Media Hype/Myths, Behavioral Finance

Fun With Numbers

By, 02/22/2007
  • Over 100 million Americans drink coffee every day…that's over 36.5 billion cups in a year! At about 50 beans per cup, that's over 1,825,000,000,000 beans a year! At that rate, how could we possibly hope to re-grow enough beans for the next year's brew? It's too much of a strain! The poor earth will be depleted of her aromatic, caffeine-bearing bounty and the coffee bean trees of the world will wilt from overwork. And anyway, we must be wired beyond reckoning to consume over 1.8 trillion beans a year. Dumb, profligate Americans draining this poor world dry to the bone.

  • The average person takes 12 breaths per minute…gasp…that's 720 breaths per hour…17,280 breaths per day just for a single person…and if we've got over 6.5 billion people on the earth…why that's over 112 trillion breaths per day…we're sure to run out of oxygen any second…the poor trees can't keep up with such expansive oxygen demand…all these people with their huffing and puffing on precious air…destroying the world with their treacherous carbon exhalations…maybe it would do us all some good to meditate and get those breaths per minute down to 4 or 5 to save some air, no? Phew. I'm out of breath.

These examples should strike you as silly things. Playing around with big numbers is fun and it's mind-boggling to think about the sheer volume of stuff that happens in the world each day. Billions of shares and trillions of dollars trade hands on stock markets, trillions of tons in food and water are consumed, millions of gallons of gasoline are burned, and so on. In themselves, the numbers are nothing to be afraid of.

Here's a third example. See if you find this one silly too.

  • The US trade deficit for 2006 reached a record $763,600,000,000…that's over $24,213 per second! Why, you could buy a gas-guzzling SUV (with options!) every second on that mind-numbing pace!

The media, apparently, does not think this is a joke. We've read this insightful gem at least a half dozen times in the mainstream financial press framed as a legitimate perspective on the deficit. Again the implication is clear: dumb, profligate Americans using up all the world's resources.

We're written about the psychological idea of "framing" before, where the human brain has trouble getting the proper perspective on most numbers and how big they truly are. Absolute size means nothing; a number is only big or small in relationship to something else. Thinking about the deficit in terms of dollars per second contains precisely zero useful information. It's just a scare tactic.

But we're willing to play along. From now on, how about we report US GDP on a per second basis?

2006 US GDP Seconds/Year GDP/Second
$13,262,000,000,000 31,536,000 → $420,535

US GDP in 2006 was over $420,535 per second. Wow! Forget buying a measly SUV per second…this economy could buy a couple Lamborghinis in the same time.

Anyone wanna race?

Source:, The Wall Street Journal

*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.


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