Tuesday, October 28, 2008


In baseball, Babe Ruth set a single-season home run record of 29 in 1919 when he was still with the Boston Red Sox. This made him a big star, but his superstardom came the next season when, after being traded to the New York Yankees, he hit 54 homers. He broke his old record on July 19, a little more than halfway through the season.

This accomplishment was a game-changer, one that altered the way fans looked at numbers of home runs forever. Hitting 20, even 30, home runs didn't seem so amazing when 54 (and, the next year, 59 - then, six years later, Babe took it to 60) was on the board.

Sports, because it's very public and many numbers are collected, are full of such feats, ones that render subsequent performances routine (only 5 different players have scored 70 or more points in an NBA game, but Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game makes 70 look pretty humdrum). Occasionally, however, we see game-changers in other areas.

To me, the $700 billion bailout (clearly a conservative number) is one of those. That number is so big as to render comparisons almost meaningless. Oh, the car companies want $25 billion; fine, that's nothing compared to $700 billion. My fear is that, once we're used to that, we'll get casual about all types of government spending ("that Defense project is wasting $950 million, is that all, no big deal"). I hope we can continue to understand just how big these numbers are. Let's write out $700 billion, just to help us remember: $700,000,000,000. Whew!

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