Opinion: It’s Not Chump Change

Opinion: It’s Not Chump Change
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Some Americans have a bad habit of trivializing government spending, as if it’s not real money or actually costing real Americans a goodly amount of their labor to provide governments those funds. I hear terms like “rounding error” or “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” when folks describe the monetary cost of some program or another. I got some of the same earlier this week when I wrote about the idea of renaming military bases. You can see those articles below:

Part I: Opinion: Push to Rename Military Bases is Misguided (Part I)

Opinion: Push to Rename Military Bases is Misguided (Part II)

One of the things I pointed out, was the potential cost—much more than the price of building a new sign at the main gate or changing the address on the Commanding General’s stationery. During the give and take in the comments, folks called the costs, “chump change,” especially when compared to the supposed benefit this decision would engender. The two articles above addressed the (mostly non-existent) benefit side of the equation. Here, we will discuss that cost using an actual event from my (somewhat checkered) past…

My last assignment in the Army, was as the Chief of Staff for a 2-Star General Officer Logistics headquarters.  We routinely dealt with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The size of our budgets, especially given the wartime urgency back then, could often foster a certain “laxity” in dealing with the budget.  This wartime urgency, however, did not relieve us of any of our fiduciary duty to the American taxpayer.

One day, I ended up needing to make that point to the senior staff.  I was conducting an internal budget meeting to tidy up some loose ends during our annual “end-of-fiscal-year panic.”  One of my fine, mission-focused staff officers happened to mention that his section wanted to purchase some item or another, likely a copier.  It was a righteous request, but it was couched in terms that reflected what I thought at the time, was a small indicator of diminishing respect for the funds entrusted to us and the folks who provided them – “But Sir, it’s only five grand!”  I wanted to nip this one right in the bud.

I decided to use this as a teaching opportunity.  So, I conducted a little exercise right there at the conference table.  We did a quick survey of those in the room and some back-of-the-envelope math.  The result of our calculations was this: The average federal income tax paid the previous year by the folks in the room was, you guessed it, “five grand.”  The moral of that particular vignette was that in order to provide the government the “only five grand” previously cited, one of us, or somebody like us, would have to work an entire year.

Moving forward to today and my commentors’ “chump change” remark, I imputed a cost of 1 Billion for the base name change effort. Of course, that’s truly a lowball number. By the time you get around to all the stuff that has to be done, including all the committees and interested party hearings — and don’t forget the ever ubiquitous Congressional fact finding trips — this deflection from the real issues of the day could easily run to several billion dollars. For today’s exercise, we will use 1 Billion.

Now for some math. Using some data from 2013, the average American taxpayer paid $8,500.00 in federal Income Tax. 1 Billion, divided by 8,500, means that 117,647 hard working average American Taxpayer Families would have to toil for a year to provide the funds for this exercise in futility. Think about that when some bureaucrat or politician says, “It’s just chump change.”

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