People are waging billion-dollar presidential campaigns, and I can check off a box to set aside $3 to "even the playing field"? How can that not be hilarious? In 2004, George Bush and John Kerry turned down my crummy $3 so they could bust the cap in spendthrift free-for-all primaries. Now Hillary Rodham Clinton's doing the same in the primary and general election, and Barack Obama may follow suit.
What if I did? What if we all did? What would the federal budget look like, what would our spending priorities be, if each of us voted not just for politicians but for the budget? Not a line-item veto but a line-item vote?
How would I spend those trillions? How would you? Throw it all into the defense budget? Cure an orphan disease? Buy every commuter a Segway?
The first time I heard about Joe Nobodies trying to micromanage the federal budget was during the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson paid for it in part with taxes, like raising the excise tax on telephones. (That tax was first levied to pay for — I love this — the Spanish-American War.) A group of Quakers in Claremont refused to pay, and an antiwar UCLA philosophy professor sued to get $4.92 — the Vietnam War's share — refunded from an August 1968 phone bill.
Before you decide how you'd spend the federal budget, get a feel for it. Don't get bogged down by billions and trillions. Look at the federal budget as a single dollar. What does the government lavish its quarters and dimes on, and what does it spend pennies on? The 74-year-old Tax Foundation breaks down the whole federal-budget dollar roughly like this:
Defense and homeland security, including the secret intelligence budget: about 19 cents. Social Security: about 21 cents. Medicare/Medicaid/health: about 23 cents. Income security (unemployment programs; programs for the aged, blind, disabled; school lunches and such): about 15 cents. Non-defense discretionary spending, a grab-bag that includes space, technology, commerce and agriculture: about 12 cents. Interest on debt: 9 cents. Education, veterans services, transportation, the federal court system and sundry other programs, at a few pennies each, round off the dollar. And, according to several calculations, foreign aid: one penny. No kidding.
Keep in mind that like your monthly "nut" — mortgage, rent, car insurance and medical expenses — the federal government has a nut too. You can't by law do away with the 59 cents spent on Medicare, Social Security and income security. But that leaves you 41 cents for discretionary spending.
Lately, more than half of that — 21 cents — is going to military and homeland security. It dwarfs everything else. Maybe you think that's a bargain, with a war on. But the government is hiding most of the tab for the war on the federal credit card, the way you might buy a divorce-triggering, six-figure boat. About 90 cents of every dollar spent on this war (and we've spent about 400 billion of them) has been borrowed. We've barely been paying the monthly minimum due, and the balance just gets bigger.
So back to your fantasy federal tax dollar. This week, as you prep your real tax return, imagine that the government works like a grocery store, where you can spend that discretionary change only on the programs you want.
What appropriations are appropriate? Double foreign aid to 2 whole cents? More money for snazzy weapons systems? End tax breaks for families like the billionaire Wal-Mart Waltons to help out families like those "good night John-Boy" Waltons?
I'm still working on the numbers, but my definition of a sound defense is a smart, healthy, employed population. So I'd cut into defense fat — sayonara Halliburton — to pay down the debt, half of which is, dangerously in my book, held by foreigners.
I'd revive the environment; it's the only one we have — better water, air, habitat. Develop alternative energy, and fast. Try to get ahead of global warming — and give free swimming lessons to every American, just in case we can't.
What's your plan? E-mail me what your budget dollar would look like. Well before the Ides of April, we'll see what our fellow Americans think is worth spending their money on — and what isn't.