Death and Taxes, and a Boing Boing story


Jess Bachman creates very large posters that graphically display exactly where American tax dollars go. When you're dealing with sets of information this massive and abstract, presenting that data in a way someone can make their way through without feeling overwhelmed is a big design challenge, and Jess nailed it.

I first blogged these posters in 2006, and he recently wrote in to let us know there's a new 2009 edition out. If you'd like to order a poster, Jess kindly offers a buy-one-get-one-free special for BB readers: "enter BOING when you have two posters in the cart and it takes the price of one off."

I'd say "whee, great!," but then I got all sad looking at where that 33ish% of my income goes -- a lot of war our kids can't eat, for starters. Then, I read the rest of Jess' email. I'm reprinting it here with permission. We don't receive stories like this every day here at Boing Boing, and when we do, they're very meaningful to us. Thank you, Jess.

Snip:

Many moons ago, actually 795 moons ago, you blogged about a poster called Death and Taxes which visualized the federal budget. Your post is here. I never thanked you for that, which is shameful, considering how much you have changed my life.

You see I created that poster in 2004 on a lark, never intending publicity or financial gain. You picked up on it two years later and the people loved it. I sold a bunch of prints and realized how important this information is, and how uninformed we are as citizens about our taxes. The boingboing post prompted me to create another poster for the year 2007.

That was such a big hit that I was able to quit my job working as an industrial sewing machine operator. As a full time (well, almost full time) budget poster maker, I was able to develop the 2008 version of the poster along with the website TheBudgetGraph.com which has had over 1/2 million visits. Sales from the poster now support me and my family, and I have sold thousands of posters to schools and concerned citizens, even 40 members of congress. I have been in magazines, art galleries, and national television. Last month I was on the Martha Stewart Show to talk about the poster and taxes, it was surreal.

So really, Xeni, it thanks to you, that I've taken this venture as far as I have.

The 2009 version is worlds apart from the 2006 version which may still linger in your neurons. There is so much more in the six square feet of paper this time. Over 500 line items of federal budget awesomeness. Increased accuracy and aesthetics as well. I am really trying to educate the populace on their investment in the government. Especially since the actual numbers differ so much from the rhetoric. Renewable energy spending cut 27% next year! This is important information, and responsible citizens need to know it. It's my experiment in DIY government over-site.

I hope you like the new version. Cheers and many a thank you,

Jess

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  1. I’d say “whee, great!,” but then I got all sad looking at where that 33ish% of my income goes — a lot of war our kids can’t eat, for starters.

    Interesting method of testing the morality of government confiscation of assets… the inedibility test. I’d posit that the morality of confiscated assets in general is highly questionable, and that undeclared warfare spending is no less moral than welfare spending in that neither is authorized by our constitution and neither is within the purview of the government of a free nation.

    In other words, the poster could consist solely of “food for starving children” and it would still be immoral.

  2. I bought the poster for 2007 based on the boing boing article, and though it was expensive it was worth every penny. It was certainly much more cost-effective than the U.S. budget!

    As a documentation guy myself, I really appreciate the thought that has gone into the organization and presentation of this information.

    Only 40 members of Congress have this? EVERY Congresscritter and Senator should be required to have this poster.

    This is an important example of what just one guy can do to help improve the world.

  3. @#2

    It’s only immoral if you have a really bizarre moral compass. The redistribution of wealth in a market economy is globally beneficial. It increases human capital, and increases the productive potential and innovation of all workers in the economy. Market economies have a tendency towards the focusing of wealth (see Pareto efficiency and the Gambler’s Ruin). There is a lot of empirical evidence to justify this fact. Look at the redistribution of wealth in the GI bill that increased human capital in the US and look at the New Deal for examples of massive increases in the quality of life in the US and total productive capacity.

    My moral compass works differently than yours. That is, I don’t presuppose that redistribution is inherently immoral. I instead look at the global effects of such distribution and the principle of exchange. The principle of exchange says that if you exchange positions with someone financially, you won’t want to kill yourself. Nobody should start, or be left in a position where there capacity to find a livelihood is permanently crippled. The subsidy of history (legacy such as the Bush’s family legacy) is totally not meritocratic even if you believed market economies to be so (which I don’t, but this is something you best explicate if you are going to propose the ethical system which you have given).

