Friday, July 16, 2010

Big Numbers

By Madeleine Kando

Do you ever blank out when you hear huge dollar amounts mentioned on the news? 'BP already spent $3.5 billion dollars on the oil cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico'. And: 'BP puts $20 billion dollars in escrow to cover damages caused by the oil spill.'

These big numbers immediately cause me to draw a blank. I have no idea how much a billion dollars is. I have tried to figure out at which zero in the dollar chain I start to show signs of incomprehension. So let me start with one zero and work my way up.

One zero - For 10 dollars I can get a decent lunch.
Two zeros - For a 100 dollars I can go out to dinner with my whole family.
Three zeros - For a 1000 dollars I can get a very decent computer.
Four zeros - For 10,000 dollars I can get a good second hand car.
Five zeros - 100,000 dollars is what my daughter makes as a computer engineer.
Six zeros - For one million dollars I could get a very fancy house in a very fancy neighborhood.
Seven zeros - At the 10 million dollar mark it starts to get fuzzy. You hear people winning the lottery and win that kind of cash. But still, I can fathom buying 500 cars and give them to my friends and family. I can fathom buying Donald Trump's 10 million dollar home.
Eight zeros - One hundred million dollars! Now I am really starting to blank out. To put it in perspective: Avatar, the movie, cost about 300 million dollars to make (and I think it grossed between 2 and 3 billion in sales).
Nine zeros - that's one billion dollars. For that you could get 100 houses the size of Donald Trump's house.
Ten zeros - $10,000,000,000: If you were an oil giant we won't mention by name, for 10 billion dollars you could almost clean up the mess in the Gulf of Mexico because you probably would have made 25 billion dollars somewhere else.
Eleven zeros - In the 100 billion dollar range you are looking at the approximate cost of the war in Iraq every 8 months! BP's profits over the past 10 years (not in the least thanks to the war in Iraq which made the price of oil go way up), was 250 billion dollars.
Twelve zeros - $1,000,000,000,000 - One trillion dollars. In the trillion dollar range we are looking at the US budget deficit in 2009.

So you see, even those large numbers are manageable for a simpleton like me.

Comparing big numbers with each other sometimes reveals misplaced priorities. Here is an example:

'Tide of new PTSD cases raises fears of fraud'. Some people are worried that if the rules for proving that a war veteran suffers from post traumatic stress disorder are made easier, it will cause some veterans to take advantage of it. But even if as much as 1 % of every 40,000 veterans that file for ptsd submit false claims, and they get the $15,000 a year in benefits, that would be only 6 million dollars a year. That is less money than just one of Donald Trump's houses.

Another example of pure idiocy related to big numbers is the worry over potential fraud if an expanded bottle bill passes in Massachusetts. That bill would include water and juice bottles that currently litter our roads and parks. Some say that the 5 cent deposit would put an extra burden on the consumer. Others are worried that people from bordering states like New Hampshire (who do not have a bottle bill), will come and redeem their New Hampshire bottles in Massachusetts and rake in the vast amounts of money that the 5 cent deposit will provide them. Oooh. Scary. That bad New Hampshire man just raked in $10 by returning alien water bottles... The expanded bottle bill would provide the State of Massachusetts $20 million from un-returned bottles.

What is the moral of all this? That, when it comes to priorities for spending money, humans seem to have lost their mind. They opt not to worry about a 25 billion profit by an oil company, but fret about the possible 'fraud' amongst veterans, those young men and women who have risked their lives so we can fight the pros and cons of an expanded bottle bill.

(For those of you who are interested, here are some more big numbers that I came across during my research for this article: 4,400 Americans died so far in Iraq. 600,000 soldiers suffered traumatic brain injury. 200,000 cases of post traumatic stress disorder have been reported so far. Shell Oil (mostly Dutch) made 5 1/2 billion dollars in profit in 2009. British Petroleum made 250 billion dollars in profit over the past 10 years. Contrary to what you might think, there are no American oil companies that have signed contracts in Iraq. BP (British) and the Chinese, however, have.) leave comment here