Go here first. Then come back. I’ll wait.
The trouble with talking about government budgets, even ones as small as a city or local school district, is that big numbers rapidly lose meaning to people. It’s more visceral to talk about a dozen people (or dollars or “things”) than to discuss a million of then. Big numbers are hard to visualize.
Take dictionaries for example. Without peeking, is 10,000 words a good dictionary? What about 20,000? How many words are there in a typical collegiate dictionary? Take a guess before looking at the answer.
You’ve heard the politicians say it (and it’s true): “A million here, a million there and pretty soon we’re talking real money.” One of the ways I try to make the number a bit more “real” is to estimate how many people could be employed at a particular job for that amount. Try it. How many professional workers (between $50,000–60,000 annual salary) can be employed in government jobs for $1M? (My answer.)
John Gruber linked to a blog called Information is Beautiful, highlighting an impressive infographic comparing budget numbers in the billions. (The same link that starts this post. Once there, click the graphic to see how the data was sourced, along with viewer comments.) Go see it!
How would government change if budget committees published these numbers visually instead of numerically?
Chances are, if you guessed how many words are in a dictionary, you anchored around the numbers I listed above (e.g., 20,000). The number is way too low! At less than two inches thick, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th) boasts 10,000 new words in the most recent edition, bringing its total to more than 225,000 definitions. Even the tiny Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Dictionary, a 7 x 4.2 x 1.6 inch paperback, has more than 40,000 words. (^ top)
2. One million dollars
These are rough back-of-the-napkin numbers. YMMV. At $50K salary/year, a company is responsible for an additional $4K in FICA and other taxes. The large non-salary chunk is benefits, which for many government positions the employer pays the lion’s share. If we low-ball the number at $1K/month for a family plan, that’s an additional $12K/year (running total=$66K/year). Throw in a computer workstation (replaced every three years; less often in gov’t), software, tech support, utilities, renting the office space, custodial, parking, worker’s compensation, and who knows what else, and a very low cost estimate (read: wild guess) might be another $5K/year. (running total = $71K/year) And I’m not factoring in 401-K contributions or pension liability, which will probably add another 10% to our figure. (Less for defined contribution plans.) Tack on another 5% to build in a margin of error (total = $75K/year), and one million dollars employs just over 13 people. A baker’s dozen.
Thirteen is not very many—not even enough to add just one employee to every elementary school in Provo, Utah. That figure drops to 10 people if we create higher paying jobs and offer a $60K/year salary. (^ top)