    Egalitarian ethics have the benefit of both being more humane and being more efficient. I’m personally a bit tired of this “free-market” ethics bent that people have. You’d best explain why anyone should have a moral compass defined strictly in economic terms and why this would actually be desirable. I think it’s been empirically demonstrated to be terrible.

  4. Great story and great poster! As a graphic designer and a United States tax payer all I can say is, “why didn’t I think of this?!” Of course I’m not sure I would be able to execute it quite as beautifully. Looks like I’m about to place an order.

  5. I should also thank Boingboing – as a result of their link to Tried To Rock, I submitted there, and got picked up by a radio station in Seattle. As a result, I got a 20-minute segment interview, and chunks of two of my songs played!
    Thanks boingboing!

  6. It’s a fine poster, but do they have an edition that includes non-discretionary spending? From a quick look, seems not to include SSA, Medicare, Medicaid and the like. Not to mention interest payments.

  7. @ #10 Bevatron,

    The entire 3 trillion dollar affair is depicted in the bottom right, not to scale with the rest of the poster. It’s all in there, with receipts as well.

  8. If only there were a hypertext version of this that let you drill down.

    One minor positive thing I can see here is that spending on bogus “war on drugs” initiatives seems to be going down.

  9. Xeni – Thanks for sharing Jess’ success!

    Jess – Thanks for sharing the brilliance!

  10. @5

    Well said; I would like to note, though, that I understand (and even share some of) #2’s resentment of large scale income redistribution.

    While I agree that wise application of the proceeds of taxation can provide provide benefits far beyond the cost of investment, much income redistribution takes the form of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle giving things to their cronies or constituents with the goal of increasing their own political power. For every success story like the GI Bill, there’s a dozen no-bid contracts for airplanes that don’t fly, or highways from nowhere to nowhere, or subsidies for industries whose time is past.

    While I certainly can’t agree that income redistribution is inherently immoral, especially since the ability to do so is the very foundation of government, the power to take from some and give to others is ripe for abuse, and shouldn’t be given lightly.

  11. the traffic must be overwhelming…the sites and the mirror is down :(. i’m def. going to buy one.

  12. I really feel for the plight of #2 Mark Jaquith.

    It is quite unfair for him to have to endure the continuing immoral treatment of assets within the United States.

    Assuming he is currently suffering in the US as a US citizen, the only morally pure thing for him to do is give up his US citizenship immediately, convert all of his US-based assets to gold (the preferred non-fiat-dollar standard) and transport both himself and his gold to any place outside of the immoral US he prefers as soon as the natural laws of physics allow.

    As he drags his gold out of the US a morally consistent upright independent individual like himself cannot possibly use the public roads or lands (confiscated by immoral eminent domain), fly by plane (subject to the FAA’s immoral regulation of air traffic), have police protection against attack and theft (paid for by immoral confiscation of assets), use his cellphone (radio spectrum immorally regulated by the FCC) or landlines (immoral nonconsensual easements on private property) to communicate with others, eat uncontaminated food immorally regulated by the USDA or drink clean water from immoral public water monopolies.

    I look forward to reading his travelogue from his new libertarian utopia once he reaches it. I hope he includes some pictures – words alone surely could not adequately capture its splendor.

  13. @#16

    To be fair, Mr. Jacquith presumably has (I would hope, at least) no practical expectation of his perfect libertarian society ever existing anywhere. Rather, like an anthropologist friend of mine who holds hunter-gatherer societies as the pinnacle of cultural appropriateness to human biology, I think he imagines an alternate world that grew up that way rather than thinking ours could be transformed into it.

    Not that I’d be a big fan of privately-run, fee-structured police and fire protection, but I’d imagine the serious libertarians have thought all this parallel world stuff through.

  14. I love it when someone complains about wasting money in space. When I ask them to point to NASA and they have to spend a minute looking it illustrates the point well. They always seem to go to the left side first looking for a giant circle.

  15. You know, we did used to have fee-based fire birgdes up here in the Northeast, over a century ago. If you didn’t pay the fee, the firefighters wouldn’t put out your fires, even if they had to put out a fire in your neighbor’s house and saw your house burning. It also turned out that the people who didn’t sign up had a much larger number of fires… can you say racket, anyone?
    A single fire or police force for everyone based on taxation might or might not be the best policy from a kind of laissez-faire moral perspective, but the alternative has been tried, and it leads to abuse.

