Rhein on Energy and Climate

The global financial crisis has also revealed that ministers of finance and journalists mean different things when talking about big numbers. When the US finance minister summarises his very latest financial package he arrives at more than $ 2000 billion. His continental European counterparts define the same amount as $ 2000 milliard. In continental European counting a billion represents 1000 US billion!

These differences go back to the late 19th century when the US abandoned the so-called “long scale” of numbers, invented by French mathematicians, and replaced it by the “short scale”. In the late 20th century, the UK and other Anglophone countries, including Ireland, followed suit.

The divergences start once numbers exceed the millions. It is confusing when, even within the EU, “billions” mean very different amounts! With ever bigger sums being manipulated across the earth humanity should agree on a common standard, in view of avoiding misunderstandings that might become very costly one day.

This is not the most urgent or important task among the challenges confronting humanity. It is not an issue heads of governments should bother about. It would suffice to convene a conference of mathematicians to advise the world on how to best unify terminology for numbers beyond the millions.

For the financial world the short scale presents the advantage of simplicity. That is probably why the Anglo-Saxon world has opted for it. Would it be really difficult for French or Germans to say good bye to their milliard and replace them by billion, even if only a minority of countries presently counts that way? This should not be an issue of pride or political sensitivity. Hardly anyone has taken note when the British changed their way of counting towards the end of last century. Anyhow, the ordinary citizen could not care less: his numbers usually end with thousands.

Would it therefore not be appropriate for the EU to take the initiative of convening a conference on standardising the terms used for very big numbers – milliard, billion, trillion – in the wake of the reforms of the international financial system?

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