In what seems like a blunder only the federal government could be capable of, the Treasury Department has no solid mechanism for tracking the money it or other agencies give out. Especially given the lack of national confidence in federal regulators in recent months, the Treasury, Federal Reserve, FDIC and others should have been proactive about transparency. Since it is everyone's tax dollars going to shore up financial institutions, auto manufacturers, states, cities, credit card companies, insurance companies, and mortgage brokers there should be a list of where every dollar spent has gone easily accessible on a federal website.
Because such transparency is lacking, news firms and others have been left scrambling to determine just how much we have spent. Different agencies have different numbers. CNBC's Nov. 28 numbers are $7.4 trillion. The New York Times Nov. 26 numbers were $7.8 trillion. And it all depends on what you count and who your sources is. The point is that nothing is perfectly clear--and it should be. The one thing we know for sure is that the one act of Congress, the $700 billion Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, actually looks small compared to the total bill as of December 2008:
That number, difficult to really comprehend, becomes clearer when put next to major spending programs in history. And the scary fact is that $8.4 trillion is more than the costs of rebuilding post-WWII Germany, the Louisiana Purchase, NASA's combined budget since its inception, the Savings and Loan Crisis bailouts, the New Deal, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the Iraq Warâ€“combined. In fact, the bailout spending is more than double the combined inflation adjusted total of all those projects, a mere $4 trillion.
When it's all said and done there will probably never be consensus on the exact amount we have spent. For instance the NYT puts FDIC guarantees at $1.5 trillion, while CNBC puts the number at $1.9 trillion, with neither citing their exact source. These numbers also don't account for short-term advances, such as the $138 billion the Fed gave J.P. Morgan to help ease the dissolution of Lehman Brothers. Furthermore, some would say the stimulus or FHA program should not be counted--but they were both targeted at the same recession "problem," just earlier on in the development. (I've done my best to cite the source for every number. This is the most accurate list developed as far as I can tell--email me with any corrections).