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Tag Archive: Spending

Visualizing the Budget vs. Visualizing Spending

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If you haven't yet checked out The Data Viz Challenge, you should. A data visualization contest? Sponsored by Google and Eyebeam? Focusing on the federal budget?! There is basically nothing in the world more up our alley. Yes. A thousand times yes.

And yet I do feel obliged to offer one small criticism: I think the contest would be a little more exciting if entries weren't limited to using data from What We Pay For. Mind you, this is not because of anything wrong with WWPF. That site has done a very nice job of parsing budget data and, through the Challenge's website, exposing it via an API.

The problem is that the budget is only part of the story. As Kaitlin has already explained, tax expenditures--more commonly known as tax breaks--are vital to understanding our nation's finances. When the government declines to collect tax revenue from some particular individual or industry, it's not very different from simply sending them a check. The beneficiary has more money and, all else being equal, the rest of us have to pay more taxes (or take on more debt) to make up for it.

Unfortunately, this is the point at which politics enters the equation. The two major parties tend to pursue their spending priorities in different ways, and this has created political incentives for pretending that tax expenditures don't affect the budget. But this is silly--it's like pretending that if you worked two jobs and neglected to deposit your paycheck from one of them it would have no effect on your finances.

You can find people from both sides of the aisle saying unsupportable things about tax expenditures, but the truth is that every serious scholar who works on this issue regards tax expenditures as a type of spending. That's why the literature uses the word "expenditure."

I don't know if WWPF declined to wade into this space because it's politically charged or because the data's historically been so tough to access, but I wish they had decided differently. If you don't include tax expenditures, you wind up ignoring huge government subsidies to business (accelerated depreciation), housing (mortgage interest tax deduction) and every kind of nonprofit, from museums to soup kitchens to the NCAA (tax exemption). This isn't to say that we shouldn't subsidize those entities and uses. Maybe we should! But we should at least talk about it. We need to make sure these expenditures are considered if we're going to get a clear understanding of our nation's finances. Make no mistake, we're talking about a lot of money -- have a look at the chart from Kaitlin's post and you'll see what I mean.

At any rate, I'm sure that we'll see some stunning visualizations come out of this contest, and I don't hesitate to encourage anyone reading this to participate. But now that Sunlight and the Pew Charitable Trusts have worked together to expose data on tax expenditures--and we'll be adding more such data soon--I hope the visualization community will be inspired to tell that part of the tale as well. Without it, any story about our government's spending is incomplete.

Crossposted from the Sunlight Foundation blog

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Getting a Receipt this Year?

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Hate 'em or love 'em, you almost certainly invested more of your hard earned money into the government last year than you did any other thing in your life. In fact, it's likely that you spent more on government than you did food, clothing and shelter combined. And did you get a receipt for it?

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Congress Disinterested in Whether USDA Program Works, Washington Post Reports

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Department of Agriculture efforts intended to create jobs in rural areas, including the Rural Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, haven't quite worked as planned:

Funds have gone to firms that have hired foreign workers instead of Americans. Millions more have gone to failing and bankrupt businesses. Most of the jobs are not new. Many are low-tech and low-wage. In addition to the loan program, the USDA has handed out almost half a billion dollars in rural development grants to businesses and nonprofits since 2001. Loan guarantees or grants have gone to a car wash in Milford, Del.; a country club in Great Falls, Mont.; a movie theater in Smithfield, N.C.; a water park in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; an alligator hunter in Dade City, Fla.; snowmobile clubs in Maine; and dozens of gas stations and convenience stores in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arkansas.
The article, written by Gilbert M. Gaul in today's Washington Post, provides the kind of in depth examination of government spending that should be routine but sadly, rarely happens. Perhaps his most disturbing finding about the Rural Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program is this: "More than three decades after the loan program was created, USDA officials still don't know whether it works." Office of Management and Budget assessed the program in 2003, at which time USDA disclosed that, "No independent performance evaluations have been conducted to assess the program's impact on improving economic opportunities in rural communities." And, Gaul reports, members of Congress have other interests: making sure the money spigot stays open.

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FedSpending.org’s Offspring

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Earlier this month, Texas released a state spending database. The database, “Where the Money Goes,” allows citizens to search state spending by agency and recipient. The Houston Chronicle, makes the point that the bill that created this database was “modeled after federal legislation passed last year.” The Coburn-Obama bill’s teeth went all the way down to state level.

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Coburn Attacks Office Spending:

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Sen. [sw: Tom Coburn] (R-Okla.) is holding up the FY 07 Legislative Branch appropriations bill over an 8 percent increase in Senate spending. According to CongressDailyAM, "Coburn aides and Senate leaders said they hoped to quietly resolve the matter, perhaps by allowing Coburn to offer an amendment to slash the bill's $840 million for Senate offices and expenses -- a $63 million increase over the current year." Coburn stated, "In a time of war, rising gas prices and record deficits, increasing our own budget by an exorbitant amount sends the wrong message to the public".

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