Friday, June 09, 2006

On pennies and pounds: fun with numbers

Numbers are so confusing. Who can imagine a number of actual things, say, pencils or dollars, beyond a few thousand? Take millions, for instance. Or billions. It's hard to get a grasp on these huge numbers, and to add to the confusion they both sound kinda the same.

But they aren't, of course. As we all learned in school,

1 million = 1,000 x 1,000.
1 billion = 1,000 x 1 million, or to put it another way,
1 billion = 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000.

That is, if you take a case of 1,000 pencils, and you add 999 more cases, then you've got a million pencils, or approximately a 50' boxcar load.

Now take that boxcar of pencils and hitch it up to 999 more boxcars, and you've got a billion pencils on a v-e-r-y l-o-n-g train. I'm not even going to start in on the trillions. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen was famously reputed to have said, "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money."

Now look at this quote from Paul Krugman, courtesy of Tennessee Guerilla Women:

Consider the priorities on display in Congress this week.

On one side, a measure that would have increased scrutiny of containers entering U.S. ports, at a cost of $648 million, has been dropped from a national security package being negotiated in Congress.

Now, President Bush says that we're fighting a global war on terrorism. Even if you think that's a bad metaphor, we do face a terrifying terrorist threat, and experts warn that ports make a particularly tempting target. So some people might wonder why, almost five years after 9/11, only about 5 percent of containers entering the U.S. are inspected. But our Congressional leaders, in their wisdom, decided that improving port security was too expensive.

On the other side, Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, tried yesterday to push through elimination of the estate tax, which the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimates would reduce federal revenue by $355 billion over the next 10 years. He fell three votes short of the 60 needed to end debate, but promised to keep pushing. "Getting rid of the death tax," he said, "is just too important an issue to give up so easily." (New York Times, 6/9/06)

Skimming over this passage, you see two numbers: 648 and 355. At a casual glance you might think that port security would cost 648 something-or-other, and the tax cut would only cost 355 something-or-other.

The actual numbers, of course, are respectively:


In other words, tax cuts for wealthy estate owners would cost nearly 548 TIMES what port security would cost, or 54.8 times the total port security bill for each and every year the tax cuts are in effect.

The port security bill would have funded about 10,000 new port container inspectors. The money spent on the tax cut could have funded 10,000 new port container inspectors PLUS

41,527 new elementary schools, or
7,950,000 public safety officers, or
46,724,000 kids in Head Start. (Extrapolated from the National Priorities Project Database.)

They say people are apathetic about the looming budget crisis. Have you skimmed over any budget numbers lately? Wanta go back and reread now? (Hang on to your socks!)


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