Thursday, May 22, 2008

Government Spending - A "Secret Place"

You know what really bugs me? It's the constant harping about the government not spending enough money on just about every service it provides. Armed forces pay, teacher pay, prescription drugs and medical procedures, farm subsidies, food inspections - you name it, somebody is bitching about how we don't spend enough money on it. Well, here's what I think. If we really knew what was spent on this stuff, we'd want to throw up. That's why we're never told in straight terms what the government pays.

Here's an example. In 2008, a junior officer (Army captain, for example) with six years experience (age, about 30) will get a base pay of $57,156 plus a free 0n-base home or an off-base housing allowance. He and his family will get free medical care, and he'll be able to retire at half pay after 20 years of service. Granted, he has an important job and some risk, but the great majority of officers at this rank will never see combat. It's a darn good job if you're willing to move around at the government's pleasure, sometimes to some pretty good places. You'd have never guessed it if I didn't tell you, and I can think of plenty of harder jobs that pay less.

Teacher pay. Teachers in my school district can make $90,000 and full medical coverage, plus retire at something like 2/3's of their final pay and full medical after 30 years. That's for teaching about 185 days each year. Competition for these jobs is unbelievable, and you can see why. Why is it, I wonder, that teacher pay is a big issue around here? It's because the average person has no facts.

Medicaid spending. It's the largest single component of my county's budget, by far, and it's growing like topsy and forcing property tax increases. I've never seen an analysis as simple as this: the per-person cost for each Medicaid recipient in this county, and the breakdown by doctor bills, prescriptions, and hospital costs. If we taxpayers saw these numbers, we would go crazy because they are so much higher than what we pay for our own care. But we're never told. Medicaid is an industry, and we provide the revenue for it.

Today the U.S. senate passed a $290 billion farm bill - $290 billion in farm subsidies, the lion's share going to larger agribusinesses. This at a time when farmers are experiencing a bonanza in crop prices and recond profits. It's an election year, you see, and congress wants those farm state votes. They're paying for them with your money.

And so it goes. "Big Government" is out of control. There is no accountability, and the only brake on spending is potential taxpayer revolt. The government takes what the market (you and me) will bear. The great size of government, and its multitude of functions, keep us from understanding it. And that's exactly how "Big Government" wants it to be.

OK, you say. That's the problem. What is the answer? Probably two things: first, information like what I've presented above. Put the big spending items into some perspective that the average person can understand. Second, more citizen input on spending, such as referendum and initiative. It's not surprising that New York is one of the top taxing states, does not have referendum and intiative, and that the special interests and the politicians won't even consider them.

You may think I'm some wild-eyed libertarian. I'm not. I think the government needs to handle many functions in our complex society. I just don't think the rest of us should be stuck with a much bigger bill than is necessary. Think about that when you cast your votes in the fall...there are candidates who are serious about managing the cost of government. Give them a chance to work for all of us, to uncover and eliminate the secrecy of government spending.


Anonymous said...

As a corollary to what you've written, I would add: Government can do anything you want it to do, but it can't do it for free.

For example, the private sector has failed miserably (IMHO) in the areas of health care and pensions. Government can certainly take over those areas if we want them to- but our taxes are going to have to go up dramatically in order to pay for them.

Dave said...

A huge step in pulling the veil in front of government spending would be to quit taxing corporations. They don't pay taxes, they collect and remit them. If that amount were added to personally paid taxes, people would see what they are paying and bitch a bit more.

Another change that would force government to live off of what it takes in is to impliment a sales tax (FairTax) in place of income tax. If the collections aren't enough, government has to go to citizens and say we need another five cents on every dollar you spend. Again more bitching.

Before you say that a sales tax is regressive, from what I've read, it isn't. There's a "prebate" built in for basic spending, with real taxation beginning after necessities are taken care of.

Ron Davison said...

It seems like the government we get is never much better than our media. I think you hit it on the head that as long as the numbers are abstract - really, what does $290 billion mean? - it is hard for people to be upset.