Saturday, February 12, 2005

by William Severini Kowinski

(expanded from Daily Kos)

I'm not very good at numbers. (All the math genes in the Severini line went to my cousin Tom.) But I've been thinking about them a lot these past few days. We are so used to seeing huge numbers---$80 billion more for Iraq, $25 million a year for a baseball star---that we judge them only in relation to other huge numbers.

But what really is a billion? Or a trillion? Or even a paltry million?

Everybody's favorite number is, how much do they make? Rueben Mark, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, got $148 million last year, compared to "only" $75 million for Michael Dell of Dell computers. How does that compare with what you make? With what you spend, or can even conceive of spending? With what you need?

When we get to the sums bandied about concerning corporate and especially government spending applied to public policy questions, then the relative values become even more revealing, and important. But we hardly ever look at numbers that way.

I was inspired to do so by an actor. Not Rob Morrow, the erstwhile Dr. Fleishman who stars in a new police procedural called "Numbers." No, it was Sharon Stone.

As many know by now, Sharon Stone, the blond woman actor most famous for steamy movie scenes, attended a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last week. The panelists had been talking about world poverty for an hour or so, when a UN official mentioned that 150,000 African children die of malaria each month, principally because they don't have mosquito nets protecting their beds.

Sharon Stone suddenly stood up, pledged $10,000 to buy bed nets, and challenged others in the audience to pony up. The chair of the panel, Republican House Leader Bill Frist reportedly tried several times to shut her up. But she persisted. And in five minutes, she had raised one million dollars.

There were a couple of even more important number in the Associated Press story about this incident. It said that the nets, pretreated to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, cost $7 each. They last as long as five years.

Now, everyone is fascinated with the idea of raising a million dollars in five minutes. But in politics and public policy, we are also used to thinking of a million dollars as not buying very much. It won't buy you a 30 second ad for very long in very many markets. It bought only 1/40th of an Inaugural celebration this year.

But according to my calculator (which comes from the Dollar Store, and has never before had to work with figures anywhere near this large), one million dollars will buy almost 143,000 bed nets. With volume discount, let's say 150,000.

So in five minutes, Sharon Stone and her partners gave the grim reaper a month off, when it comes to African children and malaria. 150,000 children protected not just for one month but for 60 months, or five years.

Think about ad buys during the campaign. I saw reference to one: for 13 spots on TV stations in 100 markets, nearly $57 million. Four million a spot. For each million, 150,000 lives by buying bed nets in Africa. For $57 million, nearly 32 years of grim reaper vacation for children in Africa dying for lack of these nets. If you look at in terms of numbers of kids times years of protection, it's more like 160 years.

Now let's look at some numbers for the Iraq war. I saw one report that figures the U.S. military spending in Iraq at $1 billion a week. A few days later, an article by George McGovern stated that the U.S. is spending $5 billion a week in Iraq, so that's a billion a day, with weekends off.

In his article, McGovern talked about how that money could be better used: a billion for tsunami relief, a billion for Iraq reconstruction, one for veterans' benefits, one devoted to ending world hunger, the last one to the national debt.

But notice McGovern is still talking about billions. What could Sharon Stone do with a billion? A billion is one thousand times one million. $1 billion would buy one million five hundred thousand mosquito nets. That is very close to the number of African children who die of malaria each year.

I looked up a few other numbers. I didn't note all the sources, but they all seemed reputable and they are all easily found with a Google search. There are 500,000 new cases of childhood blindness each year, 70% to 90% of it in the developing world. 75% of global blindness can be prevented or cured. Less than half the children stricken with blindness survive to adulthood. The average life expectancy is about four years. Others say that because blindness is related to illnesses and poor nutrition, half don't make it beyond one year.

Vitamin A deficiency is a major cause in 70% of those half million children going blind every year. A single dose of Vitamin A costs $0.05 US. I don't know how many doses it takes, but let's say we want to buy a dose a day for all of those half million kids. That's about $10 million a year.

$10 million is 1/100th of what the U.S. spends on military operations in Iraq in one week, or maybe it's closer to in one day.

Vitamin A deficiency as well as other causes are implicated in blindness caused by glaucoma. No one seems to know the number of children affected, but it is a significant proportion of the total. Like other causes of blindness, most cases are in the developing world.

The Himalayan Cataract Project has performed more than 25,000 cataract surgeries to restore sight since 1994. The cost of each surgery, including intraocular lenses, is $12 US.

One million dollars buys more than 83,000 cataract surgeries.

