Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government." Unfortunately, our government has become so complex that it's nearly impossible to become well-informed.
This is especially true when trying to discover exactly where our tax dollars come from and exactly where they get spent. Comprehensive facts are difficult to come by because because federal, state, and local taxes are levied and spent separately.
Furthermore, government at all three levels tends to be fragmented and complex, and thus difficult to "roll up." To make matters worse, some politicians fabricate "alternative facts" (i.e., lies) or manipulate statistics in a misleading way.
As a result, many if not most arguments about taxes and government spending devolve into fact-free opinion-fests. If Thomas Jefferson could hear what passes for political discussion among today's voters, he'd be turning over in his grave.
Fortunately, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, has done something really valuable: he created USAfacts.org, a database and website of where all our taxes (federal, state, and local) come from and exactly where that money is spent.
Ballmer hired a team of economists and experts who spent years trying to locate all the big data sources, compiled them into a meaningful database, and presented the result in a very easy-to-use website.
USAfacts.org is the ultimate weapon when you want to squash somebody who makes a political argument based upon alternative facts. Discussing the site in The New York Times, Ballmer illustrated how facts can devastate a fallacious political argument:
How many people work for government in the United States?" he asked, with the excitement of a child showing off a new toy, before displaying the answer. "Almost 24 million. Would you have guessed that?"
"Then people say, 'Those damn bureaucrats!'" Mr. Ballmer exclaimed, channeling the criticism that government is bloated and filled with waste, fraud, and abuse. "Well, let's look at that. People who work in schools, higher ed, public institutions of education -- they are government employees." And they represent almost half of the 24 million, his data shows.
"And you say, OK, what are the other big blocks?" Mr. Ballmer continued. "Well, active-duty military, war fighters. Government hospitals. Really? I didn't know that."
Suddenly, he explained, the faceless bureaucrats who are often pilloried as symbols of government waste start to look like the people in our neighborhood whom we're very glad to have.
"Now people might not think they're government employees, but your tax dollars are helping somehow to pay 24 million people -- and most of these people you like," Mr. Ballmer said.
As for taxes, Ballmer's website shows clearly that the country's much-maligned corporate taxes in fact are only a small percentage of tax revenue and the much-demonized deficit is in fact only a tiny slice of a very huge pie:
USAfacts.org allows you to drill down deeper to find more detail. For example, if you listen to some politicians, payments on the national debt are a juggernaut that will eventually crush the life out of the country's finances.
However, if you click on that category on USAfacts.com, you discover that debt payments are only 5.6 percent of total tax spending, and almost a quarter of that comes from state and local government.
While there are probably voters who are unable to absorb facts that are contrary to their opinions, I'm looking forward to seeing USAfacts.org transform political arguments about taxes and spending from bluster and BS into fact-based discussions.