Once again, two Randolph-Macon College physicists, Drs. George Spagna and Bill Franz,
have released their popular R-MC Budget Cruncher list, entitled “That’s Not Astronomical,
It’s Governmental.” Following is a compilation of their humorous and creative examples
to help the general public put the size of the proposed federal budget into perspective.
“When President Barrack Obama released his 2011 proposed federal budget of $3.83
trillion, many commentators immediately branded the number astronomical. With all
due respect to political pundits, astronomers (and scientists generally) have much
greater control on their numbers, and we suggest that the appropriate name for such
vast sums of money is governmental. Besides, some programs at NASA took a big hit,
so perhaps this budget is not very astronomical at all.
Nonetheless, the general population finds it difficult to grasp numbers as large
as 3.83 trillion, and so, for the 8th consecutive year, we offer our annual analysis
of the federal budget, put into terms that the average citizen can understand.
• The federal budget amounts to $12,411 for every citizen of the United States and
$563 per inhabitant of the earth. It is $121,587 every second of the year. Spread
out some, it amounts to $280 for every year since the big bang some 13.7 billion
years ago. The height of a stack of pennies equal to $3.83 trillion would reach
590 million kilometers, or two round trips to the sun. But that approaches astronomical.
Let’s be a little more down to earth.
• Opponents of federal spending sometimes run around in colonial garb and call themselves
tea party members, imitating that historical event in 1773 where a group of rowdies
dressed up like Native Americans and tossed the King’s tea into Boston Harbor. Had
they done their homework, they would have realized that Boston Harbor has a volume
of 570 million cubic meters, or just less than 3.83 trillion cups. Thus, Boston
Harbor is ripe for the brewing. At 5 cents a bag, the going rate for Lipton tea,
the federal budget could support turning this body of water into tea just over twenty
times during the year.
• How to do this? A tea bag is about 23 square centimeters in area. Boston Harbor
is about 103 square kilometers. 3.83 trillion tea bags would cover the surface of
Boston Harbor to a depth of 84 bags.
• Perhaps all this governmental speak just has you a little teed off in general.
A trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods (perhaps several since stock might not hold out),
would allow you to spend the federal budget on golf tees. At $9.99 for a bag of
50, you could buy 19.2 trillion golf tees, which, at 2.75 inches long, would stretch
9 times the distance to the sun if laid end to end. Or you could tee off at Hilton
Cancun (Mexico) golf course for $210 for 18 holes. You could pay for 18.2 billion
rounds of golf.
• Still teed? In 2009, a 1914 Model-T sold at auction for $63,250. At that rate,
the federal budget could purchase 60.6 million of these, or one for every citizen
of Texas and California.
• A Spalding batting tee costs $18.99; the federal budget could purchase 30 of them
for every human on earth.
• A T-Rex skeleton sold last year for a reported $5 million. So the federal budget
could purchase 766,000 dinosaurs for your closet. Skeletons in the closet can be
• More tees. The stock listed as T on the New York Stock Exchange is AT&T. There
are 5.9 billion shares of AT&T stock outstanding. At $25 per share, the federal
budget could buy AT&T 26 times over. Alternatively, the government could offer
a friendly takeover at $649 per share to buy the company. The government could use
a good phone company to diversify its portfolio of banks and car companies.
• According to CNBC, the highest price for T-bone steak is found in New York City,
at $14.49 per pound. (Lowest price is in Brownsville, Texas, at $ 4.89 per pound).
U.S. average is $ 8.89. At the average price, you could buy everyone currently in
the U.S. 430 billion pounds of steak.
• You might like to advertise your thoughts on the federal budget on the upcoming
Super Bowl. Ads this year run for $2.5 million per 30 second spot. The federal budget
could run 1.53 million ads or continuous commercials for 1.46 years. Fortunately
for you, the Supreme Court just overturned limits on political spending, so you
are free to run these ads.”
Franz is a professor of physics and serves as the interim provost of Randolph-Macon
College. He earned his B.S. at Muhlenberg College and his M.S. and Ph.D. at the
University of Delaware.
Spagna is a professor of physics at Randolph-Macon College and the director of the
college’s Keeble Observatory. Spagna earned his B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. at Rensselaer