Things I Learned From Teaching Undergraduates: “Did Obama’s Trip Really Cost $200m Per Day?” Edition

Okay, so this isn’t one of my usual “Things I Learned From Teaching Undergraduates.” But the title technically fit, so I wanted to use it.

The other day I was crusing various conservatives blogs–I like to do this; it helps me put myself in their shoes, remind myself that they’re real people, and occasionally, provide me with something to laugh at (just like when I read the crazier left-wing bloggers, let’s be fair). Anyway, I came across this doozy of a post from Michelle Malkin, in which she (okay, her underblogger Doug Powers) claims that Obama’s current trip to India is costing taxpayers $200 million dollars a day. Powers supports this by  quoting an anonymous Indian official:

“The huge amount of around $200 million would be spent on security, stay and other aspects of the Presidential visit,” a top official of the Maharashtra Government privy to the arrangements for the high-profile visit said.

Could this possibly be true?

Before I answer that, let me take a quick detour. The whole thing immediately made me think of a particular experience I’ve had  over and over again while teaching my undergraduate lab during these last few months: a student will raise his or her hand, and say ” I think I’m done with the lab, but I got an answer that’s way too big. I didn’t do anything wrong though, so, can I leave?”

When this happens, I usually just ask them to show me the numbers that they’ve plugged in to their various formulae in making their calculations. Invariably, there’s some place where they said something like “The radius of the marble is 0.1 meters.” So I ask them, “Just how big is 0.1 meters anyway?” and they shrug their shoulders and stare at me blankly, or ask if they can leave again.

At this point I hold up a meter stick. “0.1 meters is 1/10 of a meter, right? ” I’ll ask. So they’ll nod, slowly, and I’ll ask them to show me a tenth of a meter on the meter stick, which they’ll quickly discover is about 4 inches. And then I’ll ask them to look at their little marble and tell me if it looks like 4 inches in size. And they’ll shake their heads, and I’ll start Socratically trying to lead them to realize that they meant “0.01 meters” instead of “0.1.”

It’s a natural mistake, and the first time it happens, I don’t blame them for it. After all, they don’t have a good sense of how big a meter is, let alone it’s various fractional parts. But I always try to tell them: whenever they do a calculation or plug in a number, it’s a good idea to stop and think about that number for a minute and ask themselves if it seems reasonably sized. I get quite tired of students who call me over to tell me that they’re all done, and that their final result is that the marble is moving at 100 meters per second. That’s 200-some miles per hour. They should probably know that by this point in the course, but if they don’t, they should at least have some benchmarks in their heads. Gravity accelerates things at 9.8 m/s^2, for example. So if you drop something and it takes 1 second to hit the ground, it’s going about 10 meters per second right before it hits. Does it look like the marble was moving 10 times that fast?

So what does this have to do with Malkin and Powers? They’re smart, influential people. Before they go public with a number, they should do the same thing: stop and look at the number they’re using, and ask themselves, “Does that seem at all reasonable, or am I about to waste the American public’s time the same way those undergraduates are always wasting Colin’s?”

Because, for example, $200 million per day is more than it costs us to run the entire war in Afghanistan each day. I don’t think it would have been unreasonable for these people to ask themselves whether the President and his bodyguards could possibly be costing us that much, given that there are 94,000 troops in Afghanistan and probably not that many following the President around in India.

They might also have noticed that, if the $200 million per day figure was true, then the total cost of Obama’s 10-day trip would be 2 billion dollars! That’s twice as much as Microsoft is spending developing and marketing its new SmartPhone platform. Could that possibly be true? Or is it possible, Michelle, that you’re trying to tell me that the marble is 4 inches wide?*

I’ll admit, I did have to spend 4 or 5 minutes googling before I came up with those nice benchmarks, so let’s suppose I hadn’t known them off the top of my head. Is there any other way I could have seen that the $200 million figure was nonsense? Of course there is: arithmetic and estimations. The quote Malkin/Powers give says the costs are associated with “security, stay, and other aspects of the President’s visit.” So let’s focus on that second term, the cost of the stay.

