So Generic form of propranolol we expend $220 billion annually to soothe our spirits, a little more than $70 billion of which is in direct contributions to religious organizations; these seem like large numbers, but they’ve been presented within a limited context. It’s worth investigating how our spiritual spending is put to use.
In part it flows into the physical infrastructure of spirituality: the temples, the cathedrals, the apses and spires, that Wizard of Oz- looking-thing that looms over the interstate as you drive into DC.Sildenafil online pharmacy 1 For quite some time we (and by we I mean humanity) have been happy to devote significant dollar-volumes (or ducat-volumes) towards constructing structures that might concentrate the attentions of the pious (and perhaps the attentions of the higher powers towards which they're sending their prayers): the ancient Greeks spent the equivalent of $1.5 billion to erect the Parthenon; a whole series of popes dished out $2.2 billion in building St. Peter’s.2
To fast forward to the present day, while Houston’s Lakewood Church, which caters to the largest congregation in America, is certainly no St. Peter’s Basilica (and Joel Osteen is certainly no Pope Innocent X), the congregants have invested a fair amount of money in the place (just north of $80 million between renovations and purchasing the property). And that's just one church (albeit a large one.3 ) But how much money has gone into these facilities in aggregate? Is it possible (or even moral) to put a monetary value on an entire nation's housing stock of worship?
Well, luckily enough for us, the US Bureau of Economic Affairs believes that it is and has been kind enough to aggregate the investment dollars devoted to this spiritual infrastructure and, further, to provide estimates for the replacement value of the religious structures currently in place.4 It turns out that the religious facilities strewn throughout the United States are worth a little less than $300 billion.5 Put another way, for every $60 invested in our domiciles we have a little more than $1 invested in our spiritual centers. To provide another point of comparison, one could imagine that each of the 45 million church-attending households in the US instead owned a $6,000 private chapel.
But is this a lot?
Perhaps it would be helpful to compare to another sort of institution that we have relied upon for our uplift and betterment: the school.
As Bush II ascended to power some believed that it signaled a return to the spiritual in our country, that a Christian nation would again rise and that science and education were being prepped for sacrifice at the altar of religious conviction. And that may well have occurred. But if it did, the sacrificial altar was perhaps located inside a new schoolhouse rather than in a church proper:
The dollar value of the educational buildings in the United States had never exceeded the dollar value of the religious structures until the first year of W’s presidency.
To put some meat on that statement: From the end of World War II until 1967, there was between $1.50 and $1.60 of fixed capital in churches, chapels and cathedrals (and synagogues and temples &c &c) for every dollar in educational facilities. The ratio declined and then stabilized again remaining at 1.4 for much of the ‘70s. Beginning in 1980 fixed investment growth in education began to outpace religious fixed investment and by 1995 for every $1 in educational structures there existed only $1.20 worth of religious cathedrals. By 2001 educational buildings were more valuable than spiritual buildings. And in 2009 for every $0.74 of churches there is a dollar's worth of classrooms.
We are heathens.
Or are we?
It’s not as if church spending has fallen off a cliff; to borrow a statistic from a few paragraphs supra, if every church-attending household has the equivalent of a $6,000 private chapel, then each of the US’s 76 million students only enjoys a $4,900 private classroom.
Moreover, an investigation of the data (pictured) suggests that, rather than any notable decline in religious investment (which averaged $5.9 billion in the 80s, $6.6 billion in the ‘90s and $8.7 billion in the aughts),6 there has simply been faster acceleration in educational investment (which went from $5.2 billion in the ‘80s, to $9.2 billion in the nineties, to $15.5 billion in the naughties).
There are presumably a number of factors driving these trends, but a few notable possibilities come to mind: baby boomers are giving back to their almae matres (with some anticipated quid pro quo as their teenage sons’ and daughters’ applications come sliding across the admissions officer’s desk); the income gap between those that have been privately educated and/or have graduated from institutions of higher learning and those that have not has widened, and so educational institutions simply have a larger pool of incomes to slurp from than their religious counterparts; the trend toward mega-churches has led to capital efficiencies on the religious side (per parishioner it’s cheaper to build a 50,000 person chapel than a 50 person chapel); new investment in churches has increasingly taken place in exurbs whereas educational investment has concentrated in denser and higher cost areas; &c.
