Give The Man One White Chip*
Via the NYT we learn what constitutes “big” to a Republican congressman. (No, children…don’t go there.)
(Hell. This is the internet. Go there if the spirit moves you.)
By now, just about everyone with a pulse and an interest in politics knows that the budget debate produced much more kabuki than actual cuts. Rather the reverse in fact:
According to a Congressional Budget Office comparison, the bill would produce only $350 million in tangible savings this year, in part because cuts in domestic programs were offset by an increase of about $5 billion for Pentagon programs.
When projected emergency contingency spending overseas is figured in by the budget office, estimated outlays for this year will actually increase by more than $3 billion.
There are longer term effects that restrain spending. Albert Einstein is said to have said that the only true miracle in the universe is compound interest. That’s apocryphal, of course, but it is true that cuts in baseline expenditures in discretionary spending will propagate through the years to come:
The agreement does put the brakes on what had been a steady growth in spending by federal agencies. Future savings would be greater as the cuts took hold — a point Republican aides emphasized by noting that the plan is estimated to cut spending by $312 billion over the next decade.
Sounds like a lot of money. At least, so says those members of the GOP, who quail before the wrath of the pitchfork brigade that they’ve turned into their base. Hence nonsense like this:
“Big stuff,” said Representative Tom Price, a Georgia Republican and leading conservative.
Yeah, I know. A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
Except that $312 billion, for all that it could buy is …
…a rounding error — or an example of the kind of numerical trick that confidence men use to gull the unwary, the inattentive, the numerically illiterate.
I’ve beaten the drum elsewhere for the importance of getting minimal quantitative reasoning into the electorate. I’m not talking much math here. I’d be happy if we got folks using arithmetic on a daily basis to test claims like Price’s above. If the country could do that, then there are lots of cons that would become brutally obvious, even to folks as frightened of numbers as tools of reason as our Village press corps.**
Hell, Price isn’t even trying to hide the tell: that really big, scary number $312 billion. Sitting there, all by itself like a fresh cow patty steaming on a patch of meadow grass. Everyone here knows what’s wrong with this: it ain’t the numerator that matters. It’s the denominator, dawgs.
And this is where both Obama and the Democrats, and the in-the-bag-for-big-money GOPers (most of the Congressional caucus) made marks of the Tea Party. Even though we don’t know what the 2012 budget will be, much less spending levels of a decade hence, we can still construct a pretty good picture of the whole load of nothing going on:
Just work through a wholly unrealistically low set of assumptions on spending over the next decade. Take level budgets from the FY 09 request — George Bush’s last budget — of $3.1 trillion. That’s below expenditures by about a trillion, by the way, for a variety of reasons, and it is substantially under today’s numbers, which are, of course, the baseline for future cuts. But hey — let’s make the GOP look as good as it can.
So multiply $3.1T by 10, and you get -the implausibly low figure of $31 trillion.
Price’s “big stuff” — $312 billion — is 1% of that fictitious total. One [more] minor war over the next decade and it’s gone. A few disasters. An economic downturn, with its upward pressure on social welfare expenditure. And so on…
Oh — by the way, I sent a draft of this post to an economist friend of mine as a check against slips of my calculator or my logic (not an American, btw, so someone who can look at this with at least some a- or be- mused distance). He reminds me that it is always useful to contextualize public finance numbers by a per-capita measure. Given that the most recent population figures show the US as home to just a skosh over 310 million people, the projected budget reductions of $312 billion work out to no more than $100/person. In my friend’s words:
I think most people can see that is not a gnat’s fart but it’s not going to solve anything. Put another way it’s of the order of 1/500 of GDP in round terms.
Consider this another episode in Percentages: How Do They Work?…
Or else, see it as a reminder of what the GOP is really all about. Hint: it ain’t the deficit.
*This title comes from story I heard once, no vouching for its accuracy, about the time some industrialist — a metals guy — came to Detroit to announce his company’s entry into the car business. He told the assembled automobile journalists about his plans, and his willingness to spend what it would take to compete.
He was, he said, prepared to invest $25 million in the venture.
From the back of the room, an old car hack piped up:
“Give the man one white chip.”
**Numbers as fashion accessory — as above — that’s fine. But actually thinking with them…
Images: Victor Dubreuil, Barrels of Money, c. 1897
Gerard van Honthorst, The Cardsharps, before 1656.