  16. #2, Wait, the opposite of war is welfare?

    Oh, you crazy kids! (shakes head in disbelief)

  17. My moral compass works differently than yours. That is, I don’t presuppose that redistribution is inherently immoral. I instead look at the global effects of such distribution and the principle of exchange.

    Fair enough — you’re a pragmatist. I’m not. Income redistribution requires that I be coerced (violently, ultimately) into turning over my assets for the benefit of others. I say that violent coercion is immoral, regardless of the distributed benefits.

    Wait, the opposite of war is welfare?

    No, they’re just two of the biggest government expenditures, one opposed by the Left, the other by the Right. Just showing that whatever the Right/Left issues of the day, both are in favor of a powerful government (despite the Right’s rhetorical objections, and despite the Left’s rhetorical embrace of civil liberties). Instead of complaining about the fact that 40-50% of your income goes to the government, you’re complaining about the way that money is allocated. If you have such strong feelings about how your money should be spent, why not keep it and exercise direct control over its use? Ah — because it’s not about how your money is spent — it’s about how everyone else’s money is spent. A society based on voluntary interaction would result in people not spending money on projects they didn’t want to fund!

    I think he imagines an alternate world that grew up that way rather than thinking ours could be transformed into it.

    That’s true. Having a society based on human rights (in practice, rather than theory) is a pipe dream — never mind a world based on human rights. Still, I’m not going to cede to the socialists and the fascists. We know that those types of societies are readily formed when people stop advocating for freedom and human rights. I’d rather live in a mixed economy than in an authoritarian one. If there were a better option, I’d have taken it already.

    While I certainly can’t agree that income redistribution is inherently immoral, especially since the ability to do so is the very foundation of government […]

    Not our government in the United States. According to the Declaration of Independence, the purpose of our government is to secure the inalienable (that is to say, inherently human) rights of individuals. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men […]” That’s the foundation of our government.

  18. Dude,

    The best citation that you can give is 232 years old? Get with the program. Humankind has moved on. Would you like to make do without roads, too?

  19. Bottom line: Economy is about what earth can grow, the drinking water, the air, the stones. Humans, plants and animals need things to survive and feel ok. I don’t mind anyone getting anything they want, as long as they don’t destroy the planet and deprive anyone else of the necessities. But let’s work out this food-air deal, ok?

  20. @ #16 posted by StumptownGeeky:

    Haha, that was good!!

    #22 posted by Mark Jaquith:

    Income redistribution requires that I be coerced (violently, ultimately) into turning over my assets for the benefit of others. I say that violent coercion is immoral, regardless of the distributed benefits.

    As far as the U.S. goes, please just go ahead and explain what specific form(s) of governance would best work out things such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc. for a nation such as ours? I don’t think you honestly are trying to say you want to cut funding outright for helping the poor, etc. – instead, I think you are saying that basically churches and shit should voluntarily take care of it as some conservatives have pushed for?

    That’s getting into bad territory with me. That church idea has failed in practice (which is sad on many levels). And it failed like their ludicrous idea of using school vouchers instead of properly funding all schools equally regardless of the neighborhood’s economic class with federal money. Then again, a dumbed down population sure doesn’t cause as much commotion, do they?

    “To educate a man is to unfit him to be a slave.”Frederick Douglass

    A society based on voluntary interaction would result in people not spending money on projects they didn’t want to fund!

    That would be nice. The only realistic way we’ll ever get closer to something like that is through true campaign finance reform and far more transparency between the American people and the government. At this point in history, the government and the people need to become more synonymous with each other, not further apart. This would solve many problems including the overwhelming taxation without representation that we see in this country today (*cough* timeforrevolution *cough* …ahem, sorry.. just needed to clear my scratchy throat)…

    Having a society based on human rights (in practice, rather than theory) is a pipe dream — never mind a world based on human rights. Still, I’m not going to cede to the socialists and the fascists. We know that those types of societies are readily formed when people stop advocating for freedom and human rights. I’d rather live in a mixed economy than in an authoritarian one. If there were a better option, I’d have taken it already.

    To me, that’s getting nearer the best definition of an Anarchist I know of. An Anarchist doesn’t really believe that enough people are evolved enough in this day and age to live peacefully without some form of democratic government helping to keep the peace, etc.

