For the Record 03/18

Posted

One million, expressed as a number, is 1,000,000 and has six zeroes.

One billion, expressed as a number, is 1,000,000,000 and has nine zeroes.

One trillion, expressed as a number is 1,000,000,000,000 and has 12 zeroes.

This is not meant to express a condescending attitude toward the readers of this column. While they realize the difference between a million and a trillion, the fact is many in the media do not understand basic arithmetic. This has been obvious for years and was on display two weeks ago when Brian Williams of MSNBC and Mara Gay, a member of the editorial board of The New York Times, showed off a remarkable lack of understanding.

On his show, Williams and Gay agreed that presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg would have been better served to donate the $500 million he spent on advertising by giving each of America’s 327 million residents $1 million each. Later on that same show, Williams noted the mistake. Instead of Bloomberg’s $500 million being able to give each citizen $1 million, each American would get about $1.50.

That’s a mistake of about $1 million per American resident. Anyone who is not arithmetically illiterate should have seen that going in.

I think it’s possible another mistake of that magnitude may be in the making. I’m talking about the coronavirus.

As of Monday of this week, CNBC said that China reports that to date more than 80,000 cases have been confirmed, of which almost 70,000 are reportedly cured and 3,226 have died. Even more important than those raw figures, the number of new cases have peaked and are on their way down. Twenty-two new cases were reported Monday.

In a worst-case scenario, it is estimated 214,000,000 Americans may be infected, with 1,700,000 dying. Those are the numbers the CDC came up with if we do nothing to prevent the spread. Can that be?

China’s numbers may be well off. Can we rely on the accuracy of China’s figures? We shouldn’t, but that’s all we’ve got to go on. Making those numbers even more skewed is that China’s population is 1,400,000,000, more than four times our 330,000,000.

Another thing to consider. China spends one percent of its gross national product on healthcare. The U.S. spends 20 percent. It would appear we are in a much better position to fight the virus. The one problem with that thought; we have let ourselves become too dependent on China for drugs and medical supplies.

So what’s my point? My point is that I really don’t believe we are going to see 214 million Americans become infected. That’s not to say our federal, state and local governments are out of line. I don’t think they have much choice until we learn more about the virus and develop a vaccine.

While I’m concerned about the virus, I’m even more concerned about our economy. If the damage done by the coming economic crisis is as bad as I’m afraid it might be, more suffering may be caused by economic problems than the health problems brought on by the virus. Only time will tell.

The virus will undoubtedly bring on a recession. How bad? Who knows? What has me scared is our national debt. When past recessions developed, we had some flexibility. When the last recession started, our national debt was almost $15 trillion dollars less than now. That’s a lot of cabbage. Mr. Williams and Ms. Gay – and many other members of the media – are not concerned, I’m sure, because they don’t realize the significance of those 12 zeroes behind the 15. 

What’s sad is that our debt didn’t have to be this size. Twenty-five years ago this month the U.S. Senate voted on a balanced budget amendment that would have forced Congress to balance the budget each year, unless deficit spending was approved by a three-fifths vote. The measure failed in the senate by one vote, after having been approved earlier in the House by a wide margin. All but one of 53 Republicans voted in favor, while 14 of 47 Democrats voted for it. Sen. Joe Biden was one of the 14 Democrats who voted in favor. President Clinton opposed the measure, saying that he could control spending, but his budgets called for deficits of $200 billion per year for the remainder of his presidency.

I see Biden’s vote on the amendment as the best vote of his career. In Sunday’s debate Bernie Sanders roundly criticized Biden for that vote. Today, almost no Democrats – including Biden himself – would vote that way. How the party has changed.     

The real hero of the balanced budget amendment effort a quarter of a century ago was House Speaker Newt Gingrich. For his efforts he was bashed unmercifully by the media. Today we spend more on interest on the national debt than we do on defense. The media will realize Gingrich was right only when interest squeezes out all other spending. Even then there will be no admission Gingrich was right.

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