Forty years ago, when D.B. Cooper jumped into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, the ransom he demanded would have gone far. Now, in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, the amount is like a joke from 'Austin Powers.'
D.B. Cooper, or whatever his real name was, hijacked a Northwest Orient flight in 1971, extorted a ransom, and parachuted into the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. What happened to him has been a mystery for 40 years. The real mystery to a reader under 40, however, has to be the amount of money Mr. Cooper demanded: $200,000.
Seriously? Even Dr. Evil asked for more than that.
But, of course, numbers are meaningless unless we can relate them to some-thing familiar. Back in 1971, an average car cost under $4,000, gas was 40 cents a gallon, an average home went for $25,000, and my dad and others thought Americans were living very well on an average annual income of $10,000.
Our two hands and 10 digits probably have some-thing to do with our ability to understand numbers. In his 1956 paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” Princeton psychologist George A. Miller noted that most of us have a hard time holding any number higher than nine in our working memory. Other researchers say the most we can handle is four.
Addition and multiplication get us to higher numbers, but comprehension strains when we’re faced with the multiple-trillion-dollar estimates thrown around during the recent debt and deficit debate.
The Monitor published a graphic recently showing the shortfall projected to accumulate for the US Social Security system over the next 74 years. It was $6.5 trillion. How do you make sense of that number? I’m not sure it is helpful to turn to the old trick of stacking up $1 bills (each .0043 inches thick) to the moon and back three times. Not many of us have made the Earth-to-moon journey.