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Monday, March 14, 2011

Do the Math: Nibbling at the Edges Won't Work

I received an email from a friend recently that was purported to be from a recent speech by Senator Tom Coburn. It's supposed to be his frustration about some items in the federal budget.

I'm all for fiscal responsibility. I wish the GOP was, too.

The federal budget is over 3.6 trillion dollars. I agree that's huge. It's way too big and out of control. I agree that something - lots of things, really - need to be done, but what exactly? And how do we put that "what" into some kind of perspective people can come to some agreement about?

To try to understand this, I started out with what the number 3.6 trillion really is. Yeah, I know. It's BIG! ;)

I had to break it down. It's 3600 billion. Still sounds pretty big! 3600billion is also 3600 million-million. Anytime you start saying "million-million" together, you know it's big!

What I don't understand or care much about is how many trips back and forth to the moon that is or what it's height would be in 100 dollar bills stacked up or some shit like that because that's meaningless to me, too. What I can do to understand all these numbers, though, is to compare them against each other. Here's what I discovered when I compared the total budget to some of the budget items that Coburn talks about.

What does it really mean when legislators complain about $150million for the Smithsonian or $500million for state and local fire stations or even $79billion for state education? Hard to say until one puts those numbers into perspective relative to the total budget. That I can do and understand.

So, $150,000,000 for the Smithsonian out of a total budget of $3,600,000,000,000 is 0.00416% of the total. That's 4 one-thousandths of one percent. $500million for state and local fire stations is 0.0138% of the total. Even $79billion for education is only 2.19%.

Putting it another way that I can actually comprehend, it's like saying that if the total federal budget was $3,600.00 Coburn and his colleagues in the GOP think we need to get fiscally responsible by cutting out 15 cents for the Smithsonian, 50 cents for fire stations, and just 79 bucks for education. I can understand that math............ but not the reasoning behind thinking we don't as a society need museums, fire stations, and well-educated kids.

To be sure, it all adds up and, yes, I agree with him that it isn't very smart or fiscally responsible to spend $448M on a new building and $248M on furniture for the Department of Homeland Security when there's supposedly $1.3trillion in empty buildings sitting on the books. What I wonder about is how come he and everyone else don't talk about big budget items like Defense?

I found it disturbing to read just this morning that the cost overruns alone in the Department of Defense these days are $300billion, an amount equal to Clinton's last FULL defense budget. (

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for defending America, but I think it's time to stop pretending we're actually capable of arming Luke Skywalker with missile defense systems costing hundreds of billions of dollars that can actually shoot one missile with another. As the above NY Times piece shows, we've been trying to do that since ancient times - the year I was born - and there's no projected end in sight. The physics and technology are just not realistic, certainly not anytime soon. We seem to be the victims of just a little too much sci-fi.

I didn't realize this until recently, either. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, we spend as much on our military as the next 15 largest countries combined. Our military expenditures in 2009 were #1 on the list at $663billion. China is #2 at $98.8billion. We outspend just China by 670%. Number 3 on the list is the U.K. Are we worried they'll invade our shores? Seems like we ought to be able to kick anyone's ass in a conventional sense even if we cut back some.

There's certainly more than a little work that needs to be done in this country about our finances. For my part, I'd rather see the so-called and self-proclaimed fiscal hawks in the Republican party doing things like cutting defense spending and having an "adult conversation" as they like to say about the fact that what's really needed are the elimination of tax breaks and subsidies to companies like big oil combined with increases in taxes on those who can afford it most - the richest 2%.

Instead, the GOP seems intent on trying to pit middle class Americans against each other over things like a union's ability to bargain collectively, as if killing unions will add one single cent to a budget. They also are trying to sell us bullshit ideas that we need to cut the pennies it costs to keep museums and firehouses open, and the few dollars it takes to educate our kids. Meanwhile, the Defense Department's budget of over $660billion is almost 20% of the total budget and isn't cut but expanded.

Big problems require big courage and big solutions, not politically motivated nibbling at the edges that eliminates vital social functions that are tiny fractions of a percentage of the budget.