Sunday, December 12, 2004

Tossing Around Big Numbers

By Rich Miles

Dec. 12, 2004

"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."
- attributed (probably wrongly) to Sen. Everett Dirksen

The famous quote from the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), which as it turns out he probably didn't say, nevertheless illustrates something that the recent presidential campaign said about Americans: many of us aren’t very good at math.

During the campaign, President Bush said, on a tiresome number of occasions, that Senator Kerry’s proposals for new spending would cost more than $2 trillion, which, as he pointed out, “is a lot even for a liberal senator from Massachusetts”. The line always got applause.

However, the President repeatedly failed to mention that the same folks who made that estimate about Kerry’s proposals also pointed out that Bush’s new spending proposals, coupled with his tax cuts, would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $3 trillion. Kerry’s failure to make that point stick was one of the many reasons he lost the election, but that’s a discussion for another time.

But let’s look at the use of numbers in the public discourse for a minute, in a way that we “average Americans” can understand:

Let’s set the average annual income in America at $40,000. It’s not accurate, in fact is probably quite high, but just for the sake of argument, let’s use that round number.

A Stealth fighter/bomber plane – just one of them – costs about $60 million dollars (by Lockheed’s 1988 estimate). That’s 1500 annual salaries’ worth, per copy, and we bought at least 67 of them.

The recently-disclosed “secret” plan to launch a new spy satellite, one that most experts agree isn’t needed and in fact is useless except in cloudless daylight, is estimated at $9.5 billion dollars. That’s 237,500 salaries.

And the startup costs of the “privatization” of Social Security, lowball-estimated at $1 trillion, represents 25,000,000 average annual salaries. That’s 25 million, for those who don’t care to count the zeros.

One commentator, David Brooks in the New York Times, fired off, as the unsubstantiated potential Social Security shortfall over the next several decades, $11 trillion – or the entire average salaries, at our imagined $40,000 a year, of 275 million people! That’s not far short of the entire current population of the United States, including under-12-year-olds who contribute precious little to the tax base.

And the cost of George W. Bush’s FIVE tax cuts in the past 4 years (over 95% of them going to corporations and wealthy individuals) is just under $1 trillion over the next decade – another 25 million salaries.

So my question is, are your minds as boggled as mine is by the above numbers? If so, good, because that's what the guys who use these big numbers want to happen.

But let me give you some more numbers: in 1969, the year Sen. Dirksen died, total federal spending including Social Security was $187 billion dollars, and we were in a war in Vietnam. The federal budget showed a small surplus of $3.2 billion that year.

In 2003, total federal spending, NOT including Social Security, was $2.16 TRILLION. That’s an increase of 1174%, over a period of time when inflation added about 5% per year on average, or, if compounded, less than 200% to the overall cost of living. Democrats held the presidency for only twelve of those 34 years, and were a majority in Congress during the only five years of the 34 in which there were balanced or surplus budgets.

So now, two more questions: do we have a little clearer idea of how much money a trillion dollars is? And do we know who the party of “fiscal responsibility” is?

You do the math.

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