June 19, 2009 | Commentary on Health Care
First they said health care legislation would cost $1 trillion. Then they upped it to $1.6-trillion.
It might as well be a made-up number like "gazillion." No one really comprehends the sheer tonnage of the dollars being spent. Washington's spending spree seems to be lulling everyone into a total daze.
President Obama claims people would not be forced to change their doctor or their coverage. He denies trying to push people into government-run health care. But a Lewin Group study (pdf) projects that 119 million Americans would end up in the government-run plan that Obama and others want to create.
Focusing for the moment just on the cost, how can we afford this?
The price tag for last fall's bailouts approached a trillion dollars. So did this spring's stimulus spending. And if you count the interest on the borrowed money, both initiatives will surpass that benchmark.
Now here comes health care to complete the trifecta. Sen. Edward
Kennedy's (D-Mass.) "Affordable Health Choices Act" -- an Orwellian
name if ever there were one -- starts with a base cost of
$1-trillion more in deficit spending ... and add-ons will push that
amount even higher according to the non-partisan Congressional
Budget Office. Other proposals are in that range, too. Backroom
chatter says CBO has already estimated Sen. Max Baucus' (D-Mont.)
upcoming version at $1.6-trillion. And it's all growing as more
details are added.
Eyes glaze over at such numbers because nobody really understands what a trillion is. It's often said that people ignore what they don't understand. But we must not ignore something so gargantuan.
To rally the American people requires that they understand the enormousness of this spending. Here are some efforts to explain what a trillion means:
The time-to-count approach. One of my young granddaughters, Abby, bragged to me that she now can count to 20. What if she tried for a trillion?
Jeremy Harper was an Internet sensation in 2007 when he counted to one million in front of a webcam. He took sleep breaks and it took him 89 days.
But a trillion is a million million. If Jeremy, Abby, or anyone else attempted to count to a trillion, they could not. By counting one number each second -- with no breaks, no sleep, no rest--it would take 32,000 years to count that high.
Even Methuselah only lived to be 969.
The distance approach. Traveling at the speed of light it takes two months to cover a trillion miles. But of course you can't do that unless you're an actor in a science fiction movie. However, if you took a trillion one-dollar bills and laid them end-to-end, they would reach from the Earth to the sun. You can't do that either, because there's not that much money; the total of all the cash in America is less than $900-billion.
The cosmic wonders approach. How many stars in the Milky Way? Probably about 100 billion. So it takes ten whole galaxies to contain a trillion stars.
The political approach. For big spenders, this involves pooh-poohing the significance of spending trillions of dollars, claiming we're saving by spending, or concealing the costs.
The public thinks otherwise. Rasmussen polling reports that 53% of Americans now believe that adding more government spending hurts the economy, with only 27% saying it helps. Decreased government spending, according to 46%, would help the economy, with 27% claiming the opposite.
Without adding health care "reform," the deficit already is projected to hit $1.8-trillion in this year alone. Even before taking office, President Obama predicted "trillion-dollar deficits for years to come." His projected deficit spending will surpass the combined deficits of all previous American presidents.
What will it cost to pay back the borrowed money? Truth-in-Lending laws require that borrowers must be told the total they must repay, including interest, on a home mortgage or other major loan. Politicians exempt themselves from this requirement. But the interest alone on a trillion dollars, at a common rate such as 6%, requires paying $166 million in interest -- each and every day, perhaps in perpetuity.
The scariest thing about spending new trillions is that it's no longer just a possibility. It's happened in the last year and is happening again right now. And who will be asked to pay it back? Our children and grandchildren.
My poor dear Abby!
The best approach to counting to a trillion is not to try. And not to spend it either.
Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in Human Events