By Donella Meadows
–April 23, 1987–
The President is requesting $6 billion for Star Wars. U.S. farmers received $23 billion in subsidies last year. Congress overrode the veto on the $88 billion highway plan.
All these billions of dollars whizzing about in the news are vitally important, I’m sure. As taxpayers and citizens we ought to keep our eyes on them. But personally, I have a lot of trouble thinking about dollars in the billions.
So I decided to make a crib sheet for myself. I keep a list of all the billion-dollar figures I hear about. Every time I run across a new one, I add it to the list to see where it fits, relative to the cost of a nuclear power plant, say, or a Trident submarine, or Medicare.
The list is turning out to be not only handy, but revealing.
Here it is, in three parts: 1) an orientation session on the meaning of $1 billion, 2) some items that only cost a few billion, and 3) the really Big Bucks.
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The size of a billion dollars
$1 billion is one thousand million dollars or $1,000,000,000.
A four-inch stack of dollar bills amounts to $1000. A billion dollars would be a stack of dollar bills 62.5 miles high. (President Reagan used a similar illustration back in 1981. He was talking about thousand-dollar bills and trillions, but that was before he added the second trillion to the national debt.)
$1 billion is the amount the average American worker, with an annual salary of $19,460, will earn, before taxes, in just 51,387 years.
$1 billion would pay all the expenses of my town of Plainfield NH (pop 2500) — all the school, garbage, snowplowing, road repair costs — for 750 years.
U. S. military spending disposes of $1 billion in about 32 hours. Bargains for only a few billion
One Trident submarine, which carries enough nuclear warheads to eliminate every major city in the USSR, costs $1.7 billion. We have nine of them and are aiming for a fleet of 20-25.
$2 billion is spent in one year of advertising by the U.S. tobacco industry.
$2.5 billion is the amount requested over 5 years for President Reagan’s Acid Rain Program (to demonstrate techniques for controlling sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal plants).
$2.7 billion was the total 1984 output (GNP or gross national product) of the economy of Nicaragua.
$3 billion is what it will take to fix the technical problems of the 100 B-1 bombers the U.S. taxpayers have recently purchased (for $28 billion).
$4.6 billion was the 1984 GNP of Ethiopia.
$5 billion is the cost of the Seabrook nuclear power plant (estimates of the cost of decommissioning it 40 years from now range from $1.2 to $3 billion).
$8 billion is the fundraising target for a 5-year program planned by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program to preserve the world’s tropical forests.
$8.7 billion is how much the world’s consumers spent in 1986 for the products of the Coca-Cola Corporation.
$13 billion is what the World Bank invests each year in economic development projects in the Third World.
$14.5 billion was budgeted for U.S. foreign aid in 1986, of which $8.5 billion was security (military) assistance and $6 billion was economic assistance. $2.1 billion went for economic development projects in truly poor countries.
$17 billion was spent last year to support 4 American million families, which include 7 million children, in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
Big Ticket Items
$22.6 billion was the total 1986 revenue of the Chrysler Corporation, of which $1.4 billion was profit. (Chairman Lee Iacocca received $20 million in salary and stock options, a number too trivial to mention in a billion-dollar list, but it keeps sticking in my mind.)
The 1983 GNP of Libya was $30 billion.
$33 billion is the planned Star Wars budget for 1985-1991.
The Brazilian foreign debt is $105 billion.
The interest paid by U.S. taxpayers in 1986 on the government’s $2100 billion debt was $136 billion.
The defense budget of the U.S. for 1986 was $273 billion.
$288 billion was the 1986 government expenditure for social security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance.
$319 billion was the 1984 GNP of China.
$1893 billion was the 1984 GNP of the USSR.
$4200 billion was the 1986 GNP of the United States.
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This kind of list invites the drawing of conclusions. You have probably drawn some of your own. My conclusion is that a whole lot of us little folk, earning our wages, paying our taxes, and buying Coke and Chryslers, generate amazingly huge flows of money. Most of those flows are not being directed toward creating peace or justice or a healthy environment.
If we ever do decide to create those things, it looks as if there will be enough money.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987