Spending '$1 trillion" hard to fathom for some lawmakers

NPP Pressroom

Dayton Daily News
Jessica Wehman

WASHINGTON — $1 trillion may be the new $1 billion. The economic stimulus bill in the Senate is perilously close to $1 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office in January projected that this year's budget deficit would be a record $1.2 trillion – about twice the amount of the year before. The national debt, meanwhile, hovers at more than $10.6 trillion. The war in Iraq, so far, has cost only $656 billion – but economists including Linda Bilmes of Harvard and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate assume that with indirect costs included, the ultimate price tag will be between $2 trillion and $3 trillion. Other than cells in your body, you probably don't own one trillion – 1,000,000,000,000 — of anything. Remember when $1 billion was an unimaginable amount of money? Greg Speeter does. When he founded the National Priorities Project in Northampton, Mass., in 1982, he was trying to find out the impact of President Ronald Reagan's budget cuts on one particular congressional district. The total was $54 million. "People thought that was totally outrageous," he said. "But when you get to $1 trillion, it's hard to fathom." On Thursday, Feb. 5, he tried to calculate what $1 trillion could buy: Health care for everybody in the United States without health care for six and a half years. It would buy four-year scholarships for 38 million students. It could build 7.7 million housing units. It could rebuild every school in the country four times over. He admitted those estimates were rough: The calculator he was using didn't go up to 1 trillion. "It's a lot of money," he said. To give that number some more context, consider this: According to Amanda King, a graduate student at the statistical consulting center at Wright State University, a stack of $1,000 bills adding up to $1 trillion would be 67.9 miles high. A stack of $1,000 bills adding up to $1 billion, meanwhile, would only be 358 feet high. The number freaks out lawmakers who worry not just about the nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill, but about the $1 trillion deficit. And don't even get them started on the debt. "We're in uncharted waters right now," said U.S. Rep. Steve Austria, R-Beavercreek. Austria, like other members of the region's U.S. House delegation, voted against the $819 billion stimulus bill two weeks ago. He said much of his concern was with the high levels of spending, and the deficit and debt it would build. "I'm very concerned about how this debt is going to be paid off," he said. Josh Gordon of the Concord Coalition, said the nearly $10.7 trillion debt doesn't include projections for how much the government will need for Social Security, Medicare and other government entitlements. "It really is just a snapshot of the debt future generations will owe." He compares the debt to a big credit card. The federal government has to figure out what it can afford to carry as a balance. In the meantime, they're paying $260 billion in interest every year. His concern, and the concern of other budget watchdogs, isn't now, but in the future. As the government borrows more and more, he said, it'll become harder to borrow money. "We'll have to raise interest rates to take up more resources to support our borrowing habits," he said. "Eventually that leads to lower economic growth and a tougher economy. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, admits he's not crazy about spending nearly $1 trillion to stimulate the economy. As for the deficit, he points to last fall, when Congress passed a massive bank bailout bill that pushed the deficit into $1 trillion territory. He said the stimulus money will help prevent the deficit from shooting higher and higher. "Every time people are laid off, they are tax consumers, and not taxpayers," he said. "That's why we've got to do it." Craig Jennings of OMB Watch, said the current worries about the debt are a complicated balancing act. On one hand, so much debt isn't great. On the other, neither is the economy. "Which is worse?" he asks. "The economic effects of sustained large deficits in the next couple of years or the economic effects of the recession. You're trading off."