While speaking to Congress in February 1981, Ronald Reagan used this example to explain the national debt, $14.3 trillion:
“If you had a stack of thousand-dollar bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you’d be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.”
Reagan was known as a brilliant and charismatic communicator, and at the time, he was trying to convince Americans that the national debt was too high. But it’s not just him solo trying to persuade the American voter because no modern President has to write a speech alone. Behind Reagan was a whole team of political scientists and policy wonks turned speechwriters (a team of the most articulate people in the nation) whose goal was to persuade the American public on an issue they felt was vitally urgent to the nation’s economy. And they chose to stack currency.
When was the last time you scrutinized the price of something by stacking bills in your kitchen? And when was the last time you saw a sign at the market that read: “Avocados – a pile of quarters measuring 1 / 6,665th the height of the Washington Monument.”
Whenever you measure things in Statue of Liberties, Empire State Buildings, elephants, or billions of dollars, only one message gets through: WOW, THAT’S BIG.
Even when it comes to delicate topics, we get carried away with BILLIONS OF DOLLARS or THOUSANDS OF DEATHS that we forget about what’s really important: context.
Inflation is high—how high? At this rate, what will my lunch cost in a year?
Billions of dollars—compared to what?
Thousands of deaths—compared to what?