Friday, May 8, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

Conservatives have been telling us for years that energy conservation was a silly idea: "You're only going to save maybe 1% of our crude oil consumption that way" they'd scoff at this or that proposal (at lots of proposals: because there are lots of ways to conserve energy!), "It's just a drop in the ocean!" And that was the argument: saving a little is no use, so forget it.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be "conservative" about this attitude. It has no relation to the commonsense frugality of my parents who grew up during the Great Depression, for example. Nor does it resemble the humble traditions of thrift and saving that hardworking immigrants have been bringing to this country for centuries. It is the cynicism of hopelessness, at best, and the cynicism of those who know that their personal interests are served at the expense of others, at worst. The fact is that when billions of barrels of crude oil are being consumed every day, 1/2 of 1 percent, say, translates into an awful lot of oil. With numbers of vast magnitudes the fact that must be realized is that even a small percentage of a very large number is, in real numbers, itself a very large number.

This old argument comes to mind watching the (I would say cynical) reaction of the media to President Obama's announcement of $75 billion dollars of savings in federal spending announced this week. By trimming here and trimming there, closing this office and canceling that order, the White House, busy enough with other things, has announced that they have saved a sum equal to approximately 1/2 of 1 percent of the federal budget. And out come the cynics: "A drop in the ocean," "A political stunt," and so forth. I beg to differ.

Every householder knows that it does indeed make sense to cut out the monthly sushi outing, or hold off on ordering that new CD from Amazon, when pressed with a big mortgage payment, a large credit card debt, college bills and so forth. $500 a year in savings: that's a month's worth of credit card payments, or a month's worth of groceries, or a new piece of furniture. That's real money! And guess what: do what the Obama administration has done three months into its term 199 more times and: no deficit at all. 200: is that so large a number? Meanwhile, lots of folks, apparently, figured for a long time "Hey I owe $12,000 on my credit cards: another 60 bucks for this gizmo doesn't change that situation." That way lies madness. That way lies the impasse at which we have arrived.

So yes, it is a matter of perspective when we're talking about trillions of dollars of deficit spending. But the moral of that has been backwards in the media this week, and I'm not talking about know-nothing Fox, I'm talking about MSNBC, even. The implication of trillions of dollars in debt is not that 1/2 of 1 percent savings is nothing. The moral is that it's a WHOLE LOT. When I save 1/200th of my annual budget, that's good. When Obama saves 1/200th of the annual federal budget, that's not just good, that's great.

No comments: