What’s a Trillion, Anyway?
Throughout the weeks of intense coverage over the scheduled end of the Bush income tax cuts and the Obama payroll tax cut, reporters routinely cited dollar estimates in the millions, billions, and trillions. Such big and abstract-but-scary numbers tend to challenge normal human understanding.
But there are ways to make such numbers real—an increasingly important skill as we move deeper into the tax and budget debates, and as the discussion in Washington moves to the spending side.
Bill Marsh, a graphic artist for The New York Times, has shown one way to reduce huge figures to meaningful numbers. Marsh produced a particularly clear and useful graphic to accompany a Sunday opinion piece about what the authors say the government fails to include in its calculations: how much increased lifespans are expected to add to the cost of providing Social Security benefits.
Two professors—Gary King of Harvard and Samir S. Soneji at Dartmouth—came up with a cost of $801 billion by 2031. In an attempt to give meaning to the number, they point out that this is about 30 percent of the current Social Security Trust Fund of $2.678 trillion. (Details are in their academic paper.)