The Power of Numbers: Simplify, Simplify!

In this election cycle, I am encountering many more libertarian activists than usual, driven by Ron Paul’s “Revolution.” As the Revolution fizzles, those concerned with advancing the cause of liberty—Ron Paul fans or not—need to take stock of our “failure to communicate” (not a good thing as Cool Hand Luke found out).

I have seen political oldsters steeped in the complexities of the gold standard (why would we trust the government with gold?). Young people seem enamored with Ayn Rand: True Believer eyes aglow, they dream of shrugging off the inconvenient truth that Government is Big. Really big.

So, how to connect with ordinary Americans, rich and poor, whose eyes gloss over when attacked by gold buggery or Ayn Rand’s atheistic gospel? Surely, those are NOT the issues to win over converts even if you believe them to be true.

In future posts, I’ll ponder this vital question. (Hint: One of the first things to concede in any political discussion: “I don’t have all the answers.” That goes a long way to inculcating humility and conveying sincerity. Besides, it is true).

Lately, I have been thinking of the power of numbers. Not marching boots in the streets, but statistical numbers, broken down as a salesman would do—and as Ronald Reagan did so many years ago.

Case in point: The media is atwitter with talk of a “massive stimulus package.” This latest resuscitation of an old political gimmick seems to have originated in the Democratic camp, as candidates advocated $75 billion for the “working class.” President G.W. Bush and the Republicans, not to be outdone, upped the ante to $150 billion and insisted that some of the “tax rebate checks” go to those who actually pay taxes. Ever since, millions of Americans have smacked their lips at doing their patriotic duty by planning a plasma TV purchase or taking a trip to Disney world.

Here is a wonderful opening to show how we—all of us—are being conned by both parties. Cynicism runs deep in the American political soul—and that is a good thing. The next time you hear someone discuss the $150 billion, ask them if they think it is a lot of money? Undoubtedly, the answer will be “yes!” The conversation might go like this:

“Don’t get me wrong, Charlie, $150 billion is a lot to you and me but we working people give the government far more than that, don’t we?”

“I suppose.”

How much? (Puzzled look).

“Well, there are 300 million people in this country of our’s and government spending is $5.1 trillion so the math is easy: the government takes $17,000 for every man, woman and child in the good old US of A. You have a family of four and I do too so that is $68,000 per year in taxes.”

“Hey, wait a minute, I don’t pay that much in income tax!”

“No, you don’t. Neither do I. But where does the government get all that money? You pay sales tax of 8% here right? And property taxes? The company you work for pays corporate income tax that comes out of your pocket. And then there is Social Security and Medicare. You remember when you were self-employed and paying 15.3% just for that?”

“Yeah, made me madder than hell.”

“Then there are the local, state and federal income taxes. I’m probably missing a few but you get the picture. Our government does a darn good job of hiding these taxes from us but $5.1 trillion is a fact. Some of that is debt but you are getting older Charlie, and so am I, so we’ll just leave that to the kids to pay. Hee, hee.”

“Well, I don’t want to do that.”

“So, the government spends $5.1 trillion and gives back—on loan—$150 billion.” That’s about ten days worth of spending! Imagine, if we had a ‘government holiday’ for thirty days, we would have a $450 billion stimulus! Even better, we wouldn’t have to go broke and pay interest.”

“Wow. I never thought of it that way.”

“One last thing, Charlie. The $150 billion is supposed to move a $15 trillion economy.” These numbers get big but let me break it down: that is one-tenth of one percent. The government is saying:

‘You people in the Wal-Mart parking lot! Listen here! For every ten dollars you spend, Uncle Sam will throw in a free penny. If you spend a thousand dollars, your Uncle will rebate you one dollar. Go and spend us to prosperity!’

“Now, doesn’t that sound silly?”

“Yup. Who are they trying to fool?”

“Charlie, they are trying to fool you, me and any other sucker that comes along. Why don’t we tell them to ‘leave us alone” and give us a one-month government holiday?” Then, when the sky doesn’t fall, a longer holiday next year, and longer the year after, and then we’ll have a whopper of a ‘stimulus!'”

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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