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Numbers at War

What percentage of its federal budget will the US spend on militarily-related items in 2004?  It seems like that should be a simple question to answer.  After all, numbers are precise.  2 + 2 always equals 4.  Can't we just add up military expenses, then divide by the total budget amount?  Is it possible there could be more than one answer?

Judge for yourself.

Click on this image to open a larger version for printing   Click on this image to open a larger version for printing
source: War Resisters League   source: White House Office of Management and Budget

Put these pages to work

  1. Print enough copies so that you'll have one of each page for each student.  To print a page, click on it.  It will open in a new browser window.  Use your browser's print command to print it from there; then close the standalone window, being careful not to exit your browser program.
  2. Without letting your students know they are receiving different information, distribute copies of one page to half the class, copies of the other page to the remainder.
  3. Ask students to look at their sheets and decide what percentage of the FY (Fiscal Year) 2004 federal budget was directed to militarily-related expenses.  Give them a minute or two to do so.
  4. One at a time, have volunteers respond to your question.
  5. As it becomes apparent that there are different answers, distribute the remainder of your copies so that all students have both.  Ask them all to read the section on the War Resisters League sheet that explains how its figures were determined.  Once they've finished, discuss the light it sheds on why the expenditure charts on the two sheets differ.
  6. If you want, explore the results other groups have calculated
  1. For a more detailed explanation of how the same budget can yield different pie charts, see the bottom of the War Resisters League pie chart page, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation's explanation for why their number differs from others.  My very quick summary is that it largely depends on two things:
  1. how one chooses to categorize the individual items that make up the dividend in the percentage calculation

For example, is a soldier's retirement pay a military expenditure, or is it a direct payment to an individual (like Social Security)?

  1. what one chooses to include in the total budget number that makes up the divisor in the percentage calculation

Income taxes are used to pay for virtually all non-trust fund federal government expenditures.  Therefore, it is logical to exclude the trust funds (Social Security, Medicare, various retirement funds, etc.) from the divisor when asking how our income tax dollars are spent.  On the other hand, non-income taxes fund the trust funds.  Therefore if one is looking to see how all tax dollars are spent, one should probably include trust fund expenditures.

I should note that prior to FY 1967, trust fund income and expenses were excluded from the types of federal government budget calculations discussed on this page.  It is my understanding that the Johnson Administration chose to begin including them as a way to mask the increasing expense of the Vietnam war.  As you can see from the pie charts at the top of this page, including trust fund figures makes the military budget appear smaller.

  1. If you'd like the details of the 2004 budget to review/share, see the White House's FY 2004 budget documents.
  2. Find the most recent materials available to use in updating this activity

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original web posting: Tuesday, April 30, 2002
last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008