Big numbers are misleading



Over the course of my life — 74-plus years — big numbers have become increasingly common in our daily discourse. A million dollars, for example, ain’t what it used to be. The average annual compensation for professional athletes is well into the millions. Even marginal players are paid seven-figure salaries.

Meanwhile, our politicians at the state and federal level regularly speak of billions. To them, a million dollars is mere chump change. And our national debt has soared into the trillions.

As these words — millions, billions, trillions — get bandied about with greater regularity, ordinary folks tend to lose their sense of the enormity of such numbers. We fool ourselves into thinking we can easily get our minds around these figures.

Perhaps the worst result of this phenomenon is that many of us can no longer discern the vast differences between a million and a billion — or a billion and a trillion.

A convenient way to keep these terms in proper perspective is to apply them to time:

A million seconds, for example, might seem to be a long time. But it’s not. A million seconds ago, we were already into the month of April. And we were becoming accustomed to having Donald Trump as our president, like it or not.

However, a billion seconds ago goes back farther than we might think. Ronald Reagan was president, and most of today’s prominent politicians were unknown to the American public. There were no cell phones or high-definition TV. It was a different time.

And here’s where this exercise becomes mind-boggling.  Looking back a million seconds is only a matter of days. Looking back a billion seconds roughly covers a generation. But looking back a trillion seconds goes back many centuries.

A trillion seconds ago, virtually nobody on the planet could read or write, none of the great religions had yet emerged and Neanderthals (the early ones, not the supporters of Donald Trump) were camping out in what is now Europe.

In other words, the difference between a million and a trillion is far, far more vast than you probably imagined.


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