American in Spain

Metric Money

September 25, 2009
Fourteen Thousand Euros

This is an idea that's been rattling around my brain for some time. It involves how we talk about large sums of money. The past year has seen banking system and government bailout news stories that often reference millions and billions and trillions of dollars. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one that has trouble grasping the difference between large quantities when they are thrown out quickly by a news reporter. The famous web comic, XKCD, as it often does, hit the nail right on the head some time ago. 1000 Times

On the other hand, I have absolutely no trouble understanding the difference between a byte, kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, and terabyte. I've learned that those roughly correspond to one letter, a page of text, a minute of MP3, a feature length movie file, and my enormous (at the moment!) storage hard drive. Which of these sentences, upon a quick read, is easier to understand in terms of the quantities involved?

The government gave our bank $23 billion, so I took a $15 million bonus!


My new iPod holds 23 GB of music, and I'm already using 15 MB!

For me, at least, the difference in the level of comprehension of these sentences is enormous!

Proposal: Use metric prefixes for money

While most Americans have little idea of what a kilogram is, thanks to the ubiquity of computers and MP3 players, most now have some grasp of the SI prefix structure as it would be needed for this proposal to work. Normal people would measure their salaries in kilodollars (k$), lottery prizes would be in megadollars (M$), and bank bailouts would be in gigadollars (G$).

Let's give it a try:

The total US federal budget is 3 T$. Of that, 612 G$ goes to social security, and 613 G$ goes to defense. NASA gets 17 G$, with each shuttle launch costing 60 M$.

Or in the current system:

The total US federal budget is $3 trillion. Of that, $612 billion goes to social security, and $613 billion goes to defense. NASA gets $17 billion, with each shuttle launch costing $60 million.

If this proposal is accepted, I wouldn't dream of taking more than a single solitary yottadollar for my idea.