Like most people, I’m addicted to OITNB. It’s a great show, partially because it tells the stories of a group of women who don’t otherwise get much attention. It got me wondering. Who are the women in prison? Are there a lot of them? What did they do? Here’s a collection of quick facts from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
I’m going to start things off with a chart that I use all the time, and a simple fact: millions and billions are not the same.
I realize that this seems obvious. But when I worked in the government accountability non-profit world I found that this was a tremendously difficult point to drive home. We would write a report about a government program wasting $20 million. And we’d write another about a program wasting $6 billion. And people would express the same level of frustration with both problems. Sometimes they’d even react more strongly to the $20 million dollar problem, because 20 is larger than 6.
It’s not that people are stupid, it’s that we don’t have an intuitive grasp of the magnitude of millions and billions.
The above chart shows 1 billion. See the little red slice at the top? That’s 1 million. A billion is 1000x a million. So whenever I see a large number, I picture that chart, and evaluate the number accordingly. Alternatively, I think of a billion as a thousand million. This helps me keep things (particularly government budget figures) in perspective.
Note: I did not address trillions, which has a similar problem. A trillion is a thousand million, which is absolutely huge.