On the plane from Washington (DC) to Washington (State) today, I got to thinking about numbers, and the shenanigans businesses–and even journalists—get away with because of them.

Lady seated in front of me had a newspaper open with headline about some company paying $1 billion for something. What struck me was the $1, not the billion. People tend to associate with the familiar, and the numbers zero to nine are pretty familiar. The obvious association is everyday usage, which is $1 as $1, whether there is a million or billion that follows. The impact of the number’s real value is insignificant. 

But suppose news organizations wrote the number as $1,000,000,000, the emotional response would be different. The reaction is stronger because of the other association people make to numbers they use every day. For example, Best Buy tags that DVD on the shelf as $19.99 not 19 dollars, 99 cents.

I recently experienced the impact at the local ATM. Lady before me left her receipt in the machine. As I pulled it out, I saw a checking balance of $212,467.22. My first reaction was befuddlement, because I tried to rationalize it as $212.46 or $2,124.67. Then the impact of the balance hit.

Everyday, news organizations report massive transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions. I sincerely believe their significance is lost on most people because the association of $1 billion is more one than it is 1,000,000,000. Imagine how people might differently react to a news report on national debt if, say, $1 trillion was $1,000,000,000,000. That’s one really big number.

I understand that news organization like to condense stuff, such as calling the Department of Justice the Justice Department. Another consideration: All those zeros could lead to more errors in the text (c’mon, it’s not like most journalists were math majors). But we live at a time of colossal numbers, when huge sums of money trade hands.

Last night, I read a New York Times Magazine article that claimed if Sen. Hillary Clinton runs for the Democratic Presidential nomination, she will start with a campaign war chest estimated to be $75 million. The number $75,000,000 has much more impact if the association is Jack Voter’s checkbook balance of $212.46.

Photo Credit: Danny Hammontree