All too often these days it seems we’re confronted with numbers that seem, well, a tad incomprehensible. At least for me. As hard as I try I just can’t seem to wrap my brain around a “stimulus package” valued at around 790 billion dollars. Seems I get only far enough to conclude that it’s a really, really huge amount. Even when I break it into smaller pieces it still seems intellectually overwhelming. Afterall, a mere one percent totals about $8 billion, and that, I’m afraid, still stretches my imagination beyond its limits. Only when I get to a fraction as small as one-tenth of one percent does a dollar figure I can comprehend appear – a mere $79,000; but then when I try to imagine one-tenth of one percent I find I’m pretty much where I started, dealing with numbers that are either too large, or now too small, to be meaningful.
Some twenty-plus years ago Richard Pryor starred as Montgomery Brewster in a cute little movie about an ordinary sort of guy who stood to inherit $300 million. But, there was a catch. In order to get the full amount, Brewster’s long-lost benefactor stipulated that Brewster would be given 30 days to spend $30 million. If he was penniless at the end of those 30 days he’d receive the money; but if not, he’d lose the inheritance and all that would come with it.
As numbers go, I found these to be a bit more manageable; though to be honest, $30 million is still a bit outside my routine. As I thought about Brewster’s predicament, it became quickly obvious that he was compelled to spend $1 million a day. While I was getting closer to numbers I could understand, this was still a tad difficult to comprehend. So, I broke it down even further. It turns out that this is the equivalent of just under $42,000 an hour; or just under $700 a minute; or about $12 a second. Finally – there they were. Two numbers I could relate to; even if I can’t quite imagine being in a position to spend $12 every second.
So I wondered what would happen if I applied the same set of calculations to that really huge number. It occurred to me that spending $787 billion in 30 days was pretty ludacrious. So I thought, what about spending that much money over the course of 5 years? Afterall, that timeframe seems a bit more in line with what is actually being proposed.
As I completed the calculations I again encountered numbers that were too large to make sense. Spread over 5 years that really huge number translates into a long string of really huge numbers. It’s $157 billion a year. That’s huge. Or, it’s $431 million per day. That’s still huge. While it gets a bit more manageable per hour, $18 million continues to strain my limited intellect. Per minute it amounts to $300,000.
And finally, yet again, there it was. All that money, spent over the span of 5 years translates into a mere $4,991 per second. Bingo! I understand $5,000 and I understand one second. How simple can it be? That massive stimulus is nothing more than a paltry $5,000 per second for the next 158 million seconds … er … five years.
That’s not so bad.
Unless you look at it this way. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in the US in 2007 was $50,233. Now that’s manageable. And it only gets better. It equates to $138 a day; and better yet, to $5.73 per hour – or, about 9 cents a minute. Boy now we’re talkin’!
Except that suddenly the too-small thing happens again. If the stimulus package equates to roughly $5,000 per second, it seemed only fair that I calculate the median household income on a per second basis too. Just that quickly it was gone again – that easy understanding. It turns out that 50 grand a year translates into a puzzlingly small $0.001593 per second.
So here I sit. Forced simply to conclude that a little bit more than one-tenth of a cent per second is too small of a number to make sense; except that I do understand that it’s a whole lot less than $4,991 a second; and that the difference between the two is, well, huge.
Then it occurred to me that the $50,000 household income was before taxes.
And that’s when I quit.