Imaginary numbers


A few weeks ago, I attended a reception for literary people, and got into a conversation with a nice couple who were telling me about their favorite PBS programs. After assuring me of the programs' uniqueness and value, the man adopted a wry smile as he said, "And now they talk about cutting money to PBS."

"Well," I carefully replied, "the money isn't really there."

"That's just what they tell you," he countered. "The rich have plenty of money."

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I didn't follow up because I suspected this gentleman spent his time in elementary school arithmetic classes like I did-drawing doodles in his notebook or staring out the window. I know enough arithmetic to function as an adult in American society, but not enough to function in the U.S. Congress or the executive branch. It takes numerical sophistication of the highest order to navigate the federal budget, which is why we have to leave it to wizards like Harry Reid, Barney Frank, and Barack Obama. With advice from astute businessmen like Michael Moore.

(Sarcasm off.)

Actually, when numbers with 12 zeros come up, I suspect that most members of Congress are as lost as I am. Comparisons-1 trillion dollar bills laid end-to-end would reach to the sun and back, then head out toward Mars; 1 trillion seconds is longer than all recorded history, etc.-only reinforce my suspicion that we're approaching imaginary money territory. Fourteen trillion in debt: Is there that much money in the world? Really? Or will there be when we print it off? Would it take all of recorded history to print 1 trillion dollar bills, at one per second? For me and most Americans, the numbers are simply unreal; that may be why it's so hard to understand the nature of the problem.

David Burge, otherwise known as Iowahawk, is a good man for timely number-crunching. A couple of weeks ago he posted a breakdown of just how far we could pay federal expenses in a calendar year by taking all the Fortune 500 corporate profits and grabbing every cent over the $250,000 that defines "the rich." With that, and soaking professional athletes and throwing in the amount spent for Super Bowl ads, we could get to 6 p.m. on July 2. And what then? It's not pretty.

Bill Whittle made the same information graphic in a YouTube video (see below). It's worth checking out, for future literary receptions-so long as they last.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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