Everett Dirksen, Redux

A Congressman and Senator from Illinois for over three decades, Everett Dirksen occasionally tried, in the largely-unsuccessful GOP tradition, to hold down government spending.  During debate on a contentious spending bill he is said to have quipped (oozing sarcasm from every pore) “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money!”

Of late I have noted both local and national TV news persons (I hesitate to use the term journalist – it’s more of an entertainment thing) confuse the terms “million” and “billion”.  It’s easy to do, the two words sound so much alike, differing by a mere letter.  Then, last week the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over a 1,000 point cliff because of some yet-to-be-discovered error.  Perhaps, it was said, someone punched in 1 billion shares when she meant 1 million.  Hey, it could happen.  Don’t get your shorts in a knot!  Stuff happens.  It says so on the T-shirt.

Still, it’s got a lot of us a little nervous.  People’s IRA’s and 401K’s are going up and down like yo-yo’s.  So all this got me thinking.  How many people really understand the difference between a million and a billion?  Some have tried to describe it as stacks of money, but somehow that really doesn’t seem to do it justice.  How about, I thought, if one started laying out $1.00 bills on the ground and then see how much area could be covered?  (Just pretend it’s all flat land, or that the bills cover the tops of structures or ponds.  You get the idea, right?  Pretend it’s floor tiles of one-dollar bills.)  OK, then.

$1.00 (a one-dollar bill) covers (near as I can measure with a ruler) 15.91 square inches.

$1,000 (one-thousand dollar-bills) covers, it turns out, 110 sq. feet, or the floor in a 10 x 12 foot room.

$1,000,000 (one million dollar-bills) covers 2.53 acres, roughly one-quarter of a Chicago block (Answers.com).

$1,000,000,000 (one billion dollar-bills) covers almost 4 square miles, roughly 250 Chicago blocks.

Like the man said, a billion here, a billion there …  Senator Dirksen, you had no idea how bad it was going to get.  Now, when I call up my mutual fund on my computer I’m almost afraid to push “Enter”.

P.S.  We occasionally hear the T word lately.  $1 trillion one-dollar bills would cover 3,945 square miles, or about twice the area of Jasper, Newton and MacDonald counties combined.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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