A billion is so far beyond our daily frame of reference, it’s difficult to grasp.
A clever copywriter offered these:
A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in caves.
National Public Radio’s Math Guy, Keith Devlin, says the biggest number we can really comprehend is seven.
“If you show someone, an adult person, up to seven objects, they will instantly be able to recognize how many there are. If the collection’s bigger than seven, we have to visualize them in groups, or we have to count them.”
That’s true of even the smartest people. “That’s just a basic feature of the human brain,” Devlin says.
I’m no Math Gal; my mind boggled at learning some $9 billion would be spent on this year’s election since the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision opened the floodgates. No limit on who can pour how much into what.
No problem for me to come up with ways to spend $9 billion that would improve our country rather than buying attack ads that feed our current divisiveness.
Armies of tax lawyers ensure that a corporation like Exxon pays no taxes on its $19 billion earnings and gets a $156 million IRS rebate. In a better world, those billions would fill the public coffers.
Yet presidential campaigns stretch out like some endless bad dream. In 1960 Time Magazine asked, “Is the presidential campaign too long?” when campaigns averaged nine months. By 2008 it was 18 months.
It only takes nine months to make a baby.
Campaigns in England and Australia average around a month, in Canada, at least 36 days.
Why not limit campaigns to six or eight weeks before the November elections? And require broadcasters to give equal time to all candidates — not sell it.
Fairness in broadcasting prevailed since the first radio stations sprang up. Government recognized that broadcasting required fairness since it depends on using the public airwaves, a shared resource.
Until 1987, broadcasters devoted equal time to all points of view. Abolishing the Fairness Doctrine, accomplished in a politically charged series of decisions, opened the door to today’s conservative dominated talk radio and a blatantly partisan television network.
The idea of fairness in sharing a common resource sprang back to life last month when government controls threatened the Internet.
Why not take back the airwaves and restore basic fairness to our country’s political discourse?
Broadcasting could help build an informed electorate essential to a free society. Those who live with the BBC model in England, CBC in Canada or ABC in Australia recognize what a difference it makes. Most visitors can hardly believe that a country like the U.S. that prides itself on freedom of speech and the free exchange of information can operate with such a stunted system.
Polls and surveys reveal that people don’t vote because they believe their vote doesn’t count, or that marking a ballot endorses a corrupt or wrongheaded system.
Civics classes have been eliminated in school districts across the country, resulting in a startling number of people who simply don’t know how the system works.
Replacing trite programs and political propaganda with vibrant new ideas and a kaleidoscope of viewpoints could reawaken the public’s interest in the business of the people. Imagine the influx of ordinary concerned and honest people — with no ties to donors or lobbyists.
Technology has a peculiar knack for arranging the world so we don’t have to experience it directly, as Max Frisch observed.
Can we involve people more directly with a streamlined voting process? Proportional voting would encourage third and fourth political parties. Reforming or eliminating the Electoral College would show people that their voting helps shape our country’s future. Simplified voter registration would help on the local, regional and state levels.
An even bolder step: Consider adopting Australia’s model, where everyone is required to vote. Sitting out an election nets you a small but annoying fine, like a parking ticket.
Democracy isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a spectator sport.
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