Leadership Strategy

“A Billion Here, A Billion There. Pretty Soon…”

President Joe Biden spent $1.9 trillion in one day. (Added to the usual daily expense of running this country, call it a cool $2 trillion, give or take.) And he’s poised to blow that number out of the water with upcoming infrastructure bills and other measures designed to restore the overall health, not to mention leadership position, of the United States.

Make no mistake. To use a healthcare metaphor, this wasn’t elective cosmetic surgery; this was an emergency room trauma team saving a life.

And it’s just the beginning. To stay in that metaphor, it should come as no surprise to any of us that, once the ER has done its job and you’re admitted to the hospital for further care, the real bills start piling up. And they keep coming. Ask anyone who’s been through it. A few years ago I was taken to the ER for what turned out to be nothing more than dehydration; $27,000 later I was sent home and told to drink water.

So here comes the next couple of trillion bucks: the infrastructure plan that includes about $600B billion for transportation, $700B for buildings and utilities, and $600B for jobs and innovation. (Source: The White House) This is, for sure, more substantive a set of issues than one old man forgetting to drink enough water one day.

While affordable housing at $213B and electric vehicle incentives at $174B dominate the list of line items, the two smallest of the major line items are the rural partnership program at $5B and federal buildings at $10B. Still, five billion here, ten billion there – and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

Where have you gone, Everett Dirksen?

If you’re old enough or a serious enough student of American government history, you’ll recognize the genesis of that quip. In the 1950s, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, one of the great legislators and orators in our history (16 years in Congress and 18 in the Senate until his death in 1969) was said to have remarked, in his deep, throaty, baritone voice, “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

For the sake of historical accuracy, Dirksen did not say all that, as it turns out. According to The Dirksen Congressional Center, Senator Dirksen actually did say “a billion here, a billion there,” but not the rest. The Center identified a man who had asked Dirksen about the second part of that quote and received the following reply from the senator: “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”

But it remains one of America’s great homespun lines, with a Mark Twain or Will Rogers folksiness to it. At the same time, it helps put into perspective what’s going on right now: $2 trillion already signed into law, another $2 trillion about to be, and who knows how many more trillions will be proposed?

How much is that, really?

How does that stack up? The 33rd annual Forbes list of the world’s 2,153 billionaires pegs their total net wealth at $8.7 trillion (down $400B, by the way). By the time the U.S. adds up the stimulus and infrastructure bills – and then more bills to come – we’re likely to see, over the next few years, specific spending measures that will surpass the total wealth on the global billionaires list. Has that ever happened before? Who cares? Rooseveltian and Johnsonian in scope and in nature, this is real money that’s going to solve real problems. Let’s not forget that we just went through – and are still coming out of – the second worst financial crisis in our history and the worst concurrent combination of crises – health, economic, jobs, climate, justice – ever.

It’s no wonder this meets with real approval from the American people. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in February, 68% of adults are in favor of it, while 24% aren’t. More specifically, by a margin of 78% to 18%, the $1,400 relief checks met with our approval.

Beyond counting the billions here and the billions there, this is a sterling lesson in leadership.

What is a leader?

For the purpose of establishing a practical working definition, a leader is a person who has – and articulates – a vision, creates change, inspires others to achieve mutual goals, and builds and maintains effective working relationships – all while setting the highest standards of ethical thought and behavior.

Leaders see the future, usually before the rest of us do, help us to see it, and then lead us there.

A billion – no – a trillion dollars at a time.

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