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The Straight Dope



Thank you for your answer to my question on the cost of the Vietnam war [January 11]. I was astounded to think we spent the equivalent of 32 years' worth of Vietnam's GNP trying to kill half the people who lived there. Now I have another question. Imagine that instead of the Soviet Union rushing headlong toward capitalism, the rest of the world decided to become socialist. If all the world's wealth were divided up equally among all its inhabitants, how much would each of us have? --Stephen Wilhelm, New York

The Soviet Union is definitely rushing headlong toward something, Steve; would that it were only capitalism. Be that as it may, you do raise what seems like the obvious next question. As before, the answer has to be larded with caveats. The numbers for world wealth are even shakier than those for the Vietnam war, where at least you had the benefit of unlimited MBAs to count the change. Bumbling aside, the figures reported by former communist-bloc countries have to be regarded with skepticism because there's no free-market valuation of goods and services. Ditto for countries where a sizable portion of the population relies on subsistence agriculture.

Perhaps for these reasons, the numbers published by different sources don't mesh very well. Adding up the GNPs in the Europa World Year Book 1990, we get a gross world product for 1988 of $21.8 trillion, with a 1985 population of just over five billion, excluding some minor principalities. This works out to $4,339 per person. However, The World in Figures, compiled by the Economist of London, says "national income per person" in 1979 was only $2,130, and the New Book of World Rankings says worldwide GNP per capita in 1980 was $2,430. Either the 1980s were the most prosperous era in history (10 percent annual growth) or somebody's calculator needs new batteries.

Even so, extrapolating from the annual growth percentage reported in the Economist, we come up with a current per capita world income of more than $3,100, or an average household income for a family of five of $15,500--a tidy sum. (Forgive me if I don't try to figure out the per capita share of world resources, as opposed to income; life is short.) Pretty cold comfort for the average guy in Bhutan, where per capita GNP in 1980 was $80, the world low. But it does indicate that a more equitable distribution of resources wouldn't beggar everybody.

Other interesting numbers: according to various sources, the world has 258 million automobiles, 1.2 billion cattle, 6.7 billion chickens, 111 million turkeys, and 43 million asses. The last two numbers surprise me. Obviously the census takers have never been to a Saint Patrick's Day parade.


Your response to the question about attempts to legislate pi [February 22] suggests not only that your scholarship is weak but that you are a heathen. When King Solomon constructed the Temple of Jerusalem, the Second Book of Chronicles, chapter 4, verses 2 and 5, tells us:

"Then he made the Sea [a big tub] of cast bronze, ten cubits from one brim to the other; it was completely round. Its height was five cubits and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference. It was a handbreadth thick; and its brim was shaped like the brim of a cup....It contained three thousand baths."

The ratio of 30 cubits for the circumference to 10 cubits for the diameter "from one brim to the other" of the "completely round" circle gives the value of pi as being exactly 3. Perhaps reliance on the Word of God motivated the Indiana legislators you trashed. You should have checked with the ultimate reference. --H.K. Saalbach, Springfield, Virginia

As I patiently attempted to point out, the Indiana legislature did not consider making pi equal to 3, but rather to 3.2, 4, or approximately 3.23, depending on which formula you used. Perhaps Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, or one of the other states I mentioned was the one that attempted to legislate a pi of biblical proportions.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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