Vail Daily column: Testimony for taxpayers |

Vail Daily column: Testimony for taxpayers

Vince Emmer
Valley voices

It’s April 15. Do you know what your tax money is doing? Public expenditures are a big chunk of people’s lives. Government spent $47,568 per family last year, according to numbers buried in the bowels of the bureaucracy.

Contrast that with the typical income for a family of four — roughly $75,000. Taxes are extracted in ways in which people are not even conscious.

Unquestionably, some public spending has a solid claim to being “the price of civilization.” Many warm-hearted, dedicated people toil for government, trying their very best against imposing obstacles.

Yet if government clearly disclosed what it charges, citizens might insist that all spending have an undeniably high priority public purpose, efficiently pursued, with dispatch and measurable goals.

Peter Orszag, Obama’s brainy, pragmatic first director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Jim Nussel write, “Astonishingly, based on our estimate, less than one dollar out of every hundred dollars the federal government spends is backed by even the most basic evidence (that the money is spent effectively).”

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The budget wonks continue: “Since 1990, the federal government has rigorously tested 10 large social programs. Of the 10 programs … nine showed weak or no positive effects on their participants”.

Programs with problems mar the public sector like mortar craters at A-Basin after a big snow. They are hard to miss unless one’s goggles are fogged.

Sponsors of spending would have stronger cases if third parties could honestly report programs were successful and efficient.

Government’s most expensive cluster of programs is subsidies for seniors: Social Security, Medicare, big doses of Medicaid and Colorado’s PERA, too.

Their financial structure harks back to the days of Laurel and Hardy. It’s financial slapstick; middle-aged characters repeatedly kick the shins, poke the eyes and pick the pockets of naive juveniles.

The show’s immensely popular theme — that yesterday should take from tomorrow — is thought by many economists to be responsible for the rich world’s dimming future. Retirement security can be done much cheaper and much more safely. But it is not.

Nor has government figured out how to advance the poor. MacArthur Foundation Genius Maurice Lim Miller reports that when Jerry Brown was mayor of off-the-fairway Oakland, Brown challenged him, “Aren’t you guys just pimping poverty?”

Brown wanted a program that actually helped the poor. To his great credit, Lim candidly answered that he had no solutions at hand.

Public education is another program with problems. Political leadership and associated commercial interests have resisted widespread complaints about choice, quality and cost for a generation. Meanwhile boards, administrators and especially teachers are yoked to the same oaken-spoked organizations of a half century ago.

Teachers could invigorate student achievement and attract more money if they were supported by flexible, lightweight organizations with customer-responsive steering and, as Bill Gates once suggested, modern personnel management. Architects and actuaries don’t spend hours standing over copy machines. Teachers do.

Obamacare began as an honorable attempt to fix the grossly expensive health care industry. The effort ended with the system’s worst feature — costs four times higher than the best national system — purposefully embroidered into the law.

According to two separate books by Obamacare supporters Ron Suskind (“Confidence Men”) and Steven Brill (“America’s Bitter Pill”), hospitals, big pharmaceutical, device makers and insurers saw their sugar daddy threatened and declared there would be consequences. The docs, not so much.

The pols whimpered, then caved. An ungenerous yet unavoidable interpretation is that the administration sacrificed the common good — lower health care costs — to lengthen its own time in power. Nor has the other side shown backbone on this.

If money spent on drug abuse has no impact, can citizens get their money back? Do colleges guarantee customer value? When a light rail project runs two times over budget, does the authority in charge absorb the loss?

Impossible. How silly. That alone highlights the stark contrast of power between those who govern and those who are governed.

Government’s most trivial expense is more important than your family’s most critical need. If you save for your children’s college instead of paying an agency for its latest botched IT project, you will have to adapt to a new look in that fashionable orange jumpsuit.

Democracy is not an on/off switch. Putin’s Russia shows us that democracy comes in gradations. Ours could be upgraded, too, right here in Eagle County.

It’s April 15. Bow your head. Observe a moment of silence for the misspent money. Then dare to dream. Imagine ordinary families with a large portion of that annual $47,568 that is spent on their behalf but without their consent, added to their savings instead. It would make Thomas Jefferson grin.

Vince Emmer is a financial analyst in Gypsum. Email him at

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