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Olympic Big Macs, Moon Ransoms, & Chess Rice

Three stories with a single moral. Let us begin.

Story One of Three:

I lived in Los Angeles during the 1984 Summer Olympics. Those were heady, halcyon days, mainly because of all the free food we were getting at McDonalds.

Allow me to explain.

McDonalds was running an Olympic-themed promotion offering free food based on how many medals the U.S. athletes won. Unfortunately for them, and quite fortunately for me, they set up that promotion before the USSR decided to boycott the ’84 games and deprive our guys of their most serious competion, which meant that the Americans were winning everything in sight. All of those medals added up to a whole lot of complimentary Big Macs.

I ate well while McDonalds lost a fortune. (Plus my friend James worked at McDonalds and gave me a bunch of free food, but that wasn’t the primary cause of McDonalds’ overall financial woes.)

I offer this experience as an object lesson for Washington DC – and for the partisan voters who are rearranging our nation’s gold medal deck chairs on a 1984 McDonalds Titanic. (I dig tortured mixed metaphors, especially if they have a doomed luxury liner/fast food theme.)

Story Two:

In the first Austin Powers movie, Dr. Evil is frozen for three decades and unthawed in a world where his ransom of “one MILLION dollars” is greeted with ridicule, due to, you know, inflation and such. He then adjusts his demands to “One hundred BILLION dollars.” Nice work if you can get it.

That figure becomes a problem in the second movie, though, when Dr. Evil time travels in order to return the Sixties, but he fails to return to the Sixties-appropriate ransom figure. He asks the 1960s presidential cabinet led by unlikely POTUS Tim Robbins for “One hundred BILLION dollars” or else he’ll blow up the moon. Everyone in the White House bursts out laughing, because that amount of money simply doesn’t exist in the entire world.

Story Three – The Final Chapter:

It’s an old fable, and I don’t want to rewrite it, because I found a fine math geek who already rewrote it, and I can just cut and paste what he said.

The story goes that the ruler or India was so pleased with one of his palace wise men, who had invented the game of chess, that he offered this wise man a reward of his own choosing.

The wise man, who was also a wise mathematician, told his Master that he would like just one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, double that number of grains of rice on the second square, and so on: double the number of grains of rice on each of the next 62 squares on the chess board.

This seemed to the ruler to be a modest request, so he called for his servants to bring the rice. How surprised he was to find that the rice quickly covered the chess board, then filled the palace! Let’s stop here, and see just how many grains of rice this is.

The number of grains of rice on the last square can be written as “2 to the 63th power”, which looks like this:



Which can be written as approximately: 18,446,744,070,000,000,000 (I can’t write this more accurately as I have only 10 spaces on my TI-34 calculator!)

A grain of rice is approximately .2 inches long. Converting .2 inches to feet (divide by 12 inches to a foot) and then dividing that number by 5,280 feet in one mile, we get the length of the grains of rice, placed end-to-end, to be approximately 60,000,000,000,000 miles. How far is that? Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, is located 25,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth. Placed end to end, these grains of rice would reach farther than from the Earth, across space to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, and back to Earth again!

And now the single moral:

The United States has made financial promises that are not quite as impossible to keep as the chessboard rice payments, but they’re as silly as Dr. Evil’s moon ransom. Like McDonalds, we have tied a huge chunk of our spending to forces outside our control. Congress does not decide how much money they’re going to spend on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – and, now, our newest entitlement, Obamacare. These programs are driven by demographics, not decisions, and the demographic data is almost as disastrous as my forced alliteration.

Put it this way. The amount of money Congress can decide whether to spend or not spend is only 37% of federal spending. 63% of federal spending is mandatory – it’s McDonalds gold medal money. You get that money not because Congress decides every year to give it to you – you get it if you’re a certain age or have medical conditions. So when President Obama stood in front of Greek columns in 2008 and promised to go through the budget “line by line” to get rid of “wasteful spending,” he was only talking about 37% of the budget. (He was also full of gas about that, too, but I’m trying not to be partisan.)

Those are scary numbers. Well, here are some scarier numbers.

That 63% of federal spending that’s the McDonalds gold medal money? In 2011, we paid out $2.194 trillion dollars to meet our commitments. Problem is, we only took in $2.174 trillion dollars in tax receipts. So 101% of our spending was already done before anyone went through any budget, line by line or otherwise. (Except the Democrats in the Senate have refused to produce a budget for three years. Partisan parenthetical concluded.)

So go ahead. Cut all the waste out of government. Hell, cut all of government. Abolish every cabinet department; wipe out OSHA and the EPA, burn down the national parks, mothball the IRS and every other three-letter agency. After that, cut defense spending, too. Cut it the bone. Then cut it out altogether. Shut down the government completely; sell the White House to Donald Trump, and peddle all of our nukes on eBay.

You will still have a budget deficit.

That budget deficit will continue to grow with each passing year as the population ages and the demographics keep doubling the rice on the chess squares.

Sure, you can raise taxes, which will provide some additional revenue – but not nearly enough. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, with current demographic trends, by 2038 there will not be enough money in the world to meet the financial obligations we will have. When your expenditures hit 100 billion in 1967 dollars, your civilization essentially collapses, regardless of the party of guy in the White House.

What is Barack Obama doing about this? Touting a brand new unsustainable entitlement. So what is Mitt Romney doing about this? Not a damn thing.

I don’t care what your political stripes are. The math is undeniable. You can either demand that Washington take real action to reform these programs while they still can, or you can bury your head in the rice, blow up the moon, and enjoy your Big Mac.

Pros and Cons of the Unicorn Club
Hitler Cornell

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  1. Well said. The chicken vs the egg argument on whether or not we should raise taxes or cut spending is irrelevant. There are some BIG problems on the horizon with these entitlement programs. My SS statement says that by 2033 I will only receive 75 cents on the dollar, at 65 in 2053 I’m not planning on seeing a penny.

  2. Nit-noid comment just because I know someone will poke at it:
    2^63 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,807 which is the number of grains on the last square.
    2^64 – 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 is the TOTAL number of grains on the board (or where ever they fit…) Had to use MATLAB’s largest data type, uint64 (unsigned 64 bit integer) to get this and this is actually the largest integer it (and most computers today period) can handle.

    The direction is obviously clear.