I’m relatively confident that all of the above are contributing factors to this (relatively new) share shift; however, they are also all endemic of a larger and more fundamental driver impacting economic flow: educational facilities increasingly spur more economic productivity than their religious counterparts.7 And the global economy tends to recursively shift resources towards those institutions that will enhance economic productivity (and, conversely, shift marginally fewer resources towards those institutions with diminishing prospects of providing a return) even when the entities involved are not profit-generating institutions; (it’s no coincidence that the best schools also have the largest endowments.) In short, educational institutions exhibit all of the hallmarks of a growth industry: compounding investment dollars, strong pricing power, and still lots of inefficiencies to attack. While religious institutions -- a sector in consolidation, with recent declines in investment flows, beset by scandal and infighting -- they look to me like the incumbent, perhaps being displaced.
- The DC Chapel [↩]
- Prices converted to 2010 USD from Talents and Ducats respectively. [↩]
- See pic [↩]
- See the fixed asset tables at their site. [↩]
- This figure has dropped to $275 billion in 2009 from $299 billion in 2008 not because the buildings wore out very quickly (there was only $5ish billion in depreciation) but because of construction cost deflation (which is to say if you set out to rebuild all of the religious structures in the United States it would only cost you $275 billion to do so in 2009 versus a little under $300 billion in ’08 and a little over $300 billion in ’07). [↩]
- Dollar figures, as always, are inflation adjusted. [↩]
- I know that this may sound incredibly uncontroversial and so is probably worth exploring on its own merit because it’s actually more knotty than it at first appears; I’ll offer only this as a teaser: consider for a moment the quantity of business deals that have probably been struck, the number of jobs that have been offered, the sheer dollar volume of economic activity that must have and still does occur as spurred by relationships developed in the shared space of organized spirituality; is that volume declining, and why? Separately, one could even argue that business school itself is little more than a sort of church service organized around a wholly separate God. [↩]
Sure we Americans do what we can to influence the political process; failing that, however, there are other powers to which we might appeal.
So enough politics (for now). Instead why don’t we take a moment to focus on the soul.
What do we spend on spirituality?
Some 40% of Americans attend a religious service weekly,1 and despite the proclamations of some hysterics, the share of Americans attending has remained relatively consistent over the past two decades. It’s clear we spend a lot of time on matters of the spirit.
But we also spend a lot of money. $73 billion to be exact.2 This is the revenue that religious organizations generated in 2009.
Okay, so $73 billion sounds like a big number, but what does it mean. Well, if 40% of Americans attend church (or some otherwise affiliated religious franchise) 52 weeks a year then you could think of these houses of god charging $11.50 or so for tickets (though at peak, in 2007, they charged $12.30).
Of course the time that is spent in church is time that might otherwise be spent working (though, yes, one is not strictly allowed to work on the Sabbath anyway). So, in addition to the money spent for our theoretical church-attendance- tickets, what is the opportunity cost of cooping up our labor force in the nation’s chapels and temples each and every sunday?
Well, assuming that the earnings power of church attendees matches that of the general population, ((If you look through the Pew Survey results you’ll see that this is close enough to true that it won’t significantly affect the results), then roughly 50% of church-goers belong to the labor force and could be otherwise earning $18.60 an hour. If the average service lasts 2 hours then we give up $18.60 in wages for every person that prostrates him- or herself before god. This grosses up to an additional $120 billion annually.
In large part this prostrating is ostensibly motivated by the desire to move on to a better place upon stumbling over the tail of our mortal coil. In deference to this desire those left behind spend significant sums to inter our remains and memorialize our passing. Annual spending on funeral and burial services equals $15.7 billion. This works out to $6,350 per passing, down from a peak $8,330 in 2001 (yes, we’re putting our dead to rest more economically now, in part due to a mix-shift towards cremations but also by buying our coffins cheap, from china).
Of course, there are some that worship a different Sunday God, that evangelize for a separate power, and succor their soul in an altogether alternate setting. Theirs is a spirituality enlivened not just by hail marys but also homeruns, made true not by mere miracles but also by multimillionaire megastars. In the US we spend more than $17 billion attending sporting events in worship of our nike-endorsed demigods. To some this might not seem to qualify as spiritual spending, but I’d bet that they have never felt the fevered thrum in Cameron Indoor, the swirling shouts at Fenway, the flooded canyon roar at Michigan Stadium. Yes, exaltation in those settings is as ecstatic if not more than that seen when worshippers burst into song, speak in tongues, faint at the preachers touch.
