Tuesday, 2 August 2011

£0.909 trillion looks manageable - £909,000,000,000 doesn’t!

I’ve been reading Kingsley Amis’s last published work, The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, since finding it on my brother’s bookshelves last week. In one entry, Amis suggests that the majority of British people have no idea how what a billion is, because newspapers have stopped writing it out in noughts, opting instead for the abbreviation bn or the word billion

As the UK has adopted American usage, a billion pounds is now £1,000,000,000 – i.e. a thousand million. A trillion dollars – a figure much bandied about in the recent hoo-hah over raising the American debt ceiling – is $1,000,000,000,000, or a million million. 

These, of course, are figures of a magnitude more normally found in writings about cosmology or quantum physics, attached to miles or light years or stars or solar systems or sub-atomic particles, in which contexts they are apt to thrill us. When it comes to the discussion of national debt, the numbers are so ludicrously vast they tend to make us feel slightly queasy: our eyes glaze over and we move rapidly on to stories about our Prime Minister not tipping a lazy cow of an Italian waitress.

The problem is that these figures are at the heart of modern politics. And the vast majority of voters – and, I suspect, many of our elected politicians – don’t have a clue what the terms being bandied about actually mean.

I’ve never been keen on the idea of limiting the electoral franchise on the basis of wealth or intelligence, given that the poorest members of society can be called on to fight for their country in times of crisis, and that highly educated people often hold fantastically stupid opinions. (I’d be far keener on using geography to ensure the election of sensible governments - England has voted Tory for at least 65 years: it’s the subsidy-guzzling Celtic fringe that occasionally lands us with a Labour maladministration). 

But I think we may have reached the point where in order to vote or stand for Parliament, people should be made to watch a short film explaining, in very simple terms, the meaning of billion and trillion, what a bankrupt country looks like, what the word debt means, how interest payments work, the disproportionately vast contribution made to the public purse by rich people in the private sector, and how the public sector economy is only a part of our economy to the extent that it bleeds it dry. 

After seeing the film, people would be asked to translate, say, £523 billion into numbers, and to answer the question, “Where does the money for the public sector come from?” If they answer “the government” as opposed to “me” or “the tax-payer”, they would find themselves disenfranchised or barred from standing for public office. 

As MPs showed such a lively appreciation of those aspects of their personal finances affected by the former parliamentary expenses system, I’m sure most of them would be able to grasp what they’re being told. As for the rest of us – who knows? – maybe one or two of the idiots who regularly demonstrate against imaginary “cuts” will finally grasp that out current debt levels are unsustainably high, and that the attempt to vengefully squeeze yet more danegeld out of the private sector will inevitably result in less money to spend on Transexual Muslim Racial Awareness Outreach Workers or whatever it is left-wingers currently want to piss away our taxes on.

What I’m suggesting is something along the lines of this handy little film.

Newspapers, websites and television news and current affairs programmes could start the ball rolling by eschewing the use of abbreviations when discussing our national debt: a government website I just looked describes this as £0.909 trillion. How cosy and, well, little that seems, what with that nice, comforting nought in front of the decimal point. Why, it’s smaller that one trillion pounds! What’s the fuss about?

Represent that as £909,000,000,000, and we’re all reaching for the Diocalm.

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