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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Quick, How Much is $135 billion in Germany Over the Next Fifteen Years

Quick, How Much is $135 billion in Germany Over the Next Fifteen Years

Saturday, 02 November 2013 07:50

The New York Times has committed itself to changing the way it writes large numbers so that they actually convey information to readers. A piece today on Germany's economic policy shows the need for this change.

At one point the article referred to Germany's infrastructure needs, telling readers:

"A recent study said that Germany would have to spend more than €100 billion, or about $135 billion, over the next 15 years just to repair its existing stock of roads, bridges and railways, which in populous areas of western Germany have been neglected for years."

Okay, we can all appreciate the euro to dollar conversion, but how many NYT readers have any clue how large $135 billion over the next 15 years is to Germany's economy? I suspect the number is well under 1 percent of the NYT's highly educated readers.

It would have been a simple matter to tell readers that this is equal to about 0.25 percent of Germany's projected GDP over this period or less than 0.5 percent of projected government spending. This would have been far more meaningful to the vast majority of the people reading the article. 

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by artichoke, November 02, 2013 8:31
Another useful bit of context is that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the US needs to spend in the neighborhood of $2 trillion on comparable infrastructure. Even taking into account differences in population, that is still a much larger backlog.
written by Last Mover, November 02, 2013 9:30

Maybe so, but how do you use realistic percentage measures to connect with half of Americans who have been brainwashed to believe that "GDP" means Giant Deficit Problem?
written by watermelonpunch, November 02, 2013 9:48
I don't think any readers, educated or not, want to have to get out a calculator when reading the newspaper.
Percent of budget
written by JayR, November 02, 2013 4:05
The percentage of German government budget is probably the most useful. Something like "...the German government will need to increase spending by 0.5% in order to handle this terrible shortfall. The brightest analyst have been consulted on how to solve this problem and they are completely stumped..." ;)
and what about the multiplier
written by pjm, November 02, 2013 9:14
If this spending on infrastructure is used as a counter-cyclical tool (i.e. when unemployment is high), presumably the effect on the German budget is smaller (possibly negative, i.e., generating more taxes, reducing outlays than it costs)
$135 billion ... why that's barely half of what we spend on diabetes in just one year
written by Rachel, November 02, 2013 10:18

55% of $245 billion, to be more precise. And this in turn is more than the current GDP of Iraq or Ireland, Pakistan or Portugal ... Moreover, much of this diabetes (mostly Type II) could have been prevented. Huge waste of lives and treasure. Yet the best solution the politicians can think of is a soda pop tax.
math dweeb
written by Michael Epton, November 04, 2013 12:36
Thanks for asking the question! Based on the training you've provided, I was able to come pretty close: First I estimated the German GDP at $4tn. With a population about 1/4 of the U.S., I figured about 1/4+ for a GDP. Then, taking $135bn/15yr = $9bn/yr, you come up with 9/4000 = 2.25e-3 = .25%. All done with 5th grade arithmetic! You and I should set up some remedial arithmetic classes for Robert Samuelson. Don't they teach any math at Harvard?

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.