Do Zeroes Cure Inumeracy?

Janet Beihoffer has a modest proposal for cutting federal spending and generally restoring some sanity to our financial life.

A simple but effective approach may be to include all the zeroes in these bills, current and future. Far too many people hear “million” and “billion” and “trillion” and simply don’t understand the magnitude of these numbers.


A wake-up call occurred with one of my former students who worked at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. His paper draft wrote numbers as: $4.6 billion, $972 million, etc. I asked him to put in the zeroes: $4,600,000,000, $972,000,000 etc. He showed his paper to his boss, a minimum of a 10 year veteran of the Federal Reserve System. His boss was stunned.

If someone working with that much money gets stunned by looking at the zeroes, maybe, there is hope that if we include the zeroes in all these government programs, we’ll wake up and take measures to protect our nation, its economy and, as Dems like to say, “the children.” For now, our kids are on the hook for a long time for irrational spending by their parents.

Looking at the numbers in all their digital glory does help emphasize how massive they are.  On the other hand, it radically reduces clarity for me in that I have to translate them into English.  Numbers are, after all, just another language.

Photo by Flickr user Rafael Chamorro, used under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Snoop-Diggity-DANG-Dawg says:

    “Zero” is certainly germane to America’s future. We might as well get used to it.

  2. odograph says:

    The Indian numbering system is much more interesting. Our debt is only one neel.

    Gotta respect a numbering system that has names out to 10^19.

  3. William d'Inger says:

    Gotta respect a numbering system that has names out to 10^19.

    That’s a strange remark, odograph. English (American usage anyway) has names out to 10^303. It’s called a centillion. In British usage it means 10^600. I fail to see the superiority of the Indian numbering system in that regard.