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Where the *%&# are my tax dollars going?!

If you're a US citizen you just paid your taxes, do you have any questions?

  • Who pays more in taxes, big companies or individuals?
  • Do we spend more on the military or interest on the national debt?
  • Do we spend more on the environment or space exploration?
  • Do we spend more on homeland security or education?
  • How much do we spend on border security?
  • How much does congress spend on the military?
  • How much do social security and medicare really cost?
  • How close to balanced is the budget?
  • What kinds of things can congress budget and what things do they not have authority to change?
  • What are all the sources of revenue for the government and how big are they compared to each other?
  • What does the government spend the most money on?

Maybe you would just like to see how the government of the largest economy in the world collects, budgets, and spends money $$$.

That's why I made this tool to graphically explore the US budget:The whole she-bang
 You can get an idea of how you can navigate the budget, debt, outlays, and revenue (taxes!) in this video (The one in the tl;dr link below is clearer)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.
tl;dr You can get any or all of the data, get access to the program, or support the project here.

Some History

I've always been fascinated by questions like these, and I've found misconceptions about how the government spends money to often be at the root of people's political views.  (i.e. "... well, if the government didn't spend all that money on _____ then _____..." kind of arguments).

TimePlots fantastic Death & Taxes posters used to be my go-to info-graphic to gain insights on spending and check assumptions, but they stopped making the posters in 2016.

After 3 years without a visual source of budget information in a time where the truth is more difficult to discern amid false claims and partial truths ricocheting through the echo chambers of the internet I thought I should try to find another way to visually explore the budget.

I found and downloaded the US budget data (from the real US government), but it's an opaque wall of numbers spanning decades in a hierarchy of agencies, bureaus, accounts, and sub-functions...
...then it hit me.  A budget is a budget, the same tools that let you visually explore how your computer hard disk space is being used can be used to explore the US budget!

The concept: A fiscal file system

I wrote a program to convert the complex US budget into a "fiscal file system" - Each agency has it's own folder,  which contains folders for each of it's bureaus, which contains folders for each bureau's accounts, which contain files for each line item of the budget.  Each of these budget files is full of dollar signs ("$") and each dollar sign represents one million dollars ($1,000,000).  So, the size of any folder will represent the size of that part of the budget in millions of dollars.
Fiscal file systems are created for each year of available data including:
  • The Budget  - What congress and the president approve to spend
  • Outlays - What is actually spent (you'd think it'd be the same as the budget but...)
  • Receipts - Money collected by the government (including your taxes)
  • and one file representing the national debt
This sounds more complicated than it really is, let's have a look...


Overview Overview
This is a simple overview containing only 3 files where you can see the part of the 2019 budget paid by revenue (blue, 59.6%, $3.3 Trillion), the part offset by credits (red, 20.4% $1.1 Trillion), and the deficit (green, 20% $1.1 Trillion) .  The deficit is money the government spends not covered by revenue, in general terms it contributes to the growth of the national debt.


The Budget The Budget
Here is the budget.  Each box is a line item in the budget and it's size is representative of it's cost or proportion to the overall budget.
  • The blue boxes are mandatory spending, that is spending that congress cannot change in the budget (largely social programs including Social Security and Medicare)
  • The red boxes are discretionary spending, that is what congress and the president control (lots of the military, many of the governmental agencies like the EPA and NASA)
  • The green boxes are interest payments on debt
You may notice that there are boxes in boxes in boxes - those are the items, in the accounts in the bureaus, in the agencies described earlier, and you can click anywhere to automatically tunnel into the budget.
That is what makes exploring the budget so incredibly easy!

For example, NASA's entire $19.1 billion budget is highlighted in the white box near the middle.  In that box are 29 bureaus including Science, Deep Space Exploration, Space Flight Operations, Aeronautics..., and in each bureau there are individual budget items, 61 in all.  You can click anywhere to look at where the money is budgeted or spent (click on the boxes or explore the tree view at the top).  Even just moving your mouse over the boxes shows which budget item it is over at the bottom of the screen.

Discretionary budgetDiscretionary Budget
I've copied mandatory and discretionary spending out into their own folders to make them easier to evaluate independently.  This is discretionary spending (what congress and the president control), I've highlighted the largest item, spoiler alert, it's military spending at 55% of the discretionary budget, $670 billion, but that is only 12% of the overall budget (mandatory and discretionary combined).    This does not include Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, etc.  These insights have really helped me form a more complete perspective especially when faced with manipulated or partial statistics found in sound-bytes and tweets.  I find military spending interestingly conspicuous because each of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines have separate budget items in each of the bureaus which makes it look like collections of four similar sized boxes over and over.  (Where do you think funds are allocated for"Space force"?)


