04 May, 2009

GUEST POST: From the pen of Jim Huston

Things have been a bit hectic the past two weeks and I see no need to go into detail- suffice to say, things have been hectic. Now, this morning, when I checked the Paranoid in box, I found a request from Mr. Jim Huston asking to if he could submit a guest post. Now, if you do not recall, a few weeks back, I posted a link to as well as a good portion of a post that CSMK brought to my attention entitled, A Defense of Defense. I was surprised by his request but more than happy to oblige this man, as I truly respected that short essay, and without further ado, I gladly post more of his words and thoughts.

I am presenting some of my thoughts on Millions, Billions and Trillions. I have been simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the dollar amounts being used in all of the "Bailout" and "Deficit" articles and wanted some amount of scale, for my own understanding. I fashioned this as a narrative...

My ignorance knows no bounds.

I readily admit that I do not know the currently accepted definition of "man" or "mankind." The genus "man," as applied to the meaning of "human," is estimated to be about 2.5 Million years old. But do not worry; this is not about quibbling over the details of precise definitions. This simply is a preface to introduce some of my confusions.

I was reading a column that included some "ancient history," and wondered how old that history had to be, to call it ancient. A quick check for the term, taking only minutes in this age of computers, revealed that ancient history is considered to begin with the advent of writing; the ability, oddly enough, to record history; somewhat circular I know but as I said, is that anything to quibble about?

Another computer check found that the term "ancient history" validly applies to many civilizations, those of Persia, China, Rome or Greece, for instance. Recorded "Ancient History" itself, is said to begin with that of ancient Egypt, at about 4000 BC, for a culture that then lasted for 5,000 to 5,500 years.

My original wonder about the word "ancient" in relation to history was prompted by a column about finance and the current state of the economy; the budget and the bailout. And while you may consider this foray into historical age to be a tiresome digression, I was fascinated by the fact that in history, for the genus "mankind," the entire period that our species has existed on earth, mentioned no number larger than "million," and even at that, it was a paltry 2.5 Million years..!

Yet here I was reading figures in, not just Billions, but Trillions and the meaning of the numbers had begun to lose all meaning. Despite the fact that it is the primary function of numbers to express quantity, they had lost that value. One article told of Microsoft having the problem of possessing too much money; needing to find a valid use for its Sixty Billion Dollars in cash. That's $60,000,000,000, 60 followed by nine zeros!

The author evidently had the same problem as he attempted to give this some scale, with: "that is more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Hungary. It is more than the GDP of Iceland, Luxemburg and the Slovak Republic combined. Kind of him, but this of course does not help me, as neither the population nor the GDP of these countries are familiar enough for size comparisons; it might just as well have said "A Bunch."

I do know that the US has a total population of about 333,000,000 people (that's 333 Million) and even I can mentally multiply by counting 333 to 666 to 999 to find that I remain, at three times our population, at 999 Million, still under 1,000 Million (one billion). Rounding that up to 1,000 Million still requires counting ten times; 100, 200, 300, ... 900, 1000 (to ten hundred million) to reach One Billion.

I am neither lazy nor innumerate, but I had demonstrated to myself that Bill Gates may be perfectly and properly compared to the early comic book character Scrooge McDuck, fond of swimming in his money bin.

While the real dollar value still escapes me, I am overwhelmed and impressed with the magnitude in the difference. But here is the quandary: I have only considered Millions and Billions, and most of the articles on the debt and the bailout are talking about Trillions of dollars, neither subtle nor academic; as the full phrase used by the senators is "Trillions of Taxpayer Dollars."

So; is the difference between Million and Billion comparable in magnitude to the difference between Billion and Trillion? Can it be expressed as a ratio: Million is to Billion as Billion is to Trillion? How might this be illustrated?

I did attempt some research on this. I saw the "dollars laid end to end to circle the earth" descriptions, complete with graphics. I've also seen the "dollars stacked some number of miles high" graphic, along with the lists of how much could be bought with this vast amount of dollars. None of these, for me, conveys the amounts or values in any meaningful way. But I thought of one comparison that could resonate for almost anyone: A Time and Dollars equivalency.

How old are you; how long have you been alive? How long do you expect to live? How old will your children or your grand-children be when the public debt is once again under control or paid off? Here are some relevant time/dollars:

One Million seconds is 12 days.
One Billion seconds is 31 years.
One Trillion seconds is 31,688 years.

I can now treat spending and time as equivalent examples: one dollar can be expressed as one second of time or one second may convert directly to one dollar. Thus, with 86,400 seconds (or dollars) in one day; in spending $1 dollar per second for 24 hours, you have spent $86,400 dollars.

One Billion seconds from your birth, you will be half way to retirement (to retire at 62 years or Two Billion seconds).

Microsoft's 60 Billion Dollars, spent at a rate of one dollar every second, 24/7 would last 1,860 years. That may be fine for that Egyptian civilization mentioned, but our country is just a bit past 230 years old.

And most amazingly, the difference in magnitude between Billions and Trillions displays that the human race was just beginning to walk upright and to acquire those traits that make them human One Trillion Seconds ago, or 31,688 years in the distant past.

That first Man, had he begun spending at the rate of $1 dollar per second, (86,400 seconds or dollars per day) and continued doing so, round the clock 24/7 to the present time, he would have both lived and spent only One Trillion seconds and Dollars in the entire history of the human race.

He would, however, have spent less than 1/10 (one tenth) of the National debt, which is now reported at 10.7 Trillion Dollars. A group of ten of those "first men" doing the same would still be short of the National debt by .7 Trillion - 700,000,000,000 (Billion) short.

None of this addresses "The Bailout" as I can find several differing figures (estimates) for that amount. Suffice it to say that it is well past and beyond my comprehension. Of course I am not alone; I do not believe that any congressman understands or appreciates these magnitudes any better than you or I do. I suggest that there are some congressmen and other politicians that cannot even write the figures for Billion or Trillion correctly.

The cost of the war in Iraq is stated to be: $255 Million per day. That is spending at a rate of $ 2,951.40 dollars per second for that one day. Said differently, it takes a full 12 days of seconds to equal 1,036,800 (one million 36 thousand 800 dollars) and that twelve day's worth of seconds is spent daily. Again said differently, that $ 255 million per day for one year, or 365 days, is: over 93,075,000,000 (Billion dollars) or $280 dollars for every man woman and child of our population. That calculates to $ 1,118 dollars for a family of four, just for the costs of that war per year.

I still cannot claim a thorough understanding of magnitudes expressed in such figures, but I know with a personal certainty, that neither I nor the taxpayers can afford to pay at the rate the government is spending. Period.

Jim Huston

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