Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Really Big Numbers

     The numbers being bandied about in Washington these days are so big that most non-mathematicians, especially politicians, can't conceive of their magnitude. So let me see if I can give you some idea of what these guys are talking about.
     There are thousands of web sites one can visit in order to visualize large numbers, but for my purpose I wish to focus on just one number: $10B. You can either do the arithmetic or take my word for it: this would be a stack of one-dollar bills approximately 678 miles high.
     Now let this $10B be represented by a standard pack of playing cards. The question is: If we piled up packs of cards to the height of the Federal Budget (Note 1), how many packs would we need? The answer is 345 packs, or a 17.4-foot-high stack! Keep in mind: each pack represents a 678-mile-high stack of one-dollar bills!
     But of that 368 pack budget, 211 packs have been set aside as entitlements – such things as Social Security, Medicare, Health Care, Food Stamps, Unemployment Compensation, Child Nutrition and Tax Credits, Supplemental Security for the Disabled and Student Loans; the amounts of these items are dependent upon circumstances that are beyond the immediate control of the President and Congress.
     That leaves 134 packs for “discretionary” spending – items that are negotiated each year between the President and Congress through the budgeting process. By far the largest of these amounts, 67 packs (50%) goes to the Department of Defense. That leaves just 67 packs for Health and Human Services (8), Education (6), Housing and Urban Development (4), Justice (3), Agriculture (3), and all other government expenses (43).
     Let's take a look at the Pentagon's budget of $671B, which is as much as the combined military expenditures of the next 19 countries. Are we preparing to take on the world? To top it off, if fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (which is not included in the budget) is an example, the equipment we are producing is not designed to fight 21st. century-style wars.
     Obviously, some minor shifts in priorities are called for. For example, moving two packs of cards from the Department of Defense to Education would add 40% to the Education budget and still leave us ahead of the next 17 countries in military expenditures. That sounds like a reasonably good trade-off. With a little study, other such adjustments become obvious, except, of course, to politicians.
     Another large number is the amount of government debt – money owed on Treasury bonds. Estimates are that the current limit of $14.29T will be reached by August 2, 2011. This would be represented by 1,429 packs; a stack 72 feet high. Using 2010 figures, the International Monetary Fund places the total U.S. debt at 96.3% of GDP, ranked 12th highest against other nations.
     But we are moving up. Is that what we really want?

      Note 1. Budget figures are based on President Obama's budget presentation for fiscal year 2012.
     In the previous chapter I explored the first of seven categories, each representing a distortion of reality; every joke fits into one of the categories. In this chapter I take a look at the second category: distortion of body parts.
     Distortion Of Body Parts – There Are Only Seven Jokes

      “There Are Only Seven Jokes” and “The Spirit Runs Through It” and are available in paperback, or at the Kindle Store.

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