Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How Much ?

I was sitting in the car on my lunch break listening to the news yesterday, and one of the lead stories was the president's budget proposal for the next fiscal year. The proposed spending is 3.7 trillion dollars.The news reader said that number quite nonchalantly, and I guess, in matters of government, we've all become accustomed and numb to what should be astounding numbers.
When I was in elementary school, and we discussed presidents, there would always be someone who would raise their hand and say, in response to the question of who the second president was, Abraham Lincoln. The first was George Washington, the second Abe Lincoln. I suspect our understanding of the size of these figures used to describe government spending is about the same. A trillion is bigger than a million, and bigger than a billion, but it's next up the scale-just a few places after a million, and we can get our heads around a million.

Well, I thought I had an understanding of what a trillion was, and set about trying to build, here, some analogies that made sense so that we might all collectively gasp at the budget figures. In playing with some examples of “trillion”, or 3.7 trillion, I quickly learned it was far, far more than I understood.

Case in point....A Starbucks “tall” is 12 ounces. We can all see that. It takes 682 of them to fill the green garbage toter I see out my window across the street. It would take 7,035,600-that's seven million-of them to fill an Olympic size pool. An Olympic pool, obviously, is not the typical back yard variety, it's 50 meters by 25 meters! It would take-are you sitting down?- 526,000 pools – five hundred twenty six thousand pools- to hold 3.7 trillion Starbucks Talls. I was ok with grasping this until the final division problem-I can't envision 526,000 Olympic pools.

Second attempt...I wanted to reduce this to understandable personal spending. I started with the premise “you go to the mall, and spend $10,000 per hour, 24 hours per day, every single day, 365 days per year....” But that didn't work-it would take over 42,000 years!!! So, I tried a different way-suppose you went to the mall when King David was alive-3000 years ago, roughly, and shopped 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, how much would you need spend to get to 3.7 trillion. In case you're wondering, there are about 26,280,000-twenty six million -hours since King David. It comes out to $148,000 per hour!!! (give or take)

OK, I give up. I can't get my head around 3.7 trillion. And neither, I suspect, can those who propose and ultimately spend that sum. It's a meaningless figure to us, just really big. They know full well we don't really understand how big.
One more try at putting D.C. budgeting into meaningful terms...Suppose a family attempts to heed the advice of the late Larry Burkett, or radio personalities Dave Ramsey and Clark Howard, or the nauseating Suze Orman and sits down at their table to do a budget. Using the D.C model, the family would say, ok, we will bring in $50,000 this year, so we should spend $83,500. And the same next year!

The U S of A, in 2009, took in 2.1 trillion, and spent 3.52 trillion. That's a shortfall- a defecit-of 1.42 trillion dollars...so how many Olympic pools of Starbucks talls is that? Never mind.

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