Kate Murphy reports on where your taxes really go; Adam Federman asks how green natural gas really is.


WHERE YOUR TAXES REALLY GO: As tax day passes, millions of Americans will send a check to the IRS, but few know the math that goes into this exchange. In a publication titled “Where Do Your Tax Dollars Go?” the National Priorities Project (NPP) illustrates just that. The organization, which seeks to make confusing federal budget information accessible, breaks down how each federal tax dollar was spent in fiscal year 2010.

Perhaps not surprisingly (to some at least), the military received the highest proportion of American taxpayer dollars in 2010. For every $1 paid in taxes, the military—which includes national defense and security, nuclear weapons–related activities of the Energy Department and international security assistance—received 27.4 cents, up from 26.5 cents in 2009. Health spending came in second, with 21.5 cents of every tax dollar going toward Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP and other health-related expenses.

As NPP points out, federal spending in 2010 in some ways reflected the impact of the recession. The average unemployment rate for 2010 was 9.6 percent; thus spending on programs like job training, disability, retirement and unemployment insurance, and Social Security increased from 8.5 cents of every tax dollar in 2009 to 10.9 cents in 2010.

NPP’s breakdown reveals that some government programs receive surprisingly little federal money: education receives just 3.5 cents of every tax dollar; environment, energy and science receives 3 cents; and transportation receives 2.2 cents.

Compare this with how Americans think their tax dollars are spent. According to a 2005 Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation poll, the majority of Americans believed the government spent more money on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare. In reality, international affairs, which includes foreign aid, receives just 1.2 cents of every tax dollar.

This warped vision of the budget, however, is reflected in the $38 billion in cuts proposed in the 2011 budget, which largely come from the social and foreign aid programs that receive the least federal money. Meanwhile, military spending—the largest slice of the federal pie—will see an additional $5 billion for fiscal year 2011.

Maybe if Americans knew just how their money was being spent they could shape future budget debates in a more rational direction. That’s why some policy groups are advocating just that idea. As even the centrist think tank Third Way put it in a recent report, “Consumers can easily see detailed information on every product they buy, but the largest item that they purchase in a given year—their taxes—they get nothing. They have a right to know what they are paying for.”   KATE MURPHY

WORSE THAN COAL? Natural gas has been given a big boost lately from policy-makers intent on fighting climate change and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil. But according to a study published in early April by a group of Cornell University scientists, it’s not quite the panacea many have claimed it to be. In fact, the study shows that the total greenhouse gas emissions from extracting gas from shale may exceed those of burning coal and oil. “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming,” the authors write.

Natural gas from deep shale formations has been touted as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. Despite the destructive effects of hydrofracking, natural gas proponents often point out that it still burns cleaner than other fossil fuels. That much is true, but if the methane leaks out of the wells before it can be captured, that undercuts the natural gas advantage. (Another study from the Post Carbon Institute, to be published in May, reaches similar conclusions.)

“If you add up the range of estimates and add up what that means in terms of total methane leakage and convert it to CO2 equivalents, the total greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas drilling ends up looking a little bit better than mountaintop removal mining but not hugely better,” says Robert W. Howarth, the study’s lead author.

Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas—seventy-two times more powerful than CO2 when measured over a twenty-year span. If anything, shale gas development is likely to accelerate the planet’s warming.

The findings come as domestic natural gas production is poised to expand dramatically. Congress is considering a bill that would offer tax incentives for converting trucks and commercial vehicles so that they run on compressed natural gas. President Obama has embraced the idea. The Energy Department estimates that domestic production of natural gas will increase 20 percent by 2035, much of it coming from shale formations.

“It seems to me you want to get the science as right as you can behind policy development before, as a nation, we just go out there and say this is salvation,” says Howarth.   ADAM FEDERMAN

SCHEER GENIUS! With a remarkable track record of writing in-your-face journalism for Ramparts, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and Truthdig, the web-based investigative news operation he co-founded for the purpose of “drilling beneath the headlines,” Robert Scheer undoubtedly deserves a lifetime achievement award or two. But not content to rest on his laurels, the 75-year-old writer continues to win praise for blowing the lid off the big stories of the moment.

In April, the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College gave its third annual Izzy Award—named for dissident journalist I.F. Stone—to Scheer, who shared the honor with the New York–based news and investigation magazine City Limits. The Izzy Award recognized Scheer’s outstanding achievement in independent media as the editor of Truthdig and the author of a powerful new book, The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).

That new book is the single best work on the guilty men and women who steered the country off the economic cliff to enrich themselves and their friends—and, as usual, Scheer refused to pull any punches in writing it. Izzy Stone would have been proud.   JOHN NICHOLS

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