D.B. Cooper, or whatever his real name was, hijacked a Northwest Orient flight in 1971, extorted a ransom, and parachuted into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. What happened to him has been a mystery for 40 years. The real mystery to a reader under 40, however, has to be the amount of money Mr. Cooper demanded: $200,000.
Seriously? Even Dr. Evil asked for more than that.
But, of course, numbers are meaningless unless we can relate them to some-thing familiar. Back in 1971, an average car cost under $4,000, gas was 40 cents a gallon, an average home went for $25,000, and my dad and others thought Americans were living very well on an average annual income of $10,000.
Our two hands and 10 digits probably have some-thing to do with our ability to understand numbers. In his 1956 paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” Princeton psychologist George A. Miller noted that most of us have a hard time holding any number higher than nine in our working memory. Other researchers say the most we can handle is four.
Addition and multiplication get us to higher numbers, but comprehension strains when we’re faced with the multiple-trillion-dollar estimates thrown around during the recent debt and deficit debate.
The Monitor published a graphic recently showing the shortfall projected to accumulate for the US Social Security system over the next 74 years. It was $6.5 trillion. How do you make sense of that number? I’m not sure it is helpful to turn to the old trick of stacking up $1 bills (each .0043 inches thick) to the moon and back three times. Not many of us have made the Earth-to-moon journey.
One alert reader pointed out that we could say the amount is $283 per person per year for each of the 310 million current Americans. That’s better. You could picture a dollar-a-day shakedown of every man, woman, and child for the next 74 years.
One of our editors chose to compare the $6.5 trillion to the US gross domestic product. If you have traveled across the United States, you might have at least an impressionistic feel for the vast enterprise of the country – from Alaskan fisheries to Florida orange groves, Silicon Valley to the glass canyons of midtown Manhattan.
Take 43 percent of all of those goods and services in one year and you get $6.5 trillion. Helpful? Not really. No one is going to build an interplanetary money stack, wring money from every Timmy and Janey in America every day of their 21st-century lives, or cash in a little under half of the American economy.
Comparisons are imperfect. They also are essential for us to try to comprehend incomprehensible numbers. Back in 1971, $200,000 was enough to cause D.B. Cooper to risk his neck; $200,000 is not nothing. But in today’s dollars, it’s not much.
John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.