»  National Review Online

February 17th, 2004

  Only a Trillion


The Congressional Budget Office added a trillion dollars to its forecast of the total budget deficit for 2004-13.
                  — The Economist, January 24-31

A trillion dollars! Actually, the phrase that came into my mind on reading that was: "Only a trillion?" Not because of any wish that the CBO had been more generous in the upgrade of their forecast, but because Only a Trillion was the title of a book by the late Isaac Asimov, one of those numberless collections of essays on science and math he turned out through the 1960s and 1970s. Asimov explained the title as follows:

After considerable computation one day recently I said to my long-suffering wife: "Do you know how rare astatine-215 is? If you inspected all of North and South America to a depth of ten miles, atom by atom, do you know how many atoms of astatine-215 you would find?"

My wife said, "No. How many?"

To which I replied, "Practically none. Only a trillion."

(I like to imagine Mrs. Asimov reacting to this information in the style of my own patient spouse, with something like: "That's nice, dear. Did you put out the garbage?")

I mention this only to point out a fact that the CBO, and the White House too, and Congress, either do not know, or know but do not care about, or "know" but cannot imagine: viz. that, Asimov's ironic book title notwithstanding, a trillion is a very big number indeed. A trillion grains of table salt would fill my living-room up to the ceiling; a trillion drops of water would need a largish reservoir to hold them; a trillion human hairs laid side by side with no space between them would go all the way round Earth's equator; traveling back in time a trillion seconds would land you among the flint-knappers of the Upper Pleistocene; if the territory of the United States were divided into a trillion equal square parts, each part would be about ten feet on a side; if you were to jump as high as Olympic high jumpers jump, you would have jumped a trillionth of the distance to Uranus; two points on the Earth's equator whose longitude differs by a trillionth of a degree are separated by about the diameter of a virus; and so on. Big number.

And bear in mind that that trillion dollars I started out with was just an adjustment! They have adjusted their estimate by a trillion dollars! As an American legislator once said: "A trillion here, a trillion there …" Wasn't that what he said?

There is now no significant faction in American public life that wishes to restrain spending. Stephen Moore always barks at me when I say that; and indeed, Stephen and his colleagues at Club for Growth deserve the encomiums of a grateful nation for their efforts to hold back the tide. Other commentators — us, the Wall Street Journal editorialists, Human Events, and so on — express alarm, disgust, or outrage from time to time, but it doesn't make a scrap of difference. Just look at the numbers.

Total federal outlays in 2002 were $2,010,975,000,000. In the year I first came to this country, 1973, they were $245,700,000,000, which adjusts up to $862,100,000,000 in 2002 dollars. So (and I am sticking with 2002 dollars throughout here) the 2002 feddle gummint spent about $1.15 trillion more than in 1973. To put it another way the poor old U.S.A. in 1973 must have been a bleak place, with all those $1.15 trillion worth of federal needs unmet! Five and a half thousand dollars per 1973 citizen! Yet strange to say, I remember the United States of 1973 as a happy and exciting place, awash in prosperity. Streets teeming with beggars? Servicemen selling their dress uniforms on street corners in order to feed their families? Postal Service trucks held together with string and duct tape? The air choked with smog and the rivers running purple with pollutants? Interstate highways roped off for fear of collapse? Federal parks shut down for want of staff? Funny, I don't recall any of that. How odd! Perhaps those things slipped my mind.

It's not just the feds, either. The governor of my state — New York, pop. 19,011,378 — plans to spend $100 billion in 2004-05, up $8 billion from last year. That's an 8.7 percent increase, $421 per New Yorker, $1,684 for my little family here. Will my state services improve 8.7 percent in quantity or quality? Shall I be getting 8.7 percent more courtesy from the highway patrol? Will state courts be processing cases 8.7 percent more quickly? Shall the Derbyshires be getting anything at all from our state government equivalent to what we might have got by spending $1,684 in the private sector? I'm not betting on it. And even that $100 billion is attained only by pushing every conceivable expense off the state's books and on to those of the counties and municipalities. Upstate in Broome County, Medicaid (health services for the uninsured — those unfortunates who, according to Kerry, Kucinich, Edwards, et al. are dying in agony in their homes because no hospital will admit them) was absorbing 78 percent of the local property tax last year. The county's projection for 2012 is 200 percent! New York City itself is pretty much a socialized economy. Of the city's top 25 employers, nine are hospitals. (Effectively part of the public sector, whatever the small print says.) New York today, America tomorrow.

How did we get here? What happened to the old Yankee virtues of frugality, thrift, self-sufficiency, self-support? What happened to the conception that public moneys belong to the people, and are held in sacred trust, to be disbursed only with the utmost care, for purposes indisputably worthy and agreed upon by national consensus? Most of the money government spends is raised from taxes. That is to say, it is ripped from the pockets of hard-working citizens, including quite poor ones, by force of law, under threat of dire penalties. Don't the folk in Washington, and Albany, and all the other state capitals, feel themselves to be under some moral obligation to treat this money with respect and reverence?

No, they don't. To them these numbers, these billions and trillions, are just counters in a political board game. They have no moral content. The only modern U.S. Congress that has made any serious attempt to control spending was the one presided over by Newt Gingrich. Look what happened to him. No politician, having tasted the sweets of power, is going to model his career on Newt Gingrich's. A decade before Newt, there was the Gramm-Rudman Act, but look what happened to that. (What happened to it? It became … inconvenient.)

But don't our leaders worry that unrestrained spending will have deleterious long-term effects on our country, or on their state? All I can say is that if they do indeed harbor such worries, they keep them superbly well hidden. Probably the politicians feel that there is no downside to them, personally, in sending a couple billion more to the Cactus Growers of America or the Natchitoches Disabled Black Lesbians Theater Workshop. Hey, it all brings in votes. Long-term? Well, all sorts of things might happen long-term. The horse might learn to sing.*  And even long-term, from the point of view of the individual politician, where is the downside? Teddy Kennedy's been sitting comfortably in the Senate since the Creek Wars, voting through every spending bill that came up — grumbling, in fact, that they didn't spend anything like enough! Is he a national pariah? Not exactly.

So the spending goes on, unrestrained, with no political force to control it. The arguments against it, moral and economic, are deeply unconvincing to your average state or U.S. congressman. Every clamorous interest group, every troublesome lobby, every major corporation and public-sector union, has its snout in the trough, and will raise merry hell if the swill doesn't come sloshing in on time. And Mr. and Mrs. Working America stare at their pay stubs, at the great gobbets of hard-won cash snatched from their pockets to fund AFSCME and the NEA and the Alfalfa Growers' Association and Wesley Clark's pension, and, apparently, don't mind. We get the governments we deserve.

* A joke that goes back at least as far as the 16th century. There is a version here.