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Short and Sweet


Thinking in big numbers

Big numbers do not register with most people. Thinking in millions is difficult. Billions are a major challenge, trillions nearly impossible. The reason for this, says Wall Street Journal columnist Jo Craven McGinty, is that big numbers are usually offered in isolation without the benefit of comparison – numbers without an appropriate anchor, so to speak. People need some sort of measuring stick to give the numbers meaning. She recently offered some interesting tactics for making big numbers meaningful. Here is one of them:

“[T]hink of it [big numbers],” she says, “in terms of time, like Richard Panek, a professor at Goddard College in Vermont and a Guggenheim fellow in science writing. There are 1 million seconds in roughly 11½ days. There are 1 billion seconds in around 31 years. And there are 1 trillion seconds in around 31,000 years. Someone who doesn’t grasp these differences in magnitude is also likely to be clueless when it comes to assessing the impact of chopping $2.7 billion from a $1.068 trillion budget.* It’s less than 1% of the total—the proverbial rounding error.”

*The proposed outlay for discretionay spending submitted by the Trump administration for the 2019 fiscal year budget


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