The infrastructure bill in U.S. Congress is an example of the serious public consequences of innumeracy, writes Michael Brenner.   

Corporate Threat to Liberty. (DonkeyHotey, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Michael Brenner

“Arithmetic” is a word that has gone out of fashion. Most everyone now says “math(s).”  Arithmetic’s use seems limited to calculations whose sums are in single digits. “Math” begins when we need to figure out what percentage of 49 does 17 represent. What practical consequence is there? Not much if you’re carrying your smart phone or tablet.

However, innumeracy does have serious consequences where public spending and public policy is concerned. For many self-interested parties abuse numbers — whether through over-complication (the economists’ retreat into algebra), fudging them, studied avoidance of comparisons, or outright lying that assumes the innumerate never will notice. 

Here is one simple example of how a sense of numbers and what they mean can illuminate issues otherwise overlooked.

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Let’s consider the “infrastructure” bill getting its last massages in Congress. It is being widely hailed by the White House, by Senate leaders, the Democratic leadership in the House (with a few misgivings) and, of course, the media.

Concrete & Bricks 

This is essentially a concrete-and-bricks bill. Over the five-year life of the program, $146 billion is earmarked for roads (mainly) and airports. Public transit: $39 billion. Power — private and public — gets $73 billion; water $120 billion; broadband $68 billion. Clean energy gets stiffed: $0. (However, the latest draft bill would make fossil fuel companies eligible for at least $25 billion in new subsidies). 

The program has been shorn of everything else that seemed tantalizingly close: that is, nothing for housing, schools, home/community care, states and municipalities or, for that matter, manufacturing research and development.

Most remarkable, it struck off the idea of expanding the resources of the IRS so to endow it with the means to tackle the tax escapism of the rich.  

The total amount of the program hashed out in the Senate and sent back to the House amounts to $550 billion.

What of the $1 trillion we see highlighted in the news? Well, that is an illusion since it includes $450 billion already appropriated in pre-existing programs. Deception? How dare you — Ye of little faith in the probity of your elected officers!  A small rounding error surely.

The Headline Number … Over 5 Years 

Yes, even $550 billion sounds like a lot — even in these profligate Covid times. That’s the headline number. Read down a couple of paragraphs and you learn that the $550 billion is the total to be spent over five years. 

We might also note that that comes to about $110 billion a year. Sounds less impressive.

Moreover, it includes drawing on about $70 billion by delaying indefinitely an agreed Medicare rule that would give beneficiaries rebates that now go to insurers and middlemen. The Congressional Budget Office had projected that the delay would increase taxpayer costs by $177 billion over 10 years — $17 billion a year, or $88 billion over the life of the infrastructure programs. (That $550 billion minus $88 billion = $462 billion or roughly $92 billion per annum, but let’s bracket that.)
To put each number in perspective, here are a few comparative numbers. 

Defense budget (nominal): $750 billion per annum. Actual (with medical services, pensions, etc, included) = $1 trillion per annum. So, infrastructure dollars will be 14 percent of the military dollars. 

Afghanistan:  $2.25 trillion (with highest annual expenditures under former President Barack Obama).

Barack Obama. (Donkey Hotey/Flickr)

All Middle East wars, from 2001 until today: $6.6 trillion 

Intelligence budget: about $85 billion per annum.  

Tax breaks to very wealthy in 2002, 2009, 2017: $2 trillion – $3 trillion,  approximately 

Monetary easing by the Federal Reserve from 2008 until today: $4 trillion, approximately. By far the largest part is interest-free cash to big financial institutions to play with. Little of it is invested in productive enterprises; most is used speculatively to drive up asset prices — that includes stocks. At the height of the Covid-driven economic crisis in the spring of 2020, when 9 million or so suddenly were laid off and GDP plummeted, the stock indexes hit new highs. (There is in fact a disconnect between financial markets and the “real” economy.)

Federal Reserve. (Donkey Hotey/Flickr)

Do these numbers surprise you? Well, if so, that is largely due to the calculated decision of successive presidential administrations, the leadership of the Democratic Party, and the compromised MSM to ignore them or to mask them. 

One Component: Public Transit 

Let’s break down the program’s proposed expenditures by looking at one component: Public transit is to receive $39 billion over the five years. That comes to less than $8 billion a year  — for the entire country.

Senate Majority Leader  Chuck Schumer trumpets that his triumph will enable New York City to renew its subway system, extend the fabled 2nd Avenue line project, whose tunnels were first dug in 1949; build new tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers, etc. The estimated bill for power-washing NYC subway stations does include drying. Give credit where credit is due — after five years, they may be back to the sanitary standards of 1949.

