As they get older, some people develop this Normal Rockwell idealized version of childhood where they think of themselves as “growing up poor” and spinning endless yarns about how tough they had it. I’m not one of those people. Though a far cry from wealthy, we were comfortable. Despite this, I managed to learn a healthy respect for money, which I even try to remember from time to time now that I’m in charge of my own.
One of the things that anyone who has every worked a big emergency event will tell you is that the day tends to stretch on in an unending series of telephone conferences and meetings where people say mostly the same thing again and again. Occasionally, though, you’ll hear something that either makes you shake your head in disbelief or shoot lukewarm coffee out your nose at something approaching the speed of sound.
This afternoon, I was lounging in my standard government issue office chair, leaning perilously back and swilling cup after cup of what passes for “official” coffee. The meeting I was part of was dealing with an impending budget request and since it wasn’t my budget, I’ll admit that my attention was wandering. The question that caught me not only by surprise, but completely unaware in this case was a simply worded affair: Do you think we should request the full $…illion? Now remember, a couple of million is no big deal between agencies, so I didn’t think much of the words that ending in “…illion,” until, of course, the answer came back, “no, I think we can get by on the $950 million for this one.”
That’s right, you just found the point in the day where the institutional coffee I had been drinking filled my sinus cavity. This room full of mid-level bureaucrats was tossing around a billion dollar budget request like people toss a $5 bill on the counter to pay for their daily Starbucks fix. Now that I’ve had the chance to think about it, in the grand scheme of the federal budget, a billion isn’t really that big a chuck of change to request… and that realization really got me thinking.
Growing up in Nowhere, Maryland, I never once would have imagined the places I’ve been, the things I’ve done, and the opportunities I have had. But today, there I was, the youngest person in the room easily by a decade, when we decided that we could “get by” on $995 million next year. There’s enough Western Maryland left in me to still think of that as real money, Everett Dirksen to the contrary.