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Math Geek Mom: What do the Numbers Mean?
February 12, 2009 - 9:32pm

By now we have all heard the numbers telling us how large the stimulus package will be that we hope will help turn around the economy. As an economist, I am interested in this attempt to help the economy recover more quickly. However, I am struck by the size of the numbers being thrown around, as we will most likely spend $800 billion dollars for the stimulus package that will help begin this economic recovery. These numbers are so large, they are hard to picture. What do these numbers mean?

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher helped me to put such things in perspective by suggesting that we begin by thinking of a small bead as one unit of something, in this case, as one dollar. Ten of these beads would create a chain about an inch long, and therefore one hundred would create a square with sides of about one inch. A cube of such beads would create a cube with a side of about one inch, and would represent one thousand such beads. To form a cube of one million such beads, one thousand of these small one inch cubes would be put together, to form a block about the size of an end table or small coffee table. Putting one thousand of these coffee-table blocks together gives us one billion blocks, probably the size of a large room. To get from a billion to a trillion, we must take one thousand of those rooms of beads, to fill something that is about the size of a sports arena. Remember, the stimulus package, while not a trillion dollars, is probably going to be eight hundred billion dollars, or eight hundred of such rooms.

What do these immense numbers mean to us and our children? They are so large that we sometimes lose perspective, but in the end, someone will have to pay back this money, with interest. That “someone” who will pay it back will probably be our children, and our children’s children or their grandchildren or even great grandchildren or beyond. When making such investments, it is wise to make sure that we are choosing to invest in things that will look like good investments to the people of not only today, but also of ten, twenty, or even several hundred years from now. What will their values be, and what will they think is important in a world that we cannot even begin to imagine? Try to picture someone from the time of the Revolutionary War making decisions about how we in the 21st century should spend our money today. In many ways, that is what we are doing when we choose among possible investments today whose cost will be paid by generations in the future. We must be very forward-looking and visionary.

In considering such things, I am reminded of the famous words of Senator Everett Dirksen, who said during the Vietnam War, “a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.”

 

 

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