Large Numbers Are Confusing

Million. Billion. Trillion. Similar right? Not so much! Numbers, especially large numbers, need context to make sense.

If you count one number a second you will reach a million in 1,000,000 seconds. That is not surprising really. 11.6 days.

A billion will take longer. 11,574 days or 31.7 years. That is a bit surprising. A trillion is 31,688 years.

11 days, 32 years, 32,000 years. Not so much alike now, are they?

Politicians throw million and billion and trillion around because they know most of us do not really pay attention. Maybe, they don’t either. There is an old joke about an aide approaching President Bush shortly after the invasion of Iraq. The aide’s message, “Ten Brazilian soldiers have been killed by a roadside bomb.” Bush’s reply, “That’s awful! How many is a Brazilian?”

For those of you who remember The Beverly Hillbillies, Jed Clampett sold his oil patch for $25,000,000. When Granny asked how much he got, he replied, “$25, but I’m not sure. I’ve heard of gold dollars and I’ve heard of paper dollars. They are paying me with million dollars.”

You will tend to understand how huge the numbers that governments spend if you think a million is 12 days and a billion is 32 years. A trillion is incomprehensible. 32,000 years is three times longer than the time since the last ice age. There is no reference point for that.

Another interesting large number is the population of China or India. 1.3 billion each give or take 50 million. For context, Mensa is an organization that requires you to have an IQ in the top 2% of the population to qualify for membership. Statistically, each of India and China has almost as many people who qualify for Mensa as Canada has population.

Let’s go further. Let us suppose one in a thousand of these Asian Mensa members has one important thought each year. 52,000 new Chinese and Indian important thoughts per year. That is 142 per day. About 6 per hour. I don’t know about you, but I think I will have a problem keeping up to that.

In China or India if you are a one in a million sort of person, there are 1,300 of you in each country.

There is something inevitable about large numbers. V.Lenin was once confronted with the idea that the Russian army was poorly trained and ill-equipped. His view, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

What should we do about the inevitability of size? We need to be conscious of the Asian powers. We need not fear them, but we must devise plans to deal with their mass and momentum. They can do things we cannot. But, we can do things they cannot.

Jason Jennings and Laurence Haughton have the best idea I have seen. It is a book. Check it out.

It Is Not the Big That Eat the Small, It Is The Fast Who Eat The Slow

Big has its own set of problems. The Asian giants will need to deal with them. I wonder what medicare would cost in China. Workplace equality and air quality may be a little hard to deal with too. How about a minimum wage in India? These will make them slow. While they are dealing with those, we can be fast and agile.

When you look back, those skills were once our driving force. Time to emphasize them again. Bureaucracies may not provide the help we need. Fast and agile are not adjectives that come to mind when I think about bureaucracies. We may need to rethink them.

Governments need to make policy decisions that make it easier for us to be fast and agile. As individuals, we need to be adaptable. It is hard to hit a moving target. Get moving. Maybe duck and dive too.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. don.s@protectorsgroup.com

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