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Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2002 / 1 Teves, 5763

Michael Long

Mike Long
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Consumer Reports

Federal Spending: Look At It This Way

And weep. | Let me impress you.

Last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart stores reported $1.43 billion in sales. It is, literally, a ton of cash; it is as if Wal-Mart extracted about $5 from every man, woman and child in the United States. Or try this: the biggest retailer in America pulled in an average of over $7 million an hour for the entire shopping day - almost $2000 a second.

Now let me impress you more.

The federal government also had a big day that Friday. While Wal-Mart was making headlines with $1.43 billion on one of its best days ever, Washington was spending even more than Wal-Mart brought in. A lot more -- Washington spent $1.43 billion in just over six hours. That is, over the course of the day, Washington spent Wal-Mart's entire revenue stream, for the chain's biggest day ever, nearly four times. And the real shocker? Washington spends like that not just one day a year, but every day. And the amount grows higher each year.

It's hard to get your mind wrapped around a number like $1.43 billion. It's even harder to understand three more powers of ten up from that - that is, multiplying it by 1000, to get into federal kinds of numbers such as "trillions" - but try. Here's help: This year, the federal government will spend nearly 1500 times that, just over $2 trillion.

Note that when anyone says the federal budget is "just over" $2 trillion, they are rounding off a figure that is somewhat more precise, $2.052 trillion. That is, I have just dismissed more than $52 billion into oblivion. (By the way, that scrap lost to rounding equals six solid weeks of record Wal-Mart days.)

If those comparisons don't put federal spending in perspective for you, try this. Read this five-word sentence. Finished? In the time you took to read that, the federal government spent just over $65,000. That is, in one second, the federal government spends the entire pre-tax annual income of a middle class family. In the time it's taken you to read to this point in the paragraph, Washington has spent over a half-million dollars. Read this entire paragraph and the feds will have spent about what you will make over your entire lifetime.

Depressing, isn't it? Whoops - there went another $200,000.

Want more? The national debt - the cumulative debt over the years from spending more than DC brings in, is now $6.35 trillion. That's a little over three times this year's federal budget. To pay it off, we would have to shut down Washington for more than three years and still collect taxes, and send them all to those we owe the debt. We would also have to work out a deal where we don't pay any interest, or it would take a while longer.

That interest matters. Imagine the federal debt is financed at the prime rate, the interest rate banks charge their best customers. (Surely Washington is a good bank customer, given that it buys the cost-equivalent of a new dream home every five seconds or so.) At 4.25 percent, interest accumulates, non-compounded, at just over a half-million dollars a minute. (That's about $8600 a second - a piddling amount compared to the 65 grand already flying out from Washington in that instant.) This year, over two days of crazy-paced federal spending will go just to pay interest on the debt, over $13 billion.

One of my first jobs in Washington was speechwriter for Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson. On one occasion I had written remarks for him to illustrate how overgrown the federal government has become. He asked me about a fact I had dropped in, that Washington spends about $50,000 every second (which was the amount for 1997.) Then Sen. Thompson - one of the good guys in Washington - said he could not imagine that it was correct. I offered to do the math.

Most people have to stop and think about how much a trillion is, and how to write it out. (It takes 12 zeroes: 1,000,000,000,000.) You'll live only about 2 billion seconds - that is, if you tried to count to a trillion, you'd be dead long before you got there. At one number per second, you'd need a lifespan of 500 years to do it, assuming you did nothing but count from the instant of birth to your last gasp, with no breaks to eat, sleep, or visit the bathroom.

Federal spending is, um, "vast" - but that hardly seems a good enough word. Wait, I've got it. How about "ridiculous"?

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JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Michael Long