One billion dollars buys 83 million.

I read yesterday that the market is booming for houses costing one million dollars or more. It is possible that some people reading this have a net worth that approaches a million dollars. Maybe a lot more. But thinking about numbers, I tried to figure out what I've made in my lifetime, and my father, and his father. I conclude that the three of us, through roughly the past 75 to 100 years, likely did not make more than a half million dollars combined. But my math is shaky and over that kind of time you probably need to figure it using some sort of constant dollar. So double it, to be safe.

One hundred years of working = 83,000 cataract surgeries=1/150th of the CEO of Colgate's annual salary=1/1000th of what the U.S. spends in Iraq in one day.

No wonder I have trouble with numbers.

Here are a few more, from a forthcoming book by Jeffrey D. Sachs, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on global poverty. To meet the basic needs of all the poor in the world until 2015 (including medical needs) would cost about $80 billion per year. After that, with adequate planning, poverty would be over.

$80 billion is the amount just requested as a supplementary appropriation for military needs in Iraq, for this year.

Sachs figures that not just one country but 22 countries pony up to pay it, so the US contribution would be a fraction of $80 billion.

A committee of 22 wealthy nations has set a target of devoting 0.7% of their annual income of more than twenty trillion dollars (a trillion is one thousand billions) to eradicate poverty. Sachs estimates they can do it with 0.6%, given the rest of the program he outlines.

Now let's return for a moment to the U.S., to California, where the bill for "custodial care" in a Kaiser Permanente hospital is $3,200 a day. That's not counting medicines or treatment, though meals are presumably included. (Which, by the way was not true at least until recently for soldiers wounded in Iraq sent to stateside hospitals; they were billed for meals.)

I saw that room price quoted in a story about a woman who was checked into the psychiatric wing of a Kaiser hospital and refused to leave a week later when told there was nothing wrong with her. She is 84 and says she was kidnapped and lost her place in her rest home. She won't leave the hospital until they find her a new rest home. She's been there a year. Her bill so far is $1.1 million.

100 years of work= not quite one year custodial care in a Kaiser hospital. But of course for the CEO of Colgate, it's maybe three days work.

Health, by the way, correlates with income. The higher, the better, and vice versa. Gee, I wonder why.

Now there's debate on proposals to gut Social Security in order to allow investment schemes, which is upping the ante into beyond the bogglesphere. A modest estimate of the cost, by one of the proponents no less (VP Cheney) is $758 billion initially and then "trillions after that." Trillions? A slightly less conservative estimate is $1 trillion to start, and $3.5 trillion after that. And there are people who think it would cost a lot more than that.

Except that the world doesn't seem to have a lot more than that. And I get the feeling that not even that will stop them.

So what does all this add up to? For me, it's a series of eye-openers. We tend to talk in categories. When we talk about government spending, it's in billions. Baseball player salaries, in millions. Car prices, tens of thousands, etc. And we compare within categories.

To a certain extent, this is reasonable. There are lots of zeroes at the end of a federal budget line, but then there are lots of zeroes at the end of the line of people served, or at the end of prices of each item paid for (like attack helicopters and smart missiles.)

And so when you're talking about hundreds of billions, it seems reasonable that accounting problems would mean that you lose track of nine billion dollars, as has happened in Iraq.

But the ease with which our tongues move from the M word to the B word to the T word can distort reality, and can hide questions of value, as in, what do we value? And what does it really cost?

Personally I can't quite understand how someone can be paid one hundred million a year (100x1000x1000), and someone else, in the same company perhaps, be paid 10x 1000. How do they get away with it?

How do they get away with burning 1000x a million dollars a day (or a week), and a total of some $10 billion going to Halliburton (10x1000x1,000,000) on a war that 60% of the public paying for it doesn't want?

The nuns were probably right about me, that I couldn't buckle down to do arithmetic because I had my head in the clouds. But at this point I have to conclude that I can't hold a candle to the fantasy life of the people who toss these numbers around.

Those are the numbers that filled my head last week. What were yours?

P.S. a Daily Kos contributor called baba durag added this: Suppose you were born with a billion dollars to your name. And suppose you lived to be 100 years old. If you spent $10,000 every day of your entire life, you would still have almost 3/4 of the money left. And that's if you kept your billion in the basement. Even a modest savings account interest would just about ensure that you could live a full and very rich life and never need to touch the principal, the one billion. Maybe there is no free lunch. But for some people, there are lots of free banquets.