Thursday, April 20, 2006


Mything the Point of "Freedom isn't Free"


When people start talking like that, I always check to make sure my wallet is safe. It's the kind of platitude people resort to so they can justify the sacrifices they ask others to make.

Let me give you an example. Right now the latest in a series of off-budget-down-payment-without-oversight-emergency-appropriation bills is heading for the Senate floor. The total bill is $106 Billion. This omnibus bill is for Iraq and Katrina relief.   I could understand the need for one "emergency" appropriation, but three years into a campaign that is slated to last indefinitely?   Some might consider that poor planning.   Others might consider it a golden opportunity.   Consider this example from a recent Washington Post article:
Mississippi's two U.S.  senators included $700 million in an emergency war spending bill to relocate a Gulf Coast rail line that has already been rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina at a cost of at least $250 million.

700 MILLION dollars?   If you tried to sell that kind of heist to a TV show, people would say the premise was too far-fetched!  These guys are so bold if anyone complains you can bet money that Lott and his cronies will point out this is pencil shavings compared to the rest of the bill.   What more evidence do you need to demonstrate the whole appropriations process has gone haywire?

You would think this might be big news.   It certainly will have more impact on people than Tom and Katie's baby.   I think the problem is most people simply don't understand large numbers.   Do you know what 106 Billion of anything looks like? If I told you there were 100 Billion stars in our galaxy would that help you visualize it? I didn't think so.   Unfortunately, that makes it real easy for people like Trent Lott to loot the treasury.  

We've been stuck on this treadmill ever since they told us the first supplemental appropriation would go for rebuilding Iraq.   After they got the money, it wound up in the pockets of contractors who claim they spent it on security.   That's like getting money to build a house in a rough neighborhood, and letting the subcontractors spend it on body guards.   They in turn use the body guards to collect more money so you could build the house.   Keep that up and pretty soon you are no longer in the construction business.   You're either running a protection racket, an extortion scheme, or both.

I think it's time we solve the problem of communicating with big numbers so we can handle the really big problems.   When I'm done, the "Pottery Barn Rule" is going to have a whole new meaning for you...  

First, let me explain how the numbers got so big so fast.  Does the term "Total Cost of Ownership" sound familiar?  Like the name implies, TCO is the total cost you pay to own something over the entire lifetime of the product.   For example, if you purchase a laptop for $1,300, the TCO is about $5,200.   That's because the TCO includes the purchase price and things like repairs, maintenance, upgrades, service and support, networking, software licensing, etc.  

The same thing happens when you buy into a war. In other words, the Pottery Barn Rule just got more expensive.   You're not just paying for the item you broke.  You're also paying for the replacement item, lost sales, administrative overhead, transportation costs, and interest on the credit card debt to cover the costs.   Now you know why Colin Powell didn't think it was a good idea to go into Iraq like a bull in a china shop.  

Here's the scary part: We don't know how long this is going to last.   This means we have to rewrite the Pottery Barn Rule one more time.  You aren't just breaking a cup, you are going on a road trip to break a cup in every Pottery Barn in America, and you are responsible for paying all your travel expenses.   Who knew a $4 cup could be so expensive?

What does that mean in the real world? Here is the projected direct cost of war in Iraq that Nobel Prize winning economist John Stiglitz has arrived at based on public record information. He estimates the total cost of war at about $1.3 TRILLION. The interest on that debt alone (~385 $BN) is almost as large as the current deficit. NOTE: Stiglitz is only considering direct government costs in this table.   The indirect costs are substantial.   I'll give you one indirect cost you see on a routine basis: Gas

Gas was $25 a barrel before we invaded Iraq.  Now it is over $70 a barrel.   That is starting to have an effect on electric bills and consumer goods.   If we attack Iran it could easily go to $100 a barrel.   At that point millions of Americans will be deciding between heating and food.   Where's your freedom now?

Before you throw your hands up in despair, here's a ray of hope.   There is something that can be done to slow this runaway train. Let's start with this $106 Billion jackpot.

Everyone running for office needs to take a position on this issue. They need to focus on the earmarks and pork hidden in that appropriations.   They need to make this a local issue and talk about the lost opportunities in our communities.

Incumbents need to fight to knock out pork.   Challengers need to hold incumbents accountable for every penny in that bill.   Count on the pirates to attack with "you don't support our troops!" Fine.   It is time to put a stop to this nonsense by pointing to stuff that has nothing to do with the troops.   For example Trent Lott's movable railroad cited at the top.  I realize we're talking chump change here, but it sends a message....  100 Million here, 100 Million there...  and pretty soon you're talking about real money.

The bottom line:
People who want to represent us need to earn that privilege.  The quickest way to do that is for them to sharpen their pencils and give us a better bill.   If they can't, then let's hire people who will.  

The question this time around is not whether you like or dislike your representative.  The question is can you afford them? Anyone who tries to duck the issue by appealing to abstract values like freedom, security, or the sanctity of human life either doesn't understand big numbers, or they are trying to con you by intentionally Mything the Point.

"Treat each federal dollar as if it was hard earned.  It was -- by a taxpayer."
- Donald Rumsfeld, in Rumsfeld's Rules
Mything the Point ©:
"Examining unexamined beliefs America accepts on faith value."

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