Monday, February 23, 2009

Making Sense of Really Big Numbers

Pundits had laser-like criticism of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his televised address on Tuesday.

They focused on his "folksy" style and his wobbly command of facts when criticizing parts of the stimulus bill, particularly those for 'volcano monitoring' and 'magnetic trains.' Of course, here in the Northwest, we don't find monitoring of volcanoes any more wasteful than a hurricane watch in the South, but much worse than Jindal's ridicule is his math.

$140 million for volcano monitoring is less than one tenth of one-percent of the spending bill. It doesn't deserve any greater portion of our attention.

Then what about the 'MagLev' train in Las Vegas? Its aim of linking working-class neighborhoods with jobs deserves better than Jindal's jibes, as you might expect given its support by the chairman of California's portion of the long rail line, Quentin Kopp.  Kopp, who served for years as San Francisco's most conservative council member, is whip-smart and one of my favorite politicians. He's been called a lot of things, including "biting," and "a force of nature," but he's never been accused of being a dreamy liberal.

And again, the best perspective of all comes from looking at the numbers. $8 billion for the train is just over 1% of the spending package.

When is the last time you saw any large project, public or private, that was more than 99% efficient?

Does Jindal really mean to imply that he agrees with nearly all of it? If not, why doesn't he address the big-number items?

I expect it's because it is hard to disagree with most of the stimulus package (whose components you can see clearly laid out in my earlier post, Components of the Stimulus.

Complaining about waste in 1% of the bill is like complaining about "pork" in politics. Yes, it's there, but only as a small fraction of the total (see my earlier post,  Where Do Taxes Go? ).

Let's call a spade a spade: $785 billion in stimulus is a lot of money, no doubt. But it's not too much to keep in proper perspective.


  1. 16 billion of "pork" is no joke.

  2. $16 billion in earmarks, listed in my post Where Do Taxes Go? (see link above), is real money, no doubt.

    But it's a tiny fraction of the total budget, so small that if we were to eliminate all of it - everything, every last wasteful pet project - it wouldn't amount to a 3% cut in defense spending.

    If we really want to cut discretionary spending, we need to talk about the items with truly big numbers.