Big Numbers

April 27, 2014

I’ve been thinking a bit about numbers lately. Big numbers and they grow. It should be no surprise to you that I have some thoughts!

Occasionally I’ll here a reporter reading a story who uses millions for billions, or billions for trillions. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a larger number where a smaller one was correct; only the other way around.

We live in a world whose scale we cannot always appreciate. More than seven billion people are alive today, and more than 317 million of us live in the United States of America.

The Obama Administration’s 2014FY budget, for October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014, asks for spending of $3.77 trillion, and expects income of $3.03 trillion. Ignore the shortfall—not what this column is about, mostly—and focus on the per capita spending. I get $11,892. (As an aside, it took several minutes to do the calculation, as I got lost in my zeros.) So our federal government spends $11,892 on each of us. A lot? A little? I’m not sure, but I know this:  comparing the budget to budgets from years gone by, when we had a smaller country, when we had fewer problems, and when we expected less from our government.

Unfortunately, I rarely here about how much it costs us, per person, to operate the federal government. We do get analogies about piling dollar bills up, and how high they’d go into the sky. Pretty high! Or how many times the dollars could circle the Earth. Lots of times! And who cares, for these analogies tells us nothing!!!

A terrific author, John Allen Paulos, has written some very entertaining books about numbers, innumeracy—that’s illiteracy about numbers—and other similar topics. We need more appreciation for numbers and what they mean, especially big numbers, if we ever want to really appreciate the world around us.

P.S. Sorry for the brevity. Too much “everything” through Tuesday!

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