Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Stacking Up the Bucks

TPM's commentary on this presentation just made me laugh. Thanks Josh (and JD). I want to add that Thune's imagery was used (what seems so) long ago by the architect of Tony Blair's "third way", namely, Anthony Giddens, in a not at all unrelated context.

The volume of world financial transactions is usually measured in US dollars. A million dollars is a lot of money for most people. Measured as a stack of hundred-dollar notes, it would be eight inches high. A billion dollars—in other words, a thousand million—would stand higher than ST Paul's Cathedral. A trillion dollars—would be over 120 miles high, 20 times higher than Mount Everest. (Runaway World, Profile Books, 1999, p. 9-10)

Wow! Thune probably learned this trick of producing nice concrete images "to put things very simply into perspective" from a public speaking manual. Do note that Giddens and Thune differ greatly in their calculations (I wonder who is right)*. One day we may find the writing handbook that helped Tony G. write his Reith lecture, but for now here's my take-home message: some things really are abstract. It is okay to keep them that way.

[PS: Do notice the signs of the growing influence of Google Book Search. Pretty nice touch to be able to click right to the page cited, isn't it? Yet another reason that we will one day read our journals in html format, not PDF. In fact, it may yet make blogging of academic writing. Just as journalism has become blogging by another name.]

*[PPS: My quick calculation gives it to Thune over Giddens. Thune may have used slightly different values. But I get 678.7 miles using the dimensions I found here.]

[PPPS: In a similar critique of different way of keeping things a bit too simple, here's another TPM reader's reflections on the "if you spent a million since the day Jesus was born" idea.

2 comments:

Geoff said...

I get 689.66, working from 14.5 million bills in a mile high stack.

But it's strange how any attempt to ground the figure always defaults to the absurd.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, I keep returning to that moment at 1:30 when he offers "another way of looking at this" and then imagines the same bills "side by side" around the equator.

Another way of looking at the figure is as exactly 1/3 the "real cost" of the Iraq war (by Stiglitz's calculation). But I guess that wouldn't "put into perspective what it is that we're talking about".