The Thing About Large Numbers

Budget Pie cartoon

"Close Enough" to accurate for our discussion. Cartoon by Michael Ramirez, stolen from Investors.com

You don’t understand large numbers. You don’t comprehend them. I don’t either, and neither do our brave and fearless leaders. Without the benefit of a visual aid, really big numbers just blur together: we couldn’t say whether there are closer to a billion or a trillion grains of sand along an island’s coast just by guessing, because we don’t have a frame of reference for those quantities. In our day to day lives, we might drive a few hundred miles, or spend tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle. A few of us may have a frame of reference for what a million-dollar piece of industrial equipment looks like. None of us has any idea what a trillion really means, and why last week’s arguments are so silly.

The cartoon above is close enough to accurate for discussion purposes (I did not count the pixels). The deficit constitutes nearly half the budget; it is conceivable to think that there will be “non-discretionary spending” which will bring that deficit to more than half the budget by the end of the fiscal year.

When we hear about this in the news, we hear that there’s a $30 billion dollar difference between the Democrat and Republican budgets. That number sounds significant. It’s enough to satisfy those on both ‘sides’ who want to be angry at the other; at risk are such things as NPR and Planned Parenthood.

But nowhere under discussion do we see anything of substance. There is no talk of ending the war in Afghanistan, of ending the Joint Strike Fighter program, of trimming the bureaucracy that is our tax system or the despicable slave program that is our prison system. We are distracted enough by the largeness of THIRTY BILLIONS OF DOLLARS that we ignore these obvious possibilities.

Look at that pie again. Our leaders fought over crumbs. They were paid handsomely for doing so, and the media watched their every move. Important things may have happened elsewhere in the world, but I for one was too distracted to notice.

kaiserleib
kaiserleib@gmail.com
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