Finding North Without a Compass

A retired Army officer and retired Fortune 500 executive, Warren may be best known for making waves while serving on the Mequon Common Council and Ozaukee County Board. He's no longer an elected official, but he has plenty to say about local, state and national issues.




It appears we have to update Senator Everett Dirksen‘s well known phrase by one order of magnitude to: "A trillion here, a trillion there; pretty soon you’re talking real money." The financial bailout and now the proposed stimulus bill are proof that Senator Dirksen was right, except being off by several zeros.

The way things are going, it seems important for all Americans to grasp the magnitude of monetary numbers being tossed around and what they may be in for in the future. We generally grasped the concept of a million dollars ($1,000,000 - 6 zeros), but then the financial bailout and proposed stimulus bill brought "billion" to the forefront ($1,000,000,000 - 9 zeros), or 1000 million dollars.

While we are now trying to grasp the size of a billion, we might as well look forward to the next few monetary plateaus and acquaint ourselves as to what’s next, for surely it’s coming and we should be ready. A trillion ($1,000,000,000,000 - 12 zeros) is 1000 billion dollars. So while we are educating ourselves to the magnitude of a trillion dollars, we might as well get ready for the next steps – and here they are.

What follows a trillion is a quadrillion ($1,000,000,000,000,000 - 15 zeros) and sooner or later that number will be bandied about in the Washington, DC beltway community. In succession comes quintillion (18 zeros), sextillion (21 zeros), septillion (24 zeros) and octillion (28 zeros). There are larger numbers but sums up to octillion would seem to handle upcoming bailouts and budgets for the foreseeable future.

Regardless of the nomenclature used, in this case a trillion dollars, the question remains as to whether a government spending spree of that size will jolt the economy back to growth status. There is certainly opinions at 180 degrees, with President Obama and his liberal team at one side and his conservative opponents on the other. My own opinion is that whatever stimulus bill is finally adopted it will act more as a placebo than actual medicine. If my opinion turns out to be correct, a different placebo could have been produced at half the cost and we could have kept "trillion" in its nomenclature box and out of out of our vocabulary.

It is interesting to note how the spending door opens at the various governmental levels --municipal, county, state and federal. I’ve had a unique opportunity to observe this first hand as an alderman in the city of Mequon and a supervisor in Ozaukee County. Elected officials at the municipal level are the most reluctant to spend local taxpayer funds and rarely approve a budget with any substantial tax increase. I attribute this "tight" approach because these officials have to live and work in the same community with their taxpayers.

At the county level, the spending door starts to become somewhat ajar. Supervisors are further away from county taxpayers so occasionally go off the spending reservation. The two examples during my elected tours include the county board reneging on their solemn promise to revoke the 0.5% sales tax imposed to pay for the construction of the county Justice Center. When that payment was complete the lure from the income from that sales tax was just too much for a majority of supervisors to give up, so they cavalierly ignored their promise, kept the 0.5% sales tax and have no problem spending it year after year. The second example is the county board’s recanting their second solemn promise not to use county taxpayer funds to construct a bicycle bridge across I-43. That promise was disdainfully dismissed when the cost of the bridge far exceeded private contributions and state and federal grants. So the county board approved using federal highway funds intended to rebuild and improve roads in the county for the benefit of all county residents.

So now we have the spending door ajar when we move to the state level. There the spending door swings wide as attested by our $5 billion budget deficit, as legislators from both parties find programs to finance far beyond income. And how do we address the continuing shortfall to accommodate the state’s requirement to operate under a balanced budget? The governor and legislators mickey-mouse the system such as converting the stream of tobacco payments into a cash payment. Shades of the "JJ Wentworth" TV commercial - "Do You Need Cash Now?"

At the federal level, the spending door hasn’t been opened wide – it’s been removed from its hinges. "Earmarks" clog every spending bill with "pork" projects of dubious value, except to get their congressional authors re-elected. Now we have a trillion dollar alleged stimulus bill about to be signed into law. No one argues that it is not filled with social engineering programs that should have been submitted under separate legislation that would be debated and understood by the American public. Whether any of the stimulus part of the bill will work or not remains to be seen, but assuredly money will flow in large chunks soon and probably larger and larger chunks in the future.

So let’s get ready for the next phase and familiarize ourselves with what will enter our vocabulary when those larger and larger chunks appear: "A quadrillion here, a quadrillion there; pretty soon you’re talking real money!"


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