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Impoliticly Connected

Could financial illiteracy simply be in the DC water supply?

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The Washington restaurant proudly promoted its pretheater menu, which allows a Kennedy Center patron to choose among several options for a starter, main course and dessert, all for $35.

Being capable of simple math, I added it up. If I bought the items separately from the printed menu, only one of the combinations would reach $35. Priced separately, the other combos ranged from $28 to $34.

When the waitress, a personable young senior studying international relations at George Washington University, returned, I asked, “The pre-theater special comes with wine or coffee or something, right?”

“No,” she said, sighing, “it's just the three food items.”

“Are they bigger portions?”

“No,” she sighed again, “it's just the three food items.”

“You do know why I'm asking, don't you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she sighed even louder. “You're from out of town.”

My wife tells me I'm too willing to generalize from the particular but after I quit laughing, I started crying. The restaurant's special is simply too representative of Washington thinking not to generalize. As Sen. Everett Dirksen famously put it in the 1960s, “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money.”

The people who have control over the national debt and deficit are so insular in their thinking that at least one restaurant that caters to them obviously knows they can't — or won't — do simple math. Only we rubes would actually recognize that a special is supposed to decrease, not increase prices, and have the impudence to say so.

Although it bothers my wife when I expose the obvious, the obvious is that at least since the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s, and the absurdity of hundreds of congressmen bouncing countless personal checks in the early 1990s, and our current secretary of the Treasury who says he mistakenly screwed up his tax bill — in his favor of course — after a now-departed vice president said “deficits don't matter,” whomever we send to Washington, regardless of party, must lose the capacity for rational financial thought.

There's simply something about financial prudence that our nation's capital can't, or won't, comprehend.

We're talking about a $12.4 trillion debt limit — supported craftily by the speaker of the house last week who packaged it so that any congressman voting against it would appear also to be against supporting our troops.

Followed a day later by our secretary of state pledging $100 billion to help other countries adapt to global warming — money we'll have to borrow from China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, to give back to the Chinese.

While, on that same day, a congressional hearing made it clear that Washington has no idea how much we're paying contractors in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, we're talking about dozens of bank bailouts emanating from the nation's capital, which didn't limit bonuses, although the country's Main Streets recognize that bonuses are prudent only when posting profits.

And we're talking about hundreds of stimulus managers who fail to think beyond the instant gratification of special-interest groups and, therefore, almost always make other, bigger problems — like the national debt — worse.

We watch the impending passage of a health care bill that everyone, from the tea parties on the right to the dyed-in-the-wool liberals on the left to the Congressional Budget Office, allegedly nonpartisan, reports will launch the annual deficit like a rocket.

At the same time, White House staffers claim they can save money by solving Medicare and Medicaid fraud, a claim that federal candidates have made loudly for a couple of decades — and always without success.

Could financial illiteracy simply be in the Washington water supply? It's not just the federal government, after all, that doesn't know how to watch a dollar bill. Our nation's capital city has been conned out of millions recently by organizations that allegedly fight AIDS when the documentation indicates their prime job is supplementing the incomes of their directors. And Washington schools lose massive pupil activity fees because “oversight is ineffective and the people responsible for plundering or squandering the money are rarely held accountable,” as The Washington Post put it a month ago. The Post articles came a year after a city worker orchestrated a decade-long tax-rebate scheme that makes Afghani corruption appear nonexistent.

If there wasn't some financial-illiteracy syndrome in the district, one might expect that someone would catch these issues before they become front-page news around the nation.

Unless of course no one in America's capital city can actually add — and that, obviously, is the implication of at least one restaurant's pre-theater menu.

Randy Salzman is a former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville.

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