Seeing Is Believing
Budget graphic offers a new way to understand agency funding.
Jess Bachman was working at an Urban Outfitters store in Burlington, Vt., in 2004 when inspiration struck. There must be a way to visualize the federal bud-get, he thought. It might seem an odd idea for a man working in retail. But Bachman, a 26-year-old University of Massachusetts graduate, says, "I tend to deconstruct information, whether it comes from a company or the U.S. government."
He put his graphic design background to work. What came out more than a year of late nights later is Death and Taxes: A Visual Guide to Where Your Federal Taxes Go, a graphic representation of the entire federal discretionary budget. "It's an experiment in do-it-yourself oversight," Bachman says.
It's also a massively complex image. A black background is webbed with interconnected circles, each representing a government agency or program. Circle size depicts each organization's portion of the discretionary budget. Military spending is on the left and nonmilitary spending is on the right.
Interesting comparisons easily jump out. Sprouting from the National Institutes of Health circle are two smaller circles. The National Institute of Mental Health takes in more than $1.4 billion in the president's 2008 budget proposal, while its sister agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases receives almost triple that: $4.6 billion. The Transportation Department's circle dwarfs the State Department's. Much of Transportation's budget goes into highway projects. Both are minuscule compared with the Army, Air Force or Navy circles.
Within the Executive Office of the President, the Office of Management and Budget is given $710 million, but a separate $1 billion goes toward unanticipated needs. Bachman's research showed that money went to Iraq reconstruction. "What's that doing in the White House?" Bachman says. "It's a little weird."
The EOP's unanticipated needs are just one budget trick Bachman discovered in his years of research. "There are ways to tax people without actually making it a tax," he says. One of his favorite examples is the Federal Communications Commission, which appears on the poster as a tiny circle with $420 million in appropriations. "In the FCC there's this $6 billion thing called the universal service fund," Bachman says, "[which makes] sure everyone has communications access, particularly in rural areas. It's a huge fund, a lot bigger than the FCC itself. The government pays for it by making the companies that provide the service do it for free." Telecom companies in turn often pass this expense on to consumers.
Death and Taxes, which Bachman updates each year and sells through his Web site, thebudgetgraph.com, also illustrates which agencies are the biggest losers and winners year to year. The Housing and Urban Development Department lost 23 percent in funding for housing for the elderly in one year. On the flip side, the Energy Department got a 22 percent bump up in science funding.
Federal budget numbers can be ambiguous, too. For example, the United States Institute of Peace shows an 11 percent gain over last year. But that's a temporary increase so the $30 million agency can build a new headquarters.
Overall, it's a lot of in-depth knowledge for Bachman. "Some people consider me a de facto expert," he says. "I don't really like that. I'm just really a graphic designer." But he's a designer with a purpose. "I want the federal budget to be something that is not so inaccessible that people don't even want to deal with it," he adds. "I want to force it into the mainstream culture." It's not surprising that many of his customers have been federal employees. They tend to work for agencies in the Defense and Energy departments and the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, which had a $1 billion budget-an 8 percent increase from 2006.
Bachman gets feedback from buyers as well. One customer, who hung the poster on his office wall, wrote: "I work for DoD, and I enjoy reminding my fellow civil servants of the trust and confidence placed in us by the taxpayer as evidenced by the sheer magnitude of dollars they send us. For me, it's a helpful reminder of how lucky I am to work here and that I'd better accomplish something meaningful with these resources."
An employee at Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Roane County, Tenn., went a step further. He works on advanced visualization and has displayed Bachman's graphic image on a 10-foot high monitor in the lab.
Bachman has sold about 1,200 copies of the 2007 edition of Death and Taxes and the recently completed 2008 version is available and selling for $28.95. For $10, customers can order a copy of the poster online and have it sent to their state representative or senator, with a note pointing out a particular agency of interest. The Boingboing.net Web log sent a lot of customers Bachman's way, and word spread virally. "I track where all the referring links [on the Internet] come from, and I'll go to the forum," Bachman says. There is "every single type you could imagine . . . Christian mothers and one from atheist parents."
Bachman has quit retail and works full time on the budget poster and other graphic design projects. Moveon.org recently asked Bachman to sell the poster on its Web site. Urban Outfitters hasn't called just yet.