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  Geotimes - April 2007 - Geologic Column
GEOLOGIC COLUMN

Taxpayer’s Regret
Fred Schwab

Preparing this year’s taxes, I recalled a mock two-line tax form. The first line asked: “How much did you make this past year?” The second line commanded: “Send it in.” I examined the proposed 2007 federal budget of close to $3 trillion to see where my tax dollars might go. Although the government actually receives just 44 percent of revenues from individual income taxes (an additional 37 percent is from Social Security and retirement taxes), I recalculated the budgetary total on a per capita basis, as if everything was derived directly from each citizen.

From my calculations, it looks like Uncle Sam receives almost $10,000 annually from each of us. I want him to spend my money differently.

The 2007 budget allocates less than the cost of a pack of gum — just 20 cents of each person’s $10,000 ($60 million) — for fusion energy technology. Another paltry 20 cents supports Nuclear Power 2010, the program designed to make it feasible to build new domestic nuclear power plants for the first time in three decades. Project FutureGen, a project to design the next generation of electrical power plants fueled by coal with near-zero atmospheric emissions, also got 20 cents. Funds supporting alternate energy sources — albeit almost double those for 2006 — include 50 cents for the Solar America Initiative (photovoltaic cells and concentrated solar power systems) and another 50 cents for the BioFuels Initiative. We ought to be able to do more.

These geologically relevant disbursements are a pittance compared with other costs, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For 2007, Congress has already approved spending $230 per person ($70 billion) for the wars. And the Bush administration has proposed an additional $425 to $525 per person ($127 billion to $160 billion), with another $40 per person for the recent “surge.” Overall since 2001, Congress has approved about $1,700 per person (about $500 billion) for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terror.

This would bring the total cost of the war on terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) to more than that of the Vietnam War, which was $536 billion (adjusted) according to articles appearing Nov. 17, 18 and 19, 2006, in USA Today. World War II is the costliest modern conflict ($3.6 trillion in 2006 dollars), but recent estimates suggest that the eventual cost of the Iraq conflict will be $1 trillion to $2 trillion: That’s $3,000 to $6,000 per U.S. citizen.

Science disbursements in the proposed 2007 budget do not compare too favorably with other ways Americans earn and spend money. The budgets for the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — $6 billion, $16 billion and $7 billion, respectively — total almost $30 billion, or $100 per person, roughly the cost of a small iPod.

Uncle Sam spends 62 percent, or $5,800, of our $10,000 total expenditure each year on mandatory programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt. Discretionary spending then makes up the rest of the expenditures. Such expenses range from national defense (19 percent of budget, or $1,900 per person per year) and homeland security (1.3 percent, or $130) down to NSF (0.2 percent, or less than $20 per person), NASA (0.6 percent or $60), EPA (0.3 percent, or $30) the Department of Energy (0.9 percent, or $90) and the Department of the Interior, which includes the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service, (0.4 percent, or $40). On a per capita basis, the entire Interior Department budget is less than the cost of dinner out in Washington, D.C., or a kid’s one-day pass to Disneyworld.

By contrast, we Americans annually spend $15 billion of our own “discretionary” money for cosmetic surgery (a $50 “procedure” for each of us), $5 billion for Halloween goodies (costumes, candy, decorations, cards), and (sorry, Mom) an astounding $13.8 billion for Mother’s Day and $13.7 billion for Valentine’s Day, according to an article in the Oct. 19, 2006, Washington Post. And we spend about $6,000 per person on healthcare costs each year (outside of what the government spends for us) — $1.8 trillion in total, which is 2.5 times the industrialized world’s median.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measures the size of an economy. It is the market value of all goods and services bought for final use during a period of time (typically one year). In 2006, the per capita national GDP was about $43,500 for the United States. By contrast, the 2006 per capita GDP was about $30,100 for France, $7,600 for China, $1,900 for Iraq, and $800 for Afghanistan. The 2006 U.S. budget of $2.7 trillion was roughly 20 percent of our GDP, and our GDP is close to one-fourth of the world’s.

Examining the budget on a per capita basis is sobering. Given our share of the global financial pie, can’t we spend dollars more sensibly, for example, by increasing funding for science and education? We could even splurge, and for just $2 each, treat the world’s children to immunization from measles (350,000 deaths annually), whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria.

Whether Uncle Sam is shrewd or a spendthrift is our business, because ultimately it’s our money. We leave real estate offices, automobile dealerships, and our kids’ university business offices with “buyer’s remorse.” This April, I’m suffering taxpayers’ regret!


Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. E-mail: schwabf@wlu.edu.

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