JF Ptak Science Books Post 1227
[Click image to enlarge; both original images are available for purchase from our blog bookstore.]
It isn't often that you see money represented by dry measure, but that's what happened here in these two examples from the fantastic Walker Statistical Atlas ( Statistical Atlas of the United States based on the results of the tenth census 1880 with contributions from many eminent men of science and several departments of the government Comp. under the authority of Congress by Francis A. Walker, M. A., superintedent of the tenth census ... and published in 1884). What we see here is a history of American federal indebtedness from 1791 (when the public debt stood at 75.1 million dollars) to 1881 (about 2 billion). Using the CPI (consumer price index) as a factor to translate that number in 2008 dollars (or so), the 2 bil grows to about $40 billion (a nickel then is about a dollar now). The interesting part of the legend--and what drew me to this graphic even before its somewhat unique shape--state "1"--370 millions", that is one inch of pink horizontal bar stands for about $370,000,000, and the last bar on this graph is about 6 inches long, which, adjusted for inflation, would now be about 10 feet long. .That said, the really interesting part comes next--if we use this measure to graph a horizontal bar for the American debt as it stands in 2008, it would pink a pink bar that was about a HALF MILE long to express our 10(+) trillion dollars of debt. OR, somehow, the old debt of 1881 would be about 1 story of a house, while the 2008 version would be up one side of the Empire State Building and down the other (and yes that includes the aerials). I don't know how to put this comparison in context, the differences are so staggering.
After having popped a neuron or two trying to get my head around that one, we'll further confuse the situation with the second chart, which shows the total net indebtedness of the U.S. in 1881 in terms of square inches; or, at the bottom of it all, a 7x7 inch square represented the entirety of the $3 billion owed out. 49 square inches. Working backwards this time, our $10 trillion (or $10,000,000,000,000.00 writ large) adjusted back to a CPI value in 1881 would have covered about 88 PAGES of the atlas or 9,000 square inches. Again, the numbers are just almost too big to mean anything.
We, as a country, owe one hell of a lot of money.
And yes there are many different ways of trying to figure out what one 1881 dollar "means" in terms of 2008, but the CPI is the most simple to use and least argumentative and at least gives a pretty good idea of scale. It would be more useful to try and establish the degree of difficulty of turning the corner on the debt in 1881 compared to doing that today, but this is just a late-night post at the end of the week, and I don't have a good clue about how to try and measure that bit simply.