Here’s the lead headline at the Washington Post right now:
This kind of stuff drives me crazy because it preys on the innumeracy of the general public. Should agencies be more careful about shutting down bank accounts they no longer use? Sure. And does reporter David Fahrenthold acknowledge that the money involved is “a tiny fraction of the federal budget”? Yes he does.
But seriously, folks, “tiny fraction” barely even begins to describe this. In numbers, it represents about 0.000025 percent of the federal budget. But even that’s too small a number to really get a feel for, so let’s put this into terms that the Washington Post can understand.
Annual revenues at the Washington Post hover somewhere around $500 million. So how much is 0.000025 percent of that? Answer: $125. Would the Washington Post run a lengthy story about two empty bank accounts that the Washington Post hasn’t closed yet, which cost the Washington Post’s shareholders $125? No. The story is so self-evidently ridiculous that they’d laugh at anyone foolish enough to even mention it.
Look, I get it. The empty bank accounts are just being used as an example of “old bugs, built into the machine of government, that make spending money seem easier than saving it.” The problem is that dumb stuff like this is what convinces people that government is wantonly wasteful, when the fact is that every corporation in America has inefficiencies this large. It’s just part of human beings running a human organization.
And focusing on this stuff is lazy. If you want to demonstrate that the federal government wastes money, then write a story about actual, substantial waste. Is that too hard? If the government truly is wasteful, it shouldn’t be. In a $3.5 trillion operation there ought to be dozens, even hundreds, of easy examples that cost real money. If there aren’t, then perhaps the real story is that the federal government is actually about as efficient as any other big organization.
The basic problem here is that it’s hard to grapple with the sheer size of the numbers involved. Any corporation in America that kept wasteful spending down to 1 percent would be pretty happy. That number represents a tightly run ship. But the federal government is so large that 1 percent waste amounts to about $35 billion. That’s a scary sounding number, but in fact, it’s pretty small. The truth is that if you can’t dig up at least that amount in wasteful spending—not spending you dislike, but actual wasteful spending—you don’t have much of a story.