$3,830,000,000,000.00 budget

Posted on February 6, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The lexicon regarding huge numbers, in which words replace many-zeroed numerals, has unwittingly contributed to the government’s fiscal largesse.

$3.83 trillion is infinitely more digestible to the average reader than $3,830,000,000,000.00; reducing incomprehensible sums to a figure resembling mere dollars and cents assists with the smoke and mirrors exercise that passes for federal finance these days.

Here’s a Groundhog Day’s Week resolution for all news media: cease immediately from using the words “billion” and “trillion” in print, instead always writing these massive numbers out past their three or four commas — including the two-place decimal.

Perhaps it wasn’t mere coincidence that the Obama administration’s 2011 budget and the nominees for the Academy Awards were announced the same day. Having watched the State of the Union address last week, the President must have been vying for a nod in the “best actor” category.

How else explain the straight-faced delivery of this line, just a few days before unveiling the largest federal deficit in history:

“Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,” President Obama said. “The federal government should do the same.”

If pressed, I suppose the operative word “should” provides an escape clause; what the government ought to do is often quite different from what it will do. But such puerile wordplay undermines the President’s own words moments later, when he shifted from deficits in dollars to deficits in trust.

Obama was spot-on with his assessment about the “deep and corrosive doubts” growing like weeds among the American people regarding Washington’s self-absorption. Were the trust deficit measured in some sort of tera-units, it would dwarf the budget’s red ink.

The problem is that the government hasn’t made a belt-tightening decision in decades, and isn’t about to start anytime soon.

Even facing a $1,560,000,000,000.00 deficit, in which the government will basically borrow a dollar for every two it takes in, there’s no sense of urgency on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Laughably, the only offset the administration could offer up against next year’s stratospheric shortfall — after going “line by line, page by page to eliminate programs we can’t afford and don’t work” — was a paltry 1.3% savings.

Yet what organization on Main Street, or even Wall Street, could withstand staggering shortages of such magnitude and brag about squeezing penny-sized expenses?

Last Wednesday was quite a presidential performance. It’s looking more and more like the Hollywood-style convergence of entertainment and information has begun to merge and morph with the realm of government, too.

Film and television actors often appear to be doing something big and fast and exciting, but in reality they are simply mouthing memorized lines in front of cameras on a set that is typically small and still and boring.

The magic of cinema is taking all that fakery and bringing it to life on screen, and making it SEEM real. But none of it really happens.

President Obama’s talent as an orator makes things seem better. In the aura of his eloquence (his “cash-strapped family” metaphor was masterful) you almost believe he WILL get our grotesquely bloated government to finally tighten its bulging belt.

But then he lists his “specific steps” for reducing the deficit: A freeze on government discretionary spending for three years, and the creation of a bipartisan commission.

This is change?

In a government environment that considers a reduction in the increase of a program’s budget to be a “slashing cut,” vague words like freeze have no meaning and only serve to obfuscate any real pledge. Who, after all, honestly believes unionized government employees won’t get raises the next three years?

As for the celebrated Fiscal Commission, guess what its lofty objective is? To balance the federal budget by 2105.

Well, not quite. To balance the budget by 2015 EXCLUDING interest payments.

In other words, the commission will be considered wildly successful — and the budget “balanced” — if it can get us back to mere $383,000,000,000.00 deficits (the interest amount on the national debt in 2009).

There’s even more sleight-of-hand at work, too. When the U.S. government bailed out the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation by buying stock in the entities, it assumed responsibility for the more than $6,300,000,000,000.00 in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac liabilities.

No one knows how much of those guaranteed trillions the government will wind up on the hook for, but hardly anybody believes the defaults will be zero. Yet that’s precisely how much is reflected on the 2011 budget.

Ah, the joys of government accounting.

Barack Obama really does have an historic opportunity, and his rhetoric suggests he knows what to say. The loudest speech, however, must come from action. The government is past the point of insolvency by any real-world standard.

A genuinely bold, but necessary, belt-tightening would be painful. But it wouldn’t destroy us; indeed, it would fulfill Nietzsche’s old adage. It would make us stronger.

And that would be a great legacy for a president.

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