## Glenn Beck Tries to Duplicate My Visual, Messes Up The Math

Last week, I posted a new video on the recent budget freeze using colored cups of water (seen here).

The following Wednesday, during the morning Glenn Beck radio show, Glenn was introduced to my work. Apparently he liked it so much that he had his own version by the evening.

I made a lot of noise on Twitter about him taking my video, but that was because I thought he actually took my video as opposed to translating it into a similar idea. Taking my idea… who cares? I’m hardly in this for the money; if people understand something better than they did before and they were true to the data, I’m happy.

But that was the problem: I don’t know who was doing the math for the demonstration, but it was way off.

Let’s assume that the 100 gallons of water represented the spending over the next 10 years.

The reason we’re making this assumption is not because it makes sense but because we’re giving Glenn the benefit of the doubt. (Glenn implies that we’re looking at the budget for 2011, but he never says that so I don’t want to lock his meaning into something he might not have meant.) According to President Obama’s 2011 budget, we expect to spend \$45.9 trillion from 2011 to 2020.

Let’s also assume that Glenn is using the “\$250 billion saved over 10 years” number to represent the amount of money saved. I assume this because that’s the only number that I’ve seen that is “over the next 10 years”. If this is the case, then Glenn says that what looks like a shot glass (about 2 ounces of water) represents \$250 billion.

I don’t know who did the calculations, but they got it pretty far off. If \$45.9 Trillion is equal to 100 gallons, then \$250 billion is equal to a 2 liter bottle of water.

That’s a lot of water to chug and not nearly as impressive a visual as the little shot glass. But it is accurate.

Like I said before, taking my idea is fine if you think it helps other people understand something better. But maybe next time someone should drop me a line to make sure you get your numbers right.

## What Does the Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?

The first part of this post is just an overview of the data I used to make this video, so if you don’t care about that, you can skip over it to the part where I talk about what the budget freeze means.

First, I’ve got a new video up called “What Does The Federal Budget Freeze Look Like?”

Here is the data summary of this video:

I got the budget numbers (budget, discretionary, mandatory) from the overview of the 2010 budget which includes projections for 2011. I did this because the 2011 budget is not available yet (although I understand that those projections are a bit low and the real budget will be bigger than the projection).

That gives us the following numbers:

• 2011 Federal Budget – \$3.7 trillion
• Mandatory portion of federal budget – \$2.322 trillion
• Discretionary portion of federal budget – \$1,380 trillion

I’ve seen it consistently reported that the freeze will affect \$447 billion of the budget, although I imagine that number is subject to change. The amount saved from this freeze has been consistently reported as \$15 billion in the first year and \$250 billion over 10 years.

The stimulus funds as reported by recovery.gov at the time of this post are:

That leaves:

• \$195 billion in tax cuts that have not been applied
• \$202 billion in contracts, grants and loans that haven’t been spent
• \$121 billion in entitlements (what a creepy name) that haven’t been spent

If we left the tax cuts in place, but canceled the rest of the spending, we’d save \$323 billion… which is a shade less than what I said in the video. Apparently, that is the result of some rounding errors in my spreadsheet, but the \$4 billion comes out to about one and a half teaspoons, which isn’t enough to make a difference in the visualization.

As for the water part of it… If we assume that the budget is 192 ounces of water that we’ve split into 4 oz cups, then all the math in the video works out. I actually under-counted the unspent stimulus (it would be 17 ounces instead of 16). I measured my ice cube tray and found that each ice cube was 1.5 ounces and I used 1 and a half tablespoons of water to measure out the .75 ounces that would be equivalent to \$15 billion.

## <End of Boring Math Things>

OK… now to comment on what I think about the budget freeze to anyone who cares what I actually think.

First of all, I hate the “we’re saving \$250 billion over 10 years” line. It is a piece of crass political rhetoric and I’m disappointed that the administration would use it. If they actually implement a three year freeze on the portion of the budget they’re talking about (which is a big if, but let’s assume the best), why measure the effects in the space of 10 years?

The answer is “To make the freeze look bigger”. They’re basically just basing the extended savings off of projected interest payments and “savings” due to the fact that the baseline on that portion of the budget hasn’t moved. It is setting a dangerous data precedent where politicians realize that all they have to do is calculate a projection out as far as they need in order to get the numbers they want. It would be like giving an employee a \$5,000 bonus, but saying that you gave them a \$8,000 bonus based on a 5% return of that investment over the course of 10 years.  They might as well say that they’re saving a trillion dollars over the next 25 years or a hundred trillion over the next 300 years. It is a data statement designed to trick people.

Second, I hate the “We’re saving all this money by not spending it” line because it is similarly political. If a future politician wants to play this stupid numbers game, all they have to do is “project” that they will spend like a crazy person next year and when the next year comes, they decided to spend like a half crazy person. Then they can claim that they have “saved” all this money because they “reduced” their projected spending.

As a slapdash example, a politician could project that they will increase spending by 5% next year and then decide at the last moment to increase it by 3%. They could then spin that decision to increase by a smaller amount as a decision to “cut” their spending (which wasn’t real spending, only projected spending) by 2%.

Last, my attempt to visualize the scale of the budget freeze does not mean I don’t support it. I really like to see cuts to the budget and I personally think this is not an insignificant one.I think it is worth our energy to do exactly what the Obama administration seems to be doing…freezing increases and looking around for crappy programs to cut.

Keep in mind the hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle. The Republicans are hypocrites for claiming that this is a totally inconsequential budget cut. In 2005, George W. Bush proposed a 1% cut (not a freeze, a cut) in discretionary spending that wasn’t Department of Defense or Homeland Security. Translated to today, Bush’s cuts would have “saved” \$33 billion using the calculation metric for the current freeze; more than twice the amount that this freeze would save us. At the time, John McCain called it a “very austere budget” and Dick Cheney went out pushing their credentials as cost cutters. I find it strange that they were ecstatic about saving the equivalent of \$33 billion but think that \$15 billion is a drop in a bucket.

Of course the Democrats blasted Bush’s cuts as a gimmick too small to make a difference, but seem to have lost much of their skepticism over these new, smaller “cuts”.

Overall, it looks like both sides are more interested in political gain than in having a frank discussion about the numbers and what they mean. This should surprise no one, but I confess to finding myself somewhat dismayed that the Obama administration, for all their hype about being pro-science and pro-data, has no problem spinning the numbers in a way that decreases clear comprehension in order to increase message potency.