All in, by this account, we spend $220 billion annually on our ephemeral spirits. This works out to $2 per person per day up from $1.80 in 1995. So the next time you ask for a tall latte at a starbucks remember, you could save your money and then, for the same cost, you might just save your soul.
- If you believe this survey, though some researchers claim that these results overstate attendance by as much as 2x. [↩]
- The IRS reports a number some ~$10 billion lower number than the BEA; for the sake of this discussion and since they have more recent data available, I’ll stick with the BEA for now. [↩]
But putting a politician in office is actually a rather diffuse way to influence policy. Sure, supporters spent $1.4 million for every winning congressman, $8.1 million for every winning senator and three quarters of a billion for a winning president, but wouldn’t it be more effective just to try and spend for the policies that actually affect us, or the things that we care about?
It seems that many have come to that conclusion.
$1.8 billion was spent on lobbying in 1999; by 2009 that number had almost doubled.1 Per congressperson, that works out to $3.5 million lobbying dollars in 1998 and $6.5 in 2009.
To distill it even further, since 1999 the senate has averaged 1,200 hours a year in session and managed to record a vote every 3.5 hours; so at the current run rate you could imagine lobbying interests paying a little over $50,000 to every senator for every vote cast (assuming that lobbying dollars are equally allocated between the senate and the house).2
What does this all mean? Like anything else, our government can be bought and sold. We sell our votes at a little more than $20 a pop and our representatives sell theirs at 5,000x more. The decisions made by government are monumental but often arbitrary, and the well-placed dollar can make a magnificent difference.
Or can it?
In contrast to much (though not all) of the money raised by political candidates, I suspect that lobbying dollars are allocated dispassionately and supported by an expectation of earning a return. If a business decides to spend money on a lobbyist it is likely doing so because it hopes to influence a piece of legislation that will impact its future profit-opportunity. Assuming that the lobbyists aim to deliver a 20% return on each lobbying dollar invested (and succeed at doing so, at least on average), then the value delivered by the lobbying community to its client-base has grown from just over $2 billion in the late ‘90s to more than $4 billion in 2009.
4 thousand million dollars: not to be sneezed at; though when seated in the context of a $3.5 trillion dollar federal budget the number actually seems relatively slight.
Could it be that our government is not nearly as vulnerable to a parasitic lobbying class as the doomsayers would have us believe? If $3.5 trillion really were up for grabs each year and lobbyists truly were effective at grabbing it, wouldn’t businesses eagerly go to economic war for those funds?3
Instead businesses are spending dollars equivalent to only 1/1000th of the amount that may be amenable to the lobbyists’ sway. Though realistically, the entire federal government's budget isn't up for grabs each year, so perhaps it's more appropriate to focus on the appropriated federal budget at $1.2 trillion in 2009 (and $1.4 trillion in 2010).4 Moreover, businesses are actually aiming to generate a profit-return on their investment, so presuming their lobbying efforts help them to win business from the government, that won business would have to generate earnings (rather that revenue) at a comfortable excess to the lobbying dollars spent.
Take URS, a government construction contractor. Its federal segment generates a margin (before interest, taxes and depreciation) of roughly 6%. If this were representative then it would imply that the $1.2 trillion in appropriated government spending represents a $70 billion earnings-opportunity for businesses. If that were truly the profit available for influencing government businesses should be willing to spend $60 billion or so to win it. Conversely, a $3.5 billion lobbying spend suggests that a little more than 5% of this opportunity is actually open to sway.
So while the money spent on lobbying is gross (and crass and disheartening) it helps to keep things in perspective: while we spent $3.5 billion lobbying political representatives in 2009 (out of $60 billion that one might expect), the Italian economy lost $60 billion to government corruption the prior year (on a $1 trillion dollar government budget).
So while our representatives’ motives may at times seem misbegotten, at least the rules in place seem, in aggregate, to effectively constrain their appetite. There are only so many steak dinners that can be consumed in one week after all (even if, given the lobbying spend pro-rated over the course of a year, each of those dinners do seem to run at a hefty $18,000 per), and certainly it’s better to see politicians pack on the pounds than pocket banknotes by the paper-bagful.
