Friday, March 20, 2009

A linguistic approach to business

Today's AIG post. If you get tired of this, visit my music blog; I'm not talking about AIG there...yet.

In Outside the Beltway (a blog that I like for its title alone), Steve Verdon asked a question (among others):

[Let's] write two numbers down for a minute,


Now the second number is 1000x larger than the first as a reasonable approximation. But people seem to be completely unaware of the second number even though the first number is totally dependent on the second number. That may sound a bit cryptic, so let me put it another way. Because the Federal Government has given AIG $170,000,000,000 AIG can now hand out 0.1% of that money, $165,000,000, in retention bonuses.

My question is, if the number that is 1000x times smaller than the actual bailout of AIG is causing all this fuss why aren’t people in the streets in huge numbers demonstrating against the $170,000,000,000 bailout.

There are a number of good responses to Verdon in the comments, but as I was reading them, it hit me that one aspect was not being discussed.

The linguistic aspect.

Or, as I put it in my own comment:

I wonder if there's a linguistic explanation here?

In the English language (and in some other languages), the words "million," "billion," and "trillion" all have a similar sound to them.

Therefore, to the ear of a person, multi-million dollar retention payments, multi-billion dollar bailouts, and multi-trillion dollar national debt all sound about the same.

I seriously suspect that if we had different sounding words for "million" and "billion," some (not all) of the retention payment outrage would be muted.

And I'm not the only person who rhymes away:

Who cares? US markets skyrocket on news GWB will fork out whatever it takes to help auto industry. News of Ponzi Scheme lost in the KrazyCar Bullrush! Ponzi cost Billions? Trillions? Who gives a stuff! ;)

Oh, and just to confuse things, I should explicitly note that I am using 'billion" and "trillion" in the American sense. When you get into numbering systems in which a thousand million is less than a billion, then the rhyming problem gets really nasty.
blog comments powered by Disqus