When a Billion Dollars Equals a Trillion Dollars

More

I don't know if it's a huge problem for public policy, but it certainly seems like some kind of problem that, as Matt Yglesias says, most everyone has trouble processing differences between large numbers. That handicap is why the Obama administration can propose $100 million in cuts from a budget of trillions and expect something other than to be laughed out of Washington. It would be kind of funny if Dr. Evil hadn't already made this joke a while ago.

That said, I thought Matt's solution to this problem was not altogether satisfying:



Oftentimes when talking about budgetary matters in the United States, I think it would be helpful to come up with something other than raw dollar totals to discuss. Talking about a given initiative costing $X per person or per household, or being such-and-such a percent of total economic output, might give people a better understanding of the relative costs of different things.

Would it? If you take the size of the budget and divide by the number of households in the country, you will end up with the mean but not the median cost per household. The problem is that this would give people a better understanding of the cost only if we lived under a government that levied some wacky head tax -- a lump sum tax on every person, regardless of income -- rather than a country with a progressive income tax.

Maybe some futuristic high-tech version of the New York Times could automatically scale budget figures to your tax burden -- I'd subscribe to that -- but until then I fear we'll have to live with our imperfect brains and their imperfect command of the budget.


100 million dollars.png
(The image above is supposed to look like someone standing next to $100 million dollars.)
Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In