It is morbidly fascinating to watch how the cost of things moves seamlessly from mattering to irrelevant and back again. The National Debt was a world-historical burden set to destroy the lives of future generations under the previous president. Under the current one, Republicans in Congress passed a tax cut—one that primarily benefitted corporations and the rich—which the Congressional Budget Office projected will add $1.9 trillion to The National Debt over 10 years. For decades, Democrats have participated in the balanced-budget orthodoxy, cowering from Ronald Reagan's shadow while failing to defend the role of government in shaping a fair and just economy. As recently as 2018, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was determined to lash the Democratic agenda to a "pay-go" rule that mandated new spending would be offset by spending cuts or tax raises.
You'd think any talk of balanced budgets would be on the back-burner, what with the global pandemic that's threatened to crater the American economy. Congress has already allocated trillions of dollars to offset the pain of lockdowns and more organic drops in economic activity. (So have other major nations, though the United States has mostly chosen to funnel people into the unemployment system rather than subsidize company payrolls to keep people employed. Also, unlike most of those nations, we chose not to get the virus under control in any real way, leading to a situation where we try to, say, send kids back to school while the house is on fire.) After months of resistance, even Senate Republicans are grasping the peril we're in—and that they face politically—and are set to unveil another $1 trillion in response spending. So it was strange to see this headline from NBC News on Sunday.
"Preventing the next pandemic will cost $22,200,000,000 a year, scientists say."
While it was probably just for dramatic effect, this is an exceedingly weird way to notate "$22 billion." The actual story, for instance, notes that the nations of the world have already spent $8.1 trillion ($8,100,000,000,000) responding to the current pandemic. It turns out it's better to have a fire department in place than to have to build one when a blaze breaks out. (The current regime, it should be said, labored tirelessly to dismantle the work of previous administrations in this regard.) But spelling out the zeroes does help to illustrate just how big these sums are, which is a consistent problem in political communication in this country. One reason people aren't marching in the streets demanding that Jeff Bezos be taxed way more than he is now is that the lump of cash he's sitting on—$178 billion, thanks to a boost during the pandemic—is very difficult for the human mind to grasp.
Similarly, the amount of money the United States spends each year on the military—as much as $934 billion in the coming year when you count agencies supporting the Department of Defense–is basically abstract. It's just shapes on a page. (So are the sums we've spent fighting wars we cannot win in the Middle East and Asia since 2001. Nobody can really say how much we've lost over there beyond the many human lives—also something we've failed to fully keep track of—but one study put it at $6.4 trillion. Or, if you like, $6,400,000,000,000.) With all this in mind, it's still unlikely that you'll see this headline from NBC News, or anyone else:
"United States set to spend $934,000,000,000 each year on the military while millions of citizens lack adequate healthcare and education."
You could also substitute a headline focused on the coming ecological meltdown that awaits our only planet thanks to relentless human meddling. After all, the Pentagon has long classified the climate crisis as a major security threat. It's probably impossible to calculate how much wealth will be lost responding to the fallout of climate change, be it the damage caused by more ferocious storms and wildfires and sea-level rise or effects more difficult to forecast, such as reduced GDP growth or civil strife that greets resource scarcity and mass migration. Just like pandemic preparedness, spending now to combat climate change will almost certainly be cheaper than responding to its worst effects. But most headlines you see about the Green New Deal are screaming about how costly it would be in the near term. This is once again a failure of imagination, an inability to grasp scale. Yes, reinventing the way humans power their lives will be expensive. Failing to do so will at best be more expensive. At worst, it will be the end of human civilization as we know it.
All this ties into other bits of human psychology that are dragging on our ability to respond to the great crises of our time. We are not really wired to process long-term threats to our survival, and the assembly line of seemingly more urgent concerns has placed environmental collapse in no man's land. We've also sunk deep enough into our ancient tribalism that a proto-fascist movement has taken shape on the American right, one that has now embraced sending secret police into an American city where citizens are exercising their constitutional rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (The demonstrations are overwhelmingly nonviolent.) We've come a long way from Jade Helm, because the modern conservative movement has never really prioritized "small government." The government's power should be wielded for the benefit of certain people and not others, a notion that also manifests when it comes to spending. It was Ronald Reagan, after all, who liked to talk about "strapping young bucks" and "T-bone steaks."
Because we only allow ourselves two political parties in this country, the task of placing the costs and benefits ahead in proper perspective will fall to the Democrats. That's not been a welcome phrase over the last 40 years. After all, the Democratic retreat on the role of government has enabled the Second Gilded Age to take shape, as the commons falters in the face of monopoly and plutocratic power. A new generation of party leaders is unapologetic about the role that the state will have to play, and Joe Biden has gone with the prevailing winds to unveil a $2 trillion climate plan. The task of explaining why this is a no-brainer—and in fact is just a starter kit—still lies ahead. Would it help or hurt to spell out the zeroes?
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