Many of the budget articles cited above also focused on one aspect of the White House and Pentagon spin—that defense spending would be reduced over a decade—by $486.9 billion compared to the fiscal 2012 budget projections. Through fiscal 2022, defense spending would be more than $7.2 trillion, instead of the $7.7 trillion projected a year earlier, through 2021, the proposed budget shows (see Pages 77-78 and Tables S-1 and S4).

How much are those savings? Such big numbers—billions and trillions—defy normal human understanding and need context, especially when such a big number actually is quite small when understood in context.

Pencils ready? One way to give these savings numbers meaning is to note that the projected lower spending reduces the broader Defense budget ($672.9 billion this fiscal year) by 6.3 percent over ten years, compared to the projection made a year earlier through fiscal 2021. That is a reduction of $1 in $16.

This reduction also works out to $155 per American annually over the ten years. (Just divide $486.9 billion by 314 million Americans, and then by ten because it is spread over ten years.) That $155 per year is less than $3 per week per American, and that is before taking population growth into account. Less impressive.

When disasters and calamities strike, the criticism is that journalists compete to portray them in their fullness. In budget matters journalists, by the same token, maybe journalists should at least strive for a full accounting of costs.

The Washington Post has done so. Excellent graphics that convey the relative size of the Pentagon budget are at the Post’s Wonkblog.

Correction: A sentence in this post discussing the per-capita income tax revenue available after accounting for national security costs used an incorrect figure. The sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.