of recipients, administrators, and lobbyists that benefit from their existence. Identifying inefficiencies and abuses is much easier than devising a system to fix them. Many lawmakers focus more on bringing home earmarks than on performing the less exciting task of government oversight. Exasperated taxpayers see the cost of government rise with no end in sight.
Of course, eliminating waste cannot balance the budget. Lawmakers must also rein in spending by reforming Social Security and Medicare and by eliminating government activities that are no longer affordable. Yet government waste is the low-hanging fruit that lawmakers must clean up in order to build credibility with the public for larger reforms.
Congress has allowed government employees to spend tax dollars on iPods, jewelry, gambling, exotic dance clubs, and $13,500 steak dinners. If lawmakers cannot even reduce this kind of waste, fraud, and abuse, taxpayers will be less likely to trust them to reform Social Security and Medicare.
Six Categories of Waste
The six categories of wasteful and unnecessary spending are:
- Programs that should be devolved to state and local governments;
- Programs that could be better performed by the private sector;
- Mistargeted programs whose recipients should not be entitled to government benefits;
- Outdated and unnecessary programs;
- Duplicative programs; and
- Inefficiency, mismanagement, and fraud.
The first four categories are generally subjective, and reasonable people can disagree on whether a given federal program falls under their purview. Yet the final two categories–duplication and inefficiency, mismanagement, and fraud–are comparatively easy to identify and oppose. Thus, they are heavily represented in the examples of government waste
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