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A billion dollars

By March 5, 2006new orleans

Walking slowly after my jog in the park, lost in thought as I stared up into the crisp blue sky, I heard voices behind me.   The increasing loudness told me that the two men were on bicycles.  When they were almost upon me I realized that one of the voices was that of a famous local radio personality: he was talking about the mayor’s race and the importance of getting local politicians that can gain the confidence of people in Washington. 

“12 billion dollars is a lot of money to put into this region,” he said with a rising tone.  “I don’t think many people realize just exactly how much money a billion dollars is.”  Silently I agreed with him, glad to know that he recognized the limits of ‘crowd wisdom.’

Then he went on to explain: “I mean, a billion dollars is 100 million dollars.”  I noticed a brown leaf falling out of the blueness and watched it settle on the asphalt as his bike passed me by.  A little voice in my head spoke softly, “yes, very few people know just how much money a billion dollars is.”


P.S. If you appreciate my observations, you might want to join my inner circle.

4 Comments

  • Robin Crouch says:

    Dear Ernie & all y’all,

    Tonight, one of my favorite family members forwarded me that confounded “What is a billion” e-mail in the hope that I’d write my legislators. I rarely respond to such tripe, but I did and am copying same below in hope it might helpful and that you’ll be forgiving of any lapses in math skill. It is late, I’m right-brained, and my heart aches for New Orleans daily.

    You delta dwellers be of good courage, and know this country’s filled with people who never stop thinking about and praying for you and your city’s recovery and future.

    ———–in response to “What is a billion” e-mail, which is cc’d below——————-

    Dear ones, I usually let these things go, but as a Christian, a Southerner, a professional editor, a journalist, and a loved one to several of you, I simply must step into this string.

    I do understand a billion, and below are the real facts.

    A billion seconds ago, it was almost 1975, and the Vietnam War was grinding down.

    A billion minutes ago, Christ had been crucified 72 years hence, and Masada fell to the Romans.

    A billion hours ago, humans began wearing clothing in response to the ice age at the end of the Eemian interglacial period.

    A billion days ago, hominids had been walking upright for almost 3.5 million years.

    A billion years ago our complete ecosystem became fully formed, and the first multi-cellular organisms (like jellyfish) appeared on this earth.

    That said, please know that New Orleans had never been my cup of tea until my daughter attended Loyola and lived in the Crescent City for three long years. Practically against my own will, I came to learn and eventually embrace the city’s culture. New Orleans is a national treasure, despite its underbelly, which we each have not only in our own towns but in ourselves.

    I’m not certain how to either preserve or protect New Orleans, but it is clear to each of us that the Dutch certainly figured out how to manage the North Sea and their own issues of living below sea level in the Netherlands. Clearly, the US, the state of Louisiana, and the corporations attached to the area can figure this out. Gambling alone could finance a heap of the expense if properly taxed. It doesn’t take a team of Nobel laureates or even a northern VA think tank to sort out a weather/environmental issue like this. But it will take effort and know-how, which I’m not certain exists any longer at the federal level, considering that …

    A billion dollars was the US national debt in 1863, while …

    A billion dollars today pays interest alone on today’s national debt (paid out on our whopping $8,348,185,000,000. USD debt as of 5/26/06)

    It’s no one’s fault that New Orleans was destroyed, but had it been NYC, DC, LA, or even Charleston, for the love of God, we would see a vastly different history today on management and recovery.

    My biggest questions are … are the refineries up yet and are our gulf rigs back online? How much money have US oil companies made since the new Iraq war began? And how many tax dollars have been collected as a result of the subsequent rise in gas and oil prices? Could some of that money go to help New Orleans, considering the role of gas and oil in that region?

    I do believe the US government’s responsibility is to help New Orleans in some way. Not to bail it out, but to provide clear, strong leadership in financial management and physical recovery through corporate partnerships. THAT is the American way. And we help our own.

    With sincerity,

    Robin Jones Crouch

    P.S. A billion humans lived on this planet in 1835, and today, there are currently 6,619,599,390 at the time of this mail. How on earth will be able to survive if we don’t help one another? At more than one birth per second, when you get this mail, well … you do the math.

  • Fernando says:

    I’ve received the billion “facts” e-mail many times (a billion second ago it was 1959 and so on). I’m an old and wary fact-checking newspaperman. So I put my calculator to work and visited a number of websites to try to determine the accuracy of the “billion” statistics. These are good as of March 2006, but suspicious minds should always double-check statistics, especially since I can’t balance my checkbook.

    The first statistic says that a billion seconds ago it was 1959.

    Let’s see if that’s true.

    1,000,000,000 seconds divided by 60 (number of seconds in a minute) = 16,666,666.6 minutes

    16,666,666.6 minutes divided by 60 (minutes in an hour) = 277,777.8 hours

    277,777.8 hours divided by 24 (hours in a day) = 11,574.07 days

    11,574.07 days divided by 365.25 (average days in a year) = 31.68 years

    March 2006 minus 31 years and eight months (roughly) = late 1974, not 1959

    Hmm. Does this mean the initial calculations were made in 1990 (1959 + 31)?

    Let’s look at the second claim, that 1 billion minutes ago Jesus was alive. If we accept Christ’s lifespan as roughly 1-33 AD, does the statistic fall in that time?

    1,000,000,000 minutes divided by 60 = 16,666,666 hours

    16,666,666 hours divided by 24 = 694,444 days

    694,444 days divided by 365.25 = 1901

    2006 minus 1901 = 105 AD, or 72 years after Christ died. That statistic is way off.

    Even if the initial calculations were made in 1990, the statistic would have been off. In 1990, a billion minutes ago would have been 89 AD, not 33 AD.

    Let’s take the third statistic, that 1 billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.

    1 billion hours divided by 24 = 41,666,666 days

    41,666,666 divided by 365.25 = 114,077 years ago

    This one is accurate, but only because the definition of Stone Age can be awfully broad– it includes the period between 2 million years ago and 4,500 years ago. The Stone Age varies from continent to continent and culture to culture.

    Next statistic: A billion days ago no one walked on the earth on two feet.

    1 billion days divided by 365.25 = 2,737,850 years ago.

    This one is off by nearly half a million years, if we accept anthropologists’ findings. Lucy, the hominid found in Ethiopia in 1974, lived 3.2 million years ago, and, because of the structure of her knees and pelvis, scientists have concluded she walked on two legs.

    The final statistic tells us that the federal government is spending a billion dollars every 8 hours and 20 minutes. Oh, if only it were so. This statistic is truly old. At current spending levels (the U.S. federal budget for the 2007 fiscal year), the government is spending a billion bucks every 3.89 hours. This means that since the initial calculations were made, the federal government has more than doubled the rate of spending.

  • Greg says:

    There are billionare’s in this world and yet with all the money they have they are still trying to find ways to screw people out of more money. Makes me wonder how much money will make them happy?

  • Ben Cowgill says:

    You are quite right, Ernie.

    Ralph Nader once quipped that human beings are becoming “biologically obsolete” because (unlike people in ancient times) we cannot detect the most serious threats to our health and safety with our five natural senses.

    It might also be said that we are becoming mentally obsolete, because our minds cannot comprehend the kind of numbers that are bandied about in public discourse.

    One example is the number “one billion”. Even those of us who correcly understand that a billion is one thousand million often find it difficult to comprehend what such a number means in the real world. For example:

    A billion seconds ago it was 1959.

    A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

    But a billion dollars ago was less than 9 hours ago, at the rate Washington spends money.

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