02 May 2009

A Teardrop in the Sea

A contributor to the Harry Binswanger List recently pointed out an excellent video that makes quite vivid how paltry is the $100 million budget cut that Barack Obama challenged his cabinet to make over the next few months.

One hundred millions dollars is 36,000 times smaller than the president’s $3.6 trillion budget.  That’s 0.0028 percent - twenty eight parts per million.  Or for you electrical engineers out there, that’s about -45.6 dB, well below the noise floor for practical considerations.[Note 1.]

A couple of weeks ago, Gus Van Horn made a good comparison.  Referring to this $100 million cut, he wrote:

This is like lighting a cigar with a $100 dollar bill, and then bragging about picking up the nice, shiny penny he just spotted on the sidewalk.

Or, more precisely, when one recalls the nature of government as an agent of physical force, it's like Obama walked up to you, took a $100 bill at gunpoint, used it to light his cigar, and then promised you the nice, shiny penny he just picked up -- after it fell, unbeknownst to you, from a hole in your pocket.  You would find this not only unjust, but insulting to your intelligence, would you not?[Note 2.] 

Perhaps Mr. Obama is hoping that Americans suffer from the same sort of innumeracy that he demonstrated when he was on the campaign trail.  “In case you missed it,” said the future president at that time, introducing his mourning with a folksy sarcasm that he probably came to regret later, “this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas.  Ten thousand people died - an entire town destroyed.”[Note 3, emphasis mine.]  Actually, twelve people died in that town, which was tragedy enough for them and is a shocking death toll for a natural disaster in America.  Ten thousand people dying from a tornado in Kansas would have been a cataclysm for the ages.

I’m not criticizing the president for misspeaking.  He was undoubtedly tired, and it must be difficult for him to not get carried away with the sound of his own voice when he is constantly faced with hordes of enthusiastic faces listening to him with unconditional admiration.  Gaffes happen.  My point is that Mr. Obama apparently has no “feel” for numbers whatsoever.  

This gaffe is not merely a matter of misremembering a fact.  If “ten thousand people died” can roll off his tongue as easily as “ten people died” - if he can confuse the death toll of say, a small airplane crash with that of the entire Vietnam War -  then he probably suffers from the same sort of numerical overload when he is considering dollars instead of human lives.  Furthermore, Mr. Obama can hope - with a good deal of justification, I suppose - that the average American will simply hear “$100 million” as a very big number without really grasping its relationship to the trillions of dollars in his budget.  A million, a billion, a trillion - they are all just very big numbers.  

I think it is quite possible that the president does not himself fathom the magnitude of the trillions he is toying with.  This, along with the fact that the money with which he plays and fiddles is not his own, may account for his apparent confidence as he proceeds with an almost childishly reckless plan that he has labeled “An Era of Responsibility.”

image from Hasbro

White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel tried to dismiss the $100 million budget-busting challenge as a symbolic gesture.  I would happily accept virtually any amount as a symbol of fiscal discipline if the president were really committed to cutting government spending.  However, the notion is laughable.  There is not an iota of reason to associate Barack Obama with cutting the size of an already bloated and intrusive government.  The $100-billion gesture symbolizes either the ineptitude of the administration or its utter contempt and disrespect for the American people.

Or both.


1.  I express the ratio of dollar amounts in units of dB with tongue firmly in cheek.  A decibel (dB) is defined as ten times the base-ten logarithm of a power ratio.  So, since “money is power,” as the saying goes, I should be justified in using decibels for money ratios!  Joking aside, though, the result of -45.6 dB emphasizes how ludicrously small is the amount of Mr. Obama’s proposed cut.

2.  Gus Van Horn, “Too Late, Mr. President,” http://gusvanhorn.blogspot.com/2009/04/too-late-mr-president.html.

3.  “Obama’s Bushisms,” News Wire, http://www.capmag.com/news.asp?ID=1763.

4.  Image of Monopoly $100 bill from Hasbro, Inc., http://www.hasbro.com/games/kid-games/monopoly/default.cfm?page=StrategyGuide/gametools.

No comments: