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Government Math

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Call me a nerd, but I loved mathematics in high school. Geometry, trigonometry, algebra, calculus, you name it and whatever branch of math it was I enjoyed myself and did really well.

But what I’ve come to realize after years of working for a financial services industry magazine is that, as much fun as I had in high school with legitimate branches of math, I missed something in the course of my high school education. And what I missed was the fantasy element that is inherent in government math, that grandest of endeavors. And I might add, especially federal government math.

So, what are the characteristics of government math that make it so darned attractive to its most dedicated practitioners? What are the elements that characterize its fantasticality?

Well, first, there are the terrifically huge sums that are dealt with across the board in the federal government. One really appealing fantasy aspect here is the casualness with which these billions of dollars are spoken about and tossed about, as if the people who appropriate the money really knew what they were talking about.

The truth is, however, that most humans have a really hard time visualizing a billion of anything, much less billions upon billions of dollars. Even that old appealing example of calculating how many stacked-up dollar bills it would take to reach the moon from the earth doesn’t quite help.

And when you get into the sphere of trillions (as, for instance, when speaking about our ever-escalating national debt) there’s almost no hope.

The upshot of these figures being so grand and, indeed, larger than life, is that you can do anything you want with them. After all, if no one can get their heads around them, does it really matter whether a spending calculation is a few billion short or over? It’s so easy to create rounding figures.

The second fantastical element about government math that is appealing is the accounting legerdemain that is part and parcel of the exercise.

For instance, by declaring an expenditure as being emergency funding the federal government can hold $80 billion, $100 billion and even more out of its regular budget–yet still have the money to spend! That is a neat trick and one that can be repeated year after year, all the time continuing to call it an emergency.

This highlights another yet appealing aspect of government math because it shows how such an accounting trick can bring people together, with both the executive and legislative branches winking and going along with the game.

The fluidity of the assumptions for almost every calculation is another basic tenet of government math. Not enough money coming in to look as good as you want? Easy, just jack up the assumed revenue and you can pick up what you need just like that.

Finally, with government math no matter how short you are in the revenue department you can still spend without worrying about ever having to pay it back.

When Tenniel did his illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the Mad Hatter’s tea party was among the most memorable. One thing that not too many people know, however, is that the March Hare was hard at work on the federal budget for that year. His pioneering work laid the foundation for the practice of government math as we know it today.

If you don’t believe me, go ask Alice. I think she knows.

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