Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dollars then and now

I don't know about you, but when I see a graph of the history of the stock market's performance over, say, fifty years, and there is a caption declaring that the data is "adjusted for inflation" it really doesn't make much of an impression on me. But when I read something in a history book about money value or supply that is specific and that I can relate to the present, that can really set my head spinning.

So it was when I encountered this line on page 222 of Brian McGinty's Lincoln and the Court (2008): "When [Salmon] Chase began his work [as Secretary of]... the Treasury Department, the government had only $3 million on hand and debts that totaled almost $65 million."

That was in 1861, the Civil War was about to begin. The idea of the United States government having only three million bucks--how to relate that to our time? Well look at it this way. According to the U.S. Census Bureau my county, DeKalb County, Georgia is the 75th largest county in the nation. That's big, but not a mega-county like Los Angeles County or Cook County, Illinois. And the county budget adopted for 2008 was over 635 million dollars.

So the annual budget for a large, but not massive county is over 211 times the amount of cash that the entire United States of America had in the treasury 148 years ago. The DeKalb budget is also over nine times higher than the debts the U.S. owed.

We can go a step further. The 2008 budget just for parks and libraries in DeKalb County, the nation's 75th largest county was 35 million dollars, or nearly twelve times the amount of money the U.S. Treasury had on hand in 1861.

That's a lot more fines collected on overdue books. A dollar just ain't what it used to be.