Since this “anonymous source” lists it as one of the top three categories in which this money is being spent, we can assume its roughly 1/3 of the total expenditure, give or take. So that means maybe 70 million a day on rooms. Is that reasonable?

I googled “most expensive hotel in India,” and, thanks to the new google instant result system, I found this link before I even finished typing. It seems that the costliest room in the country runs you five grand a night in Mumbai.

So how many people could Obama put up for 70 million dollars at that rate? Gee, that’s some complicated math. Five into 70 is twice five into 35, which means it’s 14. And then there’s the whole “thousand into a million” factor. I happen to know that a million is one-thousand thousands because I use that conversion a lot, but maybe Michelle and Co would have needed to type it into a calculator first. Either way, it doesn’t take long to do.

Anyway, in about 30 seconds, you can see that Obama could put up 14 thousand people in the most expensive room in India every night for that cost. Which would mean he was basically bringing the entire population of Worthington, Ohio, or that he was employing almost half again as many people as are currently working on preparing for the London Olympic games. That probably should have seemed farfetched even to the people determined to catch Obama doing something disgraceful.

The usual caveats apply here: I’m not saying that only right-wing pundits make mistakes like this; it just happened to be a right-wing complaint that caught my attention, because (as much as you wouldn’t believe it from the news lately) it’s the Democrats who are mostly in power at the moment and so most of the silly attacks are focused on them. I’m sure I could dig up an irresponsible left-wing nutcase doing the same thing, so please don’t think of this as a partisan attack. Think of this as part of my continuing crusade to convince people to use math once in a while. I promise, folks, it can be a useful way to find out the truth about a situation, and it often doesn’t even require you to think, just to pull out a calculator and hit some buttons.

Thankfully, the story of Obama’s supposedly $200 million per day spending spree is being widely reported to be false, but of course the damage is done;  a lot of people out there read it, heard it was true, and then will never notice the follow-up stories reporting that folks like Malkin(Powers) were just blindly reporting something they read without stoping to think about it first.

So I have just one simple request: next time, media people, could you please try to be more alert to this kind of thing than my undergraduates? Remember, they’re just numbly sitting through some lame lab class, but you all are being paid for this!

UPDATE: In fairness, Bill O’Reilly has admitted that this figure seems hard to believe and, frankly, “nuts.” It’s odd that that guy is starting to seem like one of the saner, smarter right-wing pundits.

SECOND UPDATE: As a conservative friend of mine observes on Facebook, there are and continue to be plenty of legitimate reasons to question some of the spending decisions the Obama administration has made over the last couple years. She has a fair point and this, in fact, is exactly why this story is frustrating to me, and why I’d hope it would be to thoughtful conservatives too. There are lots of legitimate policy critiques we could be throwing at the politicians we dislike–if there weren’t we probably wouldn’t dislike ’em! So why is it that so often we resort to just making stuff up? It’s sleazy, insulting to the public’s intelligence, and counterproductive in the long run. If I know I can’t trust the things some pundit says, I’m less likely to listen when they make a legitimate point.


* By the way, this really could boil down to a problem of units conversion. One explanation I’ve wondered about is whether this could just have been a translation error? 200 million rupees works out to $4 million USD. That still seems surprisingly high, but not so much so that I can say off the bat that it’s loopy.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

8 Responses to Things I Learned From Teaching Undergraduates: “Did Obama’s Trip Really Cost $200m Per Day?” Edition

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Excellent post and I applaud your efforts to make thinking the modus operandi of the human race. Mighty tough challenge, there.

    Please continue to demand that your students make sense of their numbers before they call it quits. Some of them will be writing prescriptions.

