Media Watch: Can the New York Times Count that High?

Fact & Fiction

Evidence that numbers no longer mean anything now that Congress and the president are debating tax cuts in the trillions of dollars: In a front-page story in the New York Times on May 26 reporter David Rosenbaum noted that President Bush had succeeded in reducing taxes by $1.35 trillion, “slightly less than the $1.6 trillion” he had proposed. Slightly? The difference between what the president wanted and what he got was $250 billion.

A slip of the pen by a fatigued reporter working feverishly to meet a tight deadline? Apparently not. The following day Rosenbaum’s colleague at the Times, reporter Frank Brunei, observed that Mr. Bush “had to shave only a few hundred billion dollars from his dream.”

We at HNN are not sure what to make of this emerging indifference to sums smaller than a trillion. But the trend—if it is such--is surely worth noting.

How times have changed. In the quaint old days a billion was considered a substantial figure. Remember Ev Dirksen’s famous line: A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Because we take seriously the goal of “putting the news in perspective,” we thought readers might like to reflect, if ever so briefly, on a select list of other numbers from American history, if only to make the point of the changing definition of what constitutes a large sum.

Consider the Reagan deficits, of which so much is often (rightly) made. In 1981, year one of the Reagan Revolution, the government ran a deficit of about $50 billion; year two, about $100 billion; years three through eight, around $200 billion. At the time these numbers were considered astronomical. Politicians like Reagan and Perot, seeking to dramatize the size of the numbers, explained that a couple of hundred billion dollars, represented by one dollar bills, would reach to the moon or something.

Just for our own amusement we decided to compare these numbers with the net military cost of U.S. wars (excluding payments for veterans benefits etc.). Our findings are reported below. We think you’ll find them as interesting as we did. (The numbers are expressed in current dollars.)

Revolutionary War………$101 million

War of 1812……………...$90 million

Mexican War…………….$71 million

Civil War (North)………...$3.2 billion

Spanish-American War….$283 million

World War I……………....$ 31 billion

World War II……………...$316 billion

Korean War……………….$ 54 billion

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