Millions and Billions

I think there’s a reason why I’m so obsessed with the concepts of “million” and “billion”. And I mean a reason besides what I find to be their inherent confusion. I think whenever I talk about that confusion, I don’t get as enthusiastic an agreement from those I’m talking to as I expect to, and thus I am unsatisfied and mention it again sometime.

Here’s the gist: our minds (or at least, most of our minds) can’t comprehend numbers on the order of a million, let alone a billion. Plus, the words rhyme. So when we hear “2 billion dollars is the new pricetag on the Gulf oil spill,” we don’t have any reference point except to say “wow, that’s big!” But we say that whether it’s a million or a billion, so we have little basis to compare them. This inability has an effect on civic engagement, because all federal budget figures are of that magnitude, and if there’s a massive imbalance it’s hard for normal citizens to get that worked up about it. We just don’t see the differences.

So, because I’ve been paying a lot of attention to politics and policy in recent years, I’ve started differentiating between them. And how do I do that? Whenever I see “million” I think, “small”. And “billion” is big. This works for me a little, I think, because when I saw a recent story expressing alarm over something like 9 million dollars wasted in some effort, I thought, “Aha, yes, that’s unfortunate, but in the grand scheme of the federal budget, that’s really a small amount of money.” It feels so weird thinking that, though, because a million dollars is so much money in so many contexts. But this strategy is helping me differentiate a little bit, and I think that’s a good thing.

My dad always used to affect a weird voice and say, “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money!” I always thought that was just silliness, but now I see that there are contexts in which it’s actually true. Jeez. The different scales of money in different areas of life gives you vertigo sometimes, doesn’t it?

One Reply to “Millions and Billions”

  1. The quote from your dad was actually “a billion here, a billion there…” and has long been attributed to Senator Everett Dirksen. He apparently never said those exact words, but said something similar on several occasions. Once when asked about it Dirksen is reported to have said: “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so go that I never bothered to deny it.”

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