Revenue Revenue
Let's look at the other side of the fiscal situation - revenue! in "Internal Revenue Service"
Here you can see that all revenue combined is $3.3 trillion, and that the corporate income tax (highlighted at the bottom left) only accounts for 6.6% of that, $220.1 billion.  Individual taxpayers paid 49.2% of all the revenue but that's not all because that's just federal income tax, if you include social security it's closer to 85%.

The big picture 

Whether you feel any of this feels fair or not, that's up to you.  I'm not trying to tell you what to think. I am trying to make the budget, which all US taxpayers fund and is interesting on so many levels, more accessible to more people so they may educate themselves and elect officials who will better represent them wherever possible. 

   ...or at least allow people to engage in more truthful informed conversations at holidays, cocktail parties, and barbecues!

This was a lot of work, which is why I started a Kickstarter:

The whole she-bang

The whole she-bang
Here is everything in a typical fiscal file system for any given year between 1977 and 2022.
(2019 pictured here)
  • On the left side is the budget including a combined view, separate mandatory, discretionary, and interest on the debt views, receipts (revenue), and a simple overview. 
  • In the middle is the national debt $21 trillion at the end of 2018
  • On the right are outlays, it's the same type of view as the budget except all the values are the amounts that were actually spent (You'd think they'd match the budget but...).
I've created these views for 45 years, 1977 to 2022; every year of the last 11 presidencies and up to the planned 2022 budget. (It's all done, there is no crowdfunding risk of it not getting done)
  • 2017-2022 Donald Trump (R)
    (contains future data where not all of the outlays and revenue data is available)
  • 2013-2017 Barack Obama (D)
  • 2009-2013 Barack Obama (D)
  • 2005-2009 George W. Bush (R)
  • 2001-2005 George W. Bush (R)
  • 1997-2001 Bill Clinton (D)
    (Only term available when budget was balanced, previous president to have a surplus was Lyndon B Johnson in 1969!)
  • 1993-1997 Bill Clinton (D)
  • 1989-1993 George H. W. Bush (R)
  • 1985-1989 Ronald Regan (R)
  • 1981-1985 Ronald Regan (R)
  • 1977-1981 Jimmy Carter (D)
So many years, so many presidencies, you can see the growth of the debt, the impact of Democratic or Republican control, wars, and so much more.
Another cool thing about the Fiscal File Systems is they can be insanely compressed:  2019 was zipped from 64MB to 14KB  >4500:1 or 0.022% of original size.  

Side bar: WinDirStat

WinDirStat on Windows is simply the BEST hard disk usage tool I have ever used and it is completely FREE!!!  (Technically WinDirStat is Open Source software, you can redistribute and/or modify  it under the terms of the GNU Public License, version 2 (GPLv2)).  Even if you don't support my project, you really should go get WinDirStat, seriously, now:


I'm so happy with the simple and easily accessible results that I feel I need to share them, I want to enable everyone in the US to better understand where their elected officials are spending their money.

There were many challenges:
  • Gathering budget, outlays, revenue, and debt data from multiple sources
  • Visualizing positive and negative budget items
  • Visualizing items on and off the budget, as well as discretionary and mandatory spending
  • Generating and testing over 2 billion files for 45 years of data
  • Path name limitations in the file system - Windows has a maximum path length of 260 characters that required a lot of text manipulation to fit
  • Linux `du` tool does not report accurate --apparent-size byte values for directories and all the disk tools I looked at seemed to do the same which sadly prevents this from being used in Linux (unless any of you want to help out and extend KDirStat to optionally report zero rather than device block size for directories and accurate size for files with "holes")
  • I can be lazy at times ;-)
Personally, this is a fun project and it is ongoing.  I'll probably keep adding little bits to it into the future to include more data and gain more insights.

Thanks for tuning in, I hope you found it interesting.  Whether you want to better understand the government, or explain why your candidate or party is better (or how the other is flawed) , if you suspect the government is cheating you, or if you would just like to poke around, you can get any or all of the data or access to the program here 😉.


D. Scott Williamson


Previous interesting projects:

Star Castle 2600:
D. Scott Williamson Expert:
   (Response to "The Expert":