"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Friday, March 1, 2013

Maxine Waters and Large Numbers

Maxine Waters, the ranking Democrat on the House Finance Committee, was speaking yesterday about the effects of the sequester and said this:

Yesterday we did have Mr. Bernanke in our committee and he came to tell us what he’s doing with quantitative easing and that is trying to stimulate the economy with the bond purchases that he’s been doing because he’s trying to keep the interest rates low and jobs – and he said that if sequestration takes place, that’s going to be a great setback. We don’t need to be having something like sequestration that’s going to cause these jobs losses, over 170 million jobs that could be lost – and so he made it very clear he’s not opposed to cuts but cuts must be done over a long period of time and in a very planned way rather than this blunt cutting that will be done by sequestration. As you know in this committee we have all of HUD and HUD is responsible for so many programs that determine the quality of life for women and families. CBDG, a form of grant programs will be cut by $153 million dollars, these are grants that help with cities and children and low-income programs. We also will cut the Home Program by $52 million if sequestration takes place, Native American Housing grants by $34 million, House and Choice grants $113 million, Public Housing – mostly single women in Public Housing – another $304 million, and homelessness, everybody claims to be concerned with homelessness and the growing number of women and children who are out their homeless but look they will take a $99 million dollar hit and on and on and on. We are here today, one more time, talking about women and children and families and how we can protect our women, children, and families and have a decent quality of life – sequestration will set us back, all of the gains that we have made will be lost with sequestration. 

Others have pointed out the lunacy of the highlighted statement -- we only have about 143 million Americans working, and about 155 million Americans in the workforce, so her statement assumes that we would lose 109% of the workforce to a $42 billion cut out of a $4 trillion federal budget.   So I won't belabor that angle.   Waters later walked the misstatement back, saying that the sequester would cost only 750,000 jobs.

Now, of course, people can misspeak.   We are far too critical of public speakers (Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin) who occasionally offer malapropisms.   And put aside the fact that the ones criticized are always on the right, while a Maxine Waters or Barack Obama will never suffer the routine belittling by the MSM that conservatives do.  

And, I'll even give Waters a pass on the idiocy of even estimating that 750,000 jobs will be "lost" by the sequester.   If they are government jobs, good.   But, even so, government estimates of job losses or job gains resulting from a particular level of spending are notoriously not worth the paper they're printed on.   (See "the stimulus" of 2009.)

But here's my problem:   this particular misstatement suggests a disconnection from reality... a disconnection from basic arithmetic.  How would you ever let that particular number spill out of your mouth as an adult?   170 million jobs lost?   Really?   How could you not immediately realize that you'd made a mistake?   How could those words stating that number not immediately appear wrong to you?   They make no sense.   We have only a bit more than 315 milloin Americans in total... how could you say out loud that some government program would have the effect of costing 55% of the population their jobs?   It's beyond a misstatement... it shows a fundamental inability to think in large numbers.

And the problem is:   our elected officials are required to think in large numbers every day by virtue of the federal government's debt and deficits and spending and taxing.

Let me put this bluntly:   what are the odds that Maxine Waters has any kind of arithmetical understanding of the actuarial assumptions that go into long-term estimates of the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare?   Very, very slim.   Yet that is the problem that is going to eat our nation over the next few decades.   And she may very well be the chair of the House Finance Committee in January 2015.

We're drowning under a tsunami and the people who could throw us a life preserver don't even know what makes things float.

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