Billions? Trillions? Oh, Heck, How about Gazillions!

May 10, 2011

A headline in today’s Los Angeles Times reads, “Boehner demands trillions in cuts in exchange for debt vote.” Wow! But wait! It gets even more specific! Since the cuts the Times cites Boehner as demanding cuts greater than the increase in the debt ceiling being negotiated, that somehow means he’s demanding cuts of “$2 trillion or more.” Double wow!! (Have I used too many exclamation points?)

Now, when you consider that in 2010 the federal government’s outlays totaled $3.5 trillion, $2 trillion is a huge number. Is Boehner really demanding that we cut government spending by more than half? Of course not – almost certainly those are spending cuts over several years. How many years? And in which programs? Who knows? Boehner didn’t say. OK, maybe he did say, but the L.A. Times didn’t consider that part important.

Politicians on both sides of the fence cite ridiculously huge numbers, but those numbers refer to amounts over several years. Even when they cite the time horizon as well, those numbers are meaningless because we can’t usually grasp measurements over a nonstandard time horizon (i.e., longer than one year). But that’s how politicians talk.

What’s inexcusable is that journalists buy into this mumbo-jumbo. They could demand that the people they quote be more specific, or simply not quote subjects who say nothing. In fact, the L.A. Times story in question is worse than meaningless, because the story suggests that Boehner actually did say something specific. If journalists held politicians to some minimum standard of clarity, maybe the politicians might actually strive for that standard.

The more money involved, the cheaper the talk.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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