Dear U.S. Government,
I have a good idea. But I want to tell you a story first.
My writing students are currently working on papers involving some aspect of federal spending. This morning, I them each to find a passage in their rough drafts where they use a number to make a point. After all, it's easier to talk about spending if you know how much is being spent.
One of my students quoted the Congressional Budget Office as saying that Healthcare Reform will likely have a net cost of $230 billion over the next six years. Because I'd already pointed out that billions are hard for people to process, he also expained that this is so much money that even if we paid a dollar every second, it would take 31 years (and some months, days, and seconds which I have since forgotten) to pay off.
"Wow," I said. "That does sound expensive. But the government doesn't actually pay its bills with a dollar-per-second machine. And I personally have never spent money that fast. How much would that be per year if we split the bill evenly among all Americans? Can anyone take a guess?"
After a moment, one student raised her hand. "I think it would be somewhere around $50,000," she said.
"Ai ai ai," said I. "Since $50,000 is about what the average American makes in a year, I would definitely be against a program that costs so much."
So we did the calculations. $230 billion divided by 300 million is about $770. That's the cost per person over the next six years. Which is actually about $130 per person per year. Or $520 per year for a family of four, if you prefer to think that way.
Now, obviously $130 is not what the average person actually will pay. That figure will vary a great deal based on income and write-offs and a host of other factors. But as an estimate, it's certainly a far cry from $50,000 per person per year. And a lot more easy to imagine than $230 billion by 2019.
What's worth $230 billion over the remainder of the decade? I feel completely unqualified to answer that question. What's worth $130 a year? I feel far more comfortable weighing in on that.
So here's my idea: why not send everyone a tax receipt each year with a nice little chart explaining where all their money went? I would love to know exactly how much of my own money went to the military. To NASA. To food stamps. To college loans. You could even set up a website where I can enter the amount of federal tax I paid and then click around to find out how much of my money went to the museum assessment program or to bridges in Alaska.
I just think we'd have more informed political discussions if we talked in pennies to thousands of dollars per person, not in millions to trillions for the country as a whole.
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