If I grill a Porterhouse steak for dinner, eat half and then throw away the other half, I’m being wasteful but not necessarily immoral. But if I grill a steak and then, instead of eating it, throw it all in the garbage disposal, my wastefulness is morally problematic. God didn’t create cows or ranchers so I could toss steaks in the trash.

government-wasteA similar distinction can be made when it comes to government waste. Almost all areas of government contain inefficiencies that waste a valuable resource—the taxpayers money. But some waste is an inevitable result of the Fall, while other forms are the inexcusable result of a inept bureaucracy.

Consider, for example, how the Federal government spent $890,000 on nothing. And by nothing I mean, quite literally, nothing:

It is one of the oddest spending habits in Washington: this year, the government will spend at least $890,000 on service fees for bank accounts that have nothing in them. At last count, Uncle Sam has 13,712 such accounts, each containing zero dollars and zero cents.

These are supposed to be closed. But nobody has done the paperwork.

So even now–as the “sequester” budget cuts have begun idling workers and frustrating travelers–the government is still required to pay $65, per year, per account, to keep these empty accounts on the books.

In this time of austerity, these accounts are a reminder of something that makes austerity hard: expensive habits, built into the bureaucracy in times of plenty. The Obama administration has spent the last year trying to close these accounts, with some success.

But only some.

“If anyone had kept open a bank account with no money, and was getting a charge every month, they would do everything they could to close it,” said Thomas A. Schatz, of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. But, Schatz said, the government hasn’t shown the same kind of urgency with taxpayers money.

The government could pay eight contractors $100,000 a year to do nothing but close those accounts—and still save money. But instead, the money is gratuitously wasted because in the grand scheme of the Federal budget the amount seems like a pittance.

We need to change how we look at the problem. The proper measur is not the amount wasted compared to the overall budget but the amount wasted compared to the labor that was required to produce that income. In this case, since the middle 20 percent of households had an average income of $46,562 and an average tax bill of $6,436, it would take 138 of those taxpaying households to pay for these bank fees. Because the average American has to work until mid-April just to earn the income to pay their taxes, wasting $890,000 is equivalent to wasting the earning of a single taxpaying household for more than 40 years. And that’s just one example in one year of immoral government waste.

Christians who believe in the dignity and value of work should be appalled that the fruits of our labor and that of our neighbors is being squandered. We should recognize that the waste isn’t “government money” but capital that could have been used for the improvement of mankind, whether for charitable relief or the creation of jobs. If we would all began to consider “taxpayer dollars” as “taxpayer’s labor” we might find it harder to tolerate such waste. After all, the government isn’t just throwing away your hard-earned money, it’s throwing away the equivalent of your hard work.