It doesn't take much for a seemingly innocuous, rarely used phrase to become part of our modern lexicon. Repetition and usage creates familiarity, so eventually the original meaning and purpose of the phrase ends up as a nonchalant, ho-hum label, pretty much devoid of meaning.
Take the phrase "700 billion dollars," as in "700 billion dollar bailout." (Actually, $787 billion, but who's counting?) It has been used so much lately that Americans have become numbed to the magnitude of the actual amount.
When the mathematician in me keeps hearing about 700 billion this, or 700 billion that, it makes me want to look a bit more closely at what "700 billion dollars" really is. Time for a paper, pencil, and calculator experiment.
My precision calipers tell me that a dollar bill is about 1/250 of an inch. That means a stack of 250 dollar bills equals about one inch. That means if I stack all 700 billion dollars, one on top of the other, it will be 233,333,333 feet high. My trusty calculator then tells me that stack is actually about 44,000 miles high.
OK, that's a fur piece, but how fur is it really? New York City and Los Angeles are about 3,000 miles apart. This means that my 700 billion dollar stack, if laid on the ground, would go from New York to LA and back to New York over 7 times. Now that's a fur piece!
So how about the weight of all those bills? My precision weight scale tells me a single bill weighs about .033 ounces which means it takes about 30 dollar bills to make an ounce. My ever trusty calculator then tells me that you would need about 485 bills to make a pound.
It's going to take a mighty big scale to weigh all those 700 billion dollars...actually I don't think a scale that big exists...thank goodness for mathematics. After a few buttons pushed on my trusty calculator I find out that my 700 billion dollar bills weigh 1,443,298,969 pounds. In English, that is one billion, four hundred forty-three million, two hundred ninety-eight thousand, nine hundred sixty-nine pounds...whoa! I think I'll stick with the Arabic numerals.
That's a lot of poundage, but what does it really mean? The average weight of a person on earth is about 150 pounds (closer to 160 pounds around the holidays, but I digress). My calculations tell me that my stack of 700 billion dollars weighs about the same as 9,621,993 people. That would mean if you took all the people in Maine and put them on a weight scale you would have to do it 6 times before the total would add up to the weight of my stack of 700 billion dollars.
OK, all this measurement stuff is pretty boring. Let's spend our 700 billion dollars. Good luck.
Twenty years sounds like enough time to spend it, right? Not so fast, chummy. To spend 700 billion dollars in 20 years means you would have to spend 35 billion dollars a year. Not impressed?
OK, how about trying to spend $95,890,000 dollars a day for 20 years. Still not impressed? How about trying to spend $3,995,433 per hour for 20 years or how about $66,590 per minute for 20 years.
Yep, that means every minute, of every hour, of every day for 20 years you would have to spend over sixty-six thousand dollars to equal 700 billion dollars.
I have a new found respect for "700 billion dollars."