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Harris Sherline: Putting a Billion in Perspective

A close look at what it can buy raises the question: Are we getting our money’s worth from the government?

Illinois Sen. Everett Dirksen (1896-1969) has been credited with saying, “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” His comment is often quoted, but we rarely hear anyone talk about another aspect of his observation, which is: How much money is $1 billion? Or, what can we pay for with that amount of money?

Today, we hear and see the word “billion” constantly. Multibillion-dollar government budgets are routinely debated and approved, and we seem to think nothing of it. There’s hardly a flicker from anyone. As a matter of fact, more often it’s the opposite, ranging from simple disinterest to boredom. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that “pork” is piled into appropriations bills as if the budget is a bottomless money pit for the convenience of our legislators, who are generally free to spend public funds with little or no public disclosure. The entire process is structured to enable them to ignore public good for personal advantage, without being held accountable.

I remember when the idea of $1 billion was a source of wonder at the sheer magnitude. Today, it no longer seems to elicit any response at all, other than a lack of concern. But, $1 billion does add up to “real money,” especially when you look closely at what it can buy.

The 2008 edition of Citizens Against Government Waste’s 2008 Congressional Pig Book notes, “In fiscal year 2008, Congress stuffed 11,610 projects (the second-highest total ever) into the 12 (federal) appropriations bills worth $17.2 billion.”

With this in mind, consider the following illustrations of just how much money $1 billion, or $17.2 billion, actually is:

  • Based on the average national income of $38,611 (, the $17.2 billion in pork barrel expenditures appropriated by Congress in fiscal year 2008 could support more than 445,000 families for one year. Or, it could pay the salaries of all members of Congress plus those of the entire congressional staff and the legislators’ total office expense budgets for 17 years, with money left over. Which is the better use of funds?

  • In many Third World countries, where the average annual income is less than $500, $17.2 billion could provide support for more than 34 million people for one year or 3.4 million people for 10 years.

  • At $10,000 per student, $17.2 billion could pay the costs of schooling for 1.72 million children for one year; or for the entire college educations of 430,000 students (at, say, $40,000 each).

  • At a median salary of $50,872 a year, $17.2 billion could pay for more than 338.000 secondary school teachers for one year, or more than 33,800 teachers for 10 years.

  • At $100 per visit, $17.2 billion could pay for 172 million doctor appointments. Based on an average of four doctor visits per year, it could provide health care for 43 million people for one year.  Coincidentally, that’s about the number of Americans who reportedly do not have any health insurance. In addition, at an average prescription drug expense of $100 a month, $17.2 billion could cover the prescription costs for more than 14 million people for one year, or 1.4 million patients for 10 years.

  • For those who live in apartments, at $1,000 a month, $17.2 billion could provide housing for more than 1.4 million residents for one year.

  • For the investment minded, at 5 percent per annum, the earnings on $17.2 billion would be $860 million a year. Looking at it from the viewpoint of seniors who collect Social Security, with the average retiree receiving about $1,000 a month, the investment income could permanently provide annual retirement payments to almost 72,000 people. Isn’t that how Social Security should work, instead of as a form of “Ponzi scheme,” which would be illegal if it were not the government doing it?
  • Now we are hearing about $1 trillion budgets, which makes the scope of our federal finances even more difficult to comprehend. The bigger the numbers, the easier it becomes to waste or hide large expenditures in the various budgets.

    Are we getting our money’s worth from the government, or is too much of it being wasted? Like the man said, “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” 

    The foregoing illustrations clearly demonstrate the misplaced priorities of our legislators. Financial impact reports should be required for all major appropriations bills.

    Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his own blog,

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