September 21 2011

Bringing the Budget Numbers Down to Size

National Review

Carrie L. Lukas

Politicians generally know the importance of translating complicated policy into language that non-wonks can understand. When it comes to budget numbers, that can be challenging. Many Americans don't know how many zeros are in a "trillion," much less what a trillion deficit means in terms of the economy and its economic effects. In this poll question, for example, respondents were given five multiple-choice answers for the question "how many thousands are in a trillion" and just 21 percent answered correctly (barely more than you would expect if everyone guessed randomly).

The Gainesville Tea Party seems to have the right idea: They take some of our key economic numbers - how much money the U.S. government brings in, how much it spends, and how much brave politicians are "cutting" to bring those numbers into balance - and simply lop off eight zeros (i.e., divide by 100 million) to make those numbers something that American families can relate to:

Why S&P Downgraded the US:

  • U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
  • Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
  • New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
  • National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
  • Recent [April] budget cut: $ 38,500,000,000

Let's remove 8 zeros and pretend it's a household budget:

  • Annual family income: $21,700
  • Money the family spent: $38,200
  • New debt on the credit card: $16,500
  • Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
  • Budget cuts: $385

Even as a self-described policy wonk, I found this eye-opening. It's harder to pretend that Washington leadership is serious about restoring fiscal sanity when their budget cuts are seen in this context.

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