Thursday, March 04, 2004

Making the big numbers in the budget make sense to people

I've been thinking about this one for a while, and I just want to get it down real quick. It seems really important.

The federal budget is really, really, really important to all of us. It is also held to be really, really, really boring. But it's not boring at all! Everybody is interested in money, how much they have, how much they're spending. Nor is it the budget that difficult to understand, at least the basics.

The real problem is that the numbers are big. Very, very big. So big that people lose track of what they mean. It also doesn't help that the English language has that little problem where "million," "billion," and "trillion" sound so damned similar. It's easy to get confused, or not to remember properly, especially if you're only half-listening. "Are we spending $89 billion or $89 million in Iraq? And is the budget for the NEA $50 million or $50 billion? Well, they're probably about the same, right?"

We need a new way to talk about money. I propose something I call the $PAF, or Dollars Per American Family. I want to make this as easy as possible for everyone to use, so I'm going to use a very, very rough estimate: there are about 100 million American families -- American households, that is, but I prefer the term "family" because darn it everybody likes families. "Household" is not telegenic. And I know there's not exactly 100 million households -- maybe it's 70 million, maybe it's 125 million, I don't know. But 100 million is such an easy number to work with.

My idea is, every time anybody says anything about how much money the federal government is spending on something, they convert it to "$PAFs." Newspapers, television shows, everybody. Then we can understand the relative size of the numbers we're talking about.

The total budget is, what, $2 trillion? That's $20,000 PAF. Now that's a number we can all understand. We're used to numbers like 20 grand. That's a nice chunk of change. It's a family budget.

In that context, it's real easy to understand what it means when the president proposes spending $89 billion for war in Iraq for a few months: that's $890 PAF. That's a big hunk out of my $20,000 budget. How are we going to pay for that?

The current budget deficit will probably go over $500 billion; that's $5,000 PAF. Put it that way, and I guarantee people will sit up and take notice. The national debt is, what, $5 trillion by now; that's $50,000 PAF. Yikes! The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is under a buck PAF. Chump change; who cares?

I think even busy people could pay attention and understand much more quickly. I think it could make a difference.

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