Monday, January 07, 2008

Ban the words "million" and "billion"

I am starting my campaign to ban the words million, billion and trillion from journalism. They are used all the time and for the most part, completely meaningless. Take for example, energy, which I know well.

You could say, the president's energy plan will save an incredible 20 billion gallons of gasoline per year by 2017. Or you could say the president's plan will only save 20 billion gallons of gasoline by 2017. You could write both and since noone really understands what a billion means, the public is clueless. How these numbers are manipulated is ridiculous.

More useful is to say 20 billion gallons amounts to 200 gallons per household. Or one eighth of our gasoline use. Or one eighth of our imports. Of course each of these makes it sound like a lot or a little. I am especially a fan of the "per household" number which is never used especially since it is easy to calculate given the 100 million US households.

Another common one is, "Our national debt is $9 trillion!!!" That number is meaningless to basically everyone. More meaningful perhaps is a per household number. Or most useful is as a percent of GDP. People are all worked up over this number but it is not especially high compared to other countries like France, Germany, Italy or Japan all of whom have a much larger debt relative to GDP. While we're making analogies, 9 trillion is only about 75% of our GDP. Commercials like saying we are burdening our children to penury. When really, it's more like someone who makes $60,000 a year, who owes $45,000 on his mortgage for his house. No one would say that's irresponsible. (that analogy is not quite right, but it is not too far off.)

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