    As for Ms. Malkin, this kind of over-the-top, ludicrously un-thought-out commenting is her modus operandi. I once read an opinion piece she wrote in which she told us all that we needed to understand the vocabulary of jihad because the Arabs were coming to get us all, right here in the good old U.S. of A. They were going to convert us all and we’d better know what they were talking about. Now, any reasonable person’s first response, if they could talk to the woman as she expressed that sentiment, would be, “How they gonna do that, Michelle? They haven’t got the air force, navy, or population to invade us,let alone the motive, so I can only assume that she hadn’t given it any thought, or she just knew they were all going to somehow swim to our shores, scimitars strapped to their backs,sneak up on us in the middle of the night, convert us in our sleep or behead us if we awoke and tried to put up any resistance. And I guess she wasn’t remembering the Americans who sleep with an assault rifle under their pillow. It was the most ludicrous thing you could ever imagine, and it was reprinted in newspapers all across the nation. With the comments by Sharron Angle in Nevada about the cities that use sharia law (NOT) and the no-sharia-in-our-courts-vote by Oklahomans, I guess the mad paranoia continues. But as one astute commenter noted the other day, Christians haven’t been able to establish a theocracy in this country, why on earth would we think the Muslims could do it?

    One further comment: I know you are strapped for time, but I challenge you or any of your readers to come up with a left-wing partisan nutcase who is doing something like this. And even if you find one, you’ll notice that there is no left wing echo chamber or propaganda cable network working itself into a lather or bouncing the misinformation across the universe.

    I hate to say it, but I think you give these right-wing pundits entirely too much credit for desiring reasonable communication and discussion of issues. They don’t. They just want to have their own way and they’re throwing the biggest hissy fit they can in order to try to get it. It’s pathetic, really, but that’s just what they do.

    • Kristi says:

      ^ Most definitely! There are no reasonable Republican pundits! They are all evil and stupid! Left-wingers do no wrong! Rah rah rah!

      In answer to the question at hand:

      MSNBC/George Soros/ACLU.

      The end.

      C’mon now. There are wonks on both sides of the political spectrum. And the only thing more dangerous than a group who spews misinformation is a group who believes they never do.

      • Colin West says:

        Hey now, I don’t think she said “there are no reasonable republican pundits.” I can think of a few she regards as reasonable, in fact. ;-)

        She did seem to say something a bit along the lines of “left-wingers do no wrong,” although I suspect she’d have put more nuance to it than that. As for me, I’ll have to think a little bit before I can respond to the broader question of whether there’s a symmetry to the nutcases and echo chambers of both sides. But I would like to write something about that at some point, because it’s an interesting question.

        I will say, as a preview, that I think the real difference is not so much that there are no left-wing lunatics pushing false facts and inflated narratives, but rather, that the ones that do exist tend to suck at it. So they don’t get as much attention from either side. By contrast, the right wing version of the echo chamber is a lot better at getting a message out to voters (unfortunately, in my view) so it’s much easier to call it out and object to it. When democrats fight dirty they sometimes remind me of that scrawny kid on the playground who decides to try to tackle people in a game of flag football to gain an advantage, but just ends up being dragged around by the other team’s fullback as he clings to the big guy’s shins.

        As for Olbermann in particular (note how much smaller his audience is, by the way), his rhetoric is over the top quite often and I think counterproductive to the discourse just as much as O’Reilly’s, unfortunately. But off the top of my head, I’m not aware of a lot of cases of him pushing a story that turned out to be factually false. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Like I said, I’ll have to take a little time to compose some thoughts about how symmetric the distribution of shrill is, but I do think there’s enough that probably folks on all sides should be slightly embarrassed. :-P

  2. Kristi says:

    “When democrats fight dirty they sometimes remind me of that scrawny kid on the playground who decides to try to tackle people in a game of flag football to gain an advantage, but just ends up being dragged around by the other team’s fullback as he clings to the big guy’s shins.”

    HA! Very astute :)

    And yes, my initial comments were intentionally hyperbolic. What can I say? I’M A REPUBLICAN–THAT’S WHAT WE DO. ;)

    The thing the chaffes me most about all the animosity directed toward Beck/O’Reilly/Hannity/etc (although it is often well-deserved) is the feeling of self-importance from those who often dole it out it.

    It’s important to remember a few things:

    1. Ratings, ratings, ratings. This is where hyperbole becomes useful.
    2. FoxNews speaks to and for a significant population, and it’s wrong to see these as lesser people.

    Regarding the first matter, if a little rabble-rousing gets people fired up and more involved in the political process (and helps your ratings), then more power to you. The problem that Fox runs into is that often facts and sound reasoning get sacrificed at the alter of hyperbole. Not cool.

