Monday, October 31, 2011

Odious comparisons

Yesterday's Times featured an op-ed piece* by Ezekiel Emanuel -- physician and brother of Rahm -- that included one of the silliest attempts at clarification ever seen (I hope) in those pages.  Emanuel wants to help readers grapple with the "$2.6 trillion on health care, over $8,000 per American," that the US spent last year. "This is such an enormous amount of money, it’s difficult to grasp," he writes. So
consider this: If we stacked single dollar bills on top of one another, $2.6 trillion would reach more than 170,000 miles — nearly three-quarters of the way to the moon.  
Uh, right. In the first place, I can't remember the last time I saw even 10 one-dollar bills in the same place. I can't even picture a stack of a measly million dollars, let alone $2.6 trillion.

And then ... the moon? It's a long way off, sure, but the distance isn't easy to visualize without better clues than dollar bills. How about "x trips back and forth across the US," or "x times around the world"? Comparisons like this are supposed to give readers a familiar concept against which they can measure the less familiar one. Instead we have $2.6 trillion translated into two equally unhelpful images.

Even if the comparison worked, it's not clear what it's for. Surely the question is not "how much is $2.6 trillion" -- a tall tower of dollars, as much as the entire French economy, whatever -- but when such spending is "too much" for an economy of a given size, and what to do about it.

This is allegedly the first in a series on the topic, so I hope the editors will scrutinize future submissions a bit more carefully. All I learned here is that if I want to shinny up to the moon on a stack of dollar bills, I'll need more than 2.6 trillion of them.

*The link is to the online Opinionator version; didn't want to give me the address of the print version. 


CaitieCat said...

There are also other considerations:

Stacking One Trillion Dollars, by DotPhysics writer Rhett Allain.

Agreed, though, that it's a foolish image to choose, as it's not the least bit visualizable, and anyone who gets the least bit of the concept of centre-of-gravity gets distracted by the simple impossibility of it.

Jonathon said...

I remember once watching an episode of Modern Marvels or something similar and marveling at all the ridiculous comparisons that were made. I don't even remember what the episode was about, but they kept throwing out comparisons like, "That's as long as three Eiffel Towers laid end to end!" or "That's as heavy as 117 elephants!" I think the writer must have been bored. All I know is that they were entirely unhelpful.

Marc Leavitt said...

My mother used to tell me that all comparisons are odious, every time I did something she didn't like, and said, "Well John does it!"
Humans can't conceptualize large amounts of anything. That's why we refer to large numbers, at least colloquially, as abstractions. It's sufficent to know that a trillion is a name for a vast number of something, and leave it there.

LauraS said...

I see your point, but also wonder why you don't offer alternatives? How would you help people understand the enormity of $2.6 trillion?

Sue Dunham Explains said...

Isn't the standard American unit of comparison a football field?
I find $8,000 per person obscene. Hospitals have raised fees to absurd levels, bilking the insurance companies to balance the non-paying clients. We all know that 2 aspirin don't cost $50.

Jan said...

Laura S.: As I hint in the post, I think giving the $2.6 trillion as a percentage of the US economy is the most useful yardstick. How could it possibly matter that it equals x miles? (Especially when a pile of ANY denomination bills would be the same length, duh.)

T. Roger Thomas said...

I agree with your objections to the unhelpful comparisons using the stack of money and distance to the moon. I would also add an objection to the use of "over" in the original piece. To my way of thinking, one can climb over a fence. I would prefer to see the term "more than" used to denote a greater amount of things, which, in this instance, happen to be dollars.