Celebrate…Until The Bill Comes Due

Nov 17, 2021

Yesterday, many of our outdoor organizations hustled out releases “celebrating” President Biden’s signing of the $1.2 trillion dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Universally, they praised the fact that inside the stupefyingly large debt, lots of outdoor activities stood to get plenty of cash.

Today, after everyone lined up at the government trough has had sufficient time to bask in the warm afterglow, a simple question: who’s paying this bill?

A simple answer would be taxpayers, but that’s not exactly correct.

The ultimate bill will be paid by the progeny of today’s taxpayers. That’s the government’s idea of “playing it forward” -give almost everyone something today, hide the unfathomably large costs in bureaucratic bombast, then..kick the proverbial can down the road.

Works nearly every time.

After all, $1.2 trillion is a hard amount to visualize.

So…how much is a trillion dollars? A lot.

If you were to count a trillion dollars at the rate of a buck a second, $60/minute, $3,600/hour (good work if you can get it) it would take 31,688 years.

A minuscule (by government standards) billion dollar bills stacked one on top of the other would reach 67.9 miles into the sky.

A trillion dollars would reach 67,866 miles - into space.

And don’t forget you have another 200 billion dollars to pile on top of that.

In Washington today, $200 billion is pretty much considered a rounding error.

A billion bucks placed end-to-end would reach 96,909,656 miles - more than four times around the earth.

A trillion dollars would reach 96,906,656 miles. That, FYI, is further than the distance to the sun (that’s “only” 93 million miles).

Lay a trillion singles out side-by-side (think tile) and it would cover 3,992 square miles- a 1,000 square miles more than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

By now, I’m probably off the “holiday card” list at any of the industry groups that were hip-hip-hooraying the deal yesterday.

Too bad, because I like holiday cards as well as the next guy, but I’m not fond of debt, especially if I know it will be impossible to pay.

That’s probably because I’ve been broke. Not cash-strapped, not overextended….dead flat broke. I see debt from the perspective of knowing how it can cripple your life, sap your energy and rob you of your future. Just can’t look at debt like a bureaucrat or public sector exec that routinely tosses around stunningly large numbers.

Doesn’t help that I’ve worked for billionaires (yes, with a “b”). Even with their immense wealth, they watch where the money’s being spent.

One billionaire boss called me to his office “to talk about budgets.” We had routinely been running more than a million bucks either over budgets or under projected revenues for months. But I couldn’t imagine why he wanted to talk to me about budgets. I’m no form of accountant.

He wanted to know why the monthly newsroom telephone bill was nearly $10,000 more than we’d projected. I explained that we had been doing lots of “phoners” - telephone interviews and reports from breaking news stories.

In those prehistoric days, we didn’t have the internet to stream reports remotely. It was satellite or landline phones. We lacked the dollars necessary for satellite feeds. So, we did “phoners”.

My answer was sufficient. But I had a question for him on the way out the door.

“Why so worried about $10 grand?” I asked, “we’re losing way more than that every month.”

His answer stunned me. And I’ve never forgotten it.

“Millions of dollars are an abstraction for both of us,” he said, “ but I’ve had ten grand in my hand. I know how much money that is - 100 hundred dollar bills. Real money.”

Salesmen employ a similar closing trick called “reducing to the ridiculous.” If a buyer’s hanging up over a monthly payment, “reducing to the ridiculous” can save the deal.

“I understand the payment’s slightly more than you expected,” a wily salesman will say, “but isn’t your family’s safety worth an extra two or three every day? That’s less than just one cup of Starbucks coffee.”

That technique’s been used to sell everything from houses to advertising.

It’s the opposite of the “divide and conquer” technique used to “sell” debt to taxpayers.

One-point-two-trillion dollars means absolutely nothing to us, despite the silly examples I’ve provided.

It’s made appealing by telling us that this gigantic number includes millions of dollars for something you like or support (think your favorite recreation or affinity group).

These celebrating affinity groups in turn, support the measure because they want the funding. They’re not reflecting on the overall debt. Not their job.

Their jobs are only to represent (lobby) their affinity group, be it animal, mineral, vegetable or recreational pastime.

They’re focused on the one thing every group wants from the government: more.

They support the legislation, then celebrate getting a slice from of another big taxpayer pie.

For the record, I have debt. Debt isn’t a bad thing. Un-payable debt, however, is a terrible idea.

I try to keep my personal and business debt at the levels advocated by our first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

A national debt, he said, "will be to us a national blessing, if it is not excessive.”

Bureaucrats frequently omit that last phrase.

Since full context is always essential to understand meaning, Mr. Hamilton also wrote wrote “the creation of debt should always be accompanied by the means of extinguishment.”

Context, like cash, is still king.

We’ll keep you posted.

— Jim Shepherd

Editor’s Note: If you’re into checking math, the dimensions of the one dollar bill are 6.14 inches long, 2.61 inches wide, and .0043 thick. They’re only shrinking in relation to their buying power, not their physical dimensions.