Sen. Mitch McConnell. (Donkey Hotey/Flickr)

This is pure fantasy. The arithmetic tells us that New York City likely will get just about enough cash to power wash its 472 grimy stations — long overdue, but not exactly 21st century standard. People used to get prosecuted for less egregious false advertising than this. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was one of 17 Republicans who voted for the bill. A smart move. He’s succeeded in protecting his rich backers from any threat of being forced to shell out a reasonable amount of tax, brought serenity to the minds of the financial parasites in big banks, hedge funds and private equity who can concentrate on looting the economy without distraction, and he has deprived the Democrats of anything substantial that they might deliver to their increasingly disaffected constituencies. 

Most important, McConnell has framed the Republicans’ pitch for next year’s congressional election. See, they will argue, we have taken fiscally responsible action to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, we have done so without raising your taxes, we have blocked the Democrats’ program to introduce a host of costly new Socialist, bureaucratic heavy programs, and we have shown that as a party we are ready to participate in constructive forms of bipartisanship. That line is a winner. Combine it with the crude election rigging by Republican-controlled state governments — which, for some inexplicable reason, Joe Biden has refused to contest seriously — and you have a Republican Congress come January 2023. 

One suspects that people like McConnell perceive the Democratic leadership from the Oval Office on down pretty much the way Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky perceived the inept, quavering Kerensky government in 1917 St. Petersburg — ripe for the plucking. 

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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13 comments for “Arithmetic

  1. Vera Gottlieb
    August 11, 2021 at 12:25

    Is ANYONE going to keep taps where all this money is really going to go??? My guess is: into the wrong pockets.

  2. August 11, 2021 at 11:57

    The Dem-GOP tag team can con the US public all they want for as long as they want; but they cannot cheat reality. The empire has no cloths.

  3. Buffalo_Ken
    August 11, 2021 at 11:50

    Great article. Much appreciated.
    Not being flippant, but did you know 2+2 = 5?
    If so, your math don’t add up, but the figures in this article make me ponder….
    All the currency wasted….
    And for what?
    When I make a mistake I admit it, and then that’s that.
    Why can’t the entities out of DC ever admit a mistake?
    It doesn’t mean you are weak when you make a mistake.
    It just means your human for Christ’s sake.
    The facts are coming in…rapidly.
    A tsunami of facts are close
    To the shore.
    I thank my Lord for that.
    Let the waves roll in, and then…….
    Let’s decide.

  4. robert e williamson jr
    August 10, 2021 at 11:58

    I often lament the fact that this country of ours kills hundreds of thousands of people I do not feel need to die. My fellow citizens included. Especially since the blood fest in Vietnam.

    This use of my tax dollars and that of millions of other U.S. taxpayers is beyond out of control.

    It is beginning to look as though we all may be doomed because of it, as a direct result!

    see The Pentagon is Killing Us.

    At what point is enough, enough?

    Thanks CN

  5. Ian Robert Stevenson
    August 9, 2021 at 17:34

    no one seems to talk about the multiplier effect of govt. spending. That depends on there being spare capacity or areas which could swop to different activity e.g. less oil drilling and more school refitting.

  6. Carolyn L Zaremba
    August 9, 2021 at 15:16

    I suffer from dyscalculia since I am on the autism spectrum. I have never been able to comprehend mathematics beyond the multiplication table without difficulty. Show me a page of numbers and it might as well be Chinese. There are plenty of others like me.

    • Ed
      August 10, 2021 at 01:47

      Some dyscalculia is physiological and innate; some is inflicted. See

  7. Calvin E Lash Jr
    August 9, 2021 at 11:24

    I agree.

  8. Maura
    August 9, 2021 at 11:17

    Is Medicare in Good Health?
    Arithmetic, let’s see.
    Congressional Budget Office and Medicare Trustees Report 2020 states longevity of funds to be depleted in 2026.
    Medicare Part A hospital insurance trust funds will not be able to pay hospitals and other providers.
    Higher taxes and reduction in benefits will result.
    In this infrastructure bill which will do the opposite by adding dental,vision benefits will put the program on metaphoric ventilators.
    Add Part B Physician benefits,Part D prescription benefits and a wonderful medical program is in poor health.Congressional Amendments on Medicare should be a separate bill with priority.

  9. GBC
    August 9, 2021 at 10:19

    Enormously clarifying. Biden was right when he promised that “nothing would fundamentally change”. We are a failed state [in]action.
    Because $$$. Because “markets”. Because our oligarchs.

  10. dfnslblty
    August 9, 2021 at 10:17

    Bravo! Professor.

    That dems & repubs would tout this as sane or helpful.…

    Protest Loudly!

  11. Henry Smith
    August 9, 2021 at 07:57

    For completeness, let’s not forget the $3.8 billion in military assistance given to Israel, each year, no strings attached.
    In an alternative ‘real world’, the USA is bankrupt several times over. Thank goodness for those QE printers.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      August 9, 2021 at 15:17

      Quite right. The U.S. should stop funding that apartheid state.

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