Columnists > Soul Food

Too many zeroes

If the amount spent on a program is beyond comprehension, watch out

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

I was in a gathering last week where someone asked John Bolton, the feisty U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, how much money our country spends every year on that relationship. He did some quick mental calculations and suggested that between annual dues and UN-related relief and peacekeeping operations, the total is probably in the neighborhood of $2 billion a year.

It's not often when confronted with such figures that my response is anything like what it was last week: I was frankly surprised the figure was so small.

Not that I think $2 billion is a small amount of money in any case. And especially when I think about our nation's contributing that much just to have our own good reputation defamed around the world and our value system so vigorously opposed-that's when I respond that even a phony $2 bill would be an excessive assessment.

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But still, if I'd had to guess (before hearing Ambassador Bolton) just what the United States spends on the UN every year, I would almost certainly have guessed 10 or 20 times as much as he reported. And when I step you through my faulty reasoning, I think you'll both understand-and be properly alarmed.

First, at $2 billion, the annual U.S. contribution to the UN is just one-tenth of 1 percent of the total U.S. federal budget. Out of every $10 the federal government takes in, only one solitary penny goes to the UN. On the face of it-all value considerations aside-that just doesn't seem like such a big deal. You might make a moral argument, but at one-tenth of 1 percent, you can't make much of a fiscal argument.

Second, $2 billion is just about what we're spending every single week right now in Iraq, both for military operations and to rebuild the country. It seems to be at least a good evening's discussion, doesn't it, to debate whether we can't spend as much on the UN for a year as we spend on Iraq in a week.

But it was my third perspective that clobbered me. I was reading through the endless lists of projects various members of the U.S. Senate had added as "earmarks" to the current emergency appropriations bill to fund the Iraqi war and to rebuild the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. President Bush had asked for $92.2 billion for those two causes, insisting that should be an impenetrable fiscal ceiling and that he would veto the bill if the Senate added to it. But it was a threat most Senators apparently thought was meaningless, and they proceeded immediately to add some $14 billion in miscellaneous pork-barrel projects.

Some were merely bothersome, like the $1.5 million designation to establish and maintain Dick Gephardt's archives in St. Louis. Some were laughable, like a $36,300 project to protect Kentucky bingo halls from terrorist attacks. Then came the granddaddy of all earmarks-a $700 million request to rebuild a railroad in southern Mississippi. Never mind that the railroad has already been restored (at a cost of many millions) and is fully operational. The new project's sponsors (including way too many conservative Republicans) want to relocate the railroad several hundred yards farther inland, partly to provide space on the coast itself for construction of a number of casinos.

So do the math, if your numbed mind can still handle figures that big. Are you with me when I remind you that this single "railroad to nowhere" project, at $700 million, is asking for a sum that is more than a third of everything the United States spends on the United Nations in a whole year? Does that surprise you?

No, I don't suggest this exercise as a backdoor means of justifying the United Nations-a scalawag group to which I will readily attach the analogous label "organization to nowhere." I do mean it as a reminder that the sums being spent on all these projects and causes have become so enormous none of us can any longer comprehend them. And when you can no longer comprehend the scope of what you're spending on anything, the immorality of that project has already been determined.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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