When you are talking or writing about America, it is customary to use superlatives. We are the “greatest nation” in the world. We have the “largest economy” in the world. We are protected by the “greatest military” in the world. Many writers could go on for paragraphs on these themes, but the basic point is as simple as our country is large. Yet when it comes to accurately reporting on issues facing our democracy, these same writers set aside the scale and focus on sticker shock.
Such is the nature of our politics that the pundits and policy makers use big numbers to scare normal folks. Like Carl Sagan and his “Billions and Billions of stars”, political reporters and the policy makers they increasingly serve, use the zeros to the left of the decimal point as political ammunition. The political battles now being fought over Social Security, the federal deficit, and earmarks are being waged in front of an audience wholly unaware of the real scale of the national economy. The consequence is an electorate easily cowed into the most counter-productive policy choices, and the most self-defeating strategies.