Okay, maybe that’s a little strong. But stay with me here, this is not an April Fools joke, honest.
Tax Day is coming up. I just filed my 2013 income tax return. And it got me thinking about taxes and federal and state budgets and stuff, and that I am privileged to live in this country, and that it costs money to be a great country, so here goes nothing.
The popular wisdom says that no one likes paying taxes. In fact, it would seem that everyone (over at Fox anyway) thinks that the gummint is stealing us all blind. We would all be better off (so they say) if the gummint took its hands out of our pants and gave us back all that hard-earned money. Just stopped taking, taking, taking, and started giving it all back. Wouldn’t we all be better off?
Well, actually we wouldn’t.
So, let’s start with what taxes we actually paid
I am going to use 2010 as an example, since those numbers are pretty easy to find – and I will assume I was an average family of 4 people living in a blue state (California), which I actually was. It’s easy to break out similar numbers for other states or family situations. If you want to see the numbers in more detail, all federal numbers come from this document and the state numbers come from here.
In 2010, the federal budget was $3.46 trillion. According to Wikipedia, there were 308,745,538 people in the US in 2010, so that means the federal budget represented $11,500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. That’s how much it cost to keep the country running for one year, and someone had to pay for it, and we did, for the most part. OK, we borrowed some of it (the deficit part, more in a sec), but we did pay a big chunk of it.
And that’s just the federal government. In California, our state budget was $120 billion in 2010. There were 37,253,956 Californians in 2010, so the state spent $3220 for every person in the state. That’s what it cost to support the state government in 2010. And again, we paid most of it.
My average household had 4 members in 2010. So putting these numbers together, it would seem that the typical family of 4 in California personally ponied up $58,900 to support the federal and state governments. Sounds pretty outrageous, doesn’t it? Are you stomping your feet yet, complaining about how expensive our damn gummint is?
Well, I actually don’t remember writing a check to the government for $58,900 in 2010, I’m pretty sure I would have noticed, so let’s take a closer at how those funds break out.
The federal government took in $899B in personal income tax receipts in 2010 or $2900 per person. The state of California took in $49.6B, which boils down to $1330 per person. So a typical family of four paid $17,000 in federal and CA income tax (if you lived somewhere else, your rate was different, probably smaller, but the numbers are pretty easy to check).
A lot of the federal and state revenues are from corporate income taxes. The 2010 federal budget shows income from corporate taxes of $191B, or $620 per capita. In CA, the state took in $8.8B or $235 per capita from corporate taxes. Of course, as Americans and Californians, we paid those taxes as well. Contrary to what Mitt Romney tried to convince us, those corporate taxes came from corporate profits, which came about because those corporations were successful in selling their products to their customers, the American consumers – us. So yeah, we paid those taxes too, buried in the prices we paid for our purchases throughout the year.
The feds also collected $812B in Social Security and Medicare taxes in 2010, or about $2630 per person. In addition, CA took in $32.1B in sales tax, or $860 per person. And there were lots of other smaller fees and taxes (estate taxes, taxes on gasoline, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.) that contributed to the totals.
So, why did we need to borrow all that money?
OK, so the federal and state governments didn’t actually raise as much money as they spent. The federal deficit was $1.3 trillion that year, or $4200 per person. And the CA deficit was about $6.3B, representing $170 per person. So as is the wont of politicians everywhere, they spent more than they were willing to raise by taxing their constituents, reducing the amount we actually paid by $17,500 for my average family of four, bringing our family’s total tax payment (federal and state) to $41,400.
So that's $41,400 in state and federal taxes for a typical California family in 2010. If you paid more than that amount, congratulations, you were very well compensated in 2010, your mother must be proud. If you paid less, congratulations again – all the benefits of life in these United States were subsidized for you by the rest of us.
So, what did we get in return?
So what did I get in return for paying all this tax money, and why am I so happy to have provided it? Well, I am very proud to say that my taxes went to support all the following.
I helped pay for construction and maintenance of the infrastructure (roads, bridges, airports, train stations) that provided the means of transportation for 100 percent of the nation’s products and people. Yes, I am proud to provide that support, even though much of that infrastructure is now aging and damaged, so clearly more is needed.
