Senator Everett Dirksen, the highly regarded former Republican senator from Illinois, is supposed to have said during a speech arguing for restraints in spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”. If Dirksen were alive today he would say the same thing but it would no longer be talk of billions as much as trillions.

We have a budget that is out of control – just about everyone agrees on this – but that is where the agreement ceases. How to fix the problem is one that neither party can find common ground.

Yesterday, I heard former Senator Alan Simpson – a Republican from Wyoming – say that part of the problem is that the average American cannot fathom what a billion dollars is and even more so what a trillion dollars is. As a result there is not the outrage there should be about the uncontrolled expenditure on the part of the federal government. Sure they may know that there are a lot of zeros in that number and it is a lot of money but it is difficult to conceptualize what it really amounts to in terms that the average person can understand. I have a background in finance and despite this, it is just a number to me – albeit a very large number.

Simpson offered an explanation that just blew my mind as to what a gargantuan number a trillion dollars works out to be: he said that if one spent a million dollars very single day from the birth of Christ to the present day, one would still not be able to spend a trillion dollars! In fact, one would have to spend $1.365 million a day from the birth of Christ to today to spend a trillion dollars! Now this is something the average American can sink his/her teeth into!

We are running a fiscal deficit of $1.5 trillion this year and will be running deficits of over a trillion dollars each year for the foreseeable future!

How did we ever come to this situation?

Winston Churchill said: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”. But Churchill also offered a less than ringing endorsement of democracy when he said: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter”.

The second quotation came to mind during the recent budget impasse when it appeared that the federal government was likely to shut down. It was truly extraordinary to see some of the arguments being advanced by prominent Republicans and their supporters as to why we have the budget deficits that we do and what should be done to balance the budget.

Start with the widespread belief among average Republicans that Democrats are responsible for the huge deficits that have been run up over the past three decades. The fact is that the national debt when Jimmy Carter left office at the end of 1980, amounted to $930 billion – in other words from 1776 until 1980, a period of over 200 years, the total debt accumulated by various administrations was just over $900 billion!This link shows what transpired thereafter under various administrations:

In 1988 when Reagan left office, the national debt had grown to almost $2.7 trillion – Reagan had effectively tripled the national debt in a span of 8 years from what it had been the prior 200 years!

In 1992, when George HW Bush left office, the national debt was about $4.2 trillion – an increase of $1.5 trillion during his one term

In 2000 when Bill Clinton left office, the national debt was approximately $5.7 trillion – an increase of $1.5 trillion during two terms in office – he ended his last year in office with an actual SURPLUS for that year, reducing the national debt by over $100 billion compared to the prior year.

In 2008 when George W Bush ended his presidency, the national debt was $10.7 trillion – an increase of $5 trillion over 8 years and to make matters worse, he left office with the country in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a budget for his successor that was going to result in a deficit in a single year of $1.6 trillion, including the bail out of the banks.

Build-up in National Debt 1948-2008
(in trillions of dollars)

So there is something more than a little awry – in fact, it is almost as if one is living in the twilight zone when Republicans claim that the Democrats are the party of fiscal irresponsiblity! It was under Republican presidents, who held office for twenty of the thirty years after the Carter administration, that the national debt increased by $10 trillion – a TEN FOLD increase – compared to what they inherited from Carter!

Yet the average American – and especially most Republicans – hold on to the belief that it is the Democrats that are the party of tax and spend and the cause of the huge national debt that the US now has. No wonder Churchill said the best argument against democracy was the ignorance of the average voter! Of course, Churchill was referring to the average British voter but his point is well made even when it comes to the average American.

I am reminded of those town meetings that were held during the health care reform debate in the summer of 2010, when Republican voters would stand up and say asinine remarks like “I don’t want the government involved in Medicare” when it is the government that funds and runs Medicare!

Anyone who knows my views is aware that I less than impressed by Obama’s leadership as president – I voted for him and call it buyer’s remorse if you like, but I feel that Hillary Clinton would have been a better president based on Obama’s performance to date. I’d still vote for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin any day given the thought that McCain chose someone as his nominee for vice president who makes Dan Quayle look like a genius!

There is something almost unreal about the Republicans seeking to defund Title X programs and being willing to shut down the federal government if they did not get their way. Title X is used for services that are geared towards the health of women but Republicans did not want Planned Parenthood receiving any Title X funds because PP performs abortions – even though it does not receive government funds for the procedure! Now keep in mind that Title X was passed by none other than a Republican president – namely Richard Nixon, who was hardly a bleeding heart liberal!

I hope a measure of sanity returns to the Republican party and the fringe element is consigned to the sidelines. The irony is that even the president that Republicans most like to cite as their model of what a president should be like – Ronald Reagan – would today be viewed as too moderate by some of the fringe element within the Republican party. To think that the Republican party once upon a time had stalwarts like Everett Dirksen, Howard Baker, Barry Goldwater, Paul Laxalt, etc – individuals who were decidedly conservative but had views that any moderate could embrace.

Don’t for a moment think that I am excusing Democrats as having no role in the deficits we have today – they have played their part for sure but let us not delude ourselves as to which presidents have been most responsible for the national debt we have today.

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4 Responses to ““You can fool some of the people all of the time””

  1. Again, I’m really enjoying your work.

  2. Actually, I shared this article on my facebook wall.

  3. TJ says:

    Albert, thanks for your comment and for linking it to your Facebook wall.

  4. Ron Harben says:

    This article may answer your question as to why people don’t change their minds when confronted with facts.


    AlterNet / By David McRaney

    Why Do People Believe Stupid Stuff, Even When They’re Confronted With the Truth?
    The “backfire effect” helps explain how strange, ancient and kooky beliefs resist science, reason and reportage.
    The rest of the article

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