White House Shows Taxpayers Where Their Money Went - Sort Of

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White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest (L) declined to comment on why the administration made it challenging for Americans using the service to see how much wealthy taxpayers contribute toward federal spending programs.
AlamyWhite House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest (L) declined to comment on why the administration made it challenging for Americans using the service to see how much wealthy taxpayers contribute toward federal spending programs.
On Monday, the White House rolled out "Your 2012 Federal Taxpayer Receipt," an online tool that purports to provide "a breakdown of how your tax dollars are spent on priorities like education, veterans benefits, or health care."

A few observations:

First, the receipt calculator bases its results on how much a user reports having paid in Social Security, Medicare and income taxes. If you don't remember what you paid in these three categories, you can select an income estimate, choosing among five statuses that range from "$25,000 income – single with no children" to "$80,000 income – married with two children." But that's it: No income level higher than $80,000 is provided. Which means there's no way for a curious citizen to get an estimate of the tax burden shouldered by high earners.

White House

Maybe that's all right; the White House only promises visitors insight into the uses of their own tax dollars, not anybody else's. (And it would be impossible for a simple tool to model the nexus of loopholes and deductions that factor into the tax rates of many wealthy citizens.) But it's noteworthy that, at a time when the president himself is calling attention to the need for higher-income earners to pay their "fair share," his administration leaves upper tax brackets out of the income estimate menu.

For what's it worth, the Daily Mail reports that it took "35 minutes to calculate the taxes paid by a hypothetical $240,000 salaried earner who is married and filing taxes jointly with a spouse, using the same conditions as in the White House's example for an $80,000 earner." According to the paper, "that $240,000 salaried employee would contribute toward every federal program more than 10 times what the $80,000 employee chips in, despite earning just three times as much money." To the Mail, which notes that White House spokespeople declined to comment on the record about the exclusion of high income figures, this is evidence that the administration doesn't want the public to know how much the rich pay in taxes.
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Second, that appealing-sounding group of priorities given above -- education, veterans benefits, health care -- doesn't include the category that consumes the biggest share of the income tax paid on my own estimated tax receipt: "national defense" (24.64%). And when I click on "national defense" to see a breakdown of that spending, the top item listed is "Military personnel salaries and benefits (5.62%)", although the second, "Ongoing operations, equipment, and supplies (10.26%)," is nearly twice as expensive. (Even the third, "Research, development, weapons and construction," is pricier, at 7.62%.)

Apparently the administration would rather have us thinking of our tax dollars compensating the members of our volunteer armed forces than paying for battles and bombs. (The order of items is similarly perplexing under "Jobs and Family Security," giving priority to the middlingly expensive unemployment insurance.) And while it makes sense to separate the cost of current war fighting from other military expenditures, veterans' benefits (4.53%) is listed as a separate category, rather than a subsection of national defense.

Third, the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare are treated separately from income taxes. Here again The Daily Mail sees signs of an effort to dupe taxpayers, quoting a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union as suggesting that the Obama administration wants to to "cut data from the spending side, likely to avoid showing how much SS and Medicare take out of the budget. Workers and business owners who are paying Social Security and Medicare taxes right out of their paychecks are likely not interested in separating them into a special category and pretending they never happened."

Some Medicare spending does show up on my tax receipt, as the second most expensive item listed under health care. But it's true that I contributed significantly more than that in Medicare tax. Still, given the way taxes are collected and divvied up, it's hard to see how else the White House could have presented this information; it's not a budget breakdown. If people want a visualization of how much money the president thinks should be spent on different programs, the New York Times crafted a good interactive infographic on his budget proposal last year.
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