I helped pay for the public school teachers who provided my kids with an outstanding education and helped them get into very good colleges, for which I will always be grateful. And yes, I recognize that my kids had opportunities that many public schools can't offer, so I understand that more, not less, needs to be done.
I helped pay for the fire fighters who controlled the brush fires that threatened homes in California, and who worked daily to keep people safe in every town in America.
I paid for the police officers and courts who maintained a lawful and orderly society for the rest of us. And yes, I am grateful, even though I was once or twice on the receiving end of their blind administration of that justice.
I helped pay for the National Park service and for maintaining the spectacular wilderness areas that I love to hike and camp in.
I helped send Social Security checks to millions of elderly and disabled Americans, and I helped pay their medical bills and prescription costs as well, as I fully expect the next generation will do for me should I need a little help someday.
I helped pay the men and women who made up our armed services, and who so honorably carried out their mission to protect and serve the rest of us. Yes, I am proud to have provided that support, and will gladly work to pay for their support after they leave the service, even though I may not agree with the politicians who so frequently sent them on such horribly misguided missions.
I paid to build and launch the very costly GPS satellites that fly over us every day and make a real contribution to our ability to navigate this planet safely and comfortably.
I paid to support all the 503(c) organizations like the Metropolitan Opera, LA County Museum of Art, NEA, NPR, and Planned Parenthood, either through direct grants, or by paying more in taxes so that they didn’t have to.
I am especially proud that I helped pay to support the unemployed factory workers, the chronically ill and disabled Americans, the wounded veterans, and the many other people fallen on hard times, who might not otherwise have been able to put food on their tables for their families.
Not to mention the libraries, parks, airport security, marriage and death certificates, passport services, foreign service employees, university research programs, and all the sundry other services that our federal and state governments routinely provided that made America and the world a safer, more comfortable, and yeah, a better place.
Of course I also helped pay to service the debt that was incurred by my and my parents’ generations, and is likely to need servicing long into the foreseeable future. I take pride as well as a personal responsibility for helping to pay down that debt.
And yes, I helped pay for the new health care law that now provides subsidized health insurance to people who cannot otherwise afford it (well maybe I didn’t in 2010, but I am proud to be providing it now). [Note: I have just learned that the ACA subsidies were funded by a special tax on those citizens with AGI over $250,000, so I guess I didn't help fund those subsidies, but I would have been proud if I had - and if YOU did, congratulations, your mother must be REALLY proud.]
A Republican friend once challenged my patriotism based on my political views, which is silly on its face but consistent in the Republican mind. I told him that not only do I consider the USA to be the greatest country in the world, but unlike him, I am willing to pay what it costs to keep it that way.
Does that mean that I think tax money has never been wasted, or that costly mistakes have never been made? Of course not - if I ran the country, a lot of our tax money would be spent differently, but then there would be people who would legitimately disagree with my choices (even though they would be wrong). I totally agree that there is not enough accountability to justify all our government spending, and that programs that waste our money should be cut. But I certainly disagree with the Republicans about which programs those are and what criteria we should use to decide.
Seriously, if it weren’t for the taxes we pay, and the government services we receive in return, there would be nothing worthwhile in this country to spend the rest of our income on. I am always surprised when people don't get that. So even if you don’t like paying taxes, maybe you should lighten up, take a deep breath, and be proud, I mean really proud, of the invaluable contribution you’ve just made to the American way of life.
Sat Apr 05, 2014 at 11:02 AM PT: Update: A lot of commenters have been focused on the abuse and misuse of our tax dollars for the many documentable excursions into actions that are not in the best interests of our citizens, whether influenced by money or stupidity or hubris or whatever. I have been letting the comments slide, but now I want to take a minute to clarify my diary.
Of course, I agree, our tax dollars are not always spent wisely - yes I agree that our military is too big, that money influences politics unduly, that wars have been fought to protect corporate interests, that our government has done a lot of reprehensible things, as so many of you have pointed out. Our policies are only as good as the politicians we elect. So my advice, again, is to suck it up, be thankful for the really outstanding accomplishments that our tax dollars do pay for, and fight like hell to get money out of politics, to put fairness back into the electoral process, and to find and elect the brightest and most progressive candidates that we can find. Sure we lose a lot of those battles, but we occasionally win a few too. I listed a few of the things that my tax dollars pay for that I am proud of - there are many more. Tax Day is hard enough, let's stay focused on the positive.