Every season of congress there are a spate of stories about the junkets, art acquisitions, and cushy surroundings Senators and Representatives lavish on themselves, to the outrage of the taxpayers. They travel with families in tow to some exotic place in government jets, stay at expensive hotels, sightsee and shop, meet for a few hours with some foreign businessmen or dignitaries, and charge a large portion of this to us. Comments in the popular media focus on how symbolically out-of-touch these politicians are or how insulting it is to those who support them. Faint defenses are sometimes raised that the overall expense is pocket change in the national budget, not something worth even the momentary distraction of a sneer amidst the vast cataracts of spent money in DC.
There is some merit to the defense. Millions of dollars wasted are hardly worth mentioning in comparison to billions, which are a thousand times larger. We are now even speaking about trillions with ease, a thousand times greater than that. Among all these rhyming amounts of money, all sounding so similar and hard to tell apart, taking our eyes off the prize of cutting back the trillions, dammit, in order to focus on amounts which are .0001% as large does seem a useless distraction.
Yet from observing my own behavior, I believe the individual wastefulness, though petty in amount, has a great effect on the personality, and thus the larger picture.
We grow used to spending money in different orders of magnitude for different purposes. When we were younger, we spent only in terms of what we had in our pockets. If I had a $5 bill on me in college, I considered myself comfortable. Even now, if I am carrying $20 it seems like a secret fortune, and carrying a second $20 seems an excess. I make exceptions for specific events and purchases, but I am aware that these moments are exceptions.
$20 does not seem anything like a fortune, however, when discussing a salary or the purchase of a house. For those sums we move into different modes of number-understanding. Yet I don't think those numbers are clearer to us. In fact, I think they are less real, relying more on comparisons to other numbers than to imagined stacks of cash. $20 is real.
But when I go to a restaurant and am paying for multiple people, with entrees running at $28, drinks at $7, and appetisers at $12, spending $6 on a side dish no longer looks like a lot of money. When we travel and have just plunked down $1200 each for plane tickets, calculated in hundreds more for hotel rooms, rental cars, theater or museum tickets, subway passes and the like, I find money in large somes just continues to flow from my wallet. I have entered a new plane of spending, where $20 has become a barely noticeable sum. My normal self, if I were to look at the traveling self objectively, would be appalled. But it is an exciting plane to live on, a new normal, and I rapidly switch over to being a person who is comfortable in that world. I now play with numbers that are much more abstract, more vague, more imaginary.
It would be good for at those moments, I am sure, to try and train myself back down to a spot where having $20 in my pocket seemed like a lot again.
When you fly the equivalent of first class to Scotland, stay in hotel rooms that cost $400/night, are chauffeured about and wear expensive clothes in order to create the proper impression, you are very far from that $20, never mind the $5 of youth or the redeemable bottles of childhood. You have become some other person; perhaps one you wouldn't like very much if you had met him thirty years ago. This new person, who has moved beyond creating $3,000,000 buildings with a wave of the hand, beyond $300,000,000 programs to fix something or other that your fellows feel have gone wrong, beyond $30,000,000,000 of jobs-creation or military hardware, is now on a plane where dollar amounts are a complete abstraction, vague, imaginary sums that people speak about authoritatively.
These unrealities are related. The mere arithmetic of the -illions already untethers us from our roots and our selves. If we add to this the separation of going where few others go, staying where few others stay, traveling as few others travel, we become less real ourselves.
How many twenty-dollar bills are there in a junket to Thailand? Uh, uh, uh, lots, I don't know. How many twenty-dollar bills in health care reform? Uh, uh, uh, lots, I don't know. It's the same number.
That is not especially an accusation against politicians, but simply noting that they are made of the same stuff as all of humanity. We might do worse in their shoes. But somehow, they have to get back to a place where $20 in your pocket as you walk down the street is a happy sum.