    On the udder hand, an Anarchist does believe that we should all strive to reach that utopia of human evolution (where we all get along so well, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges).

    The best that could happen is that over the course of hundreds (or thousands) of years we actually do evolve to that point. Stranger things have happened on this planet. Or the worst that could happen is that we only strive to reach that goal and, in turn, we all get along better than we did in previous generations. Meaning, less government control is needed in the process and the pursuit of happiness is a high-speed, curve by curve chase.

    When you make a nice jump shot, you imagine making the shot first. right? If you miss, it’s better that it hits off the rim and bounces to your teammate than having it go flying into the stands because you didn’t focus enough and visualize success.

    Tiger Woods doesn’t imagine accidently whacking his ball into his caddy’s nuts just before he lands his great shots nicely onto the green. does he? Ok, I’m sort of channeling a John Lennon meets Dan Rather mix at this point, I’ll stop here.

  21. As far as the U.S. goes, please just go ahead and explain what specific form(s) of governance would best work out things such as infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc. for a nation such as ours?

    The market can solve these problems. Or it can decide they’re not worth solving. I’m not going to argue that market solutions are superior (though I think they often are) — the point is that market solutions are the ones that best protect human rights. There is no right to infrastructure, healthcare or education. Human rights are things that can’t be taken from you, not things you can demand be taken from someone else.

    To me, that’s getting nearer the best definition of an Anarchist I know of. An Anarchist doesn’t really believe that enough people are evolved enough in this day and age to live peacefully without some form of democratic government helping to keep the peace, etc.

    I’m not an Anarchist, I’m a Minarchist. Anarchy wouldn’t work. Government is needed for cases when one individual violates the rights of another individual (that is, they commit a crime). Without a government, how would these violations be punished? I think it would quickly devolve into vendettas and mob violence. Government is useful here because it can act as a designated agent of punishment for criminality.

    The best citation that you can give is 232 years old? Get with the program. Humankind has moved on.

    That’s refreshingly honest. At least you’re not pretending that America still stands for freedom and human rights.

  22. At least you’re not pretending that America still stands for freedom and human rights.

    You appear to have conflated human rights with selfishness. I condole you.

  23. #26 posted by Mark Jaquith:

    The market can solve these problems. Or it can decide they’re not worth solving. I’m not going to argue that market solutions are superior (though I think they often are) — the point is that market solutions are the ones that best protect human rights. There is no right to infrastructure, healthcare or education. Human rights are things that can’t be taken from you, not things you can demand be taken from someone else.

    The market would kill you and sell you for dog food if it made a buck. The market would pacify you by making you think you had choice and freedom, when really the only choice would be whether or not you’d be converted to wet or dry dog food… and, of course, the market would determine that as well.

    The market loves fodder that trusts it.

    The Market Loves You. ©

    Human rights are things that can’t be taken from you, not things you can demand be taken from someone else.

    Well, of course, unless the market demands it.

    I’m not an Anarchist, I’m a Minarchist. Anarchy wouldn’t work. Government is needed …

    Er, you didn’t really comprehend what I wrote. Anarchism (as I see it) is NOT demanding an immediate withdrawal of the government, that would be rediculous… it’s striving for an ideal scenario where we create an atmosphere where less government is… ah, forget it.. go back and read what I wrote again, this time slower.

    I’m a Minarchist.

    Right, to the tee… to the tee… you even seem to try to formulate arguments straight from the Minarchist handbook. Doesn’t suit well with “out of the box” thinking though. (i.e., you don’t seem to know how to handle the varied definition of anarchism I posited)

  24. The market would kill you and sell you for dog food if it made a buck. True, but only if the NPV of the rest your life’s work was worth less than a dollar. Otherwise, to the salt mines with you to pay for your iPod!

  25. Wwell, opportunity cost. They’d sell you for a buck if your replacement was predicted to make them more money at your job than you may.

  26. Anyone order the buy-one-get-one and receive their posters? It’s been almost a month. No posters for me, no response to my emails.

    Sounds like Jess got overwhelmed by the exposure, but I’d be satisfied with a simple ‘Hey – we’re busy filling orders!’ note on the wallstats.com page.

  27. Ha. 3rd time’s a charm. Heard from Jess this morn and my posters are now on their way.

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