Millions, billions, trillions

How John McCain capitalizes on the innumeracy of American voters.

Published October 2, 2008 6:30PM (EDT)

A sage Washington observer with whom I dined this week pointed out to me something that politicians and even the media are not allowed to say, so I will: Too many Americans struggle with basic math and, knowing this, politicians prey on widespread innumeracy to manipulate facts and distract people from more important debates.

Take, oh, John McCain, he of the repeated stump line about the government wasting $3 million to study bear DNA. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that money spent studying bear DNA is wasteful. But $3 million during a week in which the government is set to approve a $700 billion bailout -- are you kidding me? McCain had the audacity in last Friday's debate to fret publicly about that? What a joke.

Millions, billions and trillions all sound the same. But a million seconds takes about 11 days to expire; because a billion is a thousand million, a billion seconds takes about 30 years to expire; because a trillion is a thousand billion, a trillion seconds takes about 30,000 years to expire. These are not interchangeable orders of magnitude, folks.

Our federal debt is headed toward $10 trillion, which means if we stopped adding to it immediately, and all credit holders (yeah you, China) stopped charging us interest, and we started paying down the debt at $1 per second, it would take about 300,000 years to retire. In fact, we are adding to it and accruing interest. Don't worry, though: All the government growth and job creation and stock market surges the Bush era's tax-cutting policies generated will solve the problem.

Meanwhile, McCain cheerily romps around the country making bad jokes about bear DNA ("I'm not sure if that's a criminal matter or a paternity matter" is the standard punch line), as if somehow eliminating that program and every other one like it, tomorrow and irrevocably, would even cover the interest piling up on our national debt.

Millions, billions, trillions -- they aren't the same. But McCain doesn't care about that, and he is perfectly happy to suggest that ridding the budget of small pork-barrel projects is a big idea. In a campaign already scarce on big ideas, it isn't. And a million more ideas like it wouldn't make much difference, either.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.