General observations

Zillions, billions and trillions – the federal deficit is what?

By November 25, 2008 2 Comments

The federal deficit could hit $1 trillion this year.  Does anyone know what that means? Zillions, billions and trillions. That was the nickname of a fraternity on campus  when I was in college- Zeta Beta Tau. Using those number in that way is about as effective as listing them in the story which is the title of this post. I found the story in Yahoo news yesteray; it was written by Jim Abrams, an AP writer.

Most of us, including most of our leaders at all levels of government, don’t really appreciate the magnitude of those numbers. Most of the adults in America, never mind the kids, are innumerate.

Innumeracy is  defined by John Allen Paulos in his 1988 book, Innumeracy – Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, This book was and is enjoyable and disturbing, particularly given the state of the world economy now in 2008.

John Allen Paulos is a professor at Temple University. A synopsis of this book and all the other books he has written can be found here. You can also purchase it on Amazon.

The inside jacket of the version of the book I own, published by Hill and Wang, sums up the disturbing part very well – ” . . . John Allen Paulos argues that our inability to deal rationally with very large numbers . . . results in misinformed governmental policies, confused personal decisions, and an increased susceptibility to pseudo-sciences of all kinds.

It is very pertinent today as the President-Elect Obama and his team try to grapple with what’s to be done to save the U.S. economy.

Here are some of the numbers used in the article I mentioned earlier. “The federal government’s ledger has gone from a surplus just seven years ago to facing a prospect of a $1 trillion deficit next year.” ” . . . a new stimulus package, costing in the $500 billion range . . .” “Budget hawks were stunned when the federal deficit hit a record $455 billion in fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, more than double the previous year’s deficit.” “. . . borrowing by the Treasury could top $2 trillion this year.” “The [national] debt, which stood at about $5.7 trillion in 2007, topped the $10 trillion mark in October and now stands at about $10.6 trillion.”

Ok, forget the zillions I mentioned at the top of the post- there is no such number. But what about billion and trillion? Do any of us have any idea how big those numbers are? I am not sure we have a good handle on the lowly million. I think we tend to think of each as just one rank higher than the other. Or just three more zeros. Right?

Let me share one method Paulos offers that might help us grapple with numbers of these sizes. He suggests that we think about examples of collections of things we are familiar with that represent these numbers.

He starts with things most Philadelphians relate to – a section of seats in the old Veteran’s stadium contained 1,008 seats (at least they did in 1988 when he published this book).

But the example I really related to is that of time. Think about the ticks of a clock. Seconds running by us.

One thousand ticks – a little more than 15 minutes. 1,000 – three zeros.

How about one million? 1,000,000 seconds – around 11 and 1/2 days.

Ok, get ready. A billion – 1,000,000,000 – almost 32 years!

So a million vs a billion is 11 1/2 days vs 32 years. Does that help?

A trillion seconds are a 1,000 billion – 1,000,000,000,000 – 32 thousand years!

Paulos goes on to say that modern Homo Sapiens is probably less than 10 trillion seconds old.

Billions and trillions are really big. I’m scared. How about you?

And as sales guys we only have to worry about selling our quota this year which for most of us is far smaller than these numbers.

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