Let’s Talk about ‘Real Money’ for a Minute

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“Under our scheme of government, the waste of public money is a crime against the citizen” Grover Cleveland

The troubling state of the American economy is keeping millions of people awake at night.

Of course, the unprecedented, irresponsible, and ‘no end in sight’ government debt binge must account for much of that angst, along with the on-going stories of waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Each election cycle candidates all promise to get control of spending, cut the debt, and ‘clean up’ Washington, yet there remain seemingly endless numbers of GAO reports detailing the billions of dollars squandered year after year, decade after decade.

1 + 1 = 2. However, does 2 + 2 = 4 — or more?

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Everett M. Dirksen, longtime Senator from Illinois, may have uttered those words back in the 1960s (although the jury is still out on whether he actually said verbatim what has been attributed to him).

Most of us hear the term ‘billion’ so often these days we rarely stop to consider the scale a dollar figure of that amount represents. But start adding a billion to another and then to another, and it’s not long before you are talking about a whole lot of money cash that is unfortunately leaving the pockets of Americans and finding its way into opaque acts of government mismanagement and waste.

So, what does a billion dollars mean to you? For a lot of folks, it implies yachts, private jets, and other items of indescribable luxury. To Sen. Dirksen, it was a simply a unit of measure for gauging what he saw as the troubling, ever-growing problem of government spending and waste.

The crazy arithmetic of budgetary waste

There’s no doubt that big government spending has gotten out of hand, but the arithmetic of budgetary misuse has gotten even crazier. Sen. Dirksen’s quote may have caused a few of us pause the first time we heard it; however, what he was trying to call attention to back during the 1960s is nothing compared to the largesse of today.  

For a moment let’s try to understand the magnitude of this amount of money. For this exercise, we’ll assume each second of time is equal to one dollar. This is easy — just a few taps on your cell phone calculator and you’ll discover it takes eleven and a half days to add up to one million seconds.

Yet a million is nothing like a billion.

Using the same rate (One dollar per second) the math reveals it would take almost 32 years to reach a billion dollars, the kind of money Sen. Dirksen was talking about. However, the Congress of the 1960’s were mere pikers compared to the truly idiotic, irresponsible big spenders running Washington these days.

Because a billion is nothing like a trillion.

Once again, do the math and you’ll discover it takes a remarkable, thirty-two (32) thousand years to add up to one trillion seconds. Amazing right? The point here is simple: In dollar terms, the kind of money we are talking about is enormous and absolutely staggering — and very real.

So, who’s really looking out for the American citizen? 

For many years, Congress and the Fed have stoked the furnace of economic growth and employment through the creation of new debt dollars, but the marriage of monetary policymaking and budgetary decision-making has been disastrous at best.

Counterproductive policies have given rise to programs, personnel and a bureaucratic culture that has asserted prime control and influence over some of the biggest life items that retirees care about most: health care, benefits, security, and personal safety. Mismanagement has created huge holes in federal and state budgets, but also — figuratively — deep holes along the retirement path for a generation of retirees.

Nobody made this point more poignantly than Sen. Dirksen when he wrote the word “pothole” in his notes to remind himself to tell the following story in a speech during debate over raising the debt ceiling:

“As I think of this bill, and the fact that the more progress we make the deeper we go into the hole, I am reminded of a group of men who were working on a street. They had dug quite a few holes. When they got through, they failed to puddle or tamp the earth when it was returned to the hole, and they had a nice little mound, which was quite a traffic hazard.

“Not knowing what to do with it, they sat down on the curb and had a conference. After a while, one of the fellows snapped his fingers and said, ‘I have it. I know how we will get rid of that overriding earth and remove the hazard. We will just dig the hole deeper.'” [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].


Decades of budgetary malfeasance and inept policymaking have resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, money that can no longer help improve the nation’s infrastructure, reduce taxes, or fund Social Security, Medicaid, or Medicare programs. And millions of Americans are feeling the pain — but retirees are more acutely aware of the on-going and expanding debt problem than most any other age group.

In the half century since Dirksen’s words echoed through the senate chamber little has changed in Washington — that is, except for the magnitude of the amount of wasted dollars. So, if there’s anything we’ve learned about our government beyond them being terrible financial stewards, pathological liars, and grifters of the highest order, it’s that they’re also exceptionally good at kicking the can down the road.  

To protect yourself, preserve your life savings, and avoid the budgetary black hole, you should begin now by getting yourself up to speed with your retirement planning.

You can’t control the Congress or Federal Reserve bankers, but you can control your own decisions. You must begin to act now and start taking matters back into your own hands.

Be smart and be rational. But, definitely take action.

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