Washington Post Wastes $125! News at 11!

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Here’s the lead headline at the Washington Post right now:

Feds spend at least $890,000 on fees for empty accounts

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.

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THE TRUTH...

is the first thing despots go after. An unwavering commitment to it is probably what draws you to Mother Jones' journalism. And as we're seeing in the US and the world around, authoritarians seek to poison the discourse and the way we relate to each other because they can't stand people coming together around a shared sense of the truth—it's a huge threat to them.

Which is also a pretty great way to describe Mother Jones' mission: People coming together around the truth to hold power accountable.

And right now, we need to raise about $400,000 from our online readers over the next two months to hit our annual goal and make good on that mission. Read more about the information war we find ourselves in and how people-powered, independent reporting can and must rise to the challenge—and please support our team's truth-telling journalism with a donation if you can right now.

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