Windfall for America

January 29, 2012


Dear Fellow American,

In bed a few nights ago, just before falling asleep, somehow my thoughts drifted to the U.S. national debt.  I mused about a simple computation that for some reason I hadn't carried out before -- namely, the total debt burden divided across every person in the United States. 

Let's see:  Approximately 15 trillion dollars in federal debt for approximately 300 million people works out to $50,000 per person, give or take.

That's a pretty daunting figure. 

Yet it's also surely an underestimate, I thought to myself.  After all, the U.S. population includes infants and children, people in jails and prisons, people too old, ill, or incapacitated to work, etc.

So what might be the actual "load bearing" part of the population with respect to the national debt -- in other words, the people with incomes that might, at least in theory, help pay the debt down? 

I plucked a number out of the air:  50 million people or one-sixth the total population. 

In that case, of course, the debt per load-bearing person would be six times $50K, or $300,000. 

That's a lot of money.  Even if the load-bearing one-sixth gave themselves 10 years to pay down the debt (not counting interest and other costs that accrue over time), that's still $30K per year per  person.

Then it struck me:  Americans with the means should have a way to make a direct contribution to paying down the debt. 

Voluntarily adding a little to our annual federal income taxes might help, but those extra dollars would of course just flow into the federal treasury -- that is, if the IRS didn't simply return the donation as an overpayment.  (As far as I can tell, there is no provision in Form 1040 to make a direct contribution to the debt.) 

No, Americans should be able to have their contribution go directly to the national debt with no intermediate handling or marginal si

Maybe we should press for new federal legislation that would make such donations possible, and make them tax deductible as well?  After all, it would be pretty mean-spirited on Uncle Sam's part to charge federal income tax on income voluntarily contributed to paying down the debt.

I wondered, as I dozed off, what the web would say about this idea, and I determined to check my computer the following morning.

And I did.

It turns out there has been a law on the books since the 1960s that lets us pay down the debt with direct, voluntary, tax-free contributions. 

There's even a U.S. Treasury Department web page describing the program and what can be donated in addition to money -- say, property or antiques.  There's also a link to an online form for making contributions.


On the other hand, there certainly isn't much fanfare or friendly inducement at this site.  The site is about as modest as can be.

The Treasury Department's descriptive web page also provides a table showing the annual levels of such contributions from 1996 to 2012. 

Would you care to hazard a guess at the total amount contributed in the U.S. over the full 12 months of 2011?

Well, it was $3,277,369.23 -- or, in round numbers, just a little over one penny for every man, woman, and child in the nation.

Forgive me, but that struck me as a pretty paltry amount.

If thousands of young Americans can kiss their families good-bye and march off to risk their lives in our nation's military services around the world, isn't a penny per person a pretty pathetic figure?

How could this contribution level be increased, I wondered.

I had a thought!

What if Americans were asked -- no, invited -- merely to contribute a relatively small portion of any windfall gains they might enjoy in a year's time.  Let's say 10%. 

Windfalls are of course unexpected blessings, so it should be easier to part with 10% of funds one didn't expect to receive in the first place than with funds one had perhaps already budgeted.

I was thinking here about such windfalls as unexpected bonuses, rewards, or raises, lottery winnings, inheritance checks, large than anticipated tax refunds, property that sells for much more than expected, and so on.

I don't know how large the grand total of all windfall benefits across our entire U.S. population in a year's time may be.  I have no idea.  One web page, however, suggested that state lotteries take in about $50 billion per year and pay out about two-thirds of that amount to winners.  That figure, if more or less on target, would suggest about $33 billion in windfall in lottery winnings per year.  And 10% of that windfall amount, in turn, would suggest about $3 billion (as opposed to the current $3 million) per year in national debt donations.

So, okay!  Why not shoot for a goal of increasing the voluntary contributions to the national debt to $3B in 2012? 

If every person who has the good fortune to receive  a windfall in 2012 were to remember the unhappy situation of our federal indebtedness and slice 10% of that windfall off for a direct contribution to the national debt, then I'm quite sure we could meet or even exceed that $3 billion goal.

Now, and of course, there will be detractors with respect to this idea.  It's a free country and everybody is welcome to their opinion.
  • Some may say that voluntary contributions to the federal debt just lets the federal government spend more and continue piling up our debt.  Maybe so.
  • Some may say that they pay enough in federal taxes already and hence feel that any windfall they get should be their own, 100%.  Maybe so.
  • Some may say that $3 billion is such a drop in the bucket with respect to the national debt ($3B is, indeed, only 0.02% of $15 trillion) that such contributions are hardy worth bothering about.  Maybe so.
  • Some may say that the middle class may embrace this idea but the rich will once again become free riders and contribute nothing.  Maybe so.
I'm sure there will be other objections, too.

My response to all of these criticisms is simply this:  If you feel that way, just don't make a contribution.

The nation's burdens have always been carried by those who felt a need to serve, a desire for the public good.  It will be that way with this program just as it has been that way many times in the past.  Also, and if I might be permitted to say so, I still like to believe, along with J.F.K., that it's always better to light a single candle than curse the darkness.

Anyhow, my goal in posting this letter is simply this:  I want to invite everyone lucky enough to pocket a windfall in 2012 to consider clicking this link and contributing 10% of it to the national debt.

That is the great and modest proposition of "Windfall for America."

Let's light that damn candle!


Ron Roizen

Windfall for America


P.S., added 2/6/12:   

So far in 2012, I’ve committed $185.60 in personal windfalls to the federal debt.  This reflects 10% of the sum of three small windfalls – my federal income tax refund, my Idaho state income tax refund, and a small retirement payout from a former part-time job.   This sum, multiplied by my estimate of 50M load-bearing Americans in the U.S. population, works out to a total of $9.28B – or a little over three times the target total that was set for voluntary contributions this year in my letter.  And that little calculation, in turn, nicely demonstrates how even modest contributions, spread across 50 million LBAs, can quite readily stack up into a pretty respectable “symbolic” sum, and as well a remarkable increase over 2011’s total contributions.