    However, there are a lot of people who believe in the same values that Fox pundits espouse–a firm belief in adhering to Constitutional principles, limited government, religion, etc. I feel as though people who hate on FoxNews indirectly hate on these people and look down on them for what they perceive as myopic political vision. To put it (ironically) in religious terms, this holier-than-thou attitude just doesn’t jive with me. Maybe I’m the only one who gets that feeling from FoxNews haters, though.

    I guess I just feel like all the energy spent on hating Fox/MSNBC/etc is a sorry waste of time. Rolling our eyes and scoffing at “the enemy” doesn’t do anyone any favors. It just widens the conservative/liberal divide, and makes each side feel like they’re better than the other. Once again: not cool.

    Everybody should just watch whichever conservative/liberal pundit they like the best, and get off everybody else’s back if they choose to watch someone different. Different strokes for different folks. It’s that simple. As philosophical wunderkinds (the Black Eyed Peas) once said: “Where is the love?”

    Moral of the story: Network news is a joke. Read books.

    The end.

  3. Jimmy Peng says:

    So many “Sticky Facts” in this blog entry. Riggle would be quite proud.

  4. Moominmamma says:

    The reason people object to FOX and so many of the right-wing pundits is because they spread lies and are hurting the country. The fact that Fox news watchers are the most misinformed people in the country has been shown in at least two separate studies. And they vote based on their misinformation. Exit polling from the recent election reveals that voters, strangely enough, mouth the same (false) talking points pushed by the likes of FOX, Rush Limbaugh, and Ms. Malkin. A democratic republic cannot be sustained when the voting population is ill-informed. It’s not only our future as a nation that we’re talking about here. Turns out lies can actually kill people. Who’da thunk it? The “death panels” lie nearly derailed health insurance reform legislation, which will potentially save the 44,000 of our fellow citizens who die each year because they have no insurance. Forty percent of Americans recently polled still believe there are “death panels” in the legislation, and they may yet be responsible for gutting care for their fellow human beings. The lies told by Dick Cheney and George Bush that led the U.S. into war in Iraq are responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 innocent Iraqis, 4000 American soldiers, and thousands more Iraqi soldiers. Over one hundred thousand human beings dead because FOX and Rush and Michelle and Dick and George couldn’t stop lying. I’m not quite sure what the Republican “culture of life” means if it means this is acceptable to them. It is completely unacceptable to me, and I do not think shrugging it off with an “eh, both sides do it” or a “hey, just turn the channel” will prevent continued damage from the lies that are deliberately being spread every day. I prefer to call out the lies and the liars who tell them with the hope that I may yet be able to save the future from the follies of the past.

    • Kristi says:

      I’ll grant you that Michelle, Rush and Cheney are hacks, but from the numerous books I’ve read about W, I believe wholeheartedly that he did NOT knowingly lie about WMD in Iraq. I’d expand on this about I have other things to do tonight. Just thought I’d speak my peace. I completely agree with you on the shameful misinformation spread by Rush, Malkin, Hannity and the like, but George is different. Being PRESIDENT is different.

      Lumping him in their same category is not only unfair and misguided, but demeans the office of the President itself. Have a little respect for the guy who tried to save our asses after Osama went at us full-force. To think that you can judge the office and the man so harshly based on what little, little information you know is incredibly presumptuous.

      And yes, in case you’re wondering, I would willingly put forth this exact same defense in behalf of President Obama.

  5. Moominmamma says:

    We actually seem to agree on a number of things here, Kristi. I wholeheartedly agree that the office of president is different. That is why I feel such a deep sense of betrayal by the actions of George Bush. I read too, and I think we have ample evidence to understand the way George Bush went about deciding to start the war in Iraq. He owed it to all of us, and especially to the troops he commanded, to do it in a more studied, sober, and objective manner. And I would condemn President Obama in the same way if he had done what George Bush did.

    At least we’re both principled enough to criticize or support members of both parties regarding their decisions. We just have different criteria and standards for how those decisions should be made.

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