Really Big Numbers and the Ukraine Funding Request

February 08, 2024

The Biden administration has run into a brick wall, or at least MAGA lunacy, in its $60 billion funding request for Ukraine. A big part of its problem is that many people are debating this funding with the idea that it requires pulling away money from other important programs or that it will be a huge increase in the nation’s debt. This is not true, but the widespread belief that $60 billion is a large amount of money to the federal government is a major obstacle to getting the request through Congress.

The federal government is projected to spend more than $6.6 trillion this year, which means that the Ukraine funding request will be a bit more than 0.9 percent of the federal budget. If people prefer to see the funding proposal relative to the whole economy, our GDP will be around $28.2 trillion this year, so the Ukraine money will be a bit more than 0.2 percent of GDP. If we want another comparison, we will spend roughly $850 billion on the military in 2024, so the Ukraine request is a bit more than 7.0 percent of the size of the military’s budget.  

These, and other, comparisons can help to make the impact of the proposed spending request meaningful to people. As it is, almost no one will ever see a sum anything like $60 billion. The figure likely means almost nothing to most people other than being a really big number. It would probably look pretty much the same to people if we added a zero or took one away, since most people have no reason ever to think about numbers in the billions or tens of billions.

Reporters know that these really big numbers are largely meaningless to the people who see or hear them. Margaret Sullivan, who was at the time the New York Times public editor, had a great column back in  2013 where she strongly argued this point.

The column took the paper to task for writing really big numbers, especially in the context of the federal budget, that were meaningless to almost everyone who read them. David Leonhardt, who was then the Washington editor, strongly agreed, saying that they might as well just write “really big number” instead of putting in the billions, tens of billions, or hundreds of billions. There seemed to be a genuine commitment to expressing these numbers in a context that made them meaningful to readers.

I went out to celebrate that night, expecting a new era of reporting in the NYT, which would likely transform reporting more generally, given the importance of the paper. That new era never came.

We’re seeing the repercussions of that failure now in the debate over Ukraine aid. The opponents of the aid are benefitting enormously by the fact that most people hugely exaggerate the size of the aid relative to the budget or the economy.

To be clear, there are good arguments that can be made against aiding Ukraine and the larger war. The fact that the aid is not depressing U.S. living standards or keeping us from spending on other important programs, does not mean it is a good thing.

But we should be having a debate over its actual merits, with a clear knowledge of how much of a burden sending $60 billion to Ukraine is. That is not the case today, and this reality is almost entirely the media’s fault.  


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