A Test of Sense of Large Scale
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24-04-2014, 01:15 AM
A Test of Sense of Large Scale
The headlines for as long as I can remember have always expressed whatever the current amount of the national debt is in alarmist tones. But that number is meaningless and always has been against our capacity to comprehend large scale.

Here's a test, deliberately worded in general terms to keep you out of Google and force your gut feel for the answer:

A standard railroad boxcar is filled to its maximum rated capacity with $100 bills. How much money is it carrying?

My own gut feel was off by two orders of magnitude.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that if sheer large scale value is important to comprehend, we're woefully ill-prepared.

The other point is that we too often are distracted by large scale "awesomeness" and fail to recognize the much more meaningful parameter of ratio, or proportion. In the case of national debt, the raw value itself has no meaning whatsoever. It's proportion of GDP, and proportionate distribution of indebtedness to salient blocs, relative to comparable economies, are what's meaningful - but try to find those in the headlines.

I won't reveal my guess because I've already said by how much it was off (although I didn't say in which direction it was off), but it'd be interesting to see where the guesses fall - and the range they span.
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24-04-2014, 06:36 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
I'm gonna say $500,000.

Also, I assume you're talking about American national debt? You didn't specify. (typical American)
The national debt in relation to GDP is at an alarming rate.

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24-04-2014, 07:12 AM (This post was last modified: 24-04-2014 07:19 AM by wazzel.)
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
120,700,000 based on volume
63,500,000 based on weight

Those are number of bills not value.
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24-04-2014, 07:21 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
$13,000,000,000 ish

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24-04-2014, 08:38 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
I think debt per citizen and debt per taxpayer are good metrics for understanding the national debt. In the US I believe these currently stand at $55,194 debt per citizen and $151,619 per taxpayer[1].

Here is a visualisation of the stacks of cash involved for the US: http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa..._debt.html

[1] http://www.usdebtclock.org/

Give me your argument in the form of a published paper, and then we can start to talk.
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24-04-2014, 08:48 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
From the natioanl debt standpoint the total is a, but not only, measure of the impact. The total generated interest that must be paid that impacts the yearly budget. Not to mention how much we actually need to pay back at some point in time. Ignoring the total is not wise.
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26-04-2014, 10:44 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
I know you've all been losing sleep and seeing your therapists waiting to find out how much that boxcar holds - $9,080,000,000, which is 100 tons of 100 dollar bills (@454 bills per lb. per the Bureau of Printing & Engraving) - the size of the boxcar isn't a factor as the upper weight limit for a standard one is 100 tons - by volume it could hold half again as much but it'd crack the undercarriage. I thought it'd be about $100,000,000.

As to the value of a national debt having any meaning, what value would be a reasonable value? Let's say you propose half a trillion. How did you get that number? I don't think you can arrive at any number without doing an exercise of relative proportions first, which then gives you a number. But the number isn't important - it's the relative proportions that are.

And even ticking off what constitute "reasonable" relative proportions may not be possible without any arbitrariness. Say you peg a "reasonable" debt proportion as less than annual GDP. By what measures did you get there? There are numerous successful economies abroad with debt levels well above annual GDP.

The "science" of economy may be less science these days than spit in the wind. And made all the more precarious by the fact that we're so poor at comprehending large scale.
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26-04-2014, 10:51 AM
RE: A Test of Sense of Large Scale
Re. the above post...

I know some of those words.

But can you please give me a translation of 'boxcar' and 'railroad'. I don't think we have those over here.

I've heard of Boxcar Willie and I know you can get ointment for that.

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