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3 trillion is the loneliest number

Taxes 1040 Other Taxes
Source: IRS

You'd think a big number like 3 trillion wouldn't have a problem being noticed. I mean, we're talking about a 3 with TWELVE zeroes after it! I don't care how desensitized you're getting to inflation, that's a very, very large numeral.

But there is indeed an ignored 3 trillion figure out there, and it's in dollars no less. The number I'm talking about is $3,021,500,000,000 and that's the massive amount of money the federal government took in last year in tax revenue. It was an all-time record. It was 9% more than 2013. It was 44% more than the depths of the Great Recession year 2009, and almost double what it was in 1997. It's a big deal.

And yet, no one seems to be taking much notice of the fact that the federal money-sucking machine is running at full tilt. So consider the following: if you added up all the 2014 revenues at Apple, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Berkshire Hathaway, GE, GM, and JPMorgan Chase, you'd still only have half of what the federal government took in. Even when adjusted for inflation, the feds are amassing a whopping 20% more in taxes than they were in 1999 at the height of the Clinton boom years. And based on an estimated U.S. population of 319 million people, Uncle Sam is taking in an average of about $9,500 for every man, woman and child in this country. I told you $3 trillion was a lot of money.

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Of course whenever anyone throws out numbers, someone else will hone in on some numbers of their own. Defenders of higher taxes or at least existing tax rates are sure to make the fair point that the total number of tax revenues as a portion of our overall GDP has been holding steady at about an average of 17% ever since the end of World War II. Anyone focusing on that percentage would probably argue that there's no reason to get overly excited or worried about crossing this $3 trillion threshold.

But we really should at least take this number as an opportunity to ask some of the harder questions. What does this $3 trillion in the hands of the federal government mean for economic growth? Wouldn't our economy touch more lives and create more new wealth if the government took in significantly less of our money? And what about the government's ability to wisely spend or even manage this record amount of money? The Right and Left can argue about what the best tax rates are all day, but I think everyone agrees our tax money could be spent more wisely. Management matters, and $3 trillion is a heck of a lot of money to manage.

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But the biggest reason to be concerned about the federal tax revenue haul is that it's growing a lot faster than our economy. We didn't see 9% GDP growth from 2013 to 2014, but the federal tax revenues got 9% bigger during this period. That means something is out of whack. Remember that whether you're a Member of Congress or just an ordinary citizen, it's not your responsibility to grow government revenues. And growing government revenues are not necessarily a sign of a strong and growing economy. We've had 11 recessions in the U.S. since the end of World War II, and in eight of them the federal government was still taking in more tax dollars than the year before the recession started.

That's simply not a helpful track record. And it creates an image of Americans working for Uncle Sam first, and themselves second. I think most of us are in favor of doing our civic duty but shoveling more cash into Washington even as our economy shrinks isn't patriotic, it's silly.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.