Reporting massively large numbers

By Felix Salmon
May 11, 2009

What are we meant to do when we read a story like this one, full to bursting with unimaginably large numbers? The 2009 deficit is now $1.84 trillion, up $89 billion from $1.75 trillion! That’s 12.9% of GDP! The spending plan for 2010 isn’t $3.55 trillion any more, it’s now $3.59 trillion! And so on and so forth.

I’m not picking on Reuters here at all — the team has actually done a spectacularly good job of trying to present these numbers in as many different ways as possible in order to give an idea of how big they are. But the problem is that the job is basically impossible because the overwhelming majority of human brains simply can’t comprehend the sheer magnitude of something like $1 trillion.

One thing which might help would be a cost-per-household measure. (As well as a hyperlink to the primary source.) In 2009, the figures now have total tax revenues of $2.157 trillion and total expenditures of $3,998 trillion, for a total deficit of $1.841 trillion. In real money, assuming 114 million households in the US, that means the average household will pay about $19,000 in taxes this year, but that the government will spend about $35,000 per household; the difference of $16,000 per household will have to be put on the national credit card.

Obviously averages conceal as much as they reveal, but at least this kind of exercise brings the numbers into the realms of the comprehensible. Once numbers go over $100 million or so, they pretty much cease to have any meaning for most of us, except as numerical exercises. It’s often helpful to bring them down to the kind of dollar figures that people can relate to.

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