A Billion Here, A Billion There

Did it bother you as much as it bugged me… seeing the videotape of all those pallets of hard cash being loaded onboard planes bound for Iraq? According to one report I read, 363 tons of crisp, new $100 bills — $12 billion in cold cash — were airlifted to Baghdad in the days immediately after the May 2003 invasion. The video footage surfaced on TV as Paul Bremer, the guy who ran Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, testified before Congressman Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
If Waxman thought Bremer could account for all that boodle, he was destined for disappointment. Frank Willis, described as a former senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, acknowledged that “Iraq was awash in cash.” An attorney for an outfit called Iraq Whistleblowers claims, “The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption.” Big surprise, eh?
This news started me thinking about all those missing billions. How much is a billion, anyway? For Bill Gates, I guess, it’s just walking-around money. For us middle-class working stiffs, a billion may be a bit harder to grasp. With a $2.9 trillion budget being debated by Congress as I write this, our senators and representatives may do well to recall the words of the late senior senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen: “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” So how much is a “billion” anyway?
To get my hands around that number I tried thinking about time instead of dollars. Since my emails to Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who wrote “A Brief History of Time,” went unanswered, I had to work this through for myself. Bear with me. Here goes:
• If we multiply 24 hours/day by 60 minutes/hour and again by 60 seconds/ minute, we come up with 86,400 seconds in a single day.
• Now, multiply 86,400 by 365 days/year and you should come up with 31,536,000 seconds in a single year. With me so far?
• Now, let’s divide one billion by 31,536,000. I don’t know about you, but I come up with 31.7.
• Last, subtract 31.7 from 2007 and you are left with 1975.
In other words, if I did this right, a billion seconds subtracted from our lives would take us all the way back to 1975. Put a little differently, a billion seconds is more than half my life. For most of the students I teach, a billion seconds is 50 percent more than each of their entire lives to date.
Now, let’s get back to dollars. Assume the Congress gives the Administration the entire $2.9 trillion requested for the government’s next fiscal year, beginning October 1, 2007. Here we go again:
• Takes 24 hours/day and multiply by 365 days and you should come up with 8,760 hours for the year.
• $2.9 trillion equals $2,900 billion, right?
• Okay, then, divide 8,760 hours by 2900 and you will get approximately three.
If I’ve got this one right, too, then Uncle Sam will be spending a billion bucks every three hours on average, if he gets every clam he’s requested.
I vaguely remember an old movie in which the hero has to spend something like a billion bucks in a very short period of time. This proviso in a dead uncle’s will was inserted to sate the young nephew, so that he will act responsibly with regard to the remainder of the dead man’s fortune. The uncle’s wisdom is validated over the remainder of the movie. By the deadline, the young spendthrift is sick of splurging.
We might all wish that our own Uncle S. would watch that movie a few hundred times. He never seems to get sick of spending like the proverbial drunker sailor.

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