Why government savings are just pennies on the dollar

Our federal budget deficit is $1,000 billion dollars each year, year in and year out, as far as the eye can see.  This is an annuity in reverse, every year, on into the future.  After five years, we will have accumulated $5,000 billion of debt.  After 10 years, $10,000 billion of debt.  You get the picture.

So what is the federal government doing about this?  They are looking for ways to reduce spending.  But here is the curious part.  When they find a suitable candidate for expense reduction, they always multiply the savings by 10 and call it a savings over 10 years.  As in a $250 billion reduction in educational expenses over 10 years.  And when we hear of their accomplishment, we are so excited about the $250 billion number that we fail to pay attention.  We never see or hear the part about over 10 years.

And it sounds like a pretty good effort. After all, we are saving $250 billon compared to a deficit of $1,000 billion.  It feels like we are taking a solid chunk out of our annual deficit.

But are we really?   Closer reading, and listening, reveals a painful truth.  The $250 billion in savings is spread over10 years.  In actuality, we are saving only $25 billion each year. 

In other words we are not reducing our annual deficit by 25%.  No, we are reducing it by a mere 2.5%.

And this, after all, is just pennies on the dollar.

We are in budget star wars when budget talk becomes budget hyper talk

I  have not been the most loyal star wars viewer.   I saw the first movie, then maybe the second.  After that I confess that I lost interest.

But for me,    the most vivid memory of my star wars experience was the moment when the space ship’s captain clicked on the hyper speed switch and the craft instantly lurched ahead at a speed that was larger by a factor of 10 or100.   The millions of stars that populated the surrounding galaxy rushed past in a blur of streaking white shapes.

For today’s economic discussion, the notable issue is not the stars speeding past.  It is the instantaneous increase of speed by a factor of 100.   So it is with the economic discussions of our day.  We talk about dollar amounts that approach $500 billion, $600 billion, $900 billion.  And then, all of a sudden, we are back at 1.  Not 1 billion, but 1 trillion.

To maintain context and continuity of the economic narrative, we should not let our political or economic leaders refer to $1 trillion.  Rather we should insist that they call it like it is $1,000 billion.

After all, which sounds larger, 800 or 1?  If someone were to tell you we were incurring a budget deficit of 1 something, or 800 something, which would sound smaller?  If you were to say the 1, you would not be alone.  And that is the problem.

We should not permit our politicians to hypershift from billions to trillions.  It lulls the vast majority of the public into a sense of comfort and complacency.   If our deficit is larger than $900 billion and is approaching $1,000 billion, let’s call it like it is.  Do not let our political leaders downshift to trillions to make us feel more comfortable with what is fundamentally a very large budget indeed.

When I think back to my childhood, my father would frequently ask which is heavier. a pound of lead or a pound of feathers.

I ask you the budgetary equivalent.  Which is larger?  A budget of $3,800 billion or a budget of $3.8 trillion?