Every year, the U.S. government spends trillions of dollars on a wide range of budgetary items.
While the largest categories of spending, such as entitlement programs or debt interest, do not offer lawmakers a lot of flexibility, the government does get to decide how discretionary spending – about $1.3 trillion in FY2019 – gets put to use.
Discretionary Spending Over Time
Today’s animation from data scientist Will Geary shows the evolution of U.S. discretionary spending from 1963 until today:
The U.S. budget is generally divided into three main categories:
Discretionary Spending: This category, depicted in the animation, is the optional part of the budgetary equation – it’s the aspect that most people talk about, as the allocation of funding towards different things like defense, education, and transportation can be changed by lawmakers.
Mandatory Spending: Also known as entitlement spending, this category includes funding for programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It’s called mandatory spending because the government legally is committed to fulfilling these obligations, and it exists outside of the normal budget appropriations process.
Net Interest: This category is for payments on the national debt, also something that is necessary unless the country is willing to default on these obligations.
Discretionary Spending Today
As the animation shows, after adjusting for inflation (using 2009 dollars), discretionary spending has doubled since 1963.
In 1963, which was essentially the height of the Cold War, the U.S. was spending 73% on the military to make up the vast majority of the $547 billion (2009 dollars) in discretionary spending.
Meanwhile, in Fiscal Year 2019, the government has allocated $1.3 trillion (today’s dollars) to the budget:
Things haven’t changed much since 1963 in that defense still comprises the majority of spending – in fact, the only recent time periods where U.S. defense spending fell below 50% were roughly between 1977-1981 and 1999-2004.
American spending on defense dwarfs all other countries, but there are other categories that make up decent chunks of the discretionary budget as well.
While they seem small on the above chart, transportation (7%), education (7%), and veteran benefits (6%) are all actually categories that receive over $70 billion of annual funding – still a significant piece of change.
The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System
This infographic explores how China’s proposed social credit system will monitor and surveil citizens, and how it’ll be used to reward or punish them.
The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System
In an attempt to imbue trust, China has announced a plan to implement a national ranking system for its citizens and companies. Currently in pilot mode, the new system will be rolled out in 2020, and go through numerous iterations before becoming official.
While the system may be a useful tool for China to manage its growing 1.4 billion population, it has triggered global concerns around the ethics of big data, and whether the system is a breach of fundamental human rights.
Today’s infographic looks at how China’s proposed social credit system could work, and what the implications might be.
The Government is Always Watching
Currently, the pilot system varies from place to place, whereas the new system is envisioned as a unified system. Although the pilot program may be more of an experiment than a precursor, it gives a good indication of what to expect.
In the pilot system, each citizen is assigned 1,000 points and is consistently monitored and rated on how they behave. Points are earned through good deeds, and lost for bad behavior. Users increase points by donating blood or money, praising the government on social media, and helping the poor. Rewards for such behavior can range from getting a promotion at work fast-tracked, to receiving priority status for children’s school admissions.
In contrast, not visiting one’s aging parents regularly, spreading rumors on the internet, and cheating in online games are considered antisocial behaviors. Punishments include public shaming, exclusion from booking flights or train tickets, and restricted access to public services.
Big Data Goes Right to the Source
The perpetual surveillance that comes with the new system is expected to draw on huge amounts of data from a variety of traditional and digital sources.
Police officers have used AI-powered smart glasses and drones to effectively monitor citizens. Footage from these devices showing antisocial behavior can be broadcast to the public to shame the offenders, and deter others from behaving similarly.
For more serious offenders, some cities in China force people to repay debts by switching the person’s ringtone without their permission. The ringtone begins with the sound of a police siren, followed by a message such as:
“The person you are calling has been listed as a discredited person by the local court. Please urge this person to fulfill his or her legal obligations.”
Two of the largest companies in China, Tencent and Alibaba, were enlisted by the People’s Bank of China to play an important role in the credit system, raising the issue of third-party data security. WeChat—China’s largest social media platform, owned by Tencent—tracked behavior and ranked users accordingly, while displaying their location in real-time.
Following data concerns, these tech companies—and six others—were not awarded any licenses by the government. However, social media giants are still involved in orchestrating the public shaming of citizens who misbehave.
The Digital Dang’an
The social credit system may not be an entirely new initiative in China. The dang’an (English: record) is a paper file containing an individual’s school reports, information on physical characteristics, employment records, and photographs.
These dossiers, which were first used in the Maoist years, helped the government in maintaining control of its citizens. This gathering of citizen’s data for China’s social credit system may in fact be seen as a revival of the principle of dang’an in the digital era, with the system providing a powerful tool to monitor citizens whose data is more difficult to capture.
Is the System Working?
In 2018, people with a low score were prohibited from buying plane tickets almost 18 million times, while high-speed train ticket transactions were blocked 5.5 million times. A further 128 people were prohibited from leaving China, due to unpaid taxes.
The system could have major implications for foreign business practices—as preference could be given to companies already ranked in the system. Companies with higher scores will be rewarded with incentives which include lower tax rates and better credit conditions, with their behavior being judged in areas such as:
- Paid taxes
- Customs regulation
- Environmental protection
Despite the complexities of gathering vast amounts of data, the system is certainly making an impact. While there are benefits to having a standardardized scoring system, and encouraging positive behavior—will it be worth the social cost of gamifying human life?
Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government
At the start of the 19th century, less than 1% of humanity lived under democratic rule. See how systems of government have changed over the last 200 years.
Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government
Centuries ago, most of our ancestors were living under a different political paradigm.
Although democracy was starting to show signs of growth in some parts of the world, it was more of an idea, rather than an established or accepted system of government.
Even at the start of the 19th century, for example, it’s estimated that the vast majority of the global population — roughly 84% of all people — still lived under in autocratic regimes or colonies that lacked the authority to self-govern their own affairs.
The Evolution of Rule
Today’s set of charts look at global governance, and how it’s evolved over the last two centuries of human history.
Leveraging data from the widely-used Polity IV data set on political regimes, as well as the work done by economist Max Roser through Our World in Data, we’ve plotted an empirical view of how people are governed.
Specifically, our charts break down the global population by how they are governed (in absolute terms), as well as by the relative share of population living under those same systems of government (percentage terms).
Classifying Systems of Government
The Polity IV data series defines a state’s level of democracy by ranking it on several metrics, such as competitive and open elections, political participation, and checks on authority.
Polity scores are on a -10 to +10 scale, where the lower end (-10 to -6) corresponds with autocracies and the upper end (+6 to +10) corresponds to democracies. Below are five types of government that can be derived from the scale, and that are shown in the visualization.
A territory under the political control of another country, and/or occupied by settlers from that country.
Examples: 🇬🇮 Gibraltar, 🇬🇺 Guam, 🇵🇫 French Polynesia
A single person (the autocrat) possesses supreme and absolute power.
Examples: 🇨🇳 China, 🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia, 🇰🇵 North Korea
- Closed Anocracy
An anocracy is loosely defined as a regime that mixes democratic and autocratic features. In a closed anocracy, political competitors are drawn only from an elite and well-connected pool.
Examples: 🇹🇭 Thailand, 🇲🇦 Morocco, 🇸🇬 Singapore
- Open Anocracy
Similar to a closed anocracy, an open anocracy draws political competitors from beyond elite groups.
Examples: 🇷🇺 Russia, 🇲🇾 Malaysia, 🇧🇩 Bangladesh
Citizens exercise power by voting for their leaders in elections.
Examples: 🇺🇸 United States, 🇩🇪 Germany, 🇮🇳 India
A Long-Term Trend in Question
In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.
In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen — and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.
While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.
Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?
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