In sum, though we sink money into influencing government, into electing politicians and into affecting their decisions, the size at which we do so turns out to be slight relative to the apparent opportunity.
Chalk one W up for transparent democracy
- All dollar figures are inflation adjusted to 2009. As per the prior post, lobbying spending data comes from opensecrets.org [↩]
- Actually dividing 2009 lobbying dollars per senator by votes taken, adjusted for absenteeism, would net a figure of $44,000 per vote due to the above average level of activity (despite which, congress passed fewer laws in 2009 than in any year since at least 1996). [↩]
- NB: yes [↩]
- Appropriated spending is in contrast to mandatory programs such as social security, medicare and Medicaid. [↩]
While we’re on the subject of governments.
As many of you1 may know, election season is upon us, and there seems to be something of a ruckus regarding the amount of money that the government exudes.
Much of that terrain has been well-trodden.
However, I am less interested in the million dollars that the federal government spent in the 10 seconds it took me to write this sentence fragment2 and more interested in the money spent in the service of getting into and influencing government.
Although many discount the utility of government spending, others believe quite fervently that there is value in providing a regulatory function to a capitalist economy. I suspect that both sides could agree, however, that money spent in the hopes of influencing how the government money is spent is an unfortunate byproduct of a capitalist system gone awry and represents a net drag to the economy.3
Framed as a question: how much do we pay to install, to depose, to influence our government? What is the cost of a senator? What is the cost of a president? What is the cost of a vote?
We all have a sense that the cost of getting elected is rising. When power brokers and business executives spend significant fortunes for their chance at taking the tiller (and still fall short), when 24 hour news networks breathlessly audit quarterly fundraising reports, when candidates spend more time in geographies where an electoral win is already assured (but the petty cash is crisp) than in states with votes still in play, we could be forgiven for assuming that the political game requires fewer handshakes than it does shakedowns, is more dollars and cents than it is wonky common sense.
The data would support such an impression. In today’s dollars, senate candidates spent $3.50 per vote in the 1990 and 1992 election cycles and $4.50 per in 2006 and 20084, house candidates grew spending from $3.20 to $7.90 over the same time period, and the expense of winning the presidency increased from $2.80 per vote in ’92 to $10 per in ’08.5 At that rate of growth the first $10 billion presidential campaign could occur by 2028.6 All in, the cost of (or, perhaps, the perceived value of) each general election voter rose from a little under $10 to more than $22 over just 16 years.
Of course, vote-cost inflation should come as no surprise.
As the country’s income distribution has grown increasingly disparate, the scarcity value of non-commoditizable items has commensurately increased. (So trinkets and baubles, Rolexes and supercars have all seen relatively robust price increases even as incomes, in aggregate, have stagnated). What could be more scarce than a stake-hold on the presidency.7
Perhaps another way to think about it: as the country’s economic resources have concentrated, the resource holders have lost relative voting power and so have increasingly relied upon economic power to protect their resource pool. In 1996 more than 300,000 earners commanded 10% of the country’s pre-tax income; in 2008 that same income share accrued to 130,000. For those earners every 1% increase in the tax rate would conservatively represent a half million dollar present value loss.8
Given that such a large economic risk is shared by a relatively concentrated minority, it’s no surprise that the price of the presidency has inflated. When measured against a potential half million dollar loss, $10 a vote seems quite the bargain.9
- yes, you two who wandered in here by accident [↩]
- with war, health expenditures and retirement making up more than 2/3rds [↩]
- Though, as I think about it, I’m sure that many would argue that money serves as the ultimate democratic measuring stick providing brute leverage to those that most deserve it (with a wide wide margin for error), and so influence on government should be exactly, directly proportional to the money that can be spent to influence it (what is a vote, after all, but an exertion of energy and effort that could otherwise be spent in more productive economic activity and so, ultimately, something that, by definition, has to be paid for in some way (blood, sweat, tears or dollars)?) [↩]
- I measure the senate and house averaged across two election cycles to adjust for the distortion that a presidential cycle lends to the denominator of the per vote calculation. [↩]
- All figures calculated as total spend by all candidates divided by number of votes cast for each. [↩]
- $10 billion nominal, with an assumed general inflation rate of 2% between now and then -- brave, I know. [↩]
- Think of this as the presidency as a Loius Vuitton handbag theory. [↩]
- At a 10% discount rate over 20 years. [↩]
- Election spending data compiled from opensecrets.org [↩]
So what does this have to do with anything?
The Mexican government just borrowed almost $1 billion repayable in 21101 at a 6.1% rate. Yes, the world just gave the Mexican government a billion dollar bird.
In 34 years we will have collected our 2 from the bush (assuming that the Mexican government or its placeholding drug cartel keeps paying its rental rate).
Looked at another way, the present value of the cash flow coming from that Mexican bond will only justify the world’s investment if Mexico keeps current through 2037.2
Can the Mexican government pay its interest for the next 27 years?
Well its last default, by coincidence, occurred 28 years ago (though it was a near thing in ‘94), and they’ve defaulted 3 times over the past 110.3 At that rate, in 4 out of 10 futures the investment will not be justified.
Put another way, at a 3% default rate the present value of the world’s investment measured over the entire lifespan of the bond works out to 80 cents on the dollar (that’s a pretty meager bird).
Just another case of the quail-blind leading the quail-blind I suppose.
Well, it depends upon how good a shot you are.
To simplify matters imagine that you’ve got a Charleton- Heston-like deathgrip on your trusty .22 and Bruce Lee-esque reflexes. In short, the moment you see feather-one of either of those two birds in the bush it’s as good as yours.
Surely, then, they’re worth more than that dead bird you hold in your hand, and so you trade it away and wait.
Years later, when they find your desiccated skeleton, the rifle still poised, the NRA card still laminate and unblemished it won’t merit much mention until they discover the quail colony not ten yards distant. A source of scientific debate: for can they still be considered “quail” when they have so completely adapted to living, breeding, preening without ever leaving the confines of a single bush?
But even if you hadn’t perished in your pursuit, would trading away that bird in hand have been worth it if it had taken a year to catch those two in the bush? How about a day? An hour?
It depends upon the value of a bird and the value of your time (and the value of the experience, sitting around and waiting for those birds, and the value of the story you get to tell, the value of the ammo you have to waste and the dollar-value of damage that ammo does to your gun in firing, not forgetting, either, the psychological damage you may yet do yourself for watching two additional living creatures perish by your direct and purposeful acts, and can that really be valued?1), but there is a third (eighth?) variable I’d like to focus on, and for the sake of clarity, I’ll reset the scene.
It is not you in that quail-blind but, rather, your indestructible auto-shooting bird-net-gun (steam-powered by renewable geothermal energy); you have already caught one bird, and another hunter has the next reservation (there’s some kind of chalkboard sign-up system – kindof like a bar’s coin-op pool table). Now he offers to take your single bird bounty off your hands in exchange for his slot on the chalkboard (where he’s signed up for the next 30 years), and though there are two birds left in the bush, they’re just chicks, so it will be five years until they peep their little beaks out. Do you make the trade?
To distill the problem into comprehensible form: is two birds five years from now worth more than one bird today?
Well it depends upon your rate of return.
If you imagine that your indestructible auto-shooting bird-net-gun also does taxidermy (powering itself with the flesh of the bird in order to do so – yes, it’s a carnivorous taxidermy cannon) and you can rent out a stuffed bird at an annual rate of 25% of its full cost, then by renting out the first bird you could earn enough to buy yourself a second in four short years.
Two birds in four years versus two birds in five? I’ll take the former, thanks.
But, if there’s not a tremendously demanding rental market for stuffed quail, and you can only command an annual rate of 10%, then it’s two birds in five years versus two birds in ten, so you’ll gladly trade away your keeper in exchange for another slot in the quail- blind.
So, in answer to the age-old question: a bird in hand is neither better (nor worse) than two in the bush, so long as the taxidermy rental fee is equal to 20% of the value of the bird (and so long as the birds in the bush are fifth-year-flying quail.)
- NB: yes [↩]
Of course such lean living almost certainly has an impact on health. If we spend less do we live less?
Put another way, what is the cost of a year of life?
“Priceless”, you say?
Well, these guys,1 who are probably pretty smart, would have you believe that we (and by “we” I mean the American taxpaying public) are willing to pay $129,000 (in dialysis costs) for an additional quality-adjusted year of life.
Seems expensive (or horrifyingly cheap, depending upon your perspective).
But that’s what we’re willing to pay once somebody is already sick; what would an extra dollar in the pocket do for how long we’re likely to live?
By turning to Canada, in which the healthcare is ostensibly free, I’ll derive down to the health-effects of an extra discretionary dollar spent. So somebody in Canada has already followed this line of inquiry.2 It should come as no surprise that the more you earn the longer you live: a top-decile- earning 25 year old male can look forward to a healthy life lasting almost 40% longer than a bottom-decile-earner.
With just a bit of arithmetic (and some sourcing from the Canadian household spending survey) we can convert these earnings into post-tax spending, and see just how important our consumption dollars might be.
Lowest income earners in Canada spend roughly $30 per day3 (seems to be the North American magic number – see prior post). At this level they can expect to live until 62, but for $5 a day more, they could expect to live until 65.
Over the course of a lifetime this works out to a little less than $25,000 per additional year of life, and if you spend more, you get more (though the series suffers from predictably diminishing returns.) You can live 14 additional healthy years at a cost of $100 thousand per.
Put another way, you can buy 3 additional years of life at less than $3 an hour, the 3 years after that will run at a little more than $4; you’ll pay $7.50 an hour for the next 3 and $14+ for 3 more. By this math if Bill Gates weren’t so foolishly frittering away his net worth on charitable institutions he could expect to live to be 115 years old.
Circling back, what decision are we actually making when giving a patient dialysis at a cost of $129,000 per healthy year lived? Does that make sense when more than half the population can effectively buy additional life-years at less than $65,000 a piece?
(And, of course, it does and it doesn’t. We humans have proven remarkably adept at watching dumb the smoldering flare-sparks, a glass of water at hand, when not three hours later we’ll find ourselves dumping futile bucket after futile bucket into the inferno).
Returning to Mr. Microsoft for a moment, if he were to effectively buy life-years, the final billion dollars spent would net him 25 extra days. A billion instead in the hands of low income earners should net 15.5 million.4 So unless Mr. Gates believes his remaining time on earth to be 600,000x more important than that of the common man, his charitable bent would seem to make a bit more sense.
What does this have to do with how we proles should operate? Well if you’re a 25-year old spending $10,000 per year and looking to get yourself into Guinness, just aim to increase spending by 17% a year (year after year after year). Sure it might be difficult in the twilight of your life (as you spend $70,000 per minute), but it’s certainly a small price to pay to best Jeanne Calment.5
Perhaps more practically, when you’re choosing between the organic banana and the pesticidal alternative, or the car with side-impact airbags versus the used clunker, without, pause a moment to consider that some don’t even have the choice, and remember that for 3 extra bucks you might just net an additional hour on earth.
- Stanford empiric estimate of the value of a life study [↩]
- here [↩]
- A 2001 datapoint, converting Loonies to USD and inflation-adjusting to 2010 levels [↩]
- To say nothing of how far that money could go if properly allocated to strategies that effectively multiply its impact. [↩]
- Who was very very old. [↩]
What is the cost of living?
It’s a frightening concept when truly considered. “Without [x] you will die.” And [x] is not food, or water, oxygen or air but, instead, a number, an abstraction, a disembodied quantity.
Allow me to embody it.
In the US, people have trouble spending less than $30 per day, even in households that generate less than half of that in wages. 1 And what do they spend it on?
More than half goes towards a place to stay plus the requisite gas-phone-electric; a fiver for transportation; a bit more than that on food. Then between $2 in healthcare, a buck-fifty’s worth of clothes and the same on education there just isn’t that much left.
But they could spend smarter! (you may, with great indignation, claim.)
Perhaps, but even those who generate double the income don’t spend that much more: they spend 3 additional dollars on the house and a couple of extra bucks on the car; an additional dollar goes towards a retirement plan.
And the number holds firm through recent history. In 1984, households generating $5 per person per day in income spent $30 per person to get by; households with quadruple the income spent just $32.2
By this measure almost 30 million US families (1 out of every 4) don’t generate enough income to live. They accumulate debt; they scrounge and beg; they live silently desperately restlessly hungry for another nickel or penny or dime. They need a dollar and a quarter every hour; 2 cents per every person per every minute.
Yes, that ticket to live: its cost is $30 (and it expires at midnight.)
And awful how far we fall short.