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Something Has to Change

March 25, 2010

We all know statistics are manipulated by politicians, lobbyists, and pretty much anyone with an agenda, to suit their purpose.  It is one of the generally confusing aspects of arriving at a sense of the truth on where we stand as a nation.  To add to our perplexity, the numbers talked about are so large as to lose all relative meaning.  After all, who’s ever seen a trillion of anything?  For practical purposes, it’s just a number that’s much larger than a billion – another number beyond reasonable use for most of us.

What good is it to state the Department of Defense’s budget in 2007 (click here to see the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report) was $529 billion?  All we really know is that is a very big number.  Another way to look at the budget is by percentage, rather than by dollars spent.  That same $529 billion works out to be about 17% of the over all federal budget that year.  In looking at it this way, we can ask if 17% is a reasonable portion to apply to national defense.

In answering the portion question, many things come into play, things as current threat, perceived future threat, replacement of ships, tanks and aircraft, and what’s been done before.  Only what’s been done in the past is objective.  Focusing there gives a proper frame of reference over time.  Here is the Defense Department’s percentage every ten years since 1962, the year I was born, taken from the OMB’s 2009 report:

Year             Percentage

1962              46.9%
1972              33.7%
1982              24.2%
1992              20.7%
2002              16.5%
2012(est.)      16.8%

Currently, the Department of Defense takes up about a third as much of the budget compared to 1962.  Returning to that really large number, $529 billion, makes one question just where the other 83% and its huge number go.  Obviously, as the Department of Defense’s portion decreases, other department’s portions increase.

Conservatives are quick to point out that social programs make up the greatest portion of that change.  In fairness, here is the Social Security percentage for the same years:

Year             Percentage

1962              13.4%
1972              17.2%
1982              20.8%
1992              20.4%
2002              22.0%
2012(est.)      22.9%

Looking at it line by line does not tell the true story.  The federal budget has many related areas of spending that the public tends to group together.  To that end, the following graph groups the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Civil Defense as “defense”; while Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Social Security (on and off budget) are grouped as “social services.”  The grouping seems the obvious choice but is open to debate.

As the graph illustrates, the trend in social spending is increasing while defense is decreasing.  In other words, the conservatives make a valid point regarding percentage.  In reality, all portions other than social programs are either trending at the same level or decreasing slightly.  Currently, the social services take up 55% of the budget to defense’s 23%.  Together, they take almost 77% of the federal budget leaving only 23% for everything else.  A few examples of “everything else” are the Department of Justice, NASA, Department of Commerce, Treasury, State Department, and Department of Interior.  That is not even close to all of them.

Regardless of a person’s position on healthcare reform, the trend of social services to take a larger and larger portion of the federal budget must be addressed.  As important as healthcare is, so is having bridges that do not collapse.  In the end, along with healthcare reform, we need budget reform.  We need to attack waste in every program funded with federal money.  We need to stop Medicare fraud; we need to stop buying F-22 fighter planes the military does not want or need.

Using the F-22 as an example, congress added about $1.7 billion for seven fighters.  That is less than one-half of one percent of the defense budget but it is also one type of fighter, seems the same thing is happening with the C-17 transport planes.  Even with their declining percentage, there is still room to cut waste.

What about social services, does it really have Medicare fraud?  Of course it does.  Mark Potter of NBC News reported in December of 2007 (click here to read story) that Medicare fraud cost taxpayers $60 billion a year, or $181 for every U.S. citizen.  $60 billion is about 8% of the Social Security budget in total.  A simple solution would be take just one billion from Social Security and use it to hunt down the bastards stealing from us and put them in jail.  Even if only half the money were recovered, it would be well worth it.  Just removing the fraud would pay for an annual doctor’s visit for everyone.

Washington is getting serious about spending a huge amount of money on healthcare reform; we all know the huge amount spent on two wars.  Perhaps just as much effort needs to take place in ensuring tax dollars are not squandered.  While it is easy to support healthcare reform, the voices calling for restraint must be heard as well.  Rather than name calling, it is best to phrase it this way – those seeking healthcare reform are interested in our physical health as a nation; those for restraint are interested in our financial health.  Neither side is wrong and there is plenty of common ground to be found.  Only by seeking that common ground will we provide services we want at a cost we can afford.

Without denying the need for reform in areas of healthcare, cost is a valid concern.  Just as spending all of your paycheck on new tires for your car leaves you without groceries, spending all our tax dollars on healthcare leaves the other departments  without.  Prudence demands we use the money wisely.  One thing all of us should easily agree on is to stop waste, fraud, and abuse of our tax dollars.

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