My post-tax filing ritual has been the same for a decade: tears, surfing real estate websites for tidy three-bedroom, two-gun turret homes in lightly taxed Third World nations and telling my daughter the only way she's going to be able to afford college in even the school of hard knocks is if she administers her own knocks. Eventually, I pass out in a puddle of tears, Snickers wrappers and crumpled pages of "Felony Tax Evasion For Dummies."
I still did all that this weekend, after I'd filed, but then I pulled out of my funk, hopped back on the computer and indulged in my new post-tax hobby: following my money on its excellent adventure.
It's now possible to go to whitehouse.gov/2013-taxreceipt and find out exactly where the money you pay in federal income taxes ends up. Or almost exactly. It doesn't actually say "$4 to Lane Filler, 43, of Smithtown, who only manages to stay out of jail because he is literally too lazy to steal."
But the site tells you how much of your tax money goes to each part of the budget, in pretty good detail, once you fill out a couple of simple boxes explaining how much you paid.
Let's say you're in a two-worker family with gross earnings of $137,500 and, thanks to your deductions (other taxes, mortgage interest, the kids, the inflated and transparent $4,724 used clothing donation to Salvation Army), your earnings subject to federal taxes are $100,000. You would have paid $8,525 in Social Security tax, $1,993 in Medicare tax and $16,853 in federal tax.
Since it's clear where the Social Security and Medicare contributions (which are actually doubled because your employer also pays that same amount on your behalf) go, the White House calculator is concerned with where the $16,853 ends up.
While you've got the site set to show you just the basic categories, it's easy to get offended: "We paid $3,164 for 'Job and Family Security?' I don't even know what that is, but my boss was so mad at me last week he couldn't say my name without spit bubbling, and my daughter is dating a breakdancer who calls himself 'Terrytastic.' If this is job and family security, I want my $3,164 back."
But, and this is often the case with government spending, when you get down to specifics, you don't really want to get rid of anything. Do you want to cut the $104 you paid for child care, foster care and adoption support? How about the $869 for military and civilian disability and retirement, and $443 to provide veterans with income and housing support, not part of the defense budget?
It doesn't seem crazy to pay $134 for environmental protection, or even $150 for international development and humanitarian assistance. While I can argue against it, it's not much if it's helping to feed or vaccinate poor kids in Utter Povertania.
Health care spending, on the other hand, is outrageous. It includes $4,246 in federal taxes on this chart, plus the Medicare contributions, plus what we and our employers pay to provide ourselves with health insurance and care. We could easily be talking about $35,000 per year for this model family. One thing this site makes clear: Controlling health care spending dwarfs the other fiscal concerns of this nation.
There are places to cut. The $1,456 in debt interest is infuriating. The $4,179 in defense spending can and should be slashed by 75 percent.
But mostly, our government doesn't spend money doing things we don't want it to do. It just spends our money doing things we don't want to pay